TORONTO – Canadian-raised writer Moira Walley-Beckett penned the heart-wrenching third-to-last episode in the decorated run of Breaking Bad, an installment called “Ozymandias” that has inspired such critical reverence that some have called it the greatest episode of TV drama of all time.
So Walley-Beckett perhaps couldn’t credibly adopt the gob-smacked stance typical of the Hollywood award-nominated, but still insisted that she didn’t expect the Emmy nod for outstanding writing for a drama series that came through Thursday morning.
“It’s always a hope, I suppose,” she said down the line from New York, hours after nominations were announced. “Since Time magazine named it the best episode of the year (of any show), and it’s received a lot of attention and acclaim — I certainly had my secret fingers crossed.
“But no explicit expectation. It’s the best surprise to see your name on the page.”
And it might seem all the more astonishing to Walley-Beckett given her relatively uncommon career path.
After growing up in Vancouver and receiving some training at the Banff School of Fine Arts, Walley-Beckett moved to Los Angeles in her 20s to pursue a career in the entertainment business. Mostly, she found work on camera, gathering dozens of acting credits with bit parts on shows including ER, Chicago Hope, The Practice and NYPD Blue.
She earned her first writing credit in 2008 on the short-lived legal musical Eli Stone. She then joined the Breaking Bad writing staff as a story editor in season 2, working her way up to a full writer-producer role by season 4.
Along the way, she wrote or co-wrote nine episodes, including the season 4 highlight “End Times” — the same episode Aaron Paul submitted en route to winning his second Emmy for supporting actor in a drama.
But “Ozymandias,” the 14th episode in the show’s fifth and final season, merited even more rapturous acclaim.
Directed by Rian Johnson — the auteur behind such innovative films as Looper and Brick who was also recently announced as the director of at least one of the forthcoming Star Wars sequels — the episode is nothing short of beloved.
A critic at Britain’s the Independent mused that it could be the best television episode ever written. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan offered only slightly more reserved praise when he said he considered it the episode the best of his series, a conclusion echoed by Hitfix critic Alan Sepinwall and the Hollywood Reporter.
To hear Walley-Beckett tell it, she was the beneficiary of some good fortune. Momentum had been building all season to the calamitous conclusion of several plot points, one of which being the (spoiler alert) death of Dean Norris’s noble fan favourite Hank Schrader.
“I think that I got lucky in terms of plot point,” she said. “We were on a race to the finish and we had the luxury of being able to finish off a lot of stories, which included finishing off a beloved character.
“It was a lot of … emotional plot, and a lot of big payoff, and I think it just was a very satisfying episode for people in that regard.
“And combining what turned out to be one of the scripts I’m most proud of … with Rian Johnson’s phenomenal eye and directorial capabilities, it was the perfect partnership. And he is equally responsible for what a great episode it turned out to be.”
He was also equal partner in a devious prank perpetrated on the show’s crew.
Walley-Beckett booked a short uncredited cameo in the episode as a patron in the car wash (she had campaigned to play a “meth whore,” but had to dial it back).
When it came time to shoot, she pretended she was stymied by stage fright, for take after fumbling take. At one point, the supposedly skittish actress even “accidentally” bumped into (fellow Emmy nominee) Anna Gunn and made her drop her phone.
“All the actors were like, whoa, she’s totally freaking out,” Walley-Beckett recalled.
In on the joke, a “frustrated” Johnson eventually withdrew a prescription pill bottle (actually filled with Altoids) and gave a few generous shakes into his palm.
“I just ate them out of the palm of his hand and chewed them like the Cookie Monster, and at that point everyone kind of figured out we were punking them,” she said with a laugh.
Walley-Beckett’s writing nod was just one of 16 nominations for the meth kingpin saga.
And within her category, Walley-Beckett will compete with such decorated heavyweights as Game of Thrones, True Detective, House of Cards, and, well, Breaking Bad, since Gilligan earned a nod for penning the series finale, “Felina.”
She’s clear on the outcome she wants for that showdown.
“There’s nothing to discuss,” she said. “It should be Vince. That would just be the best.”
She was present at the Emmys to witness the show’s past glory, cherishing in particular the moment at last year’s gala in which Breaking Bad finally broke through to win outstanding drama series after losing the category three years in a row.
It was a “total thrill,” she says, one of those twinkling occasions when “time slows down and speeds up all at once.”
Walley-Beckett is now at the helm as creator of her own show, Flesh and Bone, which she says is a “gritty, dark look at the underbelly of the New York City ballet company,” but more than that is a character drama, like Breaking Bad.
She’s midway through shooting on the show’s first season, and she was recently visited onset by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, in town for his Tony Award-winning performance in the historical Broadway production All the Way. She calls Cranston a “hands-down great guy” who is “smart, funny, kind.”
And she cherishes that sort of ongoing support from her Breaking Bad family. Even though Walley-Beckett played a key role in bringing the celebrated show to its grim end, she didn’t realize at the time quite how much she would miss it.
“I think all of us always will,” she said. “It was a really important time in all of our lives. We’re all very tight. We’re all very embedded in the material, in the characters, in the story.
“Even though we knew we were ending — we chose to end it — there’s a part of us that never really knew how it was going to feel when that happened and perhaps were in a bit of emotional denial about how that would feel when it was gone.
“So the short answer is, yeah, I miss it. And I think I always will.”
© The Canadian Press, 2014