Circling Back is where GQ revisits the little things about the big things in pop culture.
Three seasons into its run, the Breaking Bad universe made room for yet another unforgettable character in the form of true “nerd’s nerd” (as Hank Schrader dubbed him) Gale Boetticher. The coffee-loving chemist appeared in just seven episodes, yet his impact on the show’s trajectory was major. “Gale leaves a big footprint,” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan says of the character, who is played with sweet, salt-of-the-earth wonderment by Billions star David Costabile.
Boetticher is the protégé of Gus Fring, Giancarlo Esposito’s fast-food chicken/meth kingpin, brought in to replace Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) lab assistant. Gale is everything Walt has ever wanted in a partner: a fellow scientist who understands the importance of precision and who bows at the feet of the great Heisenberg. It’s a character Costabile connected with immediately.
“It’s rare when you let yourself really, really want something,” Costabile says of the role. “I was already a fan of Breaking Bad… And I was like, oh my God, I’ve got to get on. I’ve got to play this character, because I know him. I know that I’m right.”
Gale’s doting manner was a perfect complement to Walt’s seething desire to have his brilliance recognized and regularly remarked upon… until Walt realized that his similarities to Gale made the enamored apprentice a major threat to his no-longer-so-singular talents. He quickly hatched a plan to literally eliminate the competition, and roped a tortured Jesse into making Gale go bye-bye.
Fortunately, Gale’s death in the season 3 finale wasn’t the last audiences saw of the character. In a moment of accidental brilliance, based mainly on the selfish desire to have Costabile back on set, Gilligan and his team came up with a way to push Walter’s story forward while revisiting Gale’s eccentricities—by sticking him in a karaoke booth in Thailand and having him sing “Major Tom (Coming Home),” a 1983 homage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” by the German singer Peter Schilling.
GQ spoke with Gilligan and Costabile to retrace the steps that led to the all-time greatest karaoke video made by a fictional vegan meth manufacturer.
Though Gale Boetticher could be considered a minor character in Breaking Bad, consider this: If it weren’t for Gale, Walter might never have realized he was disposable to Gus Fring or been able to convince Jesse to commit his first murder, which left him with crippling guilt. And had Walter been content to let his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) believe that Boetticher was the meth mastermind the DEA had been searching for, Walt could’ve walked away from “the empire business” relatively scot-free (and a whole lot richer). But Walt’s hubris wouldn’t allow another person to take credit for the superior substance he created.
Vince Gilligan (creator, executive producer, writer, director): Gale Boetticher is designed and constructed to be the opposite of Jesse Pinkman in every way. Jesse is a street-smart kid who failed chemistry class, and Gale is a very smart, educated guy who loves science. He’s a guy who sings showtunes as he makes his special tea and drinks crème de menthe. He is everything that Jesse is not.
David Costabile (actor, Gale Boetticher): When you work with great writers like those on Breaking Bad, it’s a danger that you try to embroider on their already fascinating and interesting tapestry. So rather than imposing an idea that you have on it, you’re actually finding it organically. You’re trying to discover each part of who this person is and how they’re going through the world…
I would rather go from what you know for certain, and then see what the step prior to that was to get there. Even when Gale is introduced, the idea about the coffee: How do you get from the coffee to having memorized Whitman poems? What was it like when he decided to memorize that poem, because he chose to remember it…
Similarly, what does it look like when he’s learning a song? He’s really into tunes, and he sings that weird, Neapolitan-dialect song from the ‘40s, and you’re just like: What the fuck is that?
Gilligan: Gale was not in many episodes, but he left a big imprint on the show. And that’s due to David Costabile being such a wonderful, unforgettable actor. But when we came up with this character, we weren’t thinking ahead to how his notebook would get Walt busted. That came somewhat later, after we saw the first dailies of David and thought, “Wow, this guy’s great.”
Costabile: I knew exactly who Gale was. It was like a mind-body-spirit thing. So I auditioned for it, and then didn’t get it for a while. I feel like they were looking for anybody but me, and then their hand was forced, and they had to choose me.
