An Interview with Breaking Bad writer, Moira Walley-Beckett
Moira Walley-Beckett is one of a handful of writers who spent years crafting the poignant, riveting, and unpredictable narrative of the television series Breaking Bad. The show has become such a part of our current culture that it may not require explanation, but for the uninitiated, it follows Walter White, a fifty-year-old high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and begins cooking crystal meth to pay for his treatments and leave money to his pregnant wife and special-needs son. It ran for five years on AMC to widespread acclaim, winning several Emmys and a spot in Guinness World Records as the highest rated TV series.
Born in Canada, Moira was a dancer, musician, singer, and actor before becoming a writer. She joined Breaking Bad in season two and is responsible for writing some of the shows most enduring and complex episodes, including season three’s “Fly” and season five’s “Ozymandias.”
On Sunday, October 6, one week after the Breaking Bad finale aired to record viewers, I called Moira to talk about the show’s literary references and moral ambiguity, and the chauvinistic backlash against one of its main characters. Moira was generous with her time, candid and incisive in her responses, and patient with me as I revealed my superfandom. (It should be noted that there are spoilers pretty much everywhere throughout the interview.)
I. How Small He Is
THE BELIEVER: I’ve heard [series creator] Vince Gilligan say that it was a victory if a line of dialogue was cut in the edit. Do you agree with that?
MOIRA WALLEY-BECKETT: I do. We tried to have our characters say as little as possible, because we trusted our actors to communicate without dialogue. We also loved visual storytelling and sometimes let the story and the imagery speak more than the actors.
BLVR: You’ve also said that natural imagery—“the landscape, the desert, and the sky”—influenced the show’s narrative.
MWB: The desert is so vast and unknowable, and it can hide a lot of secrets. Also, symbolically, the desert feels dead. But then you look closely and everything existing there that’s alive has this extraordinary tenacity and ability to survive through extreme conditions. That underscored Walt’s journey for us.
Albuquerque has the most mercurial weather—you never know what you’re going to get. We’d just let the sky tell our story. We shot this one glorious moment in episode 411, where Gus and his henchmen have Walt out in the desert on his knees, and Gus threatens him. While we were shooting, this bank of clouds moved across the entire expanse of sky, and suddenly our whole world was thrown into shadow. The actors kept going. We didn’t call cut. And the clouds moved past during the scene. Normally that could be a disaster, but we kept it—it was pure cinematic gold.
BLVR: The sky grounded me at moments where I’d start to think Walt is the king of the universe, and then there’d be a shot of that epic sky, and I’d realize…
MWB: How small he is. In every conceivable way. And that he has such urgency to achieve in his short life.
BLVR: I’ve heard that one of the writing room mantras was “Let the characters tell us where they want to go.” What exactly does that mean?
MWB: Every now and then, we would have a story point that we’d want to reach for, but we never tried to just facilitate story points, so we spent an inordinate, excruciating amount of time asking “Where’s Walt’s head at? Where’s Skyler’s head at? Where’s Jesse’s head at?” We always had to locate where the character was emotionally. I think that’s one of the reasons why the show became so compelling, because it was grounded in the reality of the complicated thought processes of the character.
BLVR: Did you discard any major plot points for that reason?
MWB: I’m sure we did, but the things I remember most are when we had to make lemonade out of lemons. That’s how Mike, Jonathan Banks’s character, originated. We originally thought that after Jane’s death, Saul Goodman would know how to sweep the house and make it right. But the actor, Bob Odenkirk, wasn’t available. We knew the death had to happen, so we created Mike and reaped the benefit for seasons. It’s kind of a great joy when you stumble upon an actor who you thought would be on for an episode or two, and they’re so exciting that everybody can’t wait to keep writing for them, and they turn into a much bigger character. But there were also times that we painted ourselves into a corner.
BLVR: Like the episode “Fly,” where you could only shoot in the superlab, but you didn’t paint yourselves into that corner—it was a bottle episode.
