For the last couple of months, my weeks have ended with a new episode of “Breaking Bad”. Every Sunday night I find myself scurrying and scavenging through the internet, clicking my way through a maze of dead links and seedy Russian stream sites, clearing a path through the suffocating jungles of the internet to find a functioning video link for the latest episode. It’s not like this show is obscure or anything– it’s a top-rated, highly-acclaimed AMC drama. If I had any patience, I could simply wait a few hours and have literally hundreds of streaming options. The problem is finding it as soon as possible, within a couple of minutes from its original airing, like a desperate addict jonesing for a fix. Because, with a show like this, you can’t really just wait for the next day.
If you’ve ever heard anything about the show, you’re probably familiar with its gimmicky premise: a chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with cancer, becomes a meth manufacturer to leave money for his family. Reads like the synopsis to a wacky, over-the-top comedy. But there’s a lot more to it: “Breaking Bad” is the story of a good man whose ambition has been stomped out by the collected weight of life’s small defeats. It’s the story of his awakening, being shaken out of his stupor and rediscovering passion, lust, anger– initially driven by the instinct to provide and protect his family, then slowly revealing something decidedly more sinister. It’s the chronicle of an unraveling, as this ineffectual milquetoast doffs his outward guise to reveal a taut, power-hungry, morally bankrupt schemer. And as every episode draws you in further and further into his metamorphosis, you start to lose sight of the good-natured, well-meaning high school teacher you once rooted for.
I’m not one to get hooked on television. There is only one other TV show I’ve ever followed with this level of interest, HBO’s now-legendary “The Sopranos”. The parallels are quite clear: they’re both stories about morally ambiguous characters trying to balance family and a life of extreme violence and deceit. The biggest difference is that Walter White starts off a good guy and evolves into a complete monster, whereas Tony Soprano was already there to begin with. Another big difference? The music in “The Sopranos” was generally a lot better. So I put together a list of songs that I like, and that I find to be more-or-less in the spirit of “Breaking Bad”, its themes and characters.
Tom Waits- “Bad As Me”
My laziness knows no bounds. Listen, let’s ignore the fact that the word “bad” is literally in the song’s title and uttered around five hundred times throughout its 3-minute runtime. The fact is, this song is a wild ride of abrasiveness that manages to be simultaneously menacing and playful, capturing the spirit of the show’s high-octane moments, as well as Walter White’s transition into Badass Supreme. This is off of Tom’s 2011 album of the same name.
Bill Frisell- “Brother”
In sharp contrast with the previous selection. Bill Frisell delivers a slow burn of a jam, the double bass and dobro sound capturing the arid stillness of the show’s New Mexico setting. In this song, I also hear Heisenberg’s gambits, a calm intensity in the face of a downward spiral of lies and manipulation. This is off of Frisell’s amazing 1997 album “Nashville”.
Beastie Boys- “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”
At first listen, this could easily reflect the show’s lighter side– the comedic undertones of Walter White’s relationship with Jesse Pinkman, the outright goofiness of some ancillary characters (Badger and Skinny Pete), or the moments of levity provided by the cooking montages. But upon a closer look at its lyrics, you’ll see this song is actually rife with menace and ominousness. The lyrics describe a protagonist who realizes he has a house of cards built out of lies, but revels in it, taunting with “I’ve got you right where I want”. The chorus goes “I know the danger of a man who’s been to hell and back again. Can’t tell tomorrow from where he’s been, don’t play no game that I can’t win”. This is from The Beastie Boys’ final album, “Hot Sauce Committee Pt.2”.
Elvis Costello- “Complicated Shadows”
The second appearance of Jerry Douglas’s dobro in this list. This song is about violence, deceit and feigned repentance. It’s about getting lost in the “complicated shadows” of one’s own mind– just how far is Walter White willing to go? We’ve seen him do some truly horrible things. Where does it stop? Will he find himself scurrying away with a burning bag of money, stinking of death and sin? I guess this is a bit like cheating, since this song was also featured in the Sopranos soundtrack. But it was the “All This Useless Beauty” version of the song that made its appearance in the closing credits to that TV show, a rock and roll slow-burner that explodes into a chaotic climax. This here is the “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane” version, which really drives the point home by incorporating the amazing string-band sounds of what would end up becoming The Sugarcanes.
Hispanic culture– and Mexican culture, specifically– has been a fixture in the show from the very first season, by virtue of New Mexico’s geographical location and the nature of the drug trade. From the psycopathic Tuco Salamanca to Danny Trejo’s two-episode stint as Tortuga, to the Mute Mexican Brothers from Hell and beyond, Mexicans would be right to be a little miffed at the depiction of their country and culture in this show. This brilliant song about Mexican-American relations by rock-rap group Molotov fits both musically and thematically with the turns the show takes in seasons 3 and 4.
Boards of Canada- “Sunshine Recorder”
This song by Boards of Canada, off of their album “Geogaddi”, feels weighty in its small details. It feels ponderous and dangerous, despite being relatively quiet and downbeat. It reminds me of my favorite “Breaking Bad” episode, a somewhat controversial bottleneck from season 3 titled “The Fly”. You’re probably familiar with the concept of a bottleneck episode, even if you’ve never heard the term. It refers to an episode designed to even-out the production budget for the season, aiming to be made as cheaply as possible. This is usually accomplished by confining the characters to a single setting for the duration of the episode, limiting the number of actors on screen and limiting the action shots. This results in a typically dialogue-heavy, often insular episode.
In “The Fly”, Walter White becomes obsessed with a fly buzzing around in his meth super-lab, and locks himself in the lab for hours, along with Jesse Pinkman, to try and get rid of it. The result is a showcase of writing, directing, and acting, as the characters reveal– through dialogue that reads more like Shakespearean soliloquies — just exactly how much everything is weighing on them. How the little things are smothering them, and how something as seemingly inconsequential as an insect’s buzz, can represent an excruciating indictment to someone with a dirty enough conscience. To me, this song is akin to that buzz, an alarm call for the desperately sinful. It’s oddly satisfying, but leaves you with a strange, uneasy feeling– like the best episodes of the show.