When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer: Gale Boetticher As Alternate-Universe Walt

[12 August 2013]

By Jonathan Sanders

Few characters in the history of television have arrived as fully and oddly formed as Gale Boetticher did during Breaking Bad‘s Third Season. The self-proclaimed libertarian chemist—a specialist in X-ray crystallography—was Gustavo Fring’s chemist-in-waiting, inadvertently recruiting his own murderer against Fring’s better judgment, all over a three-percent difference in purity. “Consenting adults want what they want,” he later tells Walt. “At least with me they’re getting exactly what they pay for.”

With Gale, we the viewers get more than we bargain for, a character who spends little time on our screens but who makes an incredible impact on the show itself in the moments he does. We learn moments after meeting him that he’s turned his chemical eye to the creation of the world’s most purely brewed coffee. He stuns Walter with a perfect recitation of Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer”, admitting his nerd-status in the process. And, as the show progressed even beyond the man’s eventual murder, there still proved to be no limit to how deeply Boetticher impacted the world of Breaking Bad or the potential fate of Walter White. In recruiting Walter to mentor him in the art of crystal blue persuasion, he may well have also crafted the bonds which would lead to Walter’s demise.

It helps that the man playing him, David Costabile, is as he puts it “a total, insane, Breaking Bad fan, as he would tell BuzzFeed. Arriving already with an understanding of the show’s dark twisted tone and love for critical eye toward detail, Costabile, already a veteran of “character roles” on television, was open to doing whatever director Vince Gilligan had in mind. Two episodes into his run, when Walt desperately lies accusing Gale of cutting corners when really he simply wants Jesse back in the lab—to prevent Jesse from spilling the beans to the DEA as fallout from the whole Schrader beat-down affair—we fear we may never see him again.

But his return heralds the reveal that Gus is grooming Gale to take over for Walt when (not if) Walt proves too unstable to keep on the payroll. And in “Box Cutter” when we’re shown that it was Gale who, over a three-percent difference in purity (“you may not think that three percent matters, but it does”) convinces Gus to hire Walt in the first place, we’re given a deeper understanding of the protege’s insecurity.

Gale, as much a genius as Walt in his own way, proves to be the very person Gus wants in the first place, a man who can be calm, cool and simply get the job done without fueling or falling victim to outside drama. We see, however, that it is more than that. Gus is Walt. Or rather, who Walt claimed he wanted to be back in the pilot episode when he chose methamphetamine manufacture as a way to provide for his family.

Gus loves the chemistry, and he doesn’t see himself as a drug dealer. He’s a manufacturer who makes sure the buyer gets what he wants, but we see no hint that he ever wants to be more than just the lab tech who uses his gains to be a man of many interests. Those few moments we see Gale in his own apartment in “Full Measure” showcase who he is in 90 seconds better than anyone could have on the page.

As he sings early 20th century Italian patter songs and waters his plants, we see pictures of him as a mountain climber (Everest, perhaps?) amid his art collection, his potato-powered alarm clock, and his copy of Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual. He even measures the temperature of his boiling water for tea with an infrared thermometer, for Christ’s sake! This is a man who loves living life much more than he loves the world of meth. As far as he’s concerned, his work is done when the batch goes to Fring. What more would he need? That’s just a job. This is his life.

Walt, on the other hand, loves power. Power which he never had as a lowly schoolteacher, and which he feels has been stolen from him along with that work toward the eventual Nobel Prize in which he shared only researcher credit. Being able to avenge Jesse’s beat-down at the hands of Tuco by illustrating the many uses of fulminated mercury, Walter was able to become this “Heisenberg,” the uncertainty principle made manifest. From there it was a matter of seeking more and more power.

Rather than working “for” a Tuco, he’d choose to become one.

In that regard, we can look at Gale Boetticher as an alternate-universe manifestation of Walter the Scientist, which explains why he looks up to Walt so much in the few scenes the two men share. Of course the feeling is never mutual. It is telling that, when Walt hears Gale described by Hank as “a genius” it cuts Walt so deeply he must then drunkenly declare that Gale only copied someone else’s work, that the “master chemist” is obviously still out there, even as he (and a shocked Skyler) know this very knowledge risks Walt’s eventual comeuppance.

Gale never risked being discovered for what he’d done. He was the man Gus wanted in the first place, someone who wouldn’t call attention to himself, who simply wanted to do a job and be well paid for it. In turn, Gale could showcase his love of science by making a product so pure it would eliminate the need for bastardized “biker” meth, giving customers the pure high they’d never even known they were looking for.

Yet for all that, Gale never trusted himself.

He didn’t feel his “hard-fought-for” 96% purity was good enough once he’d examined Walt’s product. Even after being fired by Walter for no reason whatsoever, he still came back at Gus’ demand and longed only to learn to make meth in its purest form. When it dawns on him that Gus aims to have Walt killed, he can’t bear it, even as he brings brief suspicion on himself by suggesting he might need three or four more cooks with Walt to learn everything. It never dawns on him that the man he regards as his mentor would be perfectly willing to have him murdered if it meant protecting the power he’d built within the drug world.

He never could tell that his own “learn’d astronomer” only looked out for himself. Having lived his life soaking in the mystical beauty of the world at large, Gale cared nothing for the power men like Walt crave. Yet that alone may prove enough to bring Walter down, as swiftly as the look in Hank’s eyes upon seeing that inscription: “To my other W.W., G.B.”

We meanwhile are left to wonder whether, as Vince Gilligan has argued in the past, everything herein is the result of choices, good or evil. In the universe of Breaking Bad, Walter is the manifestation of the cancerous decay evil choices manifest within a man. Gale, meanwhile, serves as a catalyst in that reaction, consumed himself by the choices others made yet powerless to stop the eventual destructive chain reaction.

As the book on Gale’s shelf so aptly proclaimed, everything’s eventual.

Jonathan Sanders writes from Tell City, Indiana, where he lives with his wife Aimee. A 2008 graduate of Ball State's Journalism school with degrees in Magazine Writing / Design and History, Sanders has written extensively for Stereo Subversion, among other online publications. He currently edits "Hear! Hear!", a pop-music centered online blog, and writes for PopMatters and Pajamas Media. He has a voracious appetite for new music, and bristles at the thought that some still believe good music died with [insert band name here.]


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/174328-when-i-heard-the-learnd-astronomer-gale-as-alternate-universe-walt/