Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Breaking Bad's Hank and masculinity norms

As with all tv it seems, I'm a late-comer to Breaking Bad. Luckily for people like me, AMC has been showing the series from the beginning leading to up to the final season's premiere this Sunday. I've got three episodes left in the 3rd season. While the show had been good through about half way through the 3rd season, I didn't think it was great. But my brother said that it gets better. I trusted him and the general consensus that the show has been great of late. So I figured the further I got the more it would pay off.

Well, I think the latter half of the 3rd season has taken a step to the next level from good to very good. Everything had kind of been building to the moment when Hank tracks down the RV, which he thinks solely belongs to Jesse, but which he doesn't know also belongs to and at that moment, contains Walt as well. This might have been the most tension-filled moment of the series up to that point and it helped create some dramatic moments shortly thereafter, such as Hank beating the crap out of Jesse and Hank almost being killed by the cartel twins.

I mention Hank a lot because I find him to be the most compelling character on the show. Walt is obviously interesting. But he's turned into such a monotone asshole that he's grown unlikable, if he ever was likable. Skylar is ok. I mostly just feel bad for her having to deal with everything. Jesse is ok. I feel a bit more sympathy toward him than I do Walt at this point. And I'm intrigued by how far down a similar path to Walt's he's headed. But the most interesting arc so far is Hank's.

From the beginning, Hank is depicted as a bombastic, enthusiastic, hyper-masculine DEA officer who is good at his job and therefore has a fairly high moral standing. He seems to genuinely care for Marie and the rest of his family. He is particularly friendly with Walt Jr in a very stereotypically masculine (almost bro-like), uncle way. And he is very supporting of Walt upon hearing of his cancer despite not wanting to appear overly emotional, which wouldn't be very manly of him. That masculinity Hank depicts is what I found interesting even early on because while he displayed it well, he never seemed fully comfortable with it. It always seems like kind of a show, especially when he was at work, which, being a cop, is a very male-oriented environment. But ever since he killed Tuco he's been suffering from what seems like post traumatic stress disorder.

Before being promoted and leaving for El Paso, he throws Tuco's teeth in a river because that event has been haunting him. But that didn't make his problems go away. He was constantly having difficulties dealing with pretty much every part of his job in El Paso. Seeing Danny Trejo's head explode, killing and wounding his fellow officers just sent him into and even more pronounced state of PTSD. The difficulties are transparent to us as viewers, and even in part to Marie. But Hank can't come out and say he is having problems related to those two events because he's scared of the social ramifications. Not just that, but he can't even fully confront the issues he is having because admitting he has problems in the first place is just not something men do.

This stuff isn't said explicitly. So technically I am speculating. But I'm pretty sure Hank doesn't open up to Marie sooner or tell his boss the truth about why he doesn't want to go back to El Paso because showing emotion isn't the "manly" thing to do. Hank feels like showing any emotion other than strength is a sign of weakness. Not talking or making jokes is easier than opening up. But he has a gradually harder time dealing with things because his feelings are so overwhelming that he can't just hide them or laugh them away. Holding those feelings is causing him to lash out violently and keep him from sleeping. The struggle between social norms and PTSD symptoms are eating him up inside.

It's only after breaking down and telling Marie what's wrong that he starts to think clearly and does the right thing in regard to beating up Jesse and his status as an active officer. Of course, right after that is when he's nearly killed by the cartel twins. But by finally opening up he was able to make a good decision and hopefully fully confront what has happened to him.

Update: Just one episode after I wrote this Hank seems to have hardened, not opened up. He snaps at Marie about a hospital bed in "his" house and says he isn't leaving the hospital until he can walk. So far it doesn't look like almost dying has changed Hank.

Update 2: Wanted to post this fantastic overview of the entire show through the lens of masculinity, not just Hank: http://www.pajiba.com/think_pieces/the-heisenberg-masculinity-principle.php

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