Gilligan: Sam Catlin, one of our writers, was a friend of David’s, and when it came time to cast this character, he said, “What about my friend Dave Costabile?” And our casting folks seconded the idea very heartily. They knew his work and thought he was brilliant. It’s interesting because David so often plays a bad guy, but in real life he’s so sweet. He’s not Gale Boetticher, but he is certainly closer to Gale than he is to a hardened killer, like he often plays.
“Full Measure,” Breaking Bad’s season 3 finale in which Gale meets his tragic end, was both written and directed by Gilligan. While it marked a major turning point in the series for many of its key characters, it came at a cost: losing Costabile. It’s a tradeoff that Gilligan clearly struggled with… until the Breaking Bad team figured out a way to bring the actor back.
Gilligan: When it came time to pass along this information from Hank Schrader?to Walter White, post-Gale’s murder, we thought, “What would be the funniest way he could [do that]?” We could have a scene where Hank could just say to Walt, “You know, there was this guy named Gale Boetticher and we found him dead. He was shot through the eye.” But we work in moving pictures, and it just seemed so much more fun to have some video fragment of this character. And honestly? We were looking for an excuse to have David on the show one more time.
That video fragment turned out to be a clip of Gale on vacation in Thailand, presumably traveling solo, where he made time to visit a karaoke club and record a video of himself singing Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” while decked out in clichéd tourist gear (pocket-filled vest, fanny pack, and purple bandana included). It wasn’t Costabile’s first time busting out a tune on the series.
Costabile: I don’t think it’s meant to be this way, but it turned out that there was always a little sinister edge to how little time I had to prepare a tune. So every tune, from “Crapa Pelada” on Breaking Bad to when I went back on Better Call Saul and did the periodic table, I had a shockingly short amount of time to prepare.
Gilligan: Like all the ideas in Breaking Bad, it just sprang up organically in the writers’ room. It could’ve been anybody’s because we had a real Murderers’ Row of brilliant writers in that room. But that was probably a particularly fun day when [the karaoke idea] came up because Gale, being everything that Jesse was not, was curious about the world. He loved learning and adventure, so we came upon the idea that he has probably traveled the world. He has probably backpacked around, and certainly backpacked around Asia. That concept begat the idea of this being a video from a karaoke booth in Thailand.
The scenario of a randomly inserted karaoke video was a surprisingly familiar concept to Costabile, who had previously starred on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. In that series’ season 2 episode “Prime Minister,” co-creator Bret McKenzie performed a nonsensical love song, “Oh, Dance, Baby” in Korean as a karaoke video.
Gilligan: To give credit where credit is due, once we came up with the idea of karaoke, we were probably inspired by an episode of Flight of the Conchords where Bret sings in a Korean karaoke setting. We had the idea of Gale doing karaoke before I saw that, but I think that put me over the top in terms of, “Hey… it’d be fun to have the subtitles reading in another language,” and we settled on Thai.
Costabile: One of the things about the show was that every single artistic department—costumes, set decoration, props, music direction, the choice of the kind of music that we did—was just flawless. I’m just talking as a fan of the show. You’d watch, and you’d be like, “That’s just awesome.”
Gilligan: The original song we were looking at was “Breakfast in America” by Supertramp. We loved that idea, but Thomas Golubi?, our music supervisor, looked into it and it was way too expensive for our budget. Then the idea of “Orinoco?Flow” by Enya came up, but apparently Enya or her people were not interested. But when that idea for Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” arose, we all looked at each other and said that would be great.
Costabile: They were just like, “Alright, be out here in a week” or something, so I was just madly listening to the song. Walking down the street, getting on the subway, I’m just singing the song over and over. People definitely look at you very oddly when you’re standing around singing that particular tune.
Gilligan: Thomas Golubi?, in addition to securing the rights to “Major Tom”—which was very likely his idea as a song—found someone to translate the song into Thai. So we put those in the subtitles.
