Better Call Saul composer on *that* ending: “We wanted to leave the future unknown”

After six seasons, two finger guns through a jail yard fence signalled the end of Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad’s critically acclaimed prequel (and sometimes sequel). For Dave Porter, it closes the door on 15 years of work with Vince Gilligan, with the L.A-based composer scoring the music for the entirety of ‘the Gilliverse’, comprising Breaking Bad (including its iconic opening theme), Better Call Saul, and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. He explains why, despite it being all over, it’s all good.

Does Kim die? What happens to Jimmy? These are the kinds of questions Porter no longer has to fend off from enquiring Better Call Saul fans now that the series has come to an end.

My friends and family know me better than to have bothered me with those questions, but I am glad to not have to retain those secrets anymore,” he says, sounding relieved. 

“It is a pain, especially when everybody's excited and you want them to be as excited as you are. But it is good to have it all out there. I don't have to worry about any slip ups.”

Breaking Bad was a tough act to follow, considered to be one of the greatest television shows of all time – collecting 110 industry awards along the way. 

However, it quickly became apparent that Better Call Saul was an exquisitely-crafted piece of television in its own right – more than holding its own against its looming predecessor (some going as far as to say it is actually better) and receiving its own critical acclaim, with particular praise for its acting, characters, writing, direction and cinematography.

I never expected Better Call Saul to be as talked about and as popularly viewed as Breaking Bad.

Season six takes place four years before Jimmy McGill meets Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, and follows Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill and wife Kim Wexler as they execute a diabolical plan to ruin the career of Howard Hamlin to force a resolution of a stalling high profile case. 

On the meth side of things, the drug cartel reacts to the assassination attempt on Lalo Salamanca (with devestating consequences), while the last few episodes take place after the events of Breaking Bad, where we finally learn the outcome of Jimmy (now living as Gene Takavic) – and Kim.

The core cast may have changed during the three Gilliverse projects, but Porter’s music has been a constant and integral part of the overarching story. Bryan Cranston himself called Porter’s score “evocative and meaningful; an essential part of the storytelling. With his music, [he] has created another character for Breaking Bad.”

For Porter, it’s still sinking in that it’s all over.

“I think the word for it is bittersweet,” he says. “It has been a long and incredible journey; I’m not sure I've wrapped my head around it yet. My world has orbited around these shows for a long time. 

"There's a part of me that's very much in mourning for it, and then there's another part of me that's so proud to have it all out there for the world to digest. I'm just proud to be a small part of it.”

When we began Better Call Saul, we were adamant to make it sound different from Breaking Bad.

Due to the unfathomable popularity of Breaking Bad, understandably, Porter did not expect for the prequel to be as well received:

“I certainly had lower expectations for Saul,” he admits. “Part of that is that lightning struck in such a specific way with Breaking Bad; I never expected that to happen again. I never expected Better Call Saul to be as talked about and as popularly viewed as Breaking Bad

"I knew, of course, that it would be an excellent show, I had no doubt about that,” he clarifies. “I had enormous faith in all the folks that I worked with and I was sure that there were going to be a group of folks who really loved it, but to have it reach the heights that Breaking Bad did is incredible to me, honestly.”

When it comes to holding onto spoilers, he saved himself any potential slip ups by not watching the final episode until he started working on it, preferring to watch the show like a fan – as much as he is able to.

“Selfishly, because I'm lucky enough to be nearly last in the process, I like to watch the show like a fan,” he says, “because it's nearly done by the time I see it – it's just lacking sound work and music. 

"I get to sit on the couch with a stiff drink and watch it like anybody else and feel the reactions that most of our audience would feel. That helps me gauge where I can be most helpful in the storytelling through music, and what I can add and what I can bring to it.”

Everybody was fascinated to know what Kim's fate would be.

