Marty Robbins – El Paso

Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Year :
Johnny Cash / Patsy Cline / Conway Twitty

(Note: This post focuses on the series finale of Breaking Bad. There are MAJOR spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.)

It’s over. Breaking Bad has reached its conclusion and Walter White’s story is over. And so begins the inevitable waiting for the next “best show on TV.” And, somehow, this waiting period was kicked off by a 50 year-old country tune.

Breaking Bad’s finale shares its title, “Felina,” with a central character from Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” In Robbins’ song, the narrator falls for a “wicked Mexican maiden” while watching the her dance in a bar. So begins a series of violent events that unfold in the narrator’s pursuit of Felina’s love (all while he knows that the outcome is destined to be tragic.)

Theories are flying all over the internet about how “Felina” neatly allagorizes the events of the series. I quite like these theories and I think that they’re, for the most part, very smart readings of the show. Vince Gilligan and his team of writers have proven on countless occasions that they’ve got an ear for music and, more importantly, Robbins’ song is so overtly inserted into the show that there’s simply no denying intent.

That said, as much as I enjoy these theories, in some sense, they don’t exactly see the forest for the trees. Put another way, they don’t give Robbins nearly enough credit for how great “El Paso” truly is. Granted, there’s a kitschy quality to Robbins’ music—it’s not hard to imagine Quentin Tarantino ironically mapping any of the songs from Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs onto some bizarre crime story. But looking past the late 1950s shlock, “El Paso” is sort of devastating.

Robbins sings,

Out in the west Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Night time would find me in Rose’s cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden
I was in love but in vain I could tell

It’s a perfect fit for Breaking Bad, not because of the specifics of the events of the song or show, but because “El Paso” is fundamentally a song about being unable to resist darker impulses. For the narrator of “El Paso” the urge is sexual. For Walter White, it’s ego (he brilliantly, finally acknowledges in Felina “I did it for me.”)

This all dawned on me due to the most perfect of coincidences. Just hours before settingly in for “Felina,” I had watched another tale of moral choice that, as it happens, comes to a bloody conclusion in El Paso—No Country for Old Men. That story revolves around the character Llewelyn Moss who, upon discovering a grisly crime scene in the Texas desert, chooses to keep a found bag of blood money that ultimately becomes his undoing. “El Paso” maps equally well to No Country for Old Men. For Llewelyn Moss, Felina is that money.

There’s also great symbolism in the mere fact that El Paso is a border town. Robbins’ “El Paso,” Breaking Bad, and No Country for Old Men all share in a tradition of stories about crossing moral and ethical borders in the American West. There’s no more apt setting. It’s an idea that echoed throughout countless works of fiction. My personal favorite it Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), a story about how “all border towns bring out the worst in people.”

Ultimately, all of these stories come down, not only to moral choice, but to a kind of self-destructive urge that seems to ride alongside ambition. “Felina” has largely been received as a very satisfying end to Breaking Bad but, to me, the show’s crowning achievement is the penultimate episode, “Granite State.” In it, Walter White chooses to cross another kind of border and leaves the relative safety of his hideout in New Hampshire for New Mexico. “Live Free of Die” proudly emblazons the New Hampshire licence plate and we see a nice close up in the opening moments of “Felina.” It’s then that we know for certain that Walter White has to die. He chooses, at every step of his life, to not “live free”. The tragedy, in the universal sense, of Breaking Bad, and stories like it, is this tendency towards self destruction—the choice to act wrongly while fully aware of the outcome. For some, it’s an urge that simply cannot be overcome. It’s terrifying to imagine all the ways in which we are like Walter White.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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