Better Call Saul Q&A – Alison Tatlock on Finding the Saul Goodman in Gene

Alison Tatlock, who wrote “Nippy,” discusses writing the first-ever full episode in the Gene timeline, why Carol Burnett’s Marion is important to the story, and why Gene is unable to go full Saul Goodman.
You got to write the first episode to take place fully in the black-and-white Gene timeline. How did you approach this task?
I was really excited when my number came up for this one. And you're right. It is kind of a lottery system. Stylistically, to live in a completely black and white episode seemed very cool to me. Peter did a visual presentation focusing on the black and white filmmaking that he loves and giving us points of reference from throughout the decades and it was really cool. Michelle MacLaren is an incredible director and she was so excited. It was an in-house crash course on black and white cinema. The beauty and the weirdness of doing the full hour in black and white was part of what was fun about it. And then, as it turns out, we had this incredible guest cast. Because one of the scary things about writing this episode was also not having the incredible supporting cast that is usually there. Peter kept saying it's like we're starting a brand-new series, still with our lead, thank God. But other than that, different context, a different tone. Dave Porter has created a different score so the aesthetics of the music feel different. It was a creative challenge in that way.
Is it exciting creatively to be in a timeline where you're not necessarily hemmed in by the Breaking Bad timeline? Did you feel more openly creative about where the story could go?
First of all, I had never written Gene before because Gene normally appears of course in the season premieres and those are usually written by Peter Gould. So, it was fun to just live with that character and it was exciting to kind of meet him for the first time, both on the page from my brain and also on the set in person personified by Bob. But, yeah, I would say it was liberating and maybe a little scary in the writers' room to try to break [the story], no longer bumping into Breaking Bad but moving beyond it. It felt a little bit wide open, which is cool and also a different kind of challenge for us. For a show that is mostly a prequel to suddenly be actually a sequel was a paradigm shift.
When we've seen Gene previously, he's been laying low, a bit timid, and kind of pathetic in some scenes. This time around, he has more confidence. How did you approach writing this different version of Gene that we haven't seen before?
Part of the fun challenge of this episode was finding the Saul within Gene. We see the seed of it the last time we've seen him and he makes the phone call and then hangs up. Now we had to manifest it. On set, we saw that happen very specifically and physically when we were shooting the montage of him walking through the mall. Bob and Michelle MacLaren, our amazing director, dialed in very specifically the evolution of Saul-ishness. In other words, that's kind of code for confidence -- his confidence as a con man was returning and it was actually returning in his bones, in his blood as he's moving through the mall. And you can track it as you watch that montage. As he gains more confidence, there's a bounce in his step. Maybe there's a very subtle sly smile occasionally. He's moving with ease and he even, by the end of the episode, seems to enjoy working at Cinnabon a little bit. The whole world does not seem as gloomy and as scary as it did before.
What was it like knowing you were going to be writing for the iconic Carol Burnett? And how did the writers' room approach what that character's role in the story would be?
It was an incredible honor to work with Carol Burnett. All of us on the set, myself included, everyone who came into contact with her was a little bit starstruck, and she could not have been a more wonderful collaborator. Not only was she brilliant in the role, but she also brought such a fun and warm energy to everything we were doing. She and Bob had incredible chemistry. She loved being part of a team of women. She said repeatedly that she had never worked with a woman director, a woman writer, a woman AD, top producers who were women. We had quite a strong team of ladies and Carol, as a trailblazer herself, was really taken with this and it was part of the joy of the episode actually was celebrating that with her and with each other. Writing the scenes for her – we hoped that we would get her, but we didn't know for sure. But because we hoped, I was able to hear her voice in my head a little bit as I was writing it. And writing the scene, particularly the scene in the kitchen where she and Gene are chatting and Jeffie comes in, it's probably one of my favorite writing challenges and probably one of my favorite scenes that I've ever written for television. It was so fun to write and incredibly gratifying to be on set. There are some times when you write something, and it has a kind of specific rhythm, a certain type of banter, and you hear it in your head a certain way, and then you get to set and for whatever reason it's not working or the actors aren't feeling it in the same way as it was ringing in one's own ears. This was not that. This was the way I imagined it times 10. They were so amazing together. Both Bob and Carol really got it. They had fun playing. And then Pat Healy, who now plays Jeff, was fantastic. And the dynamic between the three of them was just so weird and wonderful. It was really delightful to watch it come to life. I will remember that one always.
The Better Call Saul crew on set Writer Alison Tatlock pictured in the center, between special guest star Carol Burnett and episode director Michelle MacLaren.
Did Gene think he had to go through Marion to get to versus just approaching Jeff directly? Why did he feel this was the best way to get to Jeff?
Because he had no leverage without Marion, right? It's the oldest mobster tool in the handbook not to try to threaten or even seduce directly, but to show your mark that you can get to their family, that you have access to their loved ones. And that is the subtext. He doesn't need to come right out and say that, but when someone dangerous, who Jeff knows is affiliated with very scary, dangerous, powerful people, is sitting at the kitchen table with your mom, that is an implicit threat. That is saying, "Look how close I am. Not only can I sell you out to your mother, but I am in the inner sanctum right now with the one person who seems to be somebody you might have an emotional attachment to." That story builds and becomes a little more nuanced and complicated also because Gene genuinely seems to like Marion and their connection is that interesting Saul Goodman thing, where both things can be true simultaneously. On the one hand, he uses Marion to get to Jeff in order to manipulate Jeff, but he also seems to maybe take a shine to her for real.