Controversially for a composer, he admits that the show is so good, it would probably be fine to air without any score at all:

“It's such a strong show, to be honest, you could air any of these episodes without any music at all, and people would still love them! But it's a neat situation for me to be able to come in and take it to another level. I actually didn't watch the finale until I started working on the episode.”

The ending saw (SPOILER ALERT!) Jimmy's post Breaking Bad life finally unravel. Exposed as the wanted criminal lawyer to infamous meth kingpin, Heisenberg, in his new life as Gene, Jimmy is arrested. 

Using his usual Saul tricks to talk his sentence down to just seven years, he ultimately admits his full involvement in Walter’s empire and his own brother’s suicide for the benefit of now-estranged wife, Kim (she lives!). Returning to his real name, James McGill, he is given an 86-year sentence.

“I love the twists and the turns and that it brought so much resolution, and yet some open questions too,” says Porter. 

“That's the brilliance of what they've done in the finale. You put yourself in those shoes and wonder if you could have done the same. Could you have made that big of a sacrifice just for your own redemption in the eyes of someone you may never see again, but who was so important to you?”

Unlike Breaking Bad where Vince knew the music that he wanted to end with, that was not the case here.

Better Call Saul gets darker in theme as the show progresses through the seasons, particularly after what happens to Howard, and in Jimmy’s bleak post Breaking Bad life as Gene. Porter took particular care to reflect the subtle change in tone in the music.

“There was a consistent evolution of the tone of the show throughout all six seasons,” he nods. 

“When we began Better Call Saul, we were adamant to make it sound different from Breaking Bad. It definitely had a breezier, lighter and more innocent feel as we got to know the early iterations of Jimmy, but as we start moving towards the Breaking Bad timeline and we get introduced to more and more Breaking Bad characters and the cartel, the show gets darker. 

"And of course, Kim and Jimmy's situation gets darker as the series goes along. When we jump forward to the post Breaking Bad timeline, it was like a new pilot. It is all shot in black and white, and musically I wanted to echo that huge shift, so we did a very different score – a totally new orchestration and way of approaching it.”

Lalo Kills Howard

The score is very methodical: a march towards an inevitable conclusion – that isn't going to be good.

One of season six’s most memorable scenes sees Howard unexpectedly murdered by smooth talking cartel member, Lalo; Porter’s disconcerting score slowly introduces itself in the lead up to the pivotal moment, and the audience is left in no doubt that something is very wrong. Porter explains that this cue was a deliberate callback to a scene in season five when Lalo enters Kim and Jimmy’s apartment for the first time.

“He is a fascinating character to score, because he is so horrendously threatening, but so calm, so suave, so charming – in an absolutely terrifying way,” says Porter. 

“He doesn’t hesitate to do what he wants. Whatever is in his plans, there's really nothing you're going to do to stop it, so the score is, by design, very methodical. It’s very simple, but a march towards an inevitable conclusion – that isn't going to be good.

“In season five, through Kim's smart thinking, they get themselves out of it and he walks away – to our audience's amazement, and mine when I first watched it! Nothing bad happened. So a part of me was playing upon that expectation of, ‘Well, we've been here before, so maybe it won't end up so bad’. But of course, it does, and this time there's no getting out of it.

“It was a lot of fun to do. It was a long scene with a lot of dialogue, and that's where being as economical as possible with the sounds that I'm using and the way that I'm very slowly building tension is important. 

"We can't get in the way of the dialogue and the tension that is already palpable in their performances, so it’s about trying to create this absolutely unnerving reality behind it all.”

Kim's assassination mission

Following on from this scene in the next episode, Kim is sent on an assassination mission to kill Gustavo Fring. Porter’s synth-tinged score stands in stark contrast to the rest of the show’s more natural sonic landscape, weaving in undeniable elements of horror movie score as she walks to her intended victim’s door, gun gripped inside her hoodie pocket.

“Without question, I wrote that piece with the knowledge that Kim was going to die at the end of that scene,” shares Porter. 

