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In the first or pilot episode of Breaking Bad the other people in the life of Walter White attend his 50th birthday party.   At the party brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank Schrader waves his gun around and obliges an ill at ease Walt to be self-effacing.  Hank says something about Walt being the cleverest man he knows but despite that they all love him.  The remark is friendly but sly.  Hank lets Walt know that he is not that impressed by the intellectual accomplishments of Walt.  More impressive, thinks Hank, is a man who knows how to handle a gun and face danger in his job.  All Walt can do is think and baffle the neighbours.

The two men are supposedly different, connected by family rather than temperament.  If Walt has a virtue, thinks Hank, he is not snobbish about being clever.  The willingness of Hank to acknowledge the intellect of Walt is important and will not be forgotten by the scriptwriters of Breaking Bad.  In the final season of Breaking Bad we hear Hank repeat the phrase about Walt being the cleverest man that he knows.  The moment is important because Hank is facing death and he believes Walt is culpable in his tragedy.  Despite the grievance Hank still acknowledges the cerebral potential of his brother-in-law.  Walt pleads for the life of Hank.  But Hank tells Walt that he does not understand the criminals around them and that there is no point in pleading.  Hank may not be as bright as Walt but he knows of things incomprehensible to his brother-in-law.  We all know and can do something denied to the other.


In British football the greatest rivalries are between close neighbours.  They exist within cities and across short distances.  The football fans that other supporters hate are the ones most like them.  In Northumberland the tourists see the remnants of the castles used in the armed conflicts between the Scottish and the English.  The Scottish may have contempt for the stereotype of the southern Englishman but the people they killed were those from the borderlands in the North of England, the people who resembled the Scottish more than anyone.  Before Breaking Bad is finished both Walter White and Hank Schrader will face death with courage or at least philosophically.  This occurs after Hank discovers that the drug dealer Heisenberg, the man that Hank is determined to catch and arrest, is his own brother-in-law.  The revelation arrives late and not until the final season of Breaking Bad.   Thinking he has discovered a monster, Hank tells Walt that he does not understand him.   Hank fails to comprehend that he and Walt are different but also alike.  The intimacy between their families is no barrier to Walt keeping his criminal activities secret from his policeman brother-in-law.  What compels them to face one another as foes is their curiosity about what may be on the pages between the covers of a book by American existentialist Walt Whitman.  The inner spirits of Walt and Hank are connected.


Walt and Hank rely on acting performances rather than authenticity to survive in the modern world.  In their complicated marriages they need their partners more than they realise.  Hank may have a higher standard of living and enjoy being a DEA investigator but like Walt he has sacrificed a career opportunity.  Both men are unrealised but possess egos that demand power and status.  These egos shape their lives and not only their premature deaths but how they die.  And in certain situations both men are capable of surprising themselves.

Neither Walt nor Hank are authentic human beings.  The intellectual Walt performs a role as a modest suburban husband, and Hank puts on a show of machismo for family, neighbours and colleagues.  Their lives are revealed to be performance when Walt discovers his cancer and when Hank is posted to El Paso.   Faced with pending death Walt realises that he has failed to ‘be alive’.  Working amongst hard cynical men on the USA and Mexican border, Hank realises the extent to which his machismo has included affectation.   Walt and Hank, though, are not able to sacrifice pretence.  Walt is determined to maintain his role as father and husband within his family.  Hank needs not only to earn a living as an employee of the DEA but to be occupied by the work.  Walt tells lies to his wife and son, and Hank hides his panic attacks from his colleagues.


Sisters Skyler and Marie, the wives of Walt and Hank, are distressed women.   Skyler has a household budget that worries her, and Marie has money but no idea how it can make her happy.  The distress of Skyler increases when she discovers that Walt is a drug criminal.  After he is injured at work a disenchanted Hank becomes an unpleasant and bullying partner for Marie.   The criminal Walt is willing to exercise his dark power over Skyler.   The two sisters adjust to the difficulties in their marriages, and a kind of progress is made but Skyler and Marie stay with their husbands because they are trapped.  Both Walt and Hank enjoy being patriarchs.  Hank has no children but he is willing to act as a surrogate father to the children of Walt.  Hank is willing to take the children of Walt into his home and he has prior to that enjoyed being the elder heroic male to Walt Junior.  In their jobs both Walt and Hank have an opportunity to extend their patriarchal authority.  Walt teaches adolescent pupils, and Hank manages a team of DEA investigators.

