Great TV

09.01.13

Dean Norris Deconstructs “Breaking Bad’s” Hank Schrader

Dean Norris, who plays the DEA agent on AMC’s gripping series, talks to Andrew Romano about his character, Sunday’s big plot twist, and the show’s coming conclusion.

Another Sunday, another nail-biting episode of Breaking Bad.

(WARNING: This story contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the Sept. 1 episode yet, stop reading now!)

When last week’s installment, “Confessions,” ended, it seemed as if Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was about to incinerate Walter White’s house. And Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who was devastated by the devious confession video that Walt (Bryan Cranston) slid to him across the table of a local Mexican restaurant, seemed about to give up.

Not so much, it turns out. In this Sunday’s episode, “Rabid Dog,” Hank is right back on the case. First, he catches Jesse pouring gasoline on the Whites’ carpet. Then he extracts a videotaped confession from the troubled young meth cook. Then he convinces the kid to wear a wire to a meeting with Walt. By the end of the episode—after Jesse, who’s convinced that Walt is plotting to kill him, bails on the rendezvous—Schrader and Pinkman are cruising through Albuquerque in Hank’s cop car and hatching a new plan to nab Heisenberg. They are, in other words, a team—an improbable (but, come to think of it, inevitable) team.

To help process the latest twists and turns in a series with no shortage of them, I gave Dean Norris—a.k.a. Hank Schrader himself—a call. Norris was gracious enough to tell me what Hank was actually thinking when he watched Walt’s confession video, why Jesse and Hank’s new partnership makes perfect emotional sense—and to hint at where Breaking Bad is heading next.

“Hank wants to be the guy who fights injustice,” Norris explained. “And I think [creator] Vince [Gilligan] does, too. That’s part of Vince’s character. That there’s some sort of, you know, karmic justice in the world, and Hank represents that force. He’s not going to let Walt get away with what he’s done.”

Was Norris suggesting that Hank will come out on top—that he'll wind up defeating Walt? He wouldn’t elaborate. But when I asked for one word to describe how Breaking Bad would end, Norris chose carefully.

“Properly,” he said. Make of that what you will.

Edited excerpts from our conversation:

THE DAILY BEAST: Last week I criticized Walt’s confession video, and I got into some trouble with my fellow fans. My take was that it seemed like more of a clever plot twist than something that stemmed from character—yours in particular. I don’t think Hank would’ve felt like he was in such a corner—that the video was “the last nail in our coffin,” as he put it. But you’ve clearly thought about this more than I have. Tell me why I’m wrong.

DEAN NORRIS: The thing about Hank is that he has his own hubris. 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.

“Hank’s not going to let Walt get away with what he’s done.”

The so-called confession complicates his predicament. I don’t think Hank feels that he would get in trouble. But he knows the video would confuse matters such that it would keep him off the case--and that more than likely Walt would die before he got the chance to prosecute him.

So that’s what was going through Hank’s head when he sees the video—maybe less that he could get in trouble, or that the DEA would believe he was Heisenberg, and more that if he shows it to anyone the whole case would get snared up in red tape and he be able to finish the job?

Right. Exactly. There was actually a line to that effect in that episode initially.

What was the line?

I think Hank said to Marie at one point, “I want to be the guy who brings him in.” When Hank comes home and has a little sip of the Knob Creek--it was in that scene. Hank just can’t give up the ghost. Walt is his white whale. He wants to nail him.

And he prefers to go rogue at this point.

Right. And here’s the other thing: throughout the series, Hank has gone to the DEA and they’ve never believed him. About Gus Fring, about everybody else. And he’s always been right. So at this point he’s like, “Fuck it. I’ll do it myself. I’ll get Walter.”

Let’s talk about Sunday’s episode. We find out pretty quickly that Hank was following Jesse. How did we go from Hank saying the video was the “last nail in our coffin” to Hank catching Jesse in the act of trying to burn down Walt’s house? Was following Jesse part of Hank’s plan? Or was he just acting out of desperation?

