[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the premiere of AMC's Breaking Bad. Read at your own risk.]
We assumed Breaking Bad's final eight episodes would feature a major showdown between meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his DEA Agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). But we didn't expect the gents to come to blows in the very first episode!
Breaking Bad's final showdown: It's Walt vs. Hank
Apparently, we weren't alone in our shock. "I think that was the biggest surprise of the episode quite frankly," Norris tells TVGuide.com. "I think both Bryan and I thought we would play cat and mouse a little bit longer, play a little bit of a chess game. That was the big surprise for both of us that the first episode ended with the actual confrontation."
Let's recap: Hank appeared to discover Walt's secret identity in the closing moments of last year's midseason finale, when he found an inscribed copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a gift given to Walt by now-deceased fellow meth cook Gale (David Costabile). In Sunday's premiere, however, Hank sat on the secret until he could pore over his files and find concrete proof — a sketch of Walt made by cartel assassins The Cousins — that Walt is, in fact, the elusive Heisenberg.
"That's the kind of cop he is," Norris says of his character. "He's the kind of cop who needs to know and be absolutely certain. He's almost obsessive-compulsive when it comes to detective work. This case is such a huge thing, he can't just hang it on 'W.W.' That leads him in the right direction, and he tries to put it all together, piece by piece."
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But creator Vince Gilligan suggests that there may have been more behind Hank's caution. "Hank is in a real tough spot," he tells us. "It's a horrible, profound betrayal by someone who he loves very much. It's also embarrassing [for] a sworn officer of the law. There are a lot of questions and 'What ifs?' we want you to have."
Still, after Walt's suspicions about Hank's "stomach bug" and the mysterious disappearance of Leaves of Grass from the bathroom leads to Walt's discovery of a GPS tracker on his car, Hank didn't hesitate when Walt confronted him. Instead he punched him square in the face. "Picture an important person in your life fundamentally lying to you and making you a fool and going against everything you stand for," Gilligan says of Hank's explosive reaction. "That trumps all, that horrible feeling."
Adds Norris: "I think Hank's hurt. Hank and Marie have no kids. There's no mother and father talked about. The only family they have is Walt and Skyler. So, it's the betrayal of a brother. Yeah, there's the anger and all this kind of stuff, but the, 'How could you do this to me?' is the thing that really got me."
So, what's Hank's next move? If we've learned anything from Walt's transformation from meek high school chemistry teacher to murderous drug lord, it's that he won't go down without a fight. Case in point: Even after Hank lays his cards on the table, Walt trumps them with news that his lung cancer has returned. Walt's argument: If Hank prosecutes him, Walt will be dead before he sees the inside of a jail cell.
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Although Gilligan says that he and the writers brought back Walt's cancer because of his compulsion to leave no loose end untied in the final episodes, he admits that it also gives Walt a little bit of leverage. "It's not a bad argument," Gilligan says with a laugh. "It doesn't mean Walt's not a bastard, and it doesn't mean Walt doesn't deserve to be caught and put in jail. But it does change the conversation a bit because he has a very valid point. [He tells Hank,] 'You, the good guy, you'll destroy the family.' It's a very galling argument... but it carries a fair a bit of water."
Norris says that Hank's decisions will be even further complicated by other discoveries he makes in the coming episodes. "That's what makes the last eight really complex," he says. "It's not just, 'Oh, now I'm going after the bad guy.' He eventually finds out that Walt's been paying his medical bills, so it makes Hank seem even more culpable. All of those things agonize Hank. It's not a very obvious, straightforward path. When does Hank reveal it to his wife? How much can he tell the DEA? He has a lot of juggling to do."
And let's not forget that Hank now knows just how many bodies Walt/Heisenberg has left in his wake. Will Hank listen to Walt's warning to "tread lightly"? "Yeah, he does," Norris says. "He certainly realizes the guy he's dealing with now. But I don't think Hank's the kind of guy to shy away from that danger."
What did you think of the premiere? Do you think Hank will be able to bring down Walt or will he die trying?
Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.