Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) is an unknowing antagonist to Walter White. He is a ball busting DEA agent specializing in meth busts in the greater Albuquerque area. He is your typical law enforcement stereotype: white, loud, uncouth, crass, zero intelligence beyond his field of discipline, a buffoon, racist, sexist and misogynist, he abuses the power of his gun and badge to its fullest and without regret or remorse – “I am just doing my job”, a favorite refrain from abusive law enforcement officers. He also happens to be Walter White’s brother-in-law, he is Marie’s husband (Skylar’s sister). These two families are close, they often socialize together on weekends. Hank has done well for himself in his career as a DEA agent. He has his own corner office and is often asked to lead task forces. They also live in a much nicer house in a much nicer part of town than the Whites. Hank and Marie do not have children so all of their disposable income goes to indulge their individual hobbies. Hank loves to micro-brew beer at home and Marie loves to shop (though she’s a secret kleptomaniac as well). In his down time, Hank is a loyal husband (despite his bluster and references to women’s private parts), a dedicated uncle to Walter Jr and an all around nice family man. He has gone out of his way to help the Whites many times, though not all of his efforts is appreciated by Walter.
Hank is good at his job. He loves his job. It’s unclear if he loves it because he feels a moral duty to remove drugs and drug dealers and distributors from the streets or he loves it because he gets to legally exercise his racism and sexism to people who have no choice but to take the abuse from him. Hank has many confidential informants on the ground and while they provide valuable intel for him to do his work, he speaks of them with contempt, full of racist diatribes never a word of thanks or appreciation. He treats them even worse, he doesn’t even give them the respect you’d give another human being regardless of what they did for a living. As each one of them gets killed for being snitches or as a matter of course for their chosen career, he never feels bad for them, he even celebrates their death “one more scumbag off the streets”, even after these people contributed to his career. Outside of his family, he is a thoroughly deplorable human being. His family either doesn’t see this about him or overlooks it, except for Walter. His family sees him as a local hero, fighting everyday to keep drugs off the streets. One gets the sense that Walter never liked the guy, even before he began cooking meth. Walter sees Hank as his intellectual inferior, attention seeking for his antics – unseemly for a grown man in his forties. But on the surface, Walter maintains a friendly and respectful facade and he sees that Hank is very good to Walter Jr.
The only thing in Walter’s favor is Hank’s tunnel vision, he only sees Walter as a harmless high school chemistry teacher, who is suffering from cancer and has financial problems; totally uninitiated with the dirty business of the meth trade and the means streets it’s associated with. Walter is reticent where Hank is full of blowhard bluster. Walter’s reticence makes him appear tame, harmless and ignorant in the ways of the world outside of the classroom. Hank also respects Walter for his position as an educator and knows Walter is all around smarter than he. If Walter White didn’t become a drug kingpin, there would be no reason for Hank and Walter to get into any sort of confrontation. Walter may dislike Hank but he’s always kept it cordial.
Breaking Bad ran for five seasons, it is only until the end of season 4 does Hank figure out Walter White is ‘Heisenberg’ (a code name he created for himself). Partly is because Walter is very good at covering his tracks, the second part is Hank never for one second, in his wildest dreams imagined that his brother-in-law, Walter White, a quiet mild mannered high school chemistry teacher is Heisenberg, the guy who cooks the best and purest meth in town. Hank’s inability to think outside of the his self-prescribed box, never looked where no one went looking. Walter White used this weakness to his advantage.
Ironically, Walter White and Hank Schrader have something in common when they both were in dire need of medical care, they both had inadequate insurance to give them the best care. When Hank was nearly killed when two cartel men came for him for shooting Tuco Salamanca, in order to recover the mobility of his legs he needed highly specialized physical therapy which his insurance (paid for by the DEA) didn’t cover. His wife Marie was insistent that they get the best care even if they were to drain all their savings. Also, during the time when the shooting happened, Hank was suspended without pay from his job for assaulting Jesse Pinkman without just cause. If they drained their savings helping Hank recover, they would be in very serious financial straits. Ironically, it was Walter (through the insistence of Skylar) who came to his rescue. Walter paid for all of Hank’s out of pocket expenses. Skylar concocted a story to Marie that Walter got all of that money from illegal gambling, he figured out how to count cards and that it was a secret. No one knew about it, not even Walter Jr and Marie was sworn to secrecy. Marie bought the story and Hank’s medical bills were paid with drug money. Walter had just indirectly made Hank accessory after the fact. So even if Hank came for him later, he wouldn’t be totally in the clear. There would be unclean hands on the part of Hank. The credit must go to Skylar for this one, the more people she contaminates with Walter’s drug money, the less likely they’ll get in serious trouble for it.
On the other hand, for all of Hank’s bluster, deep down, he is very fearful of the job he does. He could end up dead in a shootout with the cartels but in order to “get to DC”, the peak of this profession, he must take on these dangerous task force assignments to prove himself. He must lead major drug busts and catch major players, which is why he is so obsessed with finding Heisenberg. Hank has been in two deadly shootouts before he was seriously injured. The first is a two man shoot out with Tuco Salamanca, which Hank narrowly escaped with his life after he killed Tuco. The second was when he joined a task force with the El Paso DEA office and they were patrolling the Mexican border and a shootout was engaged between DEA and the cartels, several officers were killed, again Hank barely escaped with his life. Hank was finding out he perhaps didn’t have the stomach for the brutal and cruel antics of the Mexican cartels, he begun to have panic attacks but he didn’t want anyone to know. The third incident which nearly paralyzed him was when Tuco Salamanca’s cousins came to kill Hank to avenge Tuco’s death.
Walter’s feelings towards Hank may be complicated prior to his meth cooking days, but after he begun to cook meth – it became a game of mental chess of always keeping two steps ahead of Hank, which isn’t that hard for Walter to do. Whatever Walter lacks in physical brawn and good health, he’s made up for it with intelligence, calculation and the ability to do great evil if necessary to save himself or his family. In the end, Hank does die, in an incident which relates to Walter, but Walter tried to save his life by begging the gunman to not shoot Hank. So, for whatever reason, perhaps Hank’s many kindnesses to Skylar and Walter Jr, he felt Hank’s life should be spared.
The audience shouldn’t feel too much sadness at the death of Hank in Season 5. Had he been a nicer or more compassionate cop, it may have been easier to feel some sympathy. Hank represented the worst things about the War on Drugs. Of all the arrests he made all the people he abused with his badge and gun, he never once stopped to think why they were in the predicament they were in, he treated them like gutter rats and had no problem telling them so. However, his sole redemptive moment may have been when he got into trouble for beating Jesse Pinkman to a pulp, instead of fighting the charges, he took responsibility for his actions and was willing to accept the consequences. In a reflective moment, he thought of all the ‘rules’ he’d broken throughout his law enforcement career and the suspension without pay, his panic attacks and anxiety was perhaps all of his chickens coming home to roost. However, Hank dying at the hands of Walter White is a cruel blow of fate because of all the people Hank was horrible to, Walter White wasn’t one of them. He’d been nothing but a good brother-in-law to the Whites.