Better Call Saul viewers can be forgiven for assuming that AMC aired the wrong episode this week. “Nippy,” an episode-length trip into the black-and-white world of Gene Takovic from Cinnabon — a.k.a. the fugitive alias that Saul Goodman adopts after the events of Breaking Bad — is the sort of story that many BCS fans might have assumed would come at the very end of the series. Instead, it arrives with three hours of Saul to go.
Alison Tatlock, the veteran Saul writer who drew the assignment of getting Gene out of the mess he got into with Jeff — the cab driver who recognized him as Saul Goodman — is aware that the timing of “Nippy” may feel unexpected. But she insists that it “just felt pleasing” to the creative team, “and we hoped that even if it was surprising and perhaps maddening, that it would be pleasing to the audience as well.”
Tatlock spoke with Rolling Stone about all things Cinnabon Gene, and offered a few hints about what might be coming over the series’ final three installments.
You didn’t join the show until the fourth season. Before that, what did you think of the Gene flash-forwards that began every season?
I loved them. I was a fan, so I looked forward every season to seeing a snippet of what Gene was going to be up to. It was just so tantalizing to imagine we would eventually catch up to that mustachioed man and his black-and-white world and understand more about him. So I was definitely eager to go on that journey as a viewer, and then quite amazed that I ended up going on it as a writer.
Saul creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan have been very candid about their lack of long-term planning. When the Gene prologue from Season Four introduced Jeff, did anyone have any idea where that might be going?
We knew it would be trouble for Gene. We had some vague ideas that we kicked around about what might happen. The headline for us in the room at the time was, “We want this to have ripple effects for us down the line for a couple of seasons.” When we were casting the part, we were pretty sure — and you never know, because things change in the [writers] room — that the character would come back and be more important in future seasons, and beyond a guy looking in his rearview mirror in a taxi. So we kept that in mind when looking at actors.
In this case, you wound up casting Don Harvey, who then wasn’t available to come shoot this episode. Was there any discussion about abandoning the Jeff plotline to do something else?
There were various conversations about how to approach it. In the end, we put our characters into impossible situations that they have to solve, and in this case, we put ourselves into a tough situation that we had to solve. And we were so happy with Pat Healy’s performance as Jeff that in the end we did not feel it was a mistake or a tragedy at all.
This is the kind of episode I imagine many of us assumed would be the series finale. Without giving away what is coming in these final three episodes, can you offer any insight into why we got a full Gene episode now?
It’s kind of a paradox. It felt organic to us. We really try to allow the story to unfold and follow its lead, rather than planning too far ahead in any concrete way, even if we have vague notions of where it’s going. It felt like the right moment to jump ahead into Gene world, even though it defies expectations. And in a linear way, is definitely the wrong moment. In a storytelling way, it felt like a surprising way to unfurl into Gene world. It just felt right.
But why did it feel like right to do it now? Did you feel like the audience needed a break after Kim and Jimmy’s fight? Did you want to take a detour before fully getting into Saul Goodman world?
I like that you’re framing it in terms of us being so compassionate about the audience needing a break! We love our fans, and we’re so appreciative, but we also love to surprise and to defy expectations — if it makes sense, if it feels right. Not just for the sake of doing it. There was something delicious here about not going to what felt, in the trajectory of the season, like the logical next step, which would be more of Saul Goodman world, or one more beat of where we left off at the end of [last week’s episode], and instead to just take a sharp turn in a different direction. It just felt pleasing to us and we hoped that even if it was surprising and perhaps maddening, that it would be pleasing to the audience as well.
How did you figure out this would be the way Gene would neutralize Jeff?
Every episode is a group effort. We all figure it out together. I felt very fortunate and happy to be the writer of this particular episode. We knew that we wanted Gene to figure out how to empower himself and channel the moxie of Saul Goodman. And how can he do that when he’s undercover in his visor and doing everything that he can to be as small as possible? And we realized that he has to use the tools at his disposal. He’s in a mall, so he uses a mall. And how do you pull a scam in a mall? He has a particular genius for being resourceful in that way. He can use what’s in front of him, no matter how pedestrian it might seem, no matter how unglamorous, that he can take and twist to get what he wants.
When Gene has to stall after Jeff slips and falls on the waxed floor, he does the thing we’ve so often seen Jimmy do, and does a tearful monologue inspired by real events from his life. He seems more upset mentioning his brother’s death than he did right after Chuck died. Is he just putting on the crocodile tears for the security guard, or is there something real in his performance?
In that moment, we feel there’s a lot of truth. He just has this uncanny ability, under duress, at certain moments, to feel his feelings and admit to things that he’s never said out loud before, and also use those confessions and those emotions to get what he wants.
Peter has said that one of the early ideas in the show’s development was for Saul Goodman to be “sort of a Jerry Maguire for criminals” where he assembled and prepared teams for different capers. Did any of this episode come out of a desire to finally bring a version of that to life?
That is interesting! I can neither confirm nor deny. I will say that I don’t remember a moment in the room or a discussion where we said, “Oh, this will finally be that version that was discussed early on.” I can’t claim to know whether, subconsciously in the workings of Peter and Vince, that might not have been an itch that was fun to scratch for them.
The final scene of the episode has Gene at the store Jeff just robbed, pairing a shirt and tie that look like something he would have worn as Saul. He holds it up to himself in the mirror, but then leaves them hanging together on a rack, like he wants someone else to consider them together. Did pulling this con awaken something in him that he wants to return to, or was this one last hurrah for the man he used to be?
It could be interpreted either way. This might be a wait-and-see question. But to me, that moment of longing is almost a longing for a lost lover. I like how you say that he leaves it public for others to see. It’s almost like an actor leaving his costume behind, or even the ghost of something. He can’t fully own it.
Finally, I’m not sure what you can say about this. But if last week’s episode felt like the end of the story we’ve been watching for six seasons, and this felt like the epilogue, then what exactly should viewers expect from these remaining three episodes?
That is for sure, you’ll have to wait and see. And I hear what you’re saying. I feel and I also hope that there still are quite a few lingering questions of how this got to that and what came to be, and what became of certain key moments and players that we can hopefully address in the coming episodes.