Some of the most powerful moments in Breaking Bad are the things you barely notice. Like the music. Even casual fans recognize the show’s opening theme song, which has become a cultural shorthand for evil, much like Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” or the “duuuun-dun, duuuuun-dun” pre-carnage hype music from Jaws. But that only scratches the surface of Breaking Bad‘s phonetic menace, composed from the very beginning by Dave Porter. Even listening to his score without the performances or scripts that’ve made the series so consistently brilliant, Porter’s music will still send a chill down your spine.
As Breaking Bad comes to a close this Sunday, Porter walked us through his favorite and most challenging compositions from the show’s five seasons.
1. “Breaking Bad Theme”
“I created the show’s roughly 18-second theme while working on the pilot, without too much knowledge of where the show was going to go. What I did know was that (Breaking Bad creator) Vince Gilligan had said the backbone of the story was the slow devolution of Walter White, taking this milquetoast guy and turning him into a cold and hardened criminal. With that in mind, when I created the theme I wanted it to give a glimpse of the end result of that journey, so that we are always reminded of the ultimate destination.
“I tried many combinations of musical ideas, and the New Mexico landscape and discussions with Vince about Breaking Bad having aspects of a ‘post-modern western’ were influential. The version that ultimately prevailed had a swagger and cold aggression about it that hopefully, particularly in the early seasons, pointed towards an even darker story.”
2. “Matches in the Pool” (pilot)
“This was one of the first cues that I wrote for the series. It was also the first chance I had to write music that would help invite us into Walt’s headspace, something that would become an important role for music in the show. When I first wrote it, it was somewhat more layered and complex, but I kept scaling it back to the very spare cue that ultimately worked best. Working on Breaking Bad has reinforced to me that film and TV music is often about trying to say as much as you can with very little.”
3. “Jane’s Demise” (season 2, episode 12)
“One of the great things about how Vince Gilligan and our writers have crafted the story behind Walter White is that as Walt pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior, we all can view his moral dilemmas through our own filter. In that way, we all relate a little differently to Walt’s transformation. There are Breaking Bad viewers that wrote Walt off in the first few episodes. Others will defend him no matter what he does. For me, the moral tipping point was crossed when he allowed Jane to die. When it came time for me to score that scene, I didn’t want to create music that might lead the audience to one particular moral judgement or another, but rather intensify the magnitude and complexity of the moment.”
4. “The Cousins” (season 3, episode 1)
“I’ve used thematic palettes very sparingly on Breaking Bad, but when I watched the ‘cousins’ crawling through the dirt, I knew that they needed a sound that was uniquely theirs. My score was intended to increase the tension and the palpable fear they project every time they appear. I utilized a lot of world and ethnic instruments on Breaking Bad, and for these cues I leaned heavily on drums and percussion from Mexico. Conveniently, my friend who lived next door at the time is a percussionist named Julio Moreno, originally from Mexico City, who has an enormous collection of instruments that we sampled extensively for these cues. My favorite were reproductions of Aztec war whistles — piercing shrieks that were once used to terrify opponents in battle — which I wove into those cues.”
5. “The Long Walk Alone (Heisenberg’s theme)” (season 3, episode 13)
“This cue originally appears as Walt is working up the courage to walk across the desert to face Gus Fring near the end of season three. I believe it is also the first appearance of his black porkpie hat. Like many great moments in Breaking Bad, there is a kernel of classic western in this scene, and this is my modern musical interpretation to accompany it. As Walt dons the hat, I’ve cleared away the rumbling tension, and played a simple five-note motif on a Japanese koto. I chose the koto because it is easily tunable to Western scales, and it has a twang to it that isn’t too far removed from a guitar. I later distorted it and ran it through a spring reverb to give it some character and distance. That five-note motif only later became ‘Heisenberg’s Theme’ as subsequent episodes reintroduced the hat as a defining symbol of Walter’s transformation, and I found it effective to reinforce that idea by working that motif into my score each time. In the penultimate episode (last Sunday), the hat finally fails him. And the score sputters to a halt along with Walt at the gate.”
6. “White House Visit” (season 5, episode 9)
“This cue opens the final eight episodes of the series, and is a flash forward. It follows Walt returning to his family home in a bleak future in which it is abandoned and vandalized. Since it is very important in these scenes not to give anything away from the story, I concentrated solely on the range of emotions that Walt goes through as he walks through the house. The cue starts melancholy, then slowly shifts to anger as he takes in the extent of what has become of his family’s home. Next, the tone changes to determination and resolve as he retrieves the hidden ricin, and finally ends on the shock of his own reflection in the broken mirror, at what he has become.”
7. “Gas Can Rage” (season 5, episodes 11 and 12)
“One of the greatest things about working on Breaking Bad is that because the story is constantly evolving, so is the music. While the majority of the score I’ve written over the past six years has been purposefully understated, having the story reach its conclusion and the plot boil over has given met the chance to make some bolder choices in this final season. ‘Gas Can Rage’ is an example of that. The genesis of this cue was a piece of music that I wrote underneath Jesse tossing his money out of his car window in the previous episode. These cues are all in a meter of five, with the intention of having them feel a bit unexpected and off-kilter. Emotionally, I wanted to reinforce the raw and primal anger that Jesse feels towards Walt.”
8. “Dimple Pinch Neat” (season 5, episode 15)
“The final cue in the penultimate episode of the series ends with a statement of the show’s main title theme, something that has never previously appeared in the series. Writer and director Peter Gould has said that the episode was about nearly everyone hitting rock bottom, and that in Walter White’s case a huge part of that is finding himself in this most desperate of situations. Even his Heisenberg persona has let him down. This is purely my own interpretation, but I view Walt’s transformation as complete when he hauls himself off the bar at the brink of turning himself in. He no longer needs the hat or the persona. There is no longer a differentiation between Walt and Heisenberg. And since the show’s theme has always been designed to preface that occasion, it seemed like the ideal moment to bring it into the story.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on RollingStone.com.)