Midlife Crisis? Or the Effects of Lifelong Unresolved Trauma?
A review of the new AMC series Lucky Hank
CW: this article contains spoilers for the first season of AMC’s Lucky Hank and contains references to suicide.
As you may know from my previous listicle about Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, I love me some Bob Odenkirk and I have been eager to see what he would do next after 14 years of playing Saul Goodman (aka Jimmy McGill), the sleazy lawyer with a secret heart of gold. So I was super excited to see that he was due to star in AMC's new series Lucky Hank, a comedy series based on the 1997 novel Straight Man by Richard Russo, and I happily watched as Odenkirk set off to separate himself from his most famous role.
And he did well! Odenkirk plays the titular Hank - William Henry Deveraux, Jr., a tenured professor, and head of the English department at the (fictional) Railton College in (fictional) Railton, PA. Hank is going through a midlife crisis that has ripple effects on his colleagues and his family. He has spent his life trying to be like his father - or his perceived image of his father - a prominent professor of English who abandoned Hank and his mother in pursuit of a prestigious job at Columbia University when Hank was a very young boy. Over the years, the father and son grew increasingly estranged, through a combination of Henry Sr's ambition (and womanizing) and continued disengagement with the family he left behind, and young Hank's increasing resentment at being seemingly forgotten by his father.
Lucky Hank's storyline is a deft satire of the (if you pardon the expression) circle-jerk of academia. The petty politics within the Railton English department staff, the ongoing conflict with the school administration about budget cuts, and a clash with a clueless, smug student in Hank’s fiction workshop class reminded me not only of what I witnessed during my own time as a student at a small liberal arts college but also stories my father told me about his time as an English professor at the University of Maryland - a job he fled when my mother, an attorney at a high profile white shoe law firm in Washington DC and the primary breadwinner of the family became pregnant with me. The reason my father gave his family for leaving academia was that babies are expensive AF, my mom was going to be on maternity leave after I was born and then returning to work only part-time until I was old enough for preschool (taking a pause and then a decrease from her generous full-time salary), and professors are woefully underpaid until they get tenure. The official reason, though, was kind of all of the above but mostly because he was just goddamned sick of the petty politics, pressure to publish, and general pretentiousness of being a career academic. He liked teaching, he hated the other stuff, but you can't not do the other stuff and succeed as a professor. So he finished his Ph.D. and walked away, attended business school, and then ended up having a 37-year career in corporate banking. (In our case it ended up being an exceptionally good decision because, by the time my mother was ready to go back to work full time, she was diagnosed with cancer and embarked upon an eight-year battle with the disease. She never did go back to work.)
At any rate, the depiction of the environment of an academic workspace in Lucky Hank is very well done and absolutely hilarious. Any hint of Saul Goodman disappears as Odenkirk sinks his teeth into the character of the dour, profoundly depressed Hank (he declares Railton “Mediocrity’s Capital” in the first episode), who begins to spin out when he gets word that his famous father - the one who abandoned him - is retiring from Columbia University.
Odenkirk is joined by a wonderfully quirky cast - Diedrich Bader as his best friend, philosophy professor Tony Conigula, Oscar Nunez as Dean Jacob Rose, Kyle MacLachlan as the corrupt college president Dickie Pope, Cedric Yarbrough, Suzanