Not Enough Hank Schraders in a Walter White World

bbVery rarely does a television show of Breaking Bad’s brilliance come along. With such marvelous writing and superb acting, it was one of those shows that dragged skeptical viewers in, solidly invested them in the plot and characters, and would absolutely not let them go.

The show wrapped up its final season last Sunday, and as expected, it went out with a bang. Now that it’s over, it seems like a good time to reflect on what exactly made Breaking Bad successful.

There were certainly many elements to that success, but what got me (and I assume many, many others) hooked on the show was how accurately it captured the human condition. It gave viewers an intimate look into people’s souls, the things that motivate them, and how they bring themselves to rationalize their bad behavior.

In real life, we’re able to identify such elements in the people we know – the people we’re quite familiar with. However, people who we don’t know on a personal level are often much harder to read. We can’t tell exactly what is going on in their heads because they’re not as transparent.

One exception to that rule, however, are those in the political world.

In a culture filled with charlatans, demagogues, and professional phonies who are more likely to tell you the truth by accident than they are on purpose, one would think that it would be tough to get an accurate read on such people. After all, what we see of them is, in many cases, little more than a persona created with a specific intent.

I would dare say, however, that there are few clearer examples of the raw, honest condition of human behavior than there are in the realm of politics.

When I look at the personal journey of the Walter White character, as portrayed masterfully by Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, it’s not all that hard to identify that of a politician’s.

I personally believe that most people who run for public office do so with the best of intentions. They see a problem and they want to fix it because they wish for the people they care about to have a better life. Thus, they enter this dark, morally-compromised world with a specific, noble purpose to do exactly that.

Once they find themselves on the inside, however, they begin to quickly realize how naive they were to believe that they could achieve the admirable things they want to achieve without doing things that they find personally and morally objectionable. They begin to surrender their better judgement, compromise their integrity, and tell themselves that the ends justify the means because the ultimate goal is still a dignified one.

They begin to realize the amount of influence that comes with tapping into people’s addictions and dependencies, and they play those human weaknesses to their favor. They find that there are rarely any consequences that come with being dishonest. And even when there’s an attempt at accountability forced upon them, they figure out that they can successfully side-step it with more deception. And with loyal partners like the Saul Goodmans of the media-world watching their backs and running interference for them, the bad behavior continues and worsens.

As their power grows, and they continue to escape accountability, the Walter Whites become more brazen. They say or do whatever is necessary to maintain that power and prestige, and they no longer find any qualms in using their destructive methods. They find that if their story is convincing and appealing enough to the credulous listeners around them, there’s practically nothing they can’t get away with. The problems that they originally entered that world to fix are no longer of their concern – completely forgotten and replaced with personal prominence and expanding influence, leaving behind them a trail of despair.

At least, that’s the story of Walter White. Not all politicians take this journey.

Some are like Breaking Bad’s Hank Schrader, a man of integrity who views his role in the world not through a prism of moral relativism, but through the colors of black and white – right and wrong. By the way, if actor Dean Norris doesn’t win an Emmy next year for his work this season, there truly is no justice in the world.

Those like Schrader find great pride and nobility in protecting the public they work for. Their disdain for the world that Walter White lives in fuels them to work harder to fight the corruption, change the culture, and do the right things for the people they represent.

The problem is that there are far more Walter Whites than there are Hank Schraders in our political culture, and because of that, it’s often the Hank Schraders that end up suffering the consequences for the events put in motion by the Walter Whites. They’re the ones you’ll typically find on the receiving end of a hail of gunfire for sticking up for their principles, not backing down, and refusing to live in Walter White’s world.

The Hank Schraders are blunt and unrefined. The Walter Whites are shrewd, calculating, and know how to game the system to their advantage. They’re willing to do whatever it takes, regardless of how disgusting the act,  to achieve their goals. The Hank Schraders, on the other hand, are bound by their own ethical codes and sense of duty, and living by those ethical codes makes it tougher to combat the actions and influence of the Walter Whites.From a Dead Sleep - by John A. Daly

Now you can probably guess which groups I’m comparing to Walter White and Hank Schrader, but let me assure you that the comparisons don’t flow purely along political party lines. Breaking Bad was about the choices made by individuals, and the same ultimately goes for politics.

It was interesting to see a few weeks ago that Walter White handily beat Hank Schrader in viewer polls of who fans wanted to see come out on top at the end of the series, after the two characters’ inevitable, final confrontation. I guess it just goes to show you that when you break bad, you often come out on top.

