The best uses of music in television

Photo Contribution by Serena Anagbe

There have been some pivotal moments in fictional television that have struck the cultural zeitgeist in significant and unexpected ways. Ross and Rachel’s first kiss, the Game of Thrones finale, the candy factory episode of I Love Lucy, etc. Often, though, what elevates a scene beyond its already perfect execution is the song selected to accompany these moments, elevating scenes from incredible to iconic. Here are some of the best—or maybe simply, my favourite—uses of music in television.


“Baby Blue” by Badfinger – from Breaking Bad season 5, episode 16

Is there a better way to end what is arguably the greatest television series of all time than with a classic rock tune that perfectly encapsulates the show’s flawlessly executed ending? Badfinger’s 1971 hit “Baby Blue” begins to play as a fatally wounded Walter White picks up that ever-familiar gas mask he had used so many times during his methamphetamine production. “I guess I got what I deserved,” sings Pete Ham as Walt solemnly caresses his old cooking equipment, his final moments of contemplation over everything he destroyed at the hands of creating his own precious “baby blue” meth. The series, and Walter White, end where they began—in the lab—and the song couldn’t be more specific to Walt’s journey if it had been written in 2013 specifically for the show. The final shot pans out as Walt lies on the ground after being killed by his own invention, a small glimmer of satisfaction spreading across his face. “The special love I have for you, my baby blue” is the final lyric as the screen turns black and “Executive Producer: Vince Gilligan” appears one last time. Bravo, Vince.


“The Book of Love” by Peter Gabriel – from Scrubs season 8, episode 19

It would be impossible to make this list and not mention Scrubs, a series that employs popular music more effectively than probably any other TV show in history. I’m crying even as I write this, since I’ve just rewatched what should have been (and in my mind, is) the final scene from this tremendous comedy-drama (season 9 didn’t happen), set to Peter Gabriel’s cover of The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love.” Main character J.D. imagines his beautiful future filled to the brim with the love and silliness we watched him grow into over eight seasons. J.D. watches on teary-eyed as he gets married, has a child, and the show’s three central couples celebrate Christmas together with all their children. Gabriel’s string-heavy rendition of the 90s tune offers the perfect soundtrack to J.D.’s glimpse toward the future that he spent so long fearing. “The book of love is long and boring,” wails Gabriel in the song’s iconic first line, and J.D. has a blank book of love open in front of him.


“Evil” by Stevie Wonder – from Atlanta season 2, episode 6

While Atlanta is a kaleidoscope of several genres, I think I can confidently say ‘Teddy Perkins’ is the most bone-chilling episode of the series; the closing scene set to Stevie Wonder’s “Evil” cements it as such. Darius spends the episode with its unhinged titular character, whom we discover was severely abused at the hands of his father. Teddy continuously speaks of his brother Benny, but Darius has a nagging feeling that Benny isn’t actually real. The episode’s twists and turns culminate into a frightening conclusion, in which Benny kills Teddy and then himself. Darius and the audience are left to ponder the repercussions of what on earth they just watched, and the lamenting piano of “Evil” plays on as a deeply disturbed Darius drives away. The theme of abuse stripping a child of their childhood and innocence reverberates throughout the entire episode, and Stevie Wonder’s musical contribution to the closing scene unnervingly ties everything together.


“Which Side Are You On?” by Pete Seeger – from Succession season 1, episode 6

The use of Pete Seeger’s socialist protest song “Which Side Are You On?” sets a chilling tone in the final scene of Succession’s sixth episode. Kendall Roy has spent the past few episodes trying to oust his father from his own company, and Logan Roy has just ruthlessly taken his son out first. The haunting tune begins to play as we get a glimpse into just how much power Logan Roy wields; the President of the United States calls him, and Logan leaves him on hold, leveraging his own position to ask the President to proverbially scratch his back. Despite audience sympathy for Kendall as the scene cuts to him dejectedly meandering through the New York streets knowing it’s all over for him now, the song’s staunchly anti-capitalist theme serves as a reminder that neither Kendall nor Logan’s side is better than the other. Ultimately, they’re both ultra-wealthy, power-hungry degenerates, or “lousy scabs,” as Pete Seeger would put it.


“Stars” by Nina Simone – from BoJack Horseman season 3, episode 12

A magnificently beautiful song for what is inarguably one of the best scenes of the series, Nina Simone sings of stars who come and go as BoJack aimlessly drives out of California following his reflection on the death of Sarah-Lynn, for which he is somewhat responsible. BoJack presses down on the gas pedal, soon going treacherously fast, before closing his eyes and removing his hands from the steering wheel in what appears to be a suicide attempt. The song builds as BoJack spots something in the corner of his eye that makes him slam on the breaks: a pack of horses running freely in the desert. BoJack’s expression changes to one of a hopeful realization, and a partial callback to his hero Secretariat’s advice. He is at rock bottom now, but he can change; he just needs to keep moving forward and never look back.


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