In the first scene of the last episode of “Breaking Bad,” Walter White opens the glove box of a car he’s trying to steal and the case to a Marty Robbins cassette falls out. At the end of the scene, as he starts the car, the stereo starts playing Robbins’ 1959 classic “El Paso.” Later on, as Walt builds one last contraption to fix his problems, he sings it to himself in the desert.
The writers aren’t subtle. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. “El Paso” is one of the greatest narrative songs ever written.
The story goes that Robbins wrote it in the back seat of his Cadillac, with his wife driving, after they passed through El Paso on a road trip. What came out was an entire self-contained Western, performed in 4 minutes and 38 seconds. If you condensed the five seasons of “Breaking Bad” into its metaphorical essence, “El Paso” is about where you’d end up. The last episode is even called “Felina,” which is the name of the temptress who causes the narrator of “El Paso” to … well, let’s go take a look. (It’s best viewed in Chrome or Firefox.)
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
So much information is packed into this lede — in 17 words, you know the setting, the narrative voice, the type of story, the built-in cross-cultural tension. If the narrator were Mexican, he wouldn’t say he fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’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.
A second layer of conflict: The narrator is drawn to someone who’s clearly bad for him. This also draws out the universal meaning that’s so important to narrative. You probably haven’t been a cowboy. But being attracted to something that’s bad for you? We’ve all been there.
One night a wild young cowboy came in,
Wild as the West Texas wind.
Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina, the girl that I loved.
So in anger I …
The little transitions Robbins uses throughout the song are spare and beautiful — just four or five syllables, pulling you through to the next scene. You don’t have to do much with transitions. Sometimes you don’t need them at all.
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.
Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done.
So it turns out the narrator is sort of a bad guy, right? He just murdered another man in a jealous rage. But by now, because of his love for Felina, you care about him even if you hate what he’s done. Empathy for your subject is essential. Your main characters don’t have to be heroes. But you have to see the humanity in them somewhere. Sound familiar, Walter White fans?
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
I had but one chance and that was to run.
Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
This is not a writing tip … just wanted to note the pure musical pleasure of hearing Marty Robbins turn the word “tied” into five syllables.
I caught a good one. It looked like it could run.
Up on its back and away I did ride,
Just as fast as I …
Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the badlands of New Mexico.
A callback to the first verse. Helps the reader reset the story.
Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.
I saddled up and away I did go, riding alone in the dark.
Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart.
And at last, here I …
Am on the hill overlooking El Paso;
I can see Rosa’s cantina below.
My love is strong and it pushes me onward.
Down off the hill to Felina I go.
Rhythm and sentence length are key to making this song work. The full sentences imply an epic story; the galloping rhythm (11 syllables followed by 10, sung in ¾ time) makes it feel much shorter. Robbins’ record label, worried that the song was too long for the radio, released an edited version. Fans demanded the long version instead. A victory for longform.
Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys;
Off to my left ride a dozen or more.
Shouting and shooting, I can’t let them catch me.
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door.
Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
You don’t see the first shot. Sometimes it’s best when the action happens offscreen.
Though I am trying to stay in the saddle,
I’m getting weary, unable to ride.
But my love for …
Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen,
Though I am weary I can’t stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.
From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.
A story doesn’t have to have a happy ending – it just has to have a satisfying ending. Our main character has completed his quest, “cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for” – what a fantastic line. And at the same time, you feel the terrible loss and destruction caused by one rash act fueled by desire. That’s how tragedy works, y’all.
Now then …
If you’re interested in the “Breaking Bad” part of the equation, there’s an alternate theory of the final episode that looks to “El Paso” for its key clue. As comedian Norm MacDonald and others have noted, the last verse of “El Paso” can be read as the hallucination of a dying man — how did Felina show up out of nowhere, anyway? MacDonald believes Walter White died early in the last episode, and the rest is his dying fantasy of how the story should end. And if you think hard about “El Paso,” a strict read, the narrator has to be dead from the beginning, unless you believe he’s narrating the song as it happens.
When I start worrying too much about that sort of thing, I just watch the Steve Martin version of “El Paso,” and it clears me right up.
Three last quick things:
Robbins wrote the young maiden’s name as Feleena, but it has been spelled different ways over the years. “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan went with Felina, which not only looks better but also happens to be an anagram for “finale.”
The Spanish-style guitar that sets the mood for the song comes from Nashville session legend Grady Martin.
Robbins wrote two follow-ups: “Feleena From El Paso” (a prequel of sorts, depicting Feleena’s life) and “El Paso City” (a meta-commentary where the narrator flies over El Paso and feels a connection, although “I don’t recall who sang the song …”) They’re okay. But they’re not “El Paso.”
Tommy Tomlinson is a freelance writer in Charlotte and a former local columnist for the Charlotte Observer. His stories appear in Best American Sports Writing 2012 and America’s Best Newspaper Writing 2004. He was a Nieman Fellow in 2008-09 and writes the Liner Notes column for Storyboard, the archives of which you can find here.