TORONTO - Canadian-raised scribe Moira Walley-Beckett was gripping "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan's hand as the Emmy award for drama writing was announced Monday.
Both had been nominated for their work on the critically acclaimed final season of the series, with Walley-Beckett up for the explosive third-to-last episode "Ozymandias."
"I was sitting right behind him and he reached back and put his hand out, and I held it. It was so swell because I knew that whatever happened we were still going to be united," she recalled when reached by phone Tuesday in Los Angeles.
"I was kind of concentrating on him and then I heard 'Ozymandias.' He leapt up and I thought, 'Oh, wow, it's me!'"
As she approached the stage, she was thinking, "Don't fall down," she recalled with a laugh. Once she arrived, she made a point of finding Gilligan and actors Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul in the crowd and speaking directly to them.
"Vince Gilligan, this is your fault," she said in her emotional acceptance speech. "Thank you for your mentorship and your mad skills, yo! ... I share this wholeheartedly with you and my fellow writers."
She added: "To my brilliant cast of actors, writing for you was pure joy."
Walley-Beckett grew up in Vancouver and trained at the Banff School of Fine Arts. She moved to Los Angeles in her 20s to pursue a career in the entertainment business and found work on camera, gathering 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 took an unusual path to join the "Breaking Bad" writing team. After watching the first season of AMC's meth lab drama, she was hooked and wrote a spec script. To her surprise, producer Melissa Bernstein loved it and passed it on to Gilligan — who immediately wanted to hire her.
Unfortunately, he couldn't promise her a job because he didn't know yet whether the series would be renewed for a second season. Although Walley-Beckett did have a writing gig lined up for a "big network show," she turned it down in the hopes that "Breaking Bad" would get picked up.
"I just took a gamble because I knew that's where I should be," she recalled. "They got picked up and Vince hired me and I was there ever since. That's how we met and he continued to be remarkably gracious, remarkably generous with all the writers. He always gave credit where credit was due."
"Ozymandias," the 14th episode in the fifth and final season of "Breaking Bad," became an instant classic. Directed by Rian Johnson — the innovative filmmaker behind "Looper" and "Brick" and at least one of the forthcoming "Star Wars" sequels — the storyline featured the death of one beloved character and a turning point in Skyler and Walter's marriage.
A critic at Britain's the Independent mused that it could be the best television episode ever written. Gilligan offered only slightly more reserved praise when he said he considered it the best episode of his series, a conclusion echoed by Hitfix critic Alan Sepinwall and the Hollywood Reporter.
"It still leaves me speechless and humbled and thrilled," said Walley-Beckett of the critical praise heaped on the episode. "I thank Vince and all the writers. Television is a collaborative medium. I got really lucky and then I made it my own.
"Rian Johnson and I are a great partnership. We do call ourselves the Wonder Twins because we were so in sync and he helped make it the perfect episode."
She said the most difficult scene to write in "Ozymandias" was the now-infamous phone call between Walt and Skyler after he disappeared with their baby daughter. Appearing to know the police are listening, Walt casts Skyler as the terrified wife of a homicidal drug kingpin, in order to protect her from officers' scrutiny.
"The beats were very complex, just having it seemingly travel from one thing to another," Walley-Beckett said. "The whole episode felt fraught with import. And essentially, everyone has a part of them die in that episode."
She had collaborated with Johnson on an episode in the third season, "Fly," which features Walt and Jesse stuck in a lab, forced to confront the tensions in their relationship while trying to kill a solitary fly. In "Fly," Walt came to the brink of telling Jesse that he had watched his girlfriend Jane die of a drug overdose, said Walley-Beckett.
"He would have said it for entirely different reasons in that episode — out of guilt, out of love. And then I got to deliver it like a death blow in 'Ozymandias.' He meant to kill Jesse with that sentence," she said.
"There were many, many favourite scenes. Having Skyler finally say 'Enough, enough' to Walt was a highlight of my career as a writer."
"Breaking Bad" won best drama at the Emmys and its three main cast members — Cranston, Gunn and Paul — picked up acting honours. Walley-Beckett said it was "thrilling" to see the show sweep the ceremony.
"I think it's a testimony to how beloved they have become, as people and as characters," she said. "They, I think, were just as shocked. Aaron told me, 'I didn't know what to say. I didn't expect it.' He was so adorable. Anna hadn't planned anything. They just spoke from the heart."
Walley-Beckett's win also marks the first time a solo woman has won for dramatic writing since 1994, a fact she called "shocking."
"There are so many fantastic woman writers and it makes me sad that there's still a delineation. Good writing is good writing and good writers should work," she said.
Walley-Beckett is now the showrunner of her own original drama, "Flesh and Bone," set to premiere on Starz in 2015. She said Monday night was bittersweet for the entire "Breaking Bad" team as they realized it would be their last Emmys for the series.
"It was very emotional for us. It's been a long time and a long, hard road together. We all felt it keenly last night, that we'd reached the end of the road. But what a phenomenal road and what a great way to go out."