The Walking Dead: Better Angels

“Better Angels,” the penultimate episode of “The Walking Dead” season two is the most emotionally gripping and thematic score I’ve ever written yet for this series.  The episode was ripe with creative opportunities: stunning revelations, long character arcs resolved, as well as intimate character moments and a thrilling new threat around the corner.  For all this, the score had added narrative responsibility.

Before reading any further, be aware that my blog and video blog this week are filled with MAJOR SPOILERS, so definitely get caught up on the show before you proceed any further.  Go behind-the-scenes of our orchestral recording session with this week’s video blog, where I discuss scoring several of the most important emotional cues:

BETTER SPOILERS AHEAD: “Better Angels” begins with Rick’s eulogy for Dale.  Intercut with his speech, Shane and the group hunt for walkers.  But, there’s something vicious in their eyes. They’re not out to keep the farm safe — they’re out for revenge.  The savage brutality of their beatings is the perfect counterpoint for Rick’s bittersweet words.

There are two competing images on screen, but they are linked thematically.  I needed to write music that would serve both needs without overpowering either.  I took my inspiration from religious chorales and wrote a simple melody that would be at home in any spiritual.

The melody is modest, constructed by taking Dale’s Theme (from his dying moments in last week’s episode) and turning those notes upside down.  However, the real connection to religious music is not in the tune itself, but in the arrangement.  Spirituals are generally repetitive, structured around a single repeating musical phrase, sung with different lyrics.

Borrowing that structure, I wrote this cue in the same way.  The main melody of the eulogy repeats three times over the course of the scene.  The first is straightforward: violin 1 introduces the theme while the other strings offer harmonic support.  The second version (beginning around the time we understand what Shane and his group are really up to) introduces a countrapuntal response from violin 2 and the viola, weaving in and out of the violin 1 melody.

The third and final variation is where all the action takes place.  To underscore the savage killing taking place on screen, I gradually snuck in pounding drum set, scraping autoharps and dulcimers, deep distorted electric bass and, of course, a wailing electric banjo to underscore the death wheezes emanating from the walkers.

These powerful instruments could easily obliterate the small string orchestra.  But, my team and I took care in the orchestration and mixing to make sure the two competing musical styles stayed in perfect balance.  The strings represent Rick and his desire to make peace and live up to Dale’s moral standards.  The pounding drums represent Shane and his willingness to compromise all for what he thinks best serves the group.  At this point in the score, the two forces are evenly matched.  But, they will compete again.

Shane is the central character in this episode, and the story results in his ultimate downfall. Because “Better Angels is his swan song, I wanted all the variations of the Shane Theme to be present in this episode.

My first opportunity to use Shane Themes was the next cue in the episode, when Lori and Shane have a quiet moment to talk and she apologizes to him.  This scene is significant because (I believe) it is this conversation that ultimately gives Shane his own twisted rationale to do what he’s always wanted to do: kill Rick.

The music sneaks in with the hammered dulcimers playing a variation of the melodic component of Shane’s Theme:

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This tune was first introduced in the beginning of Season 2 and has generally represented his more sane, likable side.  Understandably, we haven’t heard a lot of it lately.  But, I wrote it in this moment to misdirect the audience.  I hoped that, momentarily, you would think that this scene is about Shane coming to his senses.

Of course, he completely misinterprets Lori’s apology and his whole demeanor shifts.  Here, I brought back another component of the Shane Theme, the rhodes bass line:

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This simple, oscillating bass line was first introduced in “Save the Last One,” and is a combination of an electric bass and rhodes piano with a widely panned stereo vibrato (creating that signature “wah” pattern).  Every time I’ve used this bass line, it has been to foreshadow that Shane is going to do something dangerous.

To highlight the importance of Shane’s decision in this moment, I augmented the rhodes bass with eerie harmonies from the string orchestra, and set them all beneath a solo wailing hurdy gurdy line:

Throughout the second half of season 2, for scenes with Shane and Lori, I’ve improvised over this rudimentary melody on the hurdy gurdy.  The random harmonics generated by the instrument’s rotating wheel gives the music an unsettling color.  It perfectly captures the sense that Shane’s view of the entire world is coming apart.

This single cue used every single variant of Shane’s Theme, except for one.  For “Save the Last One” I introduced a signature drone sound, a tone that uniquely underscored his haunted expression as he shaved his head.  Used here with Lori, that drone would have overpowered this intimate scene. Besides, I knew I’d have an even better use for it before I was done scoring “Better Angels.”

