On paper, it might seem odd that an Emmy-winning writer for Breaking Bad, one of TV's darkest and most pulpy thrill rides, would chose to follow that show with a drama about ballet.
But on Starz's new eight-part limited series Flesh and Bone, creator Moira Walley-Beckett — who penned "Ozymandias," perhaps Breaking Bad's finest episode and certainly one of its most emotionally brutal — isn't simply interested in tutus and pliés. "I think expectations are going to be met," Walley-Beckett tells TVGuide.com. "It's not a departure. This is a dark, f---ed up character drama set against the backdrop of a New York City ballet company. But at its essence, it's a strange, labyrinthian character journey per my style and per the style of Breaking Bad."
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While Walter White had his soul corrupted and his life destroyed by a meth-fueled obsession with power and greed, Flesh and Bone's protagonist Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay) is trying to piece her broken, dysfunctional life back together. As the series begins, Claire escapes from her Pittsburgh home, which includes less-than-savory relationships with her father and Afghanistan vet brother Bryan (Josh Helman), with hopes of resuming her ballet training in New York. "Claire thrusts herself out of her life in sort of one desperate, kinetic burst," Walley-Beckett says. "Her home life is extremely destructive. She's running to New York and she's going to make this last-ditch effort to have a career. So, she shows up ill-equipped to be in this environment and ill-equipped as a person. But in her mind, if she didn't succeed at that, which was a long shot anyway, one thing is for certain, she was never going back."
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint) for Sarah, she is a revelation to Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels), the American Ballet Company's brilliant but demanding creative director. And in a matter of days, Paul has decided to throw out his playbook and create an entirely new ballet around his new ingénue. That, of course, rankles the other members of the company, including the current prima ballerina Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko) and Claire's roommate Mia (Emily Tyra), who feels Claire has skipped the line.
If all of that sounds a little familiar and well-worn for this type of story, it is. And although the show doesn't rise to the dramatic achievements of Breaking Bad (which, in fairness, few things do), there are still delights, starting, naturally, with the dancing. Walley-Beckett says she and choreographer Ethan Stiefel did a five-month search for the cast of ballerinas.
"The mandate was to find dancers who could act," Walley-Beckett says. "The verisimilitude was incredibly important to me, and I didn't want to have to suspend our disbelief. I didn't want to have to shoot two angles on an actress and then cut away to a body double. I insisted that we hire dancers who could act so that I could put the camera anywhere and let us live right there and see the people who are talking then sweat and hurt and bleed. It was just an extraordinary undertaking to try to find these unicorns."
So extraordinary, in fact, that the show almost didn't get off the ground when the team couldn't find their Claire. When the producers extended its search to Europe, they found Hay, who also appeared in the Darren Aronofsky's ballet psychological thriller Black Swan, dancing at the Semperoper in Germany, and everything clicked. "Sarah had an innate understanding of the darkness of Claire and the material didn't frighten her," Walley-Beckett says. "She understood the complications, and that, to me, was a miracle. Couple that with a remarkable, natural [acting] skill set and her insane dance ability and her beauty — it was irresistible. It's very brave material, and she was fearless. And that was hard to find."
Indeed, the home life Claire is running from is revealed to be increasingly devastating. However, Claire almost immediately finds herself being manipulated and abused in completely different ways by members of her new community in New York. "I don't think that's what she anticipated," Walley-Beckett says. "When you're chewing your own arm off to get out of a trap, you're not worried about what's down the path in the deep, dark forest. You're just running through the forest. And she ran to her destination and she was accepted into it and then all [the consequences] become evident."
And while the show deals with deep emotional scars, there is also plenty of physical pain on display very early on. (Be prepared for lots of close-ups on feet and bloody toenails.) "I don't think that Claire dances in order to cause herself pain, but I do think that causing herself pain out of object self loathing and shame and self destruction is a tool for her," Walley-Beckett says. "It's a tool for release and stability, but it also operates as her super power as a dancer. Because when she is truly stripped away or in intense psychological pain, that's when she communicates as a dancer and transcends."
It's that quality that Paul, who himself is trying to fill a hole in himself all the while being desperate to ascend, connects with in Claire. "I don't think he knows her circumstances, but it is her history that makes her special," Walley-Beckett says. "Whatever it is that he's seeing in her isn't just technical perfection, it's that little something extra that is a marketable commodity. It's something you want to possess in every way imaginable."
As Claire begins to realize she still isn't in control of her own life, she becomes drawn to a second career once one of her more friendly fellow dancers Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner) introduces her to a local strip club she works at in her down time. "Claire's journey is a journey to self and a sexual exploration of what it means to be in your power as a woman and have power as a woman," Walley-Beckett says. "[That's] something that Claire has never had - something that, in fact, was stripped from Claire in her very early life. She looks to the opportunity of the strip club for ownership of herself and for control of herself and to be in autonomy with her physical self in a way that she's never had the opportunity to be before. It's like first baby steps into being a fully realized woman."
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One other bright spot in Claire's life is her unexpected friendship with Romeo (Damon Herriman), a schizophrenic homeless man who lives outside Claire and Mia's apartment building. And while much of the show is deeply personal for Walley-Beckett, who herself was a dancer, Romeo is particularly special. "Romeo is somebody from my life," she says. "Schizophrenia is a broad spectrum illness and it manifests in a myriad of ways. This is someone who, in order to compress the parts of himself that scare him, that he can't control, has made a decision to always be a person who does the right thing and someone who is in service. It's ironic that within the world that Claire finds herself in, that schizophrenic homeless guy is the one trustworthy person there."
Ultimately, every character has to work through their own damage, which makes Flesh and Bone not really about ballet at all. Despite the show's darkness, Walley-Beckett struggles with the comparison of her show and the equally twisted ballet movie Black Swan." It's not Black Swan," she says. " It's sort of the anti-Black Swan, I suppose, because it's not a thriller. There's no magical realism. It's very grounded in foundations of truth. Claire is not losing her mind. She's a damaged, wounded person who's trying to make her way and navigate these shark-infested waters. So, it isn't like anything else. I hope that it just stands alone. I hope that people sit back and say, "'Holy sh--, that was more than I thought it was going to be.'"
Flesh and Bone is an eight-part limited series that premieres Sunday at 9/8c on Starz.