Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 3

. . . which isn't about Walter.

One of the many glories of Breaking Bad, which no less a pop culture critic than Stephen King named the best show on TV in 2011, is that it's not a one-trick pony.  Mind you, the Walt/Jess dynamic is one heck of a trick in and of itself, but showrunner Vince Gilligan takes us far beyond that.  Breaking Bad contains very well-crafted, three-dimensional characters in supporting, secondary, and even tertiary roles and that, much like a man wearing an octopus for a hat, is something you just don't see every day.

So let's talk about Hank.

Hank Schrader (played by Dean Norris) is married to Marie.  Marie is Skyler White's sister, making Hank and Marie in-laws of Walter, so there's a family connection there.  The other connection Hank has with Walter is one Hank doesn't know about yet - Hank's the DEA agent in charge of Albuquerque's methamphetamine interdiction unit, so he's chasing ABQ's new kingpin of blue.  This can only lead to complications.

In lesser hands, Hank would be drawn either as a buffoon along the lines of Barney Fife, unable to track down what's right under his nose or as a bald Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser, complete with axe handle and swagger.  Gilligan doesn't take either of those easy roads, instead giving viewers a far more complex and human character.

Hank - let's face it - can be a jerk.  He's brash, loud, politically incorrect (but at least an equally opportunity insulter), and often someone who causes a certain degree of eye-rolling and deep sighing.  But he's also really, really good at what he does, which is to catch the bad guys without hurting the few remaining innocents in his world.  This is made clear in the first episode of the show.  A bust has been set up (for a house we're going to become familiar with) and everyone is just waiting for the signal from Hank to swoop in.  Hank's rarin' to go, but he carefully and deliberately holds off on giving the order until a school bus has passed by.  This tells us two things - one, that Hank has paid attention to the house long enough to establish the route of the bus and know just when it passes through the neighborhood.   This tells us that Hank is methodical and willing to wait in order to get things right.  And two, he won't compromise the safety of innocents to make his bust.  Getting the bad guys matters - quite a lot, in fact - but he's not going to have to explain third graders as collateral damage.

So when Heisenberg appears in ABQ with his pure-as-prairie-light meth, Hank takes his time.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone.  It's just a matter of time.  This is a fact that should scare Walt spitless, but Walt's tunnel vision has crippled his ability to see what's closing in from the sides.

But Hank is more than Super Cop.  Viewers learn that Hank is human, with all the sometimes messy human connections that most of us have.  He loves his wife (and Marie's got some qualities that strain that affection; I'll get into those in another post), is a surrogate father-figure to his teenage nephew, and he cares about Walt and Skyler.  He home-brews beer in his garage and he likes his life.  And he is not immune to anxiety and injury, although he tries mighty hard to bluff his way past all that bunk.  Hank feels deep bonds of loyalty to the men and women who work with him and to his family - Walt's actions have completely betrayed all of that and, by doing so, placed Hank and others in grave danger from serious Bad Guys (see, they're so bad, I have to capitalize!).

Hank will find this out - some things are inevitable and Walt makes some slips.  Hank's loyalty to his home life has kept him from asking too many questions (after all, this is his chemistry teaching brother-in-law, not some meth-making genius.  Only it is), but Hank's tenacity can't be distracted forever.  And when he does start running down those questions, loyalty to the two halves of his life (work and home) are going to be in direct conflict.  Which side will win out?  I'm betting on "work," but the window is still open for last-minute wagers.

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