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.
Robin Williams and the Post-Holocaust Schlemiel in Jacob the Liar
by Menachem Feuer
Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.
Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).
In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.
This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”
Here, the issue is comedy.
Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:
In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)
Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”
Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?
Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.
In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”
The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)
The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:
I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.”
“Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”
Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.
But can this act be done after Auschwitz?
Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.
Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:
The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.
Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:
The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported. (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)
Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).
Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.
Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.
What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.” And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion. Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.