In the next act, there’s a lovely scene between Andrea and Glenn, as they remember Dale while trying to get the RV started.  With scenes like this, it’s dangerously easy to add melodrama and undermine the actors’ performances with campy music.  Generally, for “The Walking Dead,” I err on the side of simple (or even no) music.

However, the producers and I felt we had earned some heartfelt music for this scene.  Fans were shocked and saddened to see Dale die, so we’re all feeling a bit of what Andrea and Glenn are experiencing.  The show has earned this moment of genuine musical emotion.

I used the string orchestra to create a powerful emotional impact here.  The lower strings form beautiful clustered harmonies.  I avoided minor seconds in the clusters except for at specific moments, to create Ravel-inspired clouds of pitches that are still rooted in traditional, familiar harmonies.  Above them, the first violin plays a variation of the Dale Theme, with subtle country-fiddle-like inflections and vibrato:

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When the RV finally starts, reminding us that Dale will never be forgotten, the music swells to a beautiful resolution on the major IV chord.  The dynamic swell here is relatively restrained, but coming after four episodes in a row with virtually no harmonic writing at all, this simple gesture hopefully inspired a powerful punch to the gut.

The act ends with a poignant scene between Carl and Rick.  This sequence is where I could finally develop the Carl Theme into its full version.  In last week’s “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” the Carl Theme was a simple three-note motive, underscoring his flirtations with death.  But, in “Better Angels,” Carl is a new character.  That experience has scarred him and he has matured from it.

In response to that character growth, I composed a more mature version of the Carl Theme.  The first three notes are the same, but spring forth into a beautiful new melody, performed on solo piano:

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The Carl Theme is probably the first inherently beautiful theme I’ve ever written for “The Walking Dead” since the first episode’s “Mercy for the Living.”  And it still preserves the stylistic simplicity that made it so effective in “Judge, Jury, Executioner.”  Even though it’s now melodically extended and emotionally resonant, its still simple enough that it could be played by two fingers on the piano by a child.

However, like all things of beauty in the world of “The Walking Dead,” it’s not to last long.

In the third act, Shane makes his move.  His plan begins by visiting their prisoner Randall.  At first, he sits and says nothing at all.  Here, his facial expressions and the score tell us everything we need to know.  The missing component of Shane’s Theme, that dreadful drone, enters and his fractured hurdy gurdy line echoes distantly.  When he finally makes his move, and looks at Randall’s handcuffs, the electric bass and rhodes ostinato sneak in telling us something dark is on the horizon.

Shane takes Randall out to the woods.  After leading him off camera, he kills him with a thoroughly wince-inducing crunch sound.  Shane emerges back on camera and smashes his face into a tree, to create the illusion Randall fought him. This whole sequence is underscored with a single dissonant cluster in the strings and ambient electric guitars, a cloud of tension that gets louder and louder:

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After he smashes his face into the tree, the strings mimic the swinging movement of the camera and gliss downward, representing Shane’s descent into madness.

This creepy orchestral effect was easy to achieve, even with just six strings and a few autoharps and guitars.  Orchestral string instruments are capable of playing more than one pitch at a time, so I wrote two pitches for each of the six players. By making sure that no one played the same note as anyone else, I maximized the dissonance by creating a 12-tone chord: a chord where every note possible is present.  Then, I simply asked each player gliss from their notes down to a new 12-tone chord over varying time intervals.  The result is a cloud of extreme dissonance, written to guarantee that no player will be on the same notes as another player.

With his plan in place, Shane runs back to the group and rounds them up to pursue Randall.  Here, ominous string clusters give way to a chugging ostinato in the autoharps, dulcimer and psaltery.   The chugging pattern feels slightly irregular, but its not until the rhodes bassline enters that we understand how truly screwed up the pattern is.

Until this point in the series, the rhodes bass line generally repeats in a simple pattern of 4/4.  But, as Shane’s mind has fractured, so too has his music become irregular and unpredictable.  Now, that pattern is in a completely crazy metric pattern of 4/4, 7/8, 4/4, 5/4, 4/4, 5/8:

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With this pattern, it’s almost impossible to really get your bearings and figure out where the downbeat is.  This lack of rhythmic balance perfectly captures Shane’s mindset: somewhere between sinister rationality and madness.

