So, Breaking Bad ended last night! No real spoilers below, but if you glanced at the name of the episode on your DVR, you might have noticed that they called it “Felina.” In addition to being an anagram for “finale” (and also a composite of the chemical signs for iron, lithium, and salt—or blood, meth, and tears), “Felina” is the name of the “Mexican girl” that the hero of Marty Robbins’ classic outlaw ballad “El Paso” falls in love with. The song appears a few times in the episode, so it’s safe to say it’s not a coincidence—and Robbins’ tale of an outlaw returning, through “the badlands of New Mexico,” to the scene of his crimes to settle old scores fits in well with what it’s been clear Walter White would be doing since the fifth season opened with a flash-forward.
Robbins’ song was released in 1959 on his fifth album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The song tells the story of a man who breaks bad in his own way—he’s so smitten with a young woman who dances at an El Paso bar called Rosa’s Cantina that he shoots another man for sharing a drink with her. Realizing what he’s done, he high-tails it to New Mexico, before he finds himself missing Felina so much that he decides to risk death and/or justice in order to see her again.
The song was a massive hit—it won a Grammy for “Best Country and Western Recording” in 1961—and peaked at number one on both the country and pop charts. And Robbins never quite got over the song, either: Five years after the success of “El Paso,” Robbins recorded “Feleena (From El Paso),” a re-telling of the song’s story from Feleena’s point of view. (We’ll attribute the difference in spelling to the fact that “Feleena” doesn’t fit neatly into the periodic table and only anagrams with “An Eel Fe.”) This rendition of the story is a bit long and ponderous at over eight minutes, and without the easy hooks of “El Paso.”
That wasn’t the last time that Robbins would draw from the “El Paso” well, either. Fifteen years after his initial hit, Robbins recorded “El Paso City,” the title track to his 1976 album, about a guy in an airplane who’s flying over the city of El Paso, and who remembers the original Marty Robbins hit. It’s all more than a little meta for a mid-70’s country track, but it seems clear that “El Paso” was one of the defining elements of Robbins’ life.
Of course, Robbins’ hit was also one of the defining elements of the city of El Paso, too. The singer is the namesake of Marty Robbins Park, which also includes an indoor pool and rec center. Rosa’s Cantina is still there, too, near where I-10 hits 85. You can guess what the first song on the jukebox is.
The song’s legacy is long. The Grateful Dead were prone to cover it over the decades, and perhaps out of respect to Robbins’ simple pop melody and clear narrative, they tended to avoid turning it into an epic jam, favoring an economical version clocking in at around five minutes; Steve Martin once made a music video for the song in which he played a gunfighter and all of the other parts were chimpanzees and orangutans. Still, it’s likely that the legacy of the song was re-written last night. Currently, on the song’s Wikipedia page, there’s a sub-heading just for its use in Breaking Bad.