MWB: A bottle episode generally means that you only shoot on the sets on your stages, so the company doesn’t have to go out on location, which costs more money and takes more time. But we chose to do the most extreme version of a bottle episode possible, because that’s how we roll. We wanted to do a Pinteresque two-man play and limit ourselves by making it take place in one location. We chose the superlab and decided to develop Walt’s psychological recriminations, and came up with this fly as a symbol of his guilt and the contamination of his soul.
BLVR: There are so many readings for the fly: The contaminate could be Walt’s cancer, or his decision to cook meth, or Walt himself. When you and Sam [Catlin] were writing it, did you have one in mind?
MWB: We start open. We always take the time to explore everything, which is unusual. Once we came up with the device of the fly, it was fascinating to explore the things it could represent. It certainly is the beholder’s share as to how anyone chooses to interpret it, but ultimately, for me and Sam, we felt like it was a symbol of Walt’s guilty conscience. He couldn’t live with it and had to destroy it in order to continue.
BLVR: It’s important that Walt had a conscience. Every time I’d start to think Walt had crossed that line into pure evil and could not be redeemed, the show would draw him back to the human realm, just a little…
MWB: Just enough.
BLVR: How deliberate were those decisions?
MWB: The moral ambiguity and the position that it puts the viewer in is endlessly fascinating to me. We’ve always cared a lot about Walt and trying to understand him more deeply than he can possibly understand himself. He’s a man who begs the question—who was he to begin with? What lay dormant within him? The incredible conundrum of introducing him as this person who is absolutely relatable and then watching him transform. With each transgression, it became a real challenge for the viewers and for us and even for Bryan [Cranston], playing him, to say, how can I stand behind this man when he’s traveled so far that he may be irredeemable?
II. Literary References
BLVR: I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, as a result of the show, and I found this line in “Song of Myself”: “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less/And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”
MWB: Doesn’t that just give you chills in relation? Vince and I are huge Walt Whitman fans, and I’m just so enamored with “Song of Myself.” It was Vince’s suggestion to pull from “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
BLVR: The show is full of other literary references, too—like the episode titled “Kafkaesque.” Why was that an appropriate term for the circumstances?
MWB: When something is Kafkaesque, it’s basically a nightmarish situation which most people can somehow relate to, although it’s strongly surreal, with an ethereal, “evil,” omnipotent power floating just beyond the senses. In that episode, Jesse describes his strange laundromat workplace—in fact, the superlab—to his group leader in rehab. The leader observes that it sounds Kafkaesque, and Jesse agrees, pretending to know what the hell the guy means. The term came up in the writers’ room not only as a perfect example of how few points of reference Jesse has—his utter lack of education and retention even though he had every opportunity to learn in school—but also to illustrate that he never admits when he doesn’t know something because poor Jesse is so ruled by shame and unworthiness.
BLVR: I also read that you brought the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” to the show. How did you come to know the poem?
MWB: I’ve always loved its imagery and sentiment. When we sat down to break the story for season five, it just popped into my head, that the shattered visage and the man who built this effigy to himself that now lays crumpled in the sand couldn’t be more appropriate for Walt’s journey. When I was assigned that particular episode, I kept the poem in mind as I worked my way through the plot. The titles are super important to us and Vince - I’d always pitch a bunch of ideas, and they’d all get rejected. But I pitched Ozymandias, and he was like, “Yup!”
BLVR: The poem seems so existentialist to me—that in the face of time and death, what we do on earth becomes meaningless—and I thought that Walt was driven by fear of that type of meaninglessness. But I know Vince Gilligan said that facing death was liberating for Walt, that it paradoxically made him feel alive.
MWB: Absolutely. Walt’s death sentence gave him freedom. Because he knew what the outcome was gonna be. His pending extinction made him alive.
