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Needle Drop: How Breaking Bad Made an 80s Hit Sound Sinister

Peter Schilling's "Major Tom" was a silly good time until Walter White heard it.
  • Bryan Cranston in "Bullet Points," the fourth episode of Breaking Bad's fourth season. (Photo: AMC)
    Bryan Cranston in "Bullet Points," the fourth episode of Breaking Bad's fourth season. (Photo: AMC)

    Before prestige TV got hold of it, "Major Tom (Coming Home)" was just a catchy pop tune.

    A top 20 hit in the United States, Peter Schilling's synthpop classic describes an astronaut who drifts alone into space, then realizes he's content in the great black void. When it was first climbing the charts back in 1983, it sounded like an escape fantasy about the stress of the Cold War. Plus, it slyly referenced David Bowie's song "Space Oddity," had an on-trend new wave sound, and delivered a massive, singalong chorus. No wonder it caught on.

    Almost 30 years later, "Major Tom" established a new legacy when a single scene transformed it from a decently remembered dance ditty into one of the most sinister music cues of all time.

    In "Bullet Points," the fourth episode of Breaking Bad's fourth season, Walt (Bryan Cranston) is visitng Hank (Dean Norris), his DEA brother-in-law. While the family lounges around, Walt tries to sell an elaborate cover story that explains the money and property he's been acquiring as part of his work for an international meth ring. Hank buys it, and everything seems to be going Walt's way until Hank shows a DVD of a criminal who recently turned up dead.

    It's a video of Gale Boetticher (Dave Costabile) singing a karaoke version of "Major Tom:"

    On one level, the scene is hilarious. Gale is a lovable nerd, and of course he hurls himself into this karaoke performance with complete abandon. In an oral history of the episode, Costabile recalls how exhausting it was to sing with such gusto, while everyone else remembers how much they loved watching him do it. And who wouldn't? It's a decliously unhinged performance.

    But the scene isn't only funny. It's also the moment that Hank declares Gale was the elusive meth dealer known only as Heisenberg. Walter is actually Heisenberg, though, and as he listens to Hank talk about Gale's death, which Walter himself caused, he realizes how close he is to getting caught. Crucially, this is also the first time Hank mentions the inscription in a book of poetry that eventually exposes Walter for good.

    So while Hank is laughing about the doofus singing "Major Tom," Walter feels the vice tightening around his neck. The contrast between the lighthearted music and Walter's mounting terror helps make the moment indelible: If Gale were singing Metallica's "Master of the Puppets" or something, the sequence would be far too on the nose; instead, the spacey synth beat and escapist lyrics suggest a joyous freedom that Walt may never feel again. We know what he knows, so we feel the disorientation of this suddenly hellish hang at Hank's house.

    The "Major Tom" story doesn't end here. Four years later, as if to reinforce the its new resonance, the song was used as the theme for the German spy series Deutschland 83.

    That show, which you can stream on Hulu, follows an East German operative who's forced to go undercover in West Germany. While he's there, he gets his first experience of Western freedom, and is torn between being loyal to his people and enjoying the luxuries of captialism.

    "Major Tom" is the perfect theme song for this set-up: Peter Schilling is German, and he originally performed the song in his native language. However, it was the English-language version that became a global hit, and it's the English-language version that's in the credits of Deutschland 83. What better distillation of Cold War chaos than a track that had to abandon its roots to reach its full potential?

    Between that fraught symbolism and the karaoke resurrection of Gale Boetticher, "Major Tom" is arguably one of the most notable songs of 2010s TV. If they dance to it now, TV fans will almost surely think about the danger inside that bouncy melody.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Breaking Bad, Deutschland 86, Peter Schilling, Needle Drop