If you haven’t been waiting for the return of Breaking Bad, something’s terribly wrong with your television. Time to shake up your TV schedule and drop a sitcom or two. After seven years of watching, do we even care anymore how that guy Ted met his kids’ mother? I think those kids don’t even have a mother. Ted’s been stringing them along because he doesn’t know how to break the news.
Break it bad, Ted, like our man Walter “Heisenberg” White, arguably one of the greatest studies in character development.
Arguably. Two episodes into season five, I’d like to offer a counterpoint: Dean Norris‘ character Hank. Yes, Walt will be studied as the gold standard in character development, but the label is influenced by his central role in the show. The protagonist has the advantage of screen time.
After Hank discovered Walt’s his suspect, I reconsidered my perspective on skillful character development. The writing gold on the show is the evolution and complexity of Hank.
He’s a good ol’ boy, smacking butts and cracking jokes about Hispanics to the Hispanics in his office. Minutes later, he struts into the elevator and when the doors shut, he has a panic attack.
Hank is not your average meathead.
Jesse is the show’s emotional core and, I once thought, its moral core as well. Wrong. Hank the Redneck is the moral center. Hank is the genuine deal, devoted to family, America, safe streets, God. He’s a brilliant strategist covered with macho and a few spots of Keystone Cops. He’s cocky and brave, but he can be – and is – shaken to his core. Just replay those episodes with the drug dealer’s head on the turtle.
It’s the writers’ job to lay groundwork for revealing character and prodding the evolution. But the actors have to make it believable. Norris can communicate a pool of conflicting emotions with a squint. (Don’t go crazy, Walt fans, Cranston is a master. No arguments.)
Breaking Bad writers initially teased the audience with Hank as the bumbling cop and then slowly added layer after layer. His transition rivals Walt.
In this last season, after closing the meth case, Hank discovered Walt is the real meth king. Hank could ride on the case’s closure. His superiors believe the culprit was found, and Hank got his promotion. Pursuing Walt will only tear his family apart – including the niece and nephew he loves so much. And it’ll end his career.
The writers give Hank this incredible dialogue, “Look, the day I go in with this,” he says to his wife, “it’s the last day of my career. I’m going to have to walk in there, look those people in the eye and admit that the person I’ve been chasing the last year is my own brother-in-law. It’s over for me. Ten seconds after I tell this story, I’m a civilian.”
Of course Hank’s going after Walt. Moral center, right?
Hank’s become the antagonist-hero. Walt’s become the protagonist-villan. And the writer-fan has always been the student.
Someday, I hope to write character, dialogue, setting – hell, any story that breaks bad like this one.