A season takes months to write, weeks to shoot, hours to watch – and once it has an Emmy nomination, often what separates it from winning and losing an award can boil down into just minutes. Such pressure! So how do writers determine what the “key” scene is in their Emmy-nominated episodes anyway? Here’s what the 12 nominated writers shared with us when asked just that and as we learned, the definition of “key” varies widely – and contains multitudes.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Written by Bruce Miller
Set the scene: A group of handmaids are allowed to exact revenge on a rapist, and do so by literally tearing him apart with their hands.
Why is it key? “Elisabeth Moss’ [Offred] performance is spectacular, and almost entirely silent. She does so much with her face,” says Miller. “It’s the first time we see the iconic visual elements of Gilead, and it’s this combination of how beautiful and ugly Gilead is in one scene. If you can write one show where a main character rips another character apart with her bare hands — and is still likable, you really achieved something.”
Better Call Saul
Written by Gordon Smith
Set the scene: Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) pulls no punches when he faces off with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) in court, bringing his sibling’s illness into the spotlight.
Why is it key? “By the time the scene has ended, the relationship between the two brothers has changed forever,” says Smith. “Their relationship seems irredeemably broken, and this lays the groundwork for a different Jimmy McGill to emerge – one that’s quite ruthless in self-deception. It’s one thing that tells us what we’ll see in the future from Saul Goodman.”
“Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”
Written by Matt and Ross Duffer
Set the scene: The four main characters Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will all play Dungeons & Dragons together in Mike’s basement.
Why is it key? “The boys had been texting each other incessantly throughout the summer, and by the time they arrived to set, they were already good friends,” the Duffer brothers write in an email. “As soon as we rolled cameras, it was clear that their chemistry was electric. In one frantic two-minute scene, they managed to define their characters for the audience and set up the journey to come.”
“The Soviet Division”
Written by Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields
Set the scene: Philip (Matthew Rhys) shares fresh intelligence with Elizabeth (Keri Russell), even though knowing this will make her want to remain in the United States as a spy, rather than allowing him to take their family home to the USSR.
Why is it key? “This is building five seasons of character into this scene, where they explore where their marriage has come after all the trials and tribulations,” says Fields. “He’s a guy who desperately wants to be out of this life, but he has to tell her because honesty is more important to him than getting what he wants.”
“The Bicameral Mind”
Written by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan
Set the scene: Self-aware android Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) learns of the true nature of who and what she is from her makers.
Why is it key? “Lisa and I were holding back a lot of information from the audience, and paying a lot of it off right there. When Dolores understands who she is, it’s really the end of the beginning of her journey,” says Nolan. “It’s stitching everything together. Whatever fans might have guessed throughout the season, they might not have realized how deeply Anthony Hopkins [character Robert Ford] cared about the characters.”
Written by Peter Morgan
Set the scene: The king, having just learned of his terminal diagnosis, takes the Duke of Edinburgh on an unexpected, early-morning duck hunt.
Why is it key? “The liminal beauty of the dawn, the water and the boatmen, combined with the violence of the hunt are the perfect backdrop for this scene in which the king, faced with his own death and the eternity of the crown, reconciles himself to his son-in-law and impresses his duty upon him: to love and serve his wife, both as a woman and as a queen,” writes Morgan in an email. “Philip’s struggle with this challenge will drive the story for the next two seasons.”
Written by David Mandel
Set the scene: So she can launch her next presidential campaign, Selina breaks up with Ambassador Jaffar.
Why is it key? “The scene is important not just to the episode but the whole show and character of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus),” says Mandel. “She could have been happy with Jaffar, but she can’t help herself: She must run for president. We see her dealing with this decision and in some ways all the decisions in her life that led her here. She’s the scorpion in the old fable, who cannot be anything but a scorpion.”
Master of None
Written by Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe
Set the scene: During a flashback, Denise (Waithe) shows how she came out to her mother.
Why is it key? “I’d already survived [my own coming out], and the whole thing of ‘I’m gay but don’t tell your grandmother’ and the way they’re sitting in the diner, that’s what really happened,” says Waithe. “I said it, and my mom cried. My heart broke because she cried. We were literally re-creating this. So it’s a scene with no villain, no hero, just two people trying to deal with something they’ve never had to deal with before.”
“Streets on Lock”
Written by Stephen Glover
Set the scene: After an arrest, Earn (Donald Glover) sits in a holding room with unusual inmates — including one who is speaking to his ex-girlfriend and is only just realizing she is transgender.
Why is it key? “It lays out a lot of the goals for our show; it’s a very real scene,” says Glover. “It’s funny because of how real it is, and how specific to Atlanta too. If you’re from Atlanta, you understand that scenario. It’s funny, it’s kind of weird, it’s dramatic and sums up our show in a lot of ways.”
Written by Alec Berg
Set the scene: Richard (Thomas Middleditch) pitches Russ (Chris Diamantopoulos) a new video chat platform, but Russ can tell Richard isn’t buying what he’s selling – and calls him on it.
Why is it key? “One of the joys of series television is that over time characters can evolve from being enemies to being allies, from stupid to being smart,” writes Berg in an email. “That’s what happens here. Russ is by all accounts a moron. But in this case, he is actually smarter than Richard. It’s a big moment in the life of the show, and we didn’t want to screw it up.”
Written by Billy Kimball
Set the scene: Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) arrives at her hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia, encountering much of the rest of the cast for the first time in the season, including Jonah — whom she excoriates as only she can.
Why is it key? “For a writer, it’s incredible fun to have such a great ensemble to work with and to be able to pair up characters in a variety of combinations in order to build a scene,” says Kimball. “In the center of it, Selina runs a full gamut of emotions in the space of a minute or so, something Julia can do better than anyone.”
Written by Donald Glover
Set the scene: Alfred, aka “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry), appears on the talk show “Montague” to discuss disparaging remarks he made on Twitter about Caitlyn Jenner; then an interview segment of “Montague” shows a black teen who identifies as a 35-year-old white man.
Why is it key? “First and foremost, it’s just funny. But it helps frame the Caitlyn Jenner conversation … earlier in the episode,” writes Stephen Glover, who served as a story editor on the episode, in an email. “It’s never about being ‘preachy’ to an issue, it’s more so about seeing how the world actually operates when dealing with these issues, and letting viewers decide what that means.”