This Sunday, AMC’s Breaking Bad begins a final run of eight episodes, bringing the tale of Walter White to its inexorable conclusion. The show has become one of the great running masterpieces of the last half-decade of television, bringing the post-Sopranos model of anti-heroic TV drama to new critical highs (and terrifying new moral lows). What makes it even more impressive is that – in an era defined by ever-more-gigantic ensembles – Breaking Bad has unfurled its epic American tale with a relatively small cast of characters. While other shows opt for cast breadth, Bad has explored each character’s depth, sending them on fascinating byzantine journeys into the interior of their souls. This week, we’ll be taking a close look at all the show’s main characters and presenting a suggested viewing list for the five episodes that best define their arc. Today: Hank Schrader, Walter White’s alpha-male brother-in-law, who – as played by great character actor Dean Norris – has become the show’s moral compass.
“A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”: Hank was a tertiary character in Bad’s first season. Or, to be more honest: He was kind of a meathead. Introduced as a jocky law enforcement douchebag, he came off like the kind of successful doofus whose popularity would drive quiet, cerebral Walt crazy. Hank’s role as a DEA agent was mostly played for inadvertent laughs. But in the middle of the first season finale, Hank and Walt have a conversation which looks, retroactively, like the moment that defined their intriguing dichotomy. At Skyler’s baby shower, Hank proudly shares some Cuban cigars with Walt. That leads Walt into a conversation about drugs, and legality. Walt argues that the morality of drugs is arbitrary. Hank responds: “You ought to visit lockup. You hear a lot of guys talking like that.” At the time, Hank still looked like a bit of a simpleton, but as we’ve seen the two characters evolve, this looks like the moment when Hank began to assert moral authority over Walt.
“Negro Y Azul”: In season 2, the Breaking Bad writers decided to reveal that everything we thought we knew about Hank was wrong. After a shooting incident, he gradually started to come unglued, suffering from panic attacks. It gave Norris, who has played a legion of alpha-male law-enforcement types on film and TV, the ability to play all new dimensions of Hank’s character. That’s especially true of this episode, wherein Hank is promoted to the El Paso office and has to face a whole new brand of south-of-the-border villainy. The episode is remembered for a key setpiece involving a head, a tortoise, and a surprise bomb – one of the show’s grisliest, and most darkly funny, images. But the key moment is right before, when Hank – big, badass, goofball Hank – turns away from the terror looking like a scared little boy.
“One Minute”: The most Hank-centric episode in Bad history is also one of the show’s best. It begins when Hank, in a blinding fury, beats Jesse to within an inch of his life. He’s brought up on charges: His gun is taken away, and there’s a general sense that his career might be over. And Hank seems pretty okay with that. “I’m supposed to be better than this,” he says. “I think I’m done as a cop.” The episode shows Hank at his worst, but also at his best – telling the truth about beating up Jesse, even though it could cost him his job. And then it all ends with a sudden, vicious attack by The Cousins. An unarmed Hank somehow emerges triumphant, in a brutal, bloody scene. It’s a showcase episode for Norris, who plays Hank as a brutal thug, an emotionally-scarred everyman, and finally, a flat-out hero.
“Shotgun”: The unfortunate flip side to the brilliance of “One Minute” was that the ending took Hank out of commission for most of Bad’s third season – and for the first part of season 4, he was recovering in his house, obsessing over minerals and generally descending into a fit of post-shootout depression. “Shotgun” features one of the best Hank-Walt scenes in the show’s history, as Hank jokes with Walt about the departed Gale (not realizing that he’s talking to Heisenberg himself). This episode pivotally features the rebirth of Hank, as he reopens the Heisenberg case. It’s striking to see just how much Hank’s role in the show has shifted from the series premiere to this moment: Walking with a cane due to his injuries, modeling a smart suit and new thoughtful outlook on life, Hank looks more than ever like the lead investigator from an old-fashioned detective novel. Call him the Holmes of The Duke City.
“Gliding Over All”: Part of what makes Norris’ performance so great is how he has shaded in tremendous depths of sadness in a character who seemed, initially, to be incapable of anything more than fratty jocularity. That’s especially true in a key scene in last year’s midseason finale. Having just lost all his witnesses in a mass-murder scheme, Hank regales his brother-in-law with his memories of his very first job marking lumber. “Tagging trees is a lot better than chasing monsters,” he says. Coming from Norris, that line has the weight of years behind it – and it makes Hank such a striking contrast to Walt, a genuine monster in the empire business who has spent most of the show’s run tormenting Hank in one way or another. The episode also famously ended with Hank discovering the truth about his brother-in-law, setting the stage for a possible showdown between the two in the final episodes.