First of all…. SPOILERS.
The music in Breaking Bad is brilliant. Not only the selection of licensed music and its placement in each episode, but also Dave Porter’s work, and how his music integrates perfectly with all the other elements playing in a scene.
Here is an excerpt from an interview to Dave Porter:
"I think that music is a character in the show and I think it has a role to play in telling the story. There are a lot of ways to do that musically. One of them is about creating a palate that’s consistent, or isn’t consistent—it can change from character to character. There are little motifs and themes that I have subtly but carefully used over the years. One of the things that defines Breaking Bad in particular is not so much the music itself but how we use it.”
That last sentence reflects how I feel about music for media in general.
So I decided to analyze some Breaking Bad’s scenes and the use of music in them. Mostly as an exercise for my own work, but I thought on sharing my thought process in case someone out there is interested.
If you read this, feel free to agree, disagree, comment, etc.
I hope this is the first one of many to come.
EPISODE: THIRTY-EIGHT SNUB (S04E02)
SCENE: Mr. White tries to kill Gus
SECTION I (0:00-0:53)
Parked Outside Gus’ House
This first section shows Walter arriving at Gus’ house, and his preparation to confront him and kill him.
The sequence starts with a close up of a mailbox with the American flag painted on it, and the sound of the night’s crickets. As the camera travels to the right, we see Walt’s car arriving and parking at the corner of the street. Music starts playing with a slow attack, together with the sound of the car’s engine and the tires on asphalt. Music so far consists in long notes and no percussion.
In the first 14 seconds, camera’s speed, car’s speed and music’s attack all match.
In the next shot we are inside the car. A close up on Walter’s face let us see where his attention is at. Next, we see Gus’ front door and a “piano plus bass drum hit” plays on top emphasizing its weight and meaning in this scene. Percussion comes in when Walter unbuckles and checks and hides his gun. It is not a constant beat, but accents every two bars or so. It helps supporting the feeling of “preparation”.
At 0:42. he closes his eyes, grabs his hat, and puts it on. This is the moment, it is time to confront Gus. This is emphasized by a distorted sound that grows and cuts abruptly the moment Walt lower his arms after fitting his hat,and we see him with his eyes still closed. I like the fact that the music doesn’t cut when the hat reaches the head, because Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg in that situation needs an “extra breath”. He is about to confront a really powerful man.
The arms movement determines how abrupt the music cuts.
At 0:55, Walter opens his eyes and we can see that his expression also changes. This is it. He has become Heisenberg and because of that, we can hear Heisenberg’s theme playing.
SECTION II (1:01-1:36)
In this section Walter becomes Heisenberg as he put his hat on. He leaves the car and starts walking toward the house.
At 1:01, Walter opens the car’s door and steps outside. Heisenberg’s theme is still playing. Around 1:10 when he turns toward the house a reverse cymbal plays leading to a drum beat that accompanies Walter’s walk towards the front door.
The beat’s tempo matches the walk’s speed.
The music playing during the walk, and the fact that the camera is following Walter from behind his right shoulder and that we see the house all the time helps in building tension and let us be inside Walt’s state of mind. At 1:27 a new distorted sound starts and grows in amplitude adding an extra layer of tension.
Finally at 1:35, Walter’s cellphone rings (in sync with the music) and the music stops (with a really long release) at the same time that the last note on the cell’s ringtone.
SECTION III (1:36-2:03)
As Walt is approaching the door, his cellphone rings. In the other side of the line Mike tells him to go home.
Walter was getting close to Gus’ front door when his cellphone rings. The only dialogue we hear in this scene is from Mike, saying over the phone “Go home, Walter”. Around the 2:00 mark, the music stops completely leaving us only with the sound of the crickets in a calm night, again.