'Breaking Bad' tribute: Hank's journey from plot device to hero

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Image Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

[Spoilers for last night's episode of Breaking Bad follow.]

If Breaking Bad‘s first season had ended with the death of Walt’s boorish brother-in-law, it’s safe to say nobody would have been sad to see him go. (Granted, that’s partially because Breaking Bad‘s initial audience was tiny.) At that point, Hank wasn’t a person so much as an obstacle to be overcome. When the DEA agent did get screen time, he was obnoxious enough to sap away any of Dean Norris’s innate likeability.

But as the show evolved, so did Hank. And eventually, it became clear that the swaggering, racist jock-clown of Breaking Bad‘s early days was nothing but a facade. Underneath all his bluster, the real Hank was insecure, vulnerable, and thoroughly sympathetic — not to mention a skilled investigator. By the time Hank actually met his end on last night’s explosive episode, he had transformed from a one-note impediment to Breaking Bad‘s true hero — making his death the most emotionally devastating moment yet in a series that isn’t exactly short on emotional devastation. (Raise your hand if you’ve fully recovered from “Ozymandias.” Oh, look, NOBODY’S HAND IS UP.)

In honor of the best damn DEA agent the Land of Enchantment has ever seen, let’s take a look back at some of Hank’s major turning points — the moments that established him as a noble figure and, more importantly, a worthy adversary for Walt.

1. The first shootout
Hank seemed decent enough at his job in season 1 — but in the second episode of Breaking Bad‘s second season, we learned that the mind of a born detective lurked beneath that bald head. Hank painstakingly followed a few slim leads to druglord Tuco’s desert hideout, where he took out the kingpin with a few quick shots — and unknowingly saved Walt and Jesse from a life of meth-lab slavery in the process.

2. The tortoise
After killing Tuco, Hank was on top of the world. Unfortunately, a big promotion to El Paso left Agent Schrader completely out of his element; you couldn’t help but feel for the guy as he struggled to fit in with his new comrades in season 2’s “Negro Y Azul.” (Though seriously, Hank — you couldn’t bother learning Spanish?) When a gruesome gift from the cartel left Hank reeling from a panic attack, he had finally earned our sympathy.

3. The phantom phone call
Initially, Hank and his wife Marie were little more than broadly-sketched comic relief characters: the boor and the flighty closet klepto. Over time, though, we learned that these two knuckleheads truly cared about each other — and in a show dominated by unhealthy, abusive relationships, Hank and Marie’s deep bond was a breath of fresh air. Their connection was never clearer than in season 3’s “Sunset,” when a desperate Walt orchestrated a phone call informing Hank that his wife has been in an accident. Sure, Hank ultimately responded to the bluff by beating Jesse to a bloody pulp — but before he learned the call was fake, he rushed to the hospital, showing a panicked devotion to Marie that was downright touching.

4. The battle de los Cousins
Taking out two ruthless, armed killers with no weapons — and only 60 seconds to prepare? Hank managed the impossible in season 3’s “One Minute,” showing unparallelled bravery and ingenuity. By now, the foundation had been built — but most Breaking Bad obsessives will agree that this is the moment Hank really became a force to be reckoned with.

5. The chicken conundrum
Here’s how Hank got his groove back after being nearly paralyzed: He threw himself into his work, carefully combing through photos of the slain Gale Boetticher’s house until he found something that wasn’t right in season 4’s “Shotgun”: A fast food bag lurking in the vegan meth cook’s kitchen. With that, Hank was off and running, skillfully piecing together the secret of Gus Fring’s meth empire — and proving once again that the guy knew how to crack a case. He’d later show off those skills to even greater effect in season 5’s “To’hajiilee.”

6. The punchline
Everything about Hank and Walt’s confrontation in season 5’s “Blood Money” was nail-bitingly great — but the right hook Hank delivered right to Walt’s face had to be one of the most satisfying punches ever caught on film. Who among us hasn’t wanted to do the very same thing to Heisenberg?

7. The last stand
If Hank had listened to Walt, he would have spent his last moments on Earth begging, wheedling, and trying to negotiate with a pack of Nazi scumbags. Instead, he accepted his inevitable fate in season 5’s “Ozymandias” with a resigned dignity and one last fierce quip: “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f— yourself.”

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