you can’t beat an empty room
Captain Squash Reporting for Duty.
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?
The hobo stood up cautiously and edged around the fire. He watched the cartomancer warily. Nuts can blow their tops easy—and this one still held a can of hot coffee.
—William Lindsey Gresham, Nightmare Alley
The person who sent in this photo of Nightmare Alley, borrowed from her local library, (along with a cup of “tea ordinaire”—not a can of hobo coffee, to be perfectly honest) writes, “Hope it’s got a happy ending.” She’s kidding, right?
And as always: If you have a photo of an NYRB Classic posed with a cup of coffee or tea, send it to this address and we’ll add it to the Classics and Coffee Club series. And let us know where you bought or borrowed the book from—we’d be glad to shout out places that stock NYRB Classics.