‘Breaking Bad’ Character Study: Hank Schrader’s Undeniable Importance

Previously: Meet Skyler White

What I’ve come to appreciate and respect most about Breaking Bad is not only Gilligan & Co’s overall vision, but how hard they work to make sure their audience doesn’t sit around second guessing things like character motivations and believability as they proceed with laying out that vision. When your premise is “High school chemistry teacher whose brother-in-law is a DEA agent turns drug kingpin” things could spin wildly out of control with relative ease over five seasons if the writers start “Sutter-ing” storylines. Instead they lay motivation and mentality down early, often with the assistance of flashbacks, and delicately manage character arcs as to rarely ever jar their audience from suspended reality.

Take, for example, Walter White’s Gray Matter motivations. They were fleshed out early and often and are key to the series as a whole. If Walt isn’t constantly motivated by a lifetime of emasculation and that missed opportunity I don’t know that I could fully buy in to his S5 empire ambitions. The same groundwork was laid for Hank Schrader’s obliviousness towards his brother-in-law.

Hank Schrader the Brother-in-Law. Hank and Marie were equal parts of a weak supporting cast in season one, but even back then when they felt more like half-finished sketches than full-blown characters it was made abundantly clear that Hank thought of Walt as nothing more than his harmless bookworm of an in-law. Hank’s inability to separate the forest from the trees had to be hard-coded from the beginning. The whole story doesn’t work otherwise. We have to believe that Hank has it so ingrained in his consciousness that Walter White is a spineless family fan that of course he has a blind spot for suspecting that same person has transformed into a criminal mastermind. It would be silly for him to ever think otherwise, even with breadcrumbs lying around everywhere.

Hank Schrader the DEA Agent. But Hank can’t be a sh*tty cop either. Where’s the suspense if he continues to be the oafish dickhead we were introduced to in season one? For Breaking Bad to become the show we celebrate right now his character had to be a masterful juggling act of clown-ish family figure and seriously good DEA agent. That’s why the shootout with the twins and Hank’s resulting debilitating injury were a complete necessity. Had Hank continued to be *this close* to catching Walt for four seasons the risk of jarring the audience from suspended reality would have come into play once again, yet it was handled masterfully.

For more on that the conversation starting at 51:15 from Conan’s Gilligan and cast interview delves into the realization of how integral of a role Hank really plays.

Hank Schrader the Person. And that brings us to who Hank Schrader is at the core of his character. When you boil it down and compare him to all the other major players Hank is the only truly “good” person. Sure he started off as kind of a sh*thead, and sure he beat up Jesse in a fit of emotion, and sure he took out all of his frustrations on his wife during his recovery, but he’s the only primary character who hasn’t crossed the line into moral hazard at any point throughout the series (Walt Jr. doesn’t count). He’s the only one with a sparkling conscience.

I’ve been experiencing an interesting phenomenon during my re-watch building up to the final episodes and it’s why I wanted to write this. I’m almost to Season 5 (just in time for Netflix Streaming!) and I’ve been amazed by how — with full knowledge of what is to come — much more I appreciate what Gilligan & Co. were building with Hank. I never completely disliked him the first go round, but I would have certainly considered one of my least favorites as he was a bit of a buzzkill to the escapism of Walter White’s transformation.

The anticipation level is what it is leading up the final episodes in large part because of  the dichotomy Breaking Bad has molded between Walter White and Hank Schrader. While there was ambiguity galore at the beginning, now it is all so clear: Hank is very much the good guy and Walt is very much the monster. Which is why I can’t wait to re-watch this scene.

And not only because this is what I’ll be thinking about.

My god that gives me an immense amount of joy.