Author Bio:

John Daly couldn't have cared less about world events and politics until the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks changed his perspective. Since then, he's been deeply engaged in the news of the day with a particular interest in how that news is presented. Realizing the importance of the media in a free, democratic society, John has long felt compelled to identify media injustices when he sees them. With a B.S. in Business Administration (Computer Information Systems), and a 16 year background in software and web development, John has found that his real passion is for writing. He is the author of the Sean Coleman Thriller series. His first novel, "From a Dead Sleep," is available at all major retailers. His second novel, "Blood Trade" is available for pre-order and will be released in Sept. 2015. John lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and two children. Like John on Facebook. Follow John on Twitter.
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  • David W. Hunter

    I think it’s interesting that a lot of people believe anyone working for the government, either as politicians or as civil servants, chose their careers based on altruism rather than self-interest. Economic theory assumes everyone is self-interested, and trades are made to improve the interests of both parties. I see no reason to expect that those in the political sphere don’t also act on the basis of self-interest. The problem is that, while trading in the economic sphere promote efficiency, the opposite is true for politics or government service. In politics, the best way to increase your power is to create problems, not solve them. The incentive system is all wrong.

    The creators of our system of government acknowledged this problem. James
    Madison said in Federalist-51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” But, what happens when the opposing ambitions lose the incentive to do anything? It used to be that successful politicians figured out ways to solve problems, so they were rewarded with power. It was in the politician’s best interest to get things done. The differences between candidates were on how they would solve the problems.

    But, I don’t think this is true anymore. I think the problem today is that those in Washington believe their own hype. Everything is called a crisis; therefore nothing is truly treated as such. Every function within government is simply used as an opportunity to paint opponents as the “villain”. No one, on ether side, seems really concerned about getting anything done. Congress has been fighting the same fight for 3 years. Reasonable people would have come up with a compromise by now. But, unfortunately, the number of reasonable people on the Hill seems limited. I think the Walter Whites and Hank Schrader of the world, being both intelligent and driven, would have already come to a compromise. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the Harry Reids and John Boehners of the world.

  • Josh

    Part of what made Walter White such a likeable, impressive character was that this was an everyman villain who was truly a mastermind. I believe, and I think many other fans of the show share the belief, that more Walters are needed in the world in general. Not selling meth, of course, but that type of brain and that type of commitment to get things done. That type of transformative attitude when one’s back is up against the wall. That vision. That perseverance.

    I, like many, never viewed Walt (or his alter-ego Heisenberg) as the “Devil” or even as an evil character. A habitual line-crosser near the end, but still the on-screen embodiment of what many of us would be willing to go through for our families-slash-ourselves when we feel life has kicked us around far too often. Cranston’s speech to the shrink in the fugue state episode stands as a great example of why more folks identified with Walt than turned their backs on him. (The younger Internet meme generation notwithstanding.)

    He wasn’t a physical badass. He got punked and pwned on the reg by punches and kicks and shoves. But when it came to scheming his way out of trouble, his intellect excelled leaps and bounds beyond the closet challenger.

    Take the meth and murder out of it and put politics in its place, I think more Walter Whites are needed in Washington and in politics in general.

    I don’t see politics as having a bunch of Walts in there at all. Few are on his level; they’re mostly garden-variety crooks. At best they’re Tuco. That’s why the system is so bloated and corrupt rather than streamlined. Men and women of Walter’s intellect would never allow things to become so unmanageable.

    When someone’s back is up against the wall, being twisted and pulled into going along with the status quo, the political equivalent of Car Trunk Machine Gun Funk may slay the beast. A little metaphorical Lily of the Valley to actually stop the cronyism and thievery. Pipe-bombing granny’s wheelchair instead of pushing it off the cliff.

    Going into politics a principled person to the end, willing to take a bullet without so much as an angry word, doesn’t change anything. Outmaneuvering the opposition–again: meth, not even once!–like a Walter White, even if breaking a little bad along the way, may actually usher in change and efficiency.

    If the meth business were even a fraction as polluted and complicated as government, White would have broke bad on bank heists. A few more Walters may transform politics into a well-oiled machined. A few more Hanks — well, how many Ted Cruz clones does one actually need?

    Replace the mayhem it took to build a methamphetamine empire and replace it with bucking the system to improve the state of politics, and Walter White becomes the exact type of mind needed in politics. Hank remains a throwback to black-and-white movies and what many of us would like to project outward to an audience but not what we feel inward as people.

    RIP Meth Damon.

    • John Daly

      Thanks for your post.

