Breaking Bad - Dean Norris

Breaking Bad is Walter White's story, but this may be Hank Schrader's season.

"It's the biggest season yet for him," Dean Norris, who plays Hank, tells TVGuide.com. "They really open up the story for my character and he really comes to the forefront. We get a look into Hank's dark side, which is different from what we've done in the past. You see a whole other side of him — and it's good."

For the past two seasons, Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law of chemistry teacher-turned-meth producer Walt (Bryan Cranston), has been dependably humorous — the brash comic relief in a progressively bleak drama. But the third season is, as Norris puts it, "often the turning point for shows, where you really push things along and change things up."

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So far, Walt's marriage to Skyler (Anna Gunn) is in shambles now that she knows his secret, while Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt's right-hand man, is sobering up.

And Hank?

"Hank has some things in store for him that are really big and bold and will not leave him the same," creator Vince Gilligan says. "He is a character who's been through a lot and will go through a lot more by the end of Season 3, that is for sure."

His arc kicks into gear Sunday (10/9c, AMC) when he tangles with a tough guy during a drug deal. "Keith Jardine, a UFC guy, is in the episode. In real life, he would kick my ass, but luckily he's playing a character," Norris says. "Do I kick his ass? You can judge that! He was a real sport to allow us to do what we did with him."

That tangle is just the beginning of "a lot of violence" for Hank as he continues to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from witnessing a snitch's severed head (perched atop a tortoise) explode in Season 2. His panic attacks last season graduate to "full-out craziness" this time around.

"He becomes a psycho trying to deal with it, and the only way he knows how to do that is, unfortunately in this case, with violence," Norris says. "I really miss the fun Hank, but in going along with the nature of the show and the title, they're going to do it. They're not afraid to take that character and really go to his dark, dark side. It's fun to play, especially when we set him up in the first two seasons as a buffoon. Now they decided, 'Hey, let's take that character, rip him open and take a look at the dark, ugly side.'"

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Hank's PTSD also affects his quest to track down the elusive drug kingpin Heisenberg, who, unbeknownst to him, is Walt. All the progress he makes is met with skepticism from his bosses, who are more concerned with his state of mind. "They're like, 'Hey, this guy's off his rocker a bit. What are we listening to him for?' That makes him even more crazy because he's on the trail and he's right!" Norris says. "In Episode 6, he gets real close, like inches away, literally inches away. It's one of my favorite things in the show. The writers artfully use that as a conflict to keep Hank away from Walt a little longer. They divert him to Jesse. ... Jesse and I have a really interesting confrontation. We tangle too."

Norris believes the writers want to "savor that moment" when Hank does catch Walt, which will open up a whole new set of story lines and options for Hank. More importantly, though, the protracted chase will lend some credibility to Hank, who's going on two-plus seasons unable to see what, or rather who, is right in front of him.

"It's like 'The Purloined Letter' by Edgar Allan Poe, where they leave the letter literally right in front of the detective's face, and he can't see it because it's so obvious. ... But Hank puts the pieces together. What they did successfully this year is show that Hank is good at his job because otherwise you'd go, 'All right, we don't buy that he's not figuring it out,'" Norris says. "The problem, again, is that the higher-ups don't believe him. He kind of goes rogue and goes after Heisenberg on his own."

The irony, of course, is that Hank inadvertently led Walt down his meth-cooking path when he took him on a ride-along for a drug raid. They continue to exist in parallel in their personal lives as well.

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While Walt and Skyler's marriage crumbles, Hank's connection with Marie (Betsy Brandt) grows stronger as she helps him through his PTSD and "turns out to be a great wife," Norris laughs. "You see that they have this real loving marriage. They're open and honest with each other. Meanwhile, Walt is turning into this really great psychopathic liar, lying to himself and about his marriage. It's the opposite for Hank."
 
And so, if Walt is our antihero, does that make Hank our hero?

"If you think about it, at the end of the day, there's only one moral character left in the show and ironically it's Hank. He's trying to do the right thing," Norris says. "You look at the landscape of characters — wow, wow, wow! There's only one character left who's trying to tell the truth. Even if you think he's a bastard or whatever sometimes, at least he's trying to do the right thing — he's a bastard trying to do the right thing."