The next act takes place out in the woods at night as Shane leads Rick further and further away.  The majority of the score here is ambient and understated — dark clusters of strings set against the ever-deepening Shane Theme drone.

At last, the story builds to an inevitable climax: Rick and Shane face off against one another in a field.  As I discussed in the video blog, the music was held back until the last possible second and even when it enters, it plays counter to expectations.

One of the reasons this cue sounds so exotic is because of the way we placed the players in the recording space. Unlike usual configurations, we put the viola in the center, the two violins on either side and the two celli on the extreme left and right.  (This is an even stranger configuration than the score for “Vatos,” which yielded a hilariously frustrating recording process.)

For “The Knife,” I gave the violins and viola an accompanimental fiddle-like texture and put the main melody and its harmony line in the celli.  With the celli on either side of the room, and with the celli playing in their highest registers, actually above the violas and violins, the resultant sound is truly unique: intimate, reedy, heartbreaking.

The episode’s climactic scene required the most disturbing and aggressive music I could muster.   After being stabbed to death by Rick, Shane rises as a walker and stumbles toward Rick and Carl.  Here, the Shane Theme drone takes on an undead quality, being augmented with deep synthesizers and crackling, dissonant electric banjo.  The banjo, which usually represents a zombie threat, combined with the Shane Theme drone underscores the disturbing fact that he has become a walker.

In a clever nod to the graphic novel source material, Carl shoots Shane.  Rick and his son stand before the body in disbelief, completely unaware that Carl has just rung the dinner bell.  The reverberating shot has attracted a nearby herd of walkers.  That’s when the string orchestra enters with a theme we all recognize:

The final minute of “Better Angels” is scored with a variation of the Main Title ostinato, marking one of the rare occasions where it has occurred within a score cue.  However, the percussion underneath is going completely insane.  I wrote an angular, rhythmically challenging piece for drummer Bryan Taylor and forced him to lay down the tracks with precise accuracy.  Check out this excerpt from the toms part, for example:

Virtually every conceivable subdivision of the beat is in use at one point or another, even rarely heard quintuplets.  The first challenge was for Bryan to play it correctly once.  Then he had to repeat the feat over and over, as we layered on snare drums, cymbals and other percussion.

The effect I was going for was controlled chaos.  If you ask a drummer to go crazy and play a rhythmically active solo, the result can be very energetic. However, it’s not necessarily powerful. The randomness of improvisation can not be repeated.  In this cue, the randomness was specifically composed, so even the most obtuse rhythmic subdivisions could be doubled precisely with more layers of percussion, and even synthesizers, guitars, bass and stringed percussion.  It was like taking an insane drum solo, and writing it out precisely so I could orchestrate carefully around each beat, to provide the absolute maximum dissonance.

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To make the effect even more powerful, my mixer Steve Kaplan then ran some of the toms and snares through violent distortions and limiters.  These effects made the drums unnaturally aggressive, and blended them seamlessly with my sequenced tracks.

Around all this percussive madness, the strings hammer away at the main title ostinato.  Their simple 4/4 pattern provides essential context to hear just how crazy the percussion writing truly is.  Without this obvious reference of 4/4, there’s no point in putting in all this work writing those rhythms.

As Carl and Rick approach Shane’s body, the music momentarily settles down, and the upper strings add a faint chorale.  Astute listeners may notice that it’s a variation of the Dale Eulogy from the episode’s beginning.  The war between Rick’s strings and Shane’s pounding percussion has returned, and this time, it sounds like Shane is winning.

When the camera pans back to reveal the danger they are in, the strings charge back in playing the main title ostinato, doubled this time by electric guitars.  Combined with the distorted percussion and pounding cymbals, the resultant combination sounds almost like a heavy metal version of the main title theme. (Heavy metal is an influence I will draw from again for the next episode’s epic teaser.)

After all the insane cacophony surrounding the Main Title theme in this final cue, the producers and I felt the end credits of “Better Angels” needed to be calmer, yet more unsettling than usual.  So, I composed a new version of Carl’s Theme, where his innocent solo piano is set against an ominous bed of strings.  The arrangement is both sinister and innocent, spooky and beautiful.

Next Sunday’s final episode of Season 2 is by far the grandest, most ambitious and ultimately most emotional score I’ve written yet for “The Walking Dead.”  Check back next week for my final blog of the season.

-Bear