Hank has been on the rogue case. No question about it. He’s been following Walter White. The GPS led to the garage scene. And he’s been following Jesse Pinkman as well.

Last Sunday, Hank was just reacting to the truth of that DVD--that he’s fucked in terms of DEA help. That was clearly the most despondent he’s been about this whole thing. But he picks himself up off the ground when he realizes Jesse is over at the Whites’ house. “That’s gotta be something.” And once again, before being completely knocked out, Hank gets one last chance to beat Heisenberg.

What can you tell us about Jesse’s plan to “burn Walt to the ground?” At the end of the episode he and Hank are riding around together like partners. Is Hank onboard? He seems increasingly willing to work outside the law to catch Walt.

That’s true. That’s part of what’s happening with him. As Hank’s desperation rises, he realizes that for better or for worse he has to work with Jesse.

And that’s a smart thing about Hank, by the way. He’s not going to say no just because. Instead he says, “OK, this kid knows what’s going on. He’s got a plan. I’m going to listen to him.” What else is Hank going to do? Jesse is his key to getting Walt. And that’s so important to Hank that he’s willing to listen to this junkie kid to do it. Hank is smart enough, and desperate enough, and egoless enough--at this point Hank has no ego left; whatever it takes to get Walt--that he’s willing to check it out.

Is Hank beginning to respect Jesse more?

I think he is. And that started, just barely, during the interrogation scene in episode three. As he starts to comprehend the monstrosity that is Walter White, Hank realizes that Walt has just beat this kid up emotionally. He sees that Jesse was betrayed.

It’s almost as if Hank sees he and Jesse as being the same in some way, even though they’re so different. They’ve both been hurt by Walter White.

That is exactly the thing that allows Hank to cut Jesse some slack. He realizes this kid has been manipulated and burned by Walt, and Hank has just felt that himself.

Also, Hank realizes how much he himself has been motivated by that betrayal, and he’s hoping that the same sense of betrayal will motivate Jesse. He’s hoping that Jesse hates Walt so much now that the kid will be on his side for good.

When you read the pilot, what was your first impression of Hank ? How would you have described him at that point?

My first impression was the same as a lot of people’s. I saw him as part of the comic relief of the show—and they kind of needed it in the beginning, before Saul Goodman appeared. And Hank was written that way. To be a blowhard—a boisterous guy. A douchebag, really. In the audition for the pilot, Hank was even more racist. More jokes about Mexicans. More over-the-top.

Over the course of the show, though, my impression of Hank has changed almost as much as my impression of Walt has. He seems much more vulnerable now—much more three-dimensional than the macho bulldog we first met in Season 1. Has your conception of the character changed, too?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. That started in Season 2, when Hank shoots Tuco. Then about four episodes later he has this panic attack. But it’s not until Season 3 where you see the repercussions—where he ends up on the bed with his wife and he says, “I’m just not the man I thought I was. I don’t think I can do this anymore.” Once he almost gets his head cut off, that’s it. I think that’s a life-changing event. [Laughs]

Why do you think Vince and the rest of the writing team decided to deepen Hank’s character so much? Was it a surprise to you?

These things kind of happen over time. Vince has said that as we got to know each other, he got more comfortable going in that direction. But I’ve often wondered why. It’s almost like I needed to re-audition. [Laughs]

Do you think Hank is the hero of the show?

I think he wants to be. He’s the only one who hasn’t compromised himself. Even Jesse, who is in many ways the heart of the show--he’s still a compromised character. He committed murder. But Hank is the one guy who has had the opportunity to compromise himself--he certainly could have lied about beating up Jesse, saved himself a lot of hassle, saved himself from getting his head almost cut off--and he didn’t. Because he wants to have a clean soul. That’s where he is now. He wants to be the guy who fights injustice.