In season two, I got to write, again, a very internal episode, called “Over,” where Walt finds out that he’s in remission. The inclusion of hope destroys what he’s been working on, and it destroys his ability to be Heisenberg. I loved getting to write how Walt has to process this sudden reprieve, and how it takes away the spark, and how he has to obsess, in a “Fly”-like way, removing the cancerous dry rot from his home. By the end of the episode, the Heisenberg in him just will not rest, will not lay dormant. At that point, he knows he has the potential for a much longer, fuller life, and that’s not what he chooses.
BLVR: When he doesn’t have an adversary, he seems a little aimless. The presence of his opposition, whether it’s cancer or Tuco or Gus, seems to bring out Heisenberg.
MWB: To the point where he made Gus into his enemy. Gus didn’t have to be his opponent. But Walt needed a foe. And he found his way to justify his antagonism for Gus.
BLVR: He also turned Skyler into his enemy. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Team Walt phenomenon, the people who are rooting for Walt, in this creepy, misogynistic way, to destroy Skyler…
MWB: Oh yeah. I’m familiar. (Laughs)
BLVR: When you wrote Walt’s phone call to Skyler in “Ozymandias,” were you thinking of those sentiments and sort of echoing them back to that crowd, or were you able to separate that out?
MWB: I think it would have been impossible for me to separate it out, because we’ve all been so surprised and disappointed by the Skyler backlash. The Skyler-haters didn’t hate her with any kind of logic or empathy or exploration of what she was really enduring, and what she was really saying to Walt. The fantasy of Heisenberg and the cowboy bad guy just created this incredible maelstrom of fervent dislike of Skyler for getting in his fucking way. And I remain shocked and appalled and fascinated by what that says about our society, because there were lots of male characters who got in Walt’s way, and nobody hated them like that.
BLVR: Norman Lear has talked about All in the Family fans who misread his intentions and ended up agreeing with Archie Bunker.
MWB: That show was so brilliant and iconic and straddled the line perfectly, between what Archie was able to be and say, and his reflection in the mirror of Edith, his wife. She was the heart and soul and moral compass of that show, and more and more, they allowed her to stand up and refuse and win, yet she didn’t have the backlash that Skyler had. I don’t know what the magic potion was that allowed Edith’s character not to be reviled for standing up to the beloved Archie, but we didn’t have that formula on Breaking Bad. Maybe some of the inherent aspects of her character’s gentleness and lack of self-worth and sort of whinging, cringing quality. And she married a dominant man and that was the setup, right from the gate.
But it always confounded me. I think Skyler did what any normal, intelligent woman thrust into those circumstances would do. She said, “What’s going on? Why are you doing this? This is a really bad idea. Please stop. I’m afraid. You’re hurting our family.” It’s kind of sensible. My heart goes out to Anna, because she had to endure an awful lot to play that part, and the backlash became personal in a way that’s also entirely confounding. It’s not Anna. She’s an actress playing the role of someone you don’t like.
III. Special All Along
BLVR: A conservative New York Times writer wrote an article in which he complains about fans’ “inappropriate sentimentality” for Jesse, which favors “what he feels while minimizing what he does.” I disagree strongly, but I wondered, in this show that’s so much about identity, what exactly isidentity? Is someone’s identity primarily their actions, or intentions, or emotions?
MWB: It has to start with your pattern blueprint, your origin story. And I think maybe what people forget about Jesse is, he’s a kid who grew up with every advantage, he had sort of the perfect family situation, except he never won his parents’ approval. He was a little wayward. And his little brother achieved and stole the spotlight, and Jesse plummeted into a place of feeling like he didn’t have any value. When people feel valueless, sometimes you have to posture differently or wear a disguise of being the bomb. Jesse sort of put on his confidence and his swagger, like his hip-hop clothes. He’s always been this kind of misguided, hapless kid who never felt good enough.
BLVR: Except with his aunt, where he was happy and loved.