“Even though I had seen it, of course, and knew better. To me, the way to approach it was that this was the end for her, and I really wanted to present that as much as possible. It's something that everybody was fascinated to know: what her fate would be. It's one of the underlying questions, because other than Lalo, she was the last remaining main character that doesn't appear in Breaking Bad

There was so much anticipation about what was going to happen to her, so I viewed it as her inevitable end. It was as close as we get to a horror movie moment. The other reason to do that was that as horrible as I could make this, there's an argument to be made that her fate ultimately in Florida was a hell of a lot worse than any death they could have bestowed upon her,” he laughs.

I wrote that piece with the knowledge that Kim was going to die.


Black and white mall-centric episode, Nippy takes place in the post Breaking Bad timeline, where we see Gene fall back into old habits by pulling off an elaborate heist by befriending and distracting two security guards with cinnamon rolls and a lot of small talk. 

Porter’s score is noticeably more whimsical in this episode with callbacks to ‘80s comedy montages – which he attributes to his earlier use of a bass clarinet.

“It was a lot of work,” he recalls. “That was the big shift, with a whole new orchestration and new way of viewing the score. We were really making a whole new show, in a lot of ways, in this episode. 

"The way I ultimately approached it was that we'd had some black and white teaser moments in earlier seasons that were giving us these little glimpses of Gene post Breaking Bad

"Back when I was working on those scenes, I didn't know much more than it was Gene in isolation on the run, not super happy about his life and just trying to get along. So for those scenes, I introduced a very lonely, solo bass clarinet for no reason other than it enforced and highlighted his isolation. 

"I used that as a jumping off point and ultimately built a small ensemble of very low woodwinds like bass clarinet, clarinet, bass flute and alto flute – that is the backbone orchestration of the Gene era. 

"It eventually gets fuller and thicker and moves into more of a Better Call Saul feel as it gets more intense, but at its beginning in Nippy, it's at its simplest and lightest because the stakes are seemingly low, especially compared to where he's been. I wanted it to have as big a tonal shift as I could manage.”

I wanted Nippy to have as big a tonal shift as I could manage.

The Ending

The pressure was on to stick the landing. Breaking Bad’s Felina is up there as one of the best TV endings of all time. Better Call Saul had been so consistently good, many wondered if it could sustain it until the very end. 

The audience had been given death in Breaking Bad and revenge and escape in El Camino. Show creators Gilligan and Peter Gould provided a third option in Better Call Saul: jail time and redemption. Kim visits Jimmy in prison, and in a callback to their first ever screen time together, they share a cigarette.

“There was no question that there was a lot of pressure for the final episode,” says Porter. “Unlike Breaking Bad where Vince went into the script knowing the music that he wanted to end with, that was not the case here. I know that there were songs considered for the ending, but I'm never part of those discussions. I stay in my lane, as they say. 

"We had to figure out how the music was going to help tell the end of the story in the way that Peter and Vince wanted. There was a lot of discussion about it, and a lot of back and forth.”

In order to give Gilligan and Gould some flexibility, Porter was asked to score the final episode’s ending scene first.

“They wanted to have as much time as possible with it to evaluate all the possibilities,” he explains. “Also, the music could have affected how it was ultimately cut in the end, so this way they would still have the option to make changes. The idea that ended up in the show was actually my first idea though.”

The music subtly kicks in during Kim and Jimmy’s final smoke – serving as a visual and musical parallel with their first on-screen moment together in the carpark. In fact, the music is almost exactly the same as in that very first scene. Porter shares that this cue was actually the first ever piece of music that he wrote for the show back in 2015.

There's an undying power in the connection they have. It's powerful enough to redeem a man who seemed unredeemable.

“It’s mostly unchanged,” he shares of the music’s full circle moment in the series’ closing moments. 

“There’s an organ part in it that I dropped an octave to give it a little more gravity in the ending version, and of course, it's longer. So there were some changes made to make sure that it worked with the picture and carried us through to the ‘finger guns’ moment. By design, it's very similar. I think there's a magic about that.