Costabile: I had to cram and cram and cram and cram and cram. Because in addition to knowing the tune, it has to look effortlessly easy—like this is a song you know by heart, and you never have to think about it, and that tune is incredibly long. And at that point, everybody knew me. So, when I filmed it, the entire crew stood around and watched me look at a tennis ball and pretend I’m watching it on a karaoke machine. So I’m trying to make them laugh, and they’re just telling me to keep it going—don’t stop.
Gilligan: The episode was directed by Colin Bucksey, an excellent director who directed some wonderful episodes for us, including the one where Walt watches Jane die; Colin directed that, and I was lucky enough to be on the set that day, too, and that was absolutely electrifying. But this was another great day where I just happened to be there and remember watching them shoot this three or four times, and just having to hold in my laughter every time for f four-and-a-half minutes straight. And it was really because David, God bless him, he just went for it. He really embodied that character.
Costabile: You’ve got to go for it. And Gale was definitely going to go for it, wherever he was.
Gilligan: All we needed was a tiny snippet of this video. But we did the full video because, why not? Because David already was coming to Albuquerque to do this thing, and we thought, yeah, wouldn’t it be great? It’s four-and-a-half minutes long, so it’s not something we can put in the show, but can we use it somewhere else? Because we love our audience and they deserve this little treat.
Costabile: Every take, I did the entire song and I was like, ‘You guys aren’t going to use this whole song. You want me to sing?’ They’re like, “Yeah, yeah. It’s great, keep going.” I think there was a delight in torturing me about that particular tune.
Gilligan: I’ve watched friends of mine sing karaoke. I think I’d rather saw off my pinky finger than to sing karaoke because I’d be so terrible at it. I’d be so self-conscious, and I can’t sing. I hate asking people to do things I wouldn’t do, but that’s something I wouldn’t do. It would be terribly humiliating.
Costabile: When they put the fanny pack on, I was like, right, now I know. Now I know all of it. I think it might’ve been Vince at the last minute who was like, “Yeah, put the bandana around his neck.” It’s so brutal. But when you’re able to really be that attentive to what you’re given, it informs it on a much more interesting level than what you can create, because it’s present. It’s happening to you. You’ve got the fanny pack. You’ve got to own that fanny pack.
You saw the fanny pack in the store, you bought the fanny pack, you wore the fanny pack. You’ve worn it multiple times in your life. You believe in the fanny pack. So, on some level, do you need more than that? Like, if you need more than that, I’m like, come on, dude. You just gave me the whole thing.
Gilligan: Diane Mercer, our post-producer, was in charge of all of the post-production on Breaking Bad and now on Better Call Saul. One of the funniest things to me about the video, once you get past David’s outstanding performance, is this crazy crap going on in the background. All this crazy footage from the TV show Quark and there’s some of Salvage 1, an old Andy Griffith show from the ‘70s. And then wild horses and all this stuff. Diane and her crew put together that background video.
Costabile: It was ultimately incredible to be invited back just to do it one last time, and to find that guy, because I loved that character so much. It was so sad dying—not only because I had to find a job, but because you’re just like, man, this was going along so well.
Gilligan: It was a bit of lark. It was born of the fact that we love David and we love Gale and we wanted one more legitimate, organic reason to get him on the show. Because, as I said, it would’ve been much cheaper and easier on all of us if we had just had Hank say, “Yeah, there was this guy Gale Boetticher and he had a notebook, and he’s got all kinds of secret information in it.”
David showed up ready to play. He was game, and—God bless him—he did the whole thing.
Costabile: I haven’t seen the episode in a while, but at one point I finished and just collapsed. The elevation in Albuquerque is really high, so you’re way out of breath. And by the end, I was like, ‘I can’t breathe, I can barely do this.’ I was not lying. Because they’re like, “Dance! Really dance!” And I’m just like, shit. I’m a middle-aged man. It’s exhausting. It’s an eternal song to dance that much. My God. I couldn’t do it if I had to do it again. No way.