The last time I wrote about Breaking Bad, I floated an idea I about called the Hank Knows theory. Then and a few other times I’ve mentioned my suspicions in r/breakingbad people called my suspicions ridiculous, claiming that there’s no way Hank could be on to Walt.
It could be going too far to say that Hank knows specifically that Walt is the elusive Heisenberg, but I still think he knows Walt is somehow involved with the manufacturing of meth. I’m not sure how or when exactly he found out. Probably it was due to a number of suspicious incidents that accumulated over time. In a mostly pointless yet fun attempt to win the doubters over to my way of seeing things, I’m here going to try to make my case. Feel free to tear it apart.
In episode 6 of the first season, Hank discovers Walt’s notebook at the scene of Walt and Jesse’s first meth-cooking session. It is marked as being the property of what Hank calls “Walt’s school” – probably where Walt worked on his Master’s degree. When he confronts Walt with this at his school, he tells him that he has some questions “about work.” And then, without any idea of what exactly he means by that and without giving him the story of what exactly they found, pulls out the gas mask that they also found at the scene and asks Walt if he recognizes it. It’s exactly the way a cop would confront a suspect: He throws a key piece of recovered evidence at him and sees how he reacts.
And Walt does react suspiciously. Instead of saying, “Yeah, it’s a gas mask,” the way anyone would if they were shown a gas mask, Walt just says that he doesn’t recognize it. Walt, who spent his a large part of his adult life around dangerous chemicals both in school and work, doesn’t recognize a gas mask when he sees one. This is the first point in the show where Hank’s suspicions arise. His methods in interrogating Walt reveal his suspicion and Walt’s reaction confirms them. If he didn’t catch on right away that Walt is this new mysterious meth cook, he likely knew Walt was involved in some capacity by this point.
Later in the same episode, there’s a tense moment where the Whites and Schraders are playing poker. From Walt’s point of view, the back and forth about bluffing and deception interspersed with small talk about the drug bust at Walt’s school could be seen as another point that reveals Hank’s suspicions. But this is probably meant to convey more about Walt’s state of mind than Hank’s. The audience is meant to perceive the stress that comes with even a seemingly ordinary event like a family poker night when one is carrying around a secret like Walt’s.
One criticism against the Hank Knows Theory is that Hank blinds himself to the situation because he is too close to Walt. Indeed, Hank is a character that clearly loves his family and superficially, it seems plausible that Hank is in a different state of mind when he is relaxing with his family than he is when he’s on the job. But there are times when this is clearly not the case.
In the last episode of the first season, Marie gives Skyler a white gold tiara as a wedding shower present. In an earlier scene it is heavily implied that Marie stole that present, and this is later confirmed when Skyler tries to return it and is taken into police custody as a result. But when Skyler opens the present, there is a shot of Hank sort of rolling his eyes and asking Walt if he has “anything stronger” to drink other than beer. We later learn that Hank knows about Marie’s kleptomania, so it’s reasonable to assume Hank wanted some hard liquor to numb the pain of knowing that his wife was stealing again. He normally seems like the kind of guy who’s OK with a few beers.
To be clear, Marie’s stealing has nothing directly to do with Walt’s much more serious illicit activities. But that Hank is aware of Marie’s stealing demonstrates that he isn’t as easily blinded by loyalty as some would claim. Like most who are passionate about what they do for a living, he has trouble getting out of ‘work mode.’
In S03E03 there is a scene where Walt basically stages a sit-in in his own house. Skyler has recently found out that he manufactures methamphetamine and said that she wants a divorce. We start to see the Heisenberg side of Walt’s character creep into his family life in more subtle ways as he refuses to go along with a divorce, confident that Skyler will not inform on him because of the potential blowback that would ensue on both her and her sister’s DEA agent husband.
If Hank hasn’t reconciled his suspicions of Walt with his friendship / family relationship with him by now (and by that I mean just prior to the beginning of the fifth season), it could be because of this same kind of cognitive dissonance. It would look very, very bad for him if someone who is that close to him turned out to be such a major criminal. Even worse, Hank just passed a jar around the DEA office for donations to Walt to help pay for his cancer treatments.
Later in that same season, Hank connects Jesse to the blue meth via Combo’s dead body. At Marie’s suggestion, Hank then calls Walt to see if he knows anything about Jesse’s whereabouts. The fact that Marie had to connect the dots for him here suggests that Hank doesn’t fully know about Walt’s secret life – at least not yet. But that Walt and Jesse always wind up being connected, if only vaguely, in Hank’s investigation should be yet another data point linking Walt to meth.
This past season, the hints really started piling up. The first instance is when Walt and Skyler explain to Hank and Marie that they were buying a car wash with Walt’s gambling winnings. It’s a lie, of course. They’re buying the car wash as to launder Walt’s meth money. Immediately afterwards, Hank approaches Walt on his own in the kitchen, calling their lie “quite a story” and reminding them that he can always talk to him.
Some might say this is normal for Hank since family is important to him. But then why would he wait until Walt was on his own to say that? I think it’s because this is the first in a series of chances Hank is giving Walt to come clean.
There’s another one immediately afterwards, where Hank springs the “WW” initials from Gale Boetticher’s notebook on him. The way Walt reacts is similar to how he does with the gas mask by poorly feigning too much ignorance. Instead of immediately making the joke he later tells when prompted, he pretends to not recognize his own initials. Everyone recognizes their initials when they see them, don’t they?
Then we’ve got the scene where Walt turns into a bit of a wino. Hank calls Walt “Nick the Greek,” either making fun of Walt’s cover story or his (imaginary, as it turns out) gambling addiction. Later, out of wounded pride and drunkeness, Walt suggests that Gale was not Heisenberg. There is a shot of two of Hank listening as Walt tells him this and he gives Walt this searching look. There is a screenshot of one of them at the top of this post. To me, it looks as if Hank is putting pieces together in his mind in those shots.
And most recently, there’s the period where Walt helped Hank in his private investigation of Gus. Hank remained suspicious after the GPS tracker they put on Gus’s car yielded no results, figuring that Gus must have known about it the whole time. But how would he know? Who could have told him? The only other person who knew about the tracker besides Hank was Walt. Hank would have to know that Walt is the only potential leaker.
Walt starts acting even more nervously in proportion to how close Hank gets to Gus. He starts asking lots of awkward questions, which is way out of character for him.
The events surrounding their car accident are the most telling of all. First of all, Hank doesn’t tell Walt they’re going to the site of the meth lab until just before they actually get there. If he thought Walt might have leaked information to Gus, this would be a good way to test that theory based on his reaction. After the accident he all but says the actual words “Walt, I know you intentionally caused that accident to delay my investigation, motherfucker!”
So to recap before I go on for even longer: There have been lots of clues Hank should have picked up on and a few hints that he actually did pick up on them. The writers spread these out throughout most of the series, so he’s had enough time to deal with the cognitive dissonance that would result from having to deal with someone so close to him being so evil. He’s capable of – and maybe even compelled to – suspect people close to him of wrongdoing. He uses his position of authority to help smooth over the legal problems of his loved ones (i.e. Marie) and there’s a chance that is exactly what he is trying to do with Walt now.
But it is way too late for that now.