MWB: Yeah, when she just accepted him for him. It was his joy to take care of her. Cause Jesse’s a good kid. He’s a fuck up, but he’s a good kid. We spent a great deal of time discussing his aunt and what their life was like at home and how much he did for her. And then he lost her, and lost his way. And unfortunately, Walt adopted him as his son. (Laughs)
BLVR: I read in the book Half a Life by Darin Strauss that drivers who kill someone in a no-fault car accident have worse PTSD than drivers who are at fault. Would Jesse have fared better if he had been arrested in season two?
MWB: Absolutely. But as it was, there were never the kind of consequences that a fragile heart like Jesse needed. So he supplied them for himself. There’s no court that could’ve punished Jesse more harshly than he did himself. I think that was a huge contributing factor to his unsteadiness and ultimately his phoenix-like conscience.
BLVR: I don’t even know if I enjoyed watching the finale because I was so scared that he would die. I think I went through the stages of grief. I was angry, I was bargaining. I’m glad you spared him.
MWB: (Laughs) Well, we talked about a lot of options, but in the end, that’s what felt right.
BLVR: How does the finale strengthen the notions of Walt’s complexity?
MWB: The thing that makes Walt so unique as a character is that in television, nobody’s ever transformed before. You generally meet a character and they kind of are who they are. One of the things I loved about the finale is that Walt says, “I did it for me.” He’s aware, finally, of what we sort of knew all along.
So yeah, for the finale, there’s a lot of wish fulfillment. Everybody wants to see the Nazis die, and die badly. But what’s interesting to remember is that Walt did not go there to save Jesse. He was gonna take them all out and let the cancer kill him. The wrench in the plan, the surprise for Walt, was that Jesse was indentured, and it was his fault. So he chooses, in the moment, to save him, and that is a redemptive act, but not one that was his original intention.
BLVR: It’s funny that people responded as if the last episode was uplifting, when it’s really just a little less apocalyptic than the three that came before. Everybody’s in shambles. Hank is still dead.
MWB: The overriding thing is that Jesse got out and is going to be okay. But other than that, there’s a trail of devastation. (Laughs) And then I find it incredibly tragic that what Walt needed to do with his final breath was touch his “Precious.”
BLVR: And one of the last shots was his reflection, which is fitting, since those shots have been important to the show since season one.
MWB: We get married to echoing things, like seeing Walt’s reflection in something as simple as the mirror, Walt staring at himself in the dining room windows while ten guys are being killed in three prisons in two minutes during “Gliding Over All.” We like to call back to moments that are laden with symbolism like that.
BLVR: It seems like working on the show was a singular experience for everyone involved. Why is it different than everything that came before?
MWB: When we came together, it was a tiny little show. We were shocked that anybody would want to make it. Vince got rejected all over town until AMC took a chance on him. So we were just in our little creative bubble, doing our thing to the best of our ability. And then it caught on. But we had felt like it was special all along.
BLVR: The things the writers tweet at each other make me think the writers’ room was just this crazy place.
MWB: Yes! There were no boundaries. It was this colorful environment in this super seedy office. We did all these arts and crafts. We had our mechanisms for survival. For Vince, it was shooting weapons. He’s a guy who would pull guns in the writer’s room. We all got good at the duck and cover.
It was a very intense experience. Sam realized he spent more time with us than his children have been on the planet. For all the torture, and there was a lot of torture, I wouldn’t trade it. I feel very lucky.
BLVR: Is there anything you can share about the new TV series you’re developing?
MWB: I’m working with [Quentin] Tarantino’s producer Lawrence Bender on a very, very dark psychological drama for Starz that’s set in the underbelly of a New York City ballet company, although it’s less a show about ballet and more about this ballerina with prodigious gifts and extraordinary psychological damage.
BLVR: Does your background as a dancer make you more interested in telling this type of story?
MWB: Absolutely. People don’t know how corrupt and constraining that world is. It’s so destructive, and the issues of power and dominance and the infantilization of women interest me as a storyteller. I want to bring the ultimate optical illusion of ballet into view with an unflinching lens.
Stephanie Palumbo is a documentary film and television producer, and a former assistant editor at O, the Oprah Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and cat. You can follow her @onetoughnun.