Both Hank and Walt have a close relationship with their occupational partners.  DEA agent Steven Gomez is more loyal to Hank than Jesse Pinkman is to Walt but, like Jesse, he understands the limitations of his colleague.  Steven Gomez and Jesse Pinkman exist as rivals as well as supportive colleagues.  Steven Gomez and Hank want the same career promotions.  Walt and Jesse want to be rich but there is conflict about when their criminal activities should end and during the early escapades disagreement over remuneration.  Walt and Hank are capable but they would make less progress if they did not have Jesse and Gomez as partners.


If both Walt and Hank sacrifice career opportunities, the consequences for Walt are much more serious.  After Walt walks away from a company that becomes a billion dollar concern he is obliged to exist as a poorly paid schoolteacher.  Hank is willing to be cynical and aggressive but he has his limits and he discovers them in El Paso.  Timid when faced with professional hostility Hank retreats to the comfort zone of Albuquerque.  The egos of Hank and Walt remain.  Both men need and want rank and recognition.

When the mobility of Hank is reduced after his shoot out with the Mexican cousins he compensates by domineering Marie and being vindictive towards her.  The compromise Walt offers Hank after his identity as Heisenberg has been revealed is shabby but a more pragmatic man than Hank would have been tempted to accept.  As Walt says, he will soon be dead and what is the point of proceeding towards criminal convictions especially as they will have a destructive impact on the connected families.  By that point both Walt and Hank have already opened the book of poetry by Walt Whitman.  If the book had been War and Peace and they had read the persuasive case Leo Tolstoy makes for burying enmity, lives would have been saved.   Although Walt has considered leaving the drug making business on more than one occasion his need for power and status exceeded the need for money of which he had sufficient.  Despite false promises Walt does quit his drug making activity but he leaves it too late.   The tragedy that happens in Breaking Bad is inevitable but not because of circumstance.  It is the personalities of two men who have failed to understand their strengths and weaknesses or what motivates them.  Their weaknesses and perhaps also their strengths insist upon a route to doom.


The same men, though, are capable.  Walt has intellect and a resolve that enables him to defeat experienced criminals.  He survives in extreme situations.  Walt will always think of something.  Hank may have his phoney moments but he is also able to confront dangerous men.  Hank can shoot straight and throw a decent punch.   Both men are able to take risks but they also depend on firm attachments.  Their attachments reduce what Hank and Walt achieve.

Walt walked away from the upper class family of Gretchen.  He needed his own kind.  His inability to adapt to the social stratification that exists in America is perhaps why for Walt the family is so important.  Albuquerque is what Hank needs, if not his own kind then at least the familiar.  The relationship Hank and Walt have to family and land is important.  Walt is dependent upon his family and Hank is cautious about working in a new territory.   Throughout his misadventures Walt attempts to remain with his kin.  When his family is lost Walt kidnaps his daughter, someone to whom he can cling.   But if Walt needs his family, he is also prepared to wander into the desert spaces outside the suburbs of Albuquerque and face criminals and other surprises.  Hank prefers to remain within Albuquerque.  His curiosity about the land is restricted to buying rock collections and examining them within the confines of his suburban home.  In the desert he flounders and is murdered.  When he was previously injured Hank was contemptuous of his wife Marie and her efforts to help him heal.  Family does not exist without land or somewhere to live.  At key points each of the two men find one of these elements unsatisfying.  Walt needs the Western frontier, and Hank wants Marie to shut up.  Between them they reject the comfort of family and land.  The innocent may assume that you hurt the one you love but it is more complicated than that.



Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.   His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.