It’s mostly down to luck that Hank managed to survive until the final few episodes of Breaking Bad, but how would killing off the character early have changed the show? As DEA agent Hank Schrader, Dean Norris was a vital cog in Breaking Bad‘s success, providing a foil to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White; the Tom to his plucky Jerry. Like all of Breaking Bad‘s lead cast, Hank became a fascinating entity in his own right. A highly skilled cop who couldn’t see the truth in front of his eyes, harboring a fondness for rocks (sorry, minerals) that betrayed a hardened edge without fear. Though Hank and Walt were natural rivals, there was also a genuine love in their relationship, making Hank every bit as compelling as his brother-in-law. Norris now reprises his role as Hank in Better Call Saul, but the character’s fate was almost very different.
In what is widely considered to be one of Breaking Bad‘s strongest episodes (and a defining moment in television history to boot) “Ozymandias” sees Hank finally corner Walt, only to be attacked by the gang of Nazis that now prop up the entire meth operation. Walt desperately tries to call off the fascist hounds, but is forced to watch on in horror as Hank is brutally executed. In one last act of defiance, Hank faces his imminent demise head-on, refusing to beg or shy away from his killer.
Although Hank eventually died late into Breaking Bad‘s final season, there were plans afoot to kill the character off much sooner. When Breaking Bad‘s first season was in development, a total of 9 episodes were lined up. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, apparently had doubts over Breaking Bad‘s long term potential and considered throwing everything at the debut run. Part of this plan involved Hank dying dramatically in the season 1 finale. As fate would have it, the writers strike of 2007-2008 came along and curtailed the first season of Breaking Bad to 7 episodes instead of 9, allowing Hank a stay of execution.
Whether Gilligan would’ve gone through with killing Hank in that unmade ninth episode is impossible to say for certain, but there’s no doubt that Hank’s survival was vital in the success Breaking Bad would later enjoy. But even though imagining Breaking Bad without Agent Schrader as a main character is near impossible, what actually would’ve changed over the remaining 4 seasons?
Primarily, Breaking Bad would’ve become a two-horse race. Part of the show’s thrill comes from Walt simultaneously trying to get the better of Gus Fring and his industry rivals, while Hank and his law enforcement buddies try and throw the whole bunch in jail. Having Walt face danger from both sides raises the stakes and brings out more tension as Hank edges closer to discovering Heisenberg’s true identity. The scene of realization on the toilet is nothing short of iconic. Sure, Breaking Bad could’ve replaced Hank with another cop figure to do the chasing, but without that familial connection to Walt, the moral agonizing and slow-build drama wouldn’t have been present. Breaking Bad would’ve been closer to numerous other crime thrillers.
And it’s that slow-burn quality that also might’ve been lost with Hank’s death. The eventual moment Jack executes the DEA agent in “Ozymandias” is, in many ways, the culmination of Breaking Bad. The moment that breaks Walter White. Everything that comes after is an attempt to atone as much as possible before a final, glorious shootout. Obviously, that same impact could never have happened at the end of season 1, with viewers nowhere near as attached to Hank. But if Walt’s brother-in-law is killed in season 1, and Walt himself is still to blame, where else does Bryan Cranston’s character go? Breaking Bad‘s fascination is in watching a once law-abiding chemistry teacher gradually ease himself into hardcore criminality. If Hank dies at the end of season 1, does Walt hit rock bottom early? Or would Breaking Bad be forced to make darker sacrifices in later seasons, possibly putting Walt’s family in Hank’s “Ozymandias” place? Neither option feels like it would pack quite the same punch.
The writers strike ruined a great many things for a host of TV shows and movies, but at least Breaking Bad fans can be grateful they got to see a fully-realized Hank over the course of 5 seasons.