“It really helped tell parts of the story that Peter wanted to tell here and part of that is: the more things change, the more they stay the same,” he considers. “There's an undying power in the kind of relationship and connection that Jimmy and Kim have that's unbreakable. It's powerful enough to redeem a man who seemed unredeemable. It helped her to move on with her life. 

"There's a lot of power in the simplicity of it and the callback of it, even if a lot of viewers may not realise. Just the tone of it, by its nature, having the more hopeful, innocent character about it – that was in my mind when I wrote it for season one. 

"It sets it apart against the backdrop of the much more serious tone that we've been dealing with more recently in the show.”

I love that it brought so much resolution, and yet some open questions.

With characters this complex, it's about a balance of a lot of things,” he shares. “Yes, there's some hopefulness in the music, but if hopefulness was the only sense of it, that would have been a disservice to what characters have been through. 

"There had to be a balance of hopefulness and some melancholy for the reality of their situation, and some remorse for the horrendous things that these characters did. In all honesty, they're fully deserving of whatever punishment was meted out to them, no matter how much you want to root for them! Of course there's a guilty pleasure to it, and maybe there's a little guilty pleasure in the music even,” he grins.

The last moments of Better Call Saul see Kim turn back to see Jimmy give her their trademark finger guns through a jail yard fence. Porter’s score follow’s Kim out, the last few seconds cutting to silence before the final credits roll. It is undeniably poignant.

“We wanted to leave the future unknown,” Porter says of the last few seconds of silence. “I think no matter what I could have done musically, if I carried it through to the end, it would have tilted the scales one way or the other about the future for these two. 

"The story of the music there is about the moment, it's about what's already transpired. It's about what sacrifices they've both made for each other. That's why the music very consciously ends at the finger guns. 

"The future is unknown. Will she ever see him again? Will she work to try to get him out of jail? Is there any contact between them? What does her future hold? All those questions are better left unsaid.”

In his home studio, Porter has relied on Genelec studio monitors throughout the entirety of his score work on Breaking Bad, El Camino and Better Call Saul.

“I have a very trusty pair of Genelec 1031As that I have owned for longer than I've been working on Breaking Bad,” he reflects. 

“I know them and love them. I have a spare in case one ever goes awry, but they never have! There was a quality about them that always resonated with me and so as soon as I could, I bought my own pair. I have never worked on anything else, even though I know there's a lot of newer models of Genelecs out there that I'm sure are awesome,” he laughs.

“For me as someone who's a composer first and a mixer second – although I do take some pride in my meagre mixing abilities – familiarity is a great thing, so I've never changed, and I do love them. When I move to other studios, I always request to have them. 

"I’ve used them on all of [Breaking Bad, El Camino and Better Call Saul], and they tend to be in the mix stages when we do our final dubs, so I can always ask to hear them on the same speakers that I worked on, which is useful for reference. And when I do live recordings, which I don't do here in my own home studio, which is strictly a writing room, I always make sure that they're available for me.”

I’ve used Genelecs on all of Breaking Bad, El Camino and Better Call Saul. I know them and love them.

Porter has just taken a short, well earned holiday, and is already back at work on a project he is not allowed to talk about – although not on another Gilliverse venture, he points out.

“It's not related at all to Breaking Bad,” he stresses. “In all honesty, I think that we've seen the end of the Breaking Bad universe – never say never, as Vince would tell you – but I don't want anybody to get excited because there's certainly no plans at all of revisiting this. 

"I'm hopeful that I'll get to work on some future projects with Vince and Peter and many of the other talented folks that I've been able to work with, but I don't think it will be revisiting Walter White or or Slippin’ Jimmy.”

Listen to the Better Call Saul Vol. 3 soundtrack here to hear season six's score in full.

Dave Porter photo credits: Redboy.

Better Call Saul season six photo credits: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television.

Better Call Saul season one photo credit: Michele K.Short.