- Home /
- Breaking Bad as Literature
Breaking Bad as Literature
Everyone has an uncle like Hank Schrader: macho, corny, and seemingly indestructible.
Heck, Hank's probably the only thing close to a bona fide good guy the show's got. He's honest, courageous, really cares about his police work, and is the only man on Earth who could put up with Marie Schrader for any longer than 10 minutes.
But funnily enough, we viewers don't really want him to succeed—not for the first four seasons, anyway. That's part of the brilliance of any antihero narrative: Walt is such a successfully compelling bad guy that we don't want the good guys to win.
And Hank's got a dark side to him, too—it's not all about serving justice. His pursuit of Walt is wrapped up in a bunch of gnarly feelings and conflicting loyalties: revenge, pride, duties to his job and to Marie. He knows in Season 5 that going after Walt is going to tear the family apart and leave Walt Jr. with some major scars, but he does it anyway, even though Walt's cancer will probably get him before he faces trial.
In this lesson, we're going to think about all the stuff going on behind that wrinkly forehead of his—and you know what? We might find out that he's a lot badder than we thought.
Good Cop Bad Cop
Before we climb into Hank's shiny dome, check out this excellent interview with Dean Norris, the actor who plays him.
Norris makes what we think is one super-revealing comment about Hank's motivations: "Walt is his white whale." This is a reference, of course, to Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, the obsessive, peg-legged boat captain who will stop at nothing to kill the white whale Moby-Dick. And—spoiler alert!—he ends up getting almost everyone on the boat killed, including himself.
So, for Hank to nab his Walter White Whale, he might end up putting everyone underwater.
I Am The One Who Narcs
In Shmoop's humble opinion, there are three key things to understand about Hank's motives, and they all involve the ways in which Hank is actually kind of like Walt.
On with the show:
Power. The writer Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
Pretty much everyone agrees that Walter White gets corrupted after he gets a little snootful of power, and the same goes for just about every other kingpin on Breaking Bad: Tuco, Tio, Fring, Don Eladio.
But let's not forget that, over the course of five seasons, Hank rises to power, too—from a door-busting narcotics officer, to a promotion in El Paso, to a big-cheese ASAC (Assistant Special Agent in Charge) desk job. And unlike Jesse, who only becomes more unstable as Walt becomes more confident, Hank's development over the course of the series actually mirrors Walt's in lots of ways:
- He and his wife keep secrets from one another: Hank hides his panic attacks and his work from Marie, and Marie hides her kleptomania from Hank.
- He and Walt both undergo extensive health treatments at hospitals (physical therapy and chemotherapy, respectively).
- He's willing to coldly manipulate and endanger people to achieve his goals, particularly Jesse. In "Rabid Dog" (Season 5, Episode 12), when Gomez asks Hank whether Jesse might be in harm's way when he meets Walt, Hank replies, "The junkie murderer who's dribbling all over my guest bathroom floor? If he's right, Pinkman gets killed, and we get it all on tape."
- He even has his own "lab" for cooking up intoxicants: his Schraderbrau.
So does power corrupt Hank? Maybe, but it's probably more accurate to say that it makes him more extreme—it drives him to accomplish great, heroic deeds, but his means get shadier and shadier. As Abe Lincoln said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
Escaping responsibility. "With great power comes great responsibility," a wise man once said (to his nephew Spiderman).
One of Hank's most virtuous and defining qualities is his dedication; he always gets his man, even when it's his brother-in-law. He wants to take care of things, and he doesn't want help, only control. And people are only too happy to lay huge responsibilities on his beefy shoulders: Marie acts out for his attention, and his bosses and co-workers are always putting him on the wrong track.
But it's not something he shrugs off easily. Hank is a tank: powerful, but also heavily armored. First of all, why do you think he acts so cocky all the time? He uses dirty jokes, casual half-joking racism, and beer to shield himself from his reality. When we see Hank make crass jokes about Shania Twain and call Mexican people "beaners," it's sort of a diversion tactic: he gets a rise out of people to keep them from worrying about him, and probably to get them to lower their expectations of him, too.
And he retreats into the man-cave in his garage to indulge in his hobbies: beer brewing, fantasy football, and mineral collecting (his bocks, jocks, and rocks, hur-hur). Even though we don't see a whole lot of his and Marie's home life, it says a lot about how he feels at home; he needs a space to control things, whether it's the categorization of his minerals or the lineup of his fantasy league. It's also significant that that's where he goes to build his case against Walt, and the place where he first encounters Walt after making the connection to Heisenberg in "Blood Money" (Season 5, Episode 9).
That's why it's so devastating to him to be temporarily paralyzed in Season 3—he goes from being the rock of the family to becoming almost helpless. He rages at himself, and when Marie tries to encourage him for his physical therapy progress, he won't accept any consolation.
And isn't all that a lot like Walt? After all, Walt starts off as a weak, paralyzed man in a desperate situation; and when he breaks bad, he's shrugging off all the social responsibilities that his family has given him. And abandoning those responsibilities gives him a sense of self-worth.
Which also ties into our third item in the Hank Files…
Pride. Here's another parallel between Walt and Hank (and Captain Ahab, for that matter): they're hugely prideful men. As Norris says, "The thing about Hank is that he has his own hubris" (aha—that word!). And that means Hank is prone to flying off the handle when he's insulted, he beats himself up for their own shortcomings, and he always gets revenge.
The clearest case of all three of these is when he pulverizes Jesse's face in "One Minute" (Season 3, Episode 7). A lot of his anger comes from being taunted, rather than fearing for his family's safety. "What I did to Pinkman, that's not who I'm supposed to be," he later confesses to Marie. "I'm not the man I thought I was."
Then there's the major dilemma that begins in "Blood Money" (Season 5, Episode 9), after he learns that Walt is Heisenberg: he doesn't go to the DEA with the information. Why not?
Once again, Dean Norris has got it:
In the way that Walt couldn't let somebody else take credit for the blue meth, and it kept Hank on his trail, Hank too feels he's the guy who has to bring Heisenberg down. And I think it's a legitimate concern: if he goes to the DEA he might lose his job—and then he wouldn't be able to get Walt. He needs to do that for his own soul.
In the end, though, Hank's pride and stubbornness give him a final moment of dignity—even though he's executed by Uncle Jack in "Ozymandias" (Season 5, Episode 14), he gets a tiny shred of defiant victory over Walt, knowing that he arrested him "dead to rights," and refusing Walt's pleas to beg for his life.
When Uncle Jack calls Hank "Fed," and Walt corrects him by saying, "His name is Hank," Hank gets the last word: "My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f**k yourself." Just like Walt needs to be called "Heisenberg," Hank insists on going by the professional name that gives his life meaning.Go to Lesson: Mike Check