      If you’re talking about intelligence and determination alone, I would agree. Obviously though, I’m referring to what it did to his character and his sense of right and wrong.

      He was clearly a sympathetic character from the beginning – one that the average person could certainly relate to and appreciate. But when his reprehensible behavior was no longer motivated by the goal of helping his family, and instead came from a lust for power and prestige, that changed things.

      To me, Hank was consistently the moral compass of the show – a man who was every bit as determined as Walt, but not nearly as cunning, and he certainly recognized moral lines that he would not cross.

      • Josh

        I got that. It’s still just too early for me to grill Walt for becoming the people he initially fought to avoid. It’s only been a full day! lol

        Especially juxtaposed with the abysmal series finale of Dexter; I need some time to wallow around in the excellence of Breaking Bad.

        But a more serious dreamer’s note: A Hank/Walt combo would be amazing. Although I do have a little bit of cynicism sneaking through here and whispering to me that someone of impeccable character may go down that path if they have the vision to see that path. So it worries me that perhaps one couldn’t possess Walt’s brand of cunning without eventually becoming corrupt. But in my ideal scenario, I agree that Hank’s compass would help guide politics better than Walt’s. For the life of me, though, I can’t see where poor ole Hank could navigate that treacherous terrain without unleashing the vile of ricin at some point.

      • D Parri

        Thanks, you’ve just read my mind…so to speak.

        Entering into the world of evil as a character deserving of sympathy stands in stark contrast to the monster that took credit for many reprehensible deeds during his tenure as Master of Meth/Southwest. Absent this contrasting depiction of human nature it would be apposite to judge Mr. White as a “good family man”, or “a true villain”. In order to understand the character in much greater analytical detail than most of us will probably know our friends and colleagues, the writer was able to take us on a journey which provided insight into some of the elemental forces that tend to transform both human spirit and persona.

        I believe that it is important to recognize that no part of Mr. White’s gamut of personal qualities was suddenly and magically instilled in him through external forces that overrode Walt’s control in making his own personal decisions. In other words, the good person and the evil person portrayed throughout the series existed at the outset of his journey, and they existed at the end–both personae…simultaneously.

        Mr. White was not ‘overcome’ by greed but, rather, he invested an increasing amount of personal resources in satisfying the motivational influence of his greed and lust for power. This was a personal decision for which he, his family, and others ultimately paid a tragic price. It is interesting that the writer was able to recover some inkling of sympathy for Mr. White’s character. The contrast of emotions for a character that was pitiable, yet repugnant was a very talented achievement by the writer, Vince Gilligan.

        I feel that some politicians follow a similar journey through their public service careers. They–actually, we–possess the capacity for doing either good or evil at any time. It is, and always will be our choice regarding our time spent and the directions that we take. For this we must take responsibility for our actions in order to maintain possession of our most vital element of human nature–honesty.

  • therealguyfaux

    But the point you left out is that Walter White– by definition, as it was the whole premise of the show– was “term-limited.”

    • John Daly

      lol. Yeah, but he did a lot of damage before his time was up.

      • therealguyfaux

        But considering the sort of life he led, he left himself wide open to having someone invoke their “Second Amendment right,” so to speak, to take care of the problem– something denied to us law-abiding citizens who choose work within the System while there is still a System worthwhile to work within– and even then, many will continue to make some attempt; as Jefferson said, Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

        But Walter White was in an anarchistic dog-eat-dog world– so all bets were off.

  • sjangers

    Sadly, John, I think most viewers want to see the Walter White character succeed because they identify more closely with him than they do with Hank Schrader.

    An interesting aside to your observation about politicians – at least it is to me – is that years ago I was one of those people who wanted to go into politics to make the lives of the people around me better. As a Republican in a district and state that was already starting to skew heavily Democratic, I probably never had much of a chance to succeed anyway. But I finally concluded that electoral politics wasn’t the life for me after watching one of my first Democratic opponents enjoy a great deal of success and then making my own judgments about how his lack of ethical behavior really benefitted his political ambitions.

    I decided I could never live like that, not even if it helped me be successful in public service, so I got out of that side of politics and now just write bitter and cynical comments and post them to public forums like this one. My Democratic opponent from that early campaign? He’s now the governor of my state.

  • Brian Fr Langley

    I could walk on my street and be glad,
    those were the days, now it’s sad,
    cause some little $hit,
    my street makes unfit,
    and thinks it’s just fine “breaking bad”.

  • Wheels55

    The good guys don’t always win and people find that interesting. That’s how Obama got re-elected.