And I think Vince does, too. That’s part of Vince’s character. That there’s some sort of, you know, karmic justice in the world, and Hank represents that force. He’s not going to let Walt get away with what he’s done.

But then--and this is what’s so brilliant about Breaking Bad—Hank also says in Sunday’s episode that he’s willing to let Jesse die to get Walt. There’s always that grey area in every character. That complexity. Hank is not all “white knight.”

Right. I think that’s the first time in five seasons that you see that from Hank. It reflects the desperation he’s feeling now. It’s all in that one little line; you don’t see a whole lot of it other than that.

What were you feeling when you shot the scene?

When I played it, in my mind the line was… Hank was putting up a little bit of a front. I don’t think Hank felt completely comfortable saying he would let Jesse die. His “so be it” attitude was kind of a macho thing—for his partner’s benefit. Hank was kind of sad that he had go there.

Is that kind of complexity and desperation something we can expect from Hank as the season progresses toward the finale?

A little bit. But Hank is still the guy who wants to do good police work. He’s not going to go plant a gun on Walt. He’s not going to lie or fake the case--which another agent could be desperate enough to do. 

It’s the end of the first half of season five. Hank’s on the toilet. Did he figure out all at once that Walt was Heisenberg, or do you think that he had an inkling earlier?

I don’t think Hank knew. I think that’s the whole conceit of the show, and it’s one that I buy into. I’m the one who looks at the character. Hank wasn’t stupid, so he got close. He figured out the whole elaborate Gus Fring thing. He got the Jesse Pinkman stuff. But it was just so implausible that the Walter White Hank knew could ever possibly be this Heisenberg guy. And that’s a central point of the whole show: it’s the guy next door who commits a mass murder, and the neighbors always go, “He was such a nice guy. He was quiet.”

So I don’t think it was failing of Hank Schrader. It’s what we do as human beings--we slot people into certain categories. Walt was his brother. How could this guy Hank had barbecues with, and hung out with, and who has a baby--it’s not even plausible that he could be Heisenberg. I think that whole revelation on the toilet was exactly that: a revelation.

Then we return with the half-season premiere and that scene with Hank and Walt in the garage, which was one of the best I’ve ever seen on television, your performance in particular. How difficult was it to capture that strange mix of sadness and rage and betrayal and confusion?

That scene took some developing. When we first did, there was a lot more rage. We kind of knew that wasn’t how we were going to end up doing it, but we needed to get that one out. Once we did, that rage kind of stayed there, and we just whittled it down to what I had talked to Bryan about the night before, when I knew the scene was coming up: betrayal and hurt.

That’s the thing. Hank and Marie don’t have any family. The only family they have is Walter White and Skyler and the kids. This is his brother. So there’s anger and rage, but there is also a lot of hurt and betrayal. This is a guy Hank has known for 20 years--a guy who is supposed to be his brother. We realized that was the thing at the heart of the scene for Hank. So when we layered that in, having already played the rage, it was really nice.

No spoilers, of course, but what are one or two words that you would use to describe how Breaking Bad ends?

“Properly.”

Were you surprised by the ending when you first found out?

I’m surprised by every script I get. Seriously.

How does Hank deal with so much purple everywhere? Marie is a bit obsessed.

That’s why he drinks the Knob Creek.

And why he brews Schraderbrau.

[Laughs]

Last question: what ever happened to Hank’s mineral collection? He spent so much time assembling it.

He probably boxed it up and put it in the closet. That was his “I’m not a cop anymore” phase--“I’m going to do something that’s the complete opposite of what a cop does, that’s completely inert.” And he just sat there and stared at minerals.

But in a way, although it kills Hank, the W.W. thing rejuvenates him, too. Sometimes men are not all that complicated—they just need a task. So now Hank’s back to doing what he loves to do. It’s hurtful and it’s hard, but it’s his purpose in life—trying to catch the bad guy.

No more rocks now that he’s a cop again.

No more minerals.