Every scriptwriter on “Better Call Saul” knows their number will come up twice each season. For Alison Tatlock, learning that she was in line to write one of the last episodes of the show’s sixth and final season brought back memories of her days as a film brat from Brookline.
As a teenager growing up with a single mother who was studying at Boston University’s film school, Tatlock was a punk-rock kid who worked at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. There she devoured the informal cinema studies of the late David Kleiler.
When she found out she’d be writing “Nippy,” the “Better Call Saul” episode that aired in late July, “I did feel a bit of a thrill,” Tatlock said last Monday, on the day of the AMC series’ penultimate episode. “Because it seemed special, weird, and potentially funny in a way that I really love to write.”
The 50-minute episode focused entirely on the title character’s humdrum exile in Omaha. As series creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan had already established, every flash-forward scene featuring Cinnabon manager Gene Takovic — Saul Goodman’s alias-in-hiding — is shot in black and white. For Tatlock, it felt like a throwback to all the classic black-and-white movies she watched in Kleiler’s living room and with her mother at BU, from “Dr. Strangelove” to “Sweet Smell of Success.”
“All of that film education got to come into play,” she says.
For fans of the show, the episode marked an extended look into lawyer Jimmy McGill’s attempt to go straight after the escalating schemes of his previous life in Albuquerque. (In New Mexico, clients know McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk, as Saul Goodman, the alter ego he uses in his sketchy law practice and TV ads: “It’s all good, man.”)
Tatlock joined the “Saul” team before the start of the fourth season. She was brought in to interview as a producer following her work on “Stranger Things” and “Halt and Catch Fire.”
“I was a fan,” she says. “I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity just to meet with Peter Gould to talk with him about the show.
“I’ve joked with him since that I did not think he was going to hire me until we were walking out of the interview and he stopped to show me the kitchen in the writers’ office.”
Saul’s Albuquerque is a long haul from Brookline. One of Tatlock’s good friends growing up was Kleiler’s son, David Jr.
“We went to high school together, and we were both in the Boston Children’s Theatre — quite a merry band of young misfits.”
The elder Kleiler, who was well-known for his weekly salon-style movie screenings at his home, “was like an uncle to me — very, very influential when it came to film,” she says. “I saw a lot of classic movies sitting in his house — ‘On the Waterfront,’ ‘Jules and Jim.’ For some reason I associate those years and him with ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’”
She studied literature and theater at Yale, went to grad school for acting at U.C. San Diego, and became a stage actor in New York City. After spending 10 years with a youth violence intervention organization called Street Poets (founded in Los Angeles by Boston native Chris Henrikson), Tatlock broke into television by writing several episodes of “In Treatment” for HBO. That gig came courtesy of her friend Anya Epstein — Theo’s sister — and Epstein’s husband, Dan Futterman.
“Better Call Saul,” a prequel to Gilligan’s masterpiece “Breaking Bad,” is chock full of the kind of symbolism that devotees scarf down like a mall cop takes to cinnamon buns. McGill, who loves old movies, drinks Rusty Nails. As Gene Takovic, he’s working his way through a battered paperback copy of David Niven’s Hollywood memoir, “The Moon’s a Balloon.”
“We try hard on the show not to lead with the symbolism,” Tatlock explains. “The thing itself falls into place, and then it can become infused with meaning. Rusty Nail is an evocative name for a drink, especially for a guy living the life Jimmy is living.”
The “Nippy” episode lays out McGill’s slow but steady relapse into his former life as a grifter. It’s named for a fictional dog McGill, posing as Takovic, claims to have lost, which is his way of endearing himself to Marion. Her son, Jeff, is a hapless loser whom Gene knows he can manipulate.
Playing the part of Marion is Carol Burnett.
“I remember the moment in the writers’ room when we started talking about the character and saying it was very important to us that she be independent, willful, smart, charming,” Tatlock says. “Gene would need to have an actual spark, a connection with her.”
The comedy legend’s name had come up in previous talks; the producers knew her to be a fan of the show. When someone suggested they reach out to offer her the part, Tatlock thought, “Oh, wow — please let it be so!’”
She went back and watched a slew of “The Carol Burnett Show” reruns.
“I appreciated them in such a different way as a middle-aged person,” she says. “Her physical comedy is just incredible, but it also has a lot of pathos to it. It is funny, but some of it is kind of dark, also.
“Bob [Odenkirk] has talked about this, too. Those old sketches really struck a chord with him and his siblings.”
As another TV landmark hurtles toward its conclusion, inviting the great Carol Burnett on board to deliver the final blow that sends McGill back to Albuquerque seems fitting. She uncovers his real identity by searching the Internet for the name of the city and “con man.” Gene’s friendship with his elderly friend is about to break very, very bad.
“It speaks to the kind of show we’ve created here,” Tatlock says. “You can have something that is very funny, but can then turn on a dime.”
She’s not at liberty to say anything about how the show will end, of course. In last Monday’s episode, the series’ second to last, Jimmy’s estranged wife and partner-in-crime, Kim Wexler, showed up in Albuquerque to sign her divorce papers, and then years later to try to clear her conscience. Will she appear in the finale?
Tatlock pleads the Fifth.
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.