Once Jeff is on board, how much fun was it to figure out the details of this con? And how much fun was it writing the various rhymes that Gene was using to help Jeff remember the beats of the heist?
This is an epic heist in this episode, which was very fun to talk about and to write. There are aspects of the show where I personally feel less confident and others where I feel, "Oh, this is in my wheelhouse." And there were aspects of the scam, specifically the whole sequence when they put up the stakes out in the field where I was like "OK, I'm really trying to imagine this" and it felt unfamiliar to me. However, writing the rhymes – as soon as we knew that he was going to say a rhyme in order to track his movements – I remember thinking like, "Oh, I got this." I've raised a child, I've done a lot of silly rhyming. I have a background working for a youth poetry organization, and that was very fun and it came naturally to me, and thank God because I had to write it over and over and over and over again because it had to fit the specifications of the space. There's only so much you can do in the writing to require a certain geography. At some point, the writing sometimes has to give and the geography informs the writing. And so I had many versions. In fact at one point I was driving people a little bit crazy, particularly the actor who had to memorize it, because we just kept having to tweak it and change it, depending on where the shoe department was, and also what brands would clear, what products could we actually name. Sometimes, I have a Dr. Seuss-y, you know we had to back off from the brand names and I'd talk about cashmere instead of calling out another designer. So ,there was a bit of a dance literally and metaphorically around this, but it was all very fun.
Writer Allison Tatlock on the Better Call Saul set with director Michelle MacLaren Tatlock and MacLaren on the set of Better Call Saul.
We've been promised that Walt and Jesse will make an appearance this season, but in this episode, Gene mentions “a high school chemistry teacher,” which is perhaps is the most overt reference the show has made to Walter White to this point. How did you approach that line?
It felt like a big deal. That was pitched in the room so that was definitely part of the episode as broken. And I remember a stage direction in the script where I said something like,"Holy sh--! Did Gene just invoke Walter White?" just to underline the fact that we did think this was significant and that we were letting our viewers in on the fact that we know that we're heading towards the Breaking Bad years in our narrative, even though now we've jumped ahead.
When Jeff slips and knocks himself unconscious, Gene improvises and talks about being alone in his life. We in the audience know much of what he’s saying to be true. Do you think Gene is giving a performance or is he in some way, actually unburdening himself?
I think it's both. I think he is a master at using whatever tools are at his disposal to achieve his goals and sometimes those tools are a Cinnabon and sometimes it's whatever's going on inside his head or inside his gut. And we have seen him do it before as Jimmy. So, this was a very mindful choice that we made in the room, that he would use – in the con man sense of the word – the truth. He didn't have a plan ahead of time, so it is like a master improviser. It seems like that's part of his skill, his gift, such as it is, is to troubleshoot. So, he has to improvise and how does that work in someone's head when that happens? What is firing in his brain? It's almost impossible to know. I would imagine that he might not even know. It's just that is what came out. And then he could see it's working, so he rolls with it, and then, all of a sudden, he's telling a story and he's both feeling it and seeing that it's working.
At the end of the episode, in the afterglow of his success, Gene picks up some very Saul Goodman-esque clothes. Is he finally feeling like Saul again? And why do you think he ultimately walks away and doesn't give in to that impulse?
I think he absolutely is. He has felt the old Saul juju in times throughout the episode and it has made him long for the full deal, long for the truly confident showman with a pizzazz that he used to relish so much. But he knows it's dangerous. He knows that he's not quite ready and that, especially after having pulled off what he just pulled off, the last thing he should do is draw that much attention to himself. So, it's almost like a longing for a past lover. It's just this part of himself that he can't fully realize, he can't fully attain right now. But there it is for a moment of connection and then he forces himself to walk away. It's kind of wistful, that last moment.
Since this was your last script for the show, can you reflect on your overall experience about what Better Call Saul has meant to you?
This has been an incredible job. When I first met with Peter when I first interviewed for the job, I think I said to him that somebody once said to me when I was starting in television, “There are great shows and there are great jobs and, if you can work on one that is both, you've hit gold.” And this was both. It was a great job on a great show. And it was so fun to write. So ambitious and meticulous in its filmmaking. I learned so much about visual storytelling and how to use the medium of television in really creative ways. And I worked with the best people, just so smart and also generous, truly collaborative, hilarious. The final season we broke on Zoom. We were only in the room in person for two weeks before the shutdown and then we went to Zoom. It was a hard adjustment at first and somehow we were able to make the best of it and we really made each other laugh and we had fun and we struggled, as we do, but always having each other's backs. It might not get as good as this again and I'm aware of that. But I'm really proud of the show.
The final episodes of Better Call Saul air Mondays at 9/8c on AMC and AMC+. For more on this episode, read our Q&A with director Michelle MacLaren and for more on the entire final season, read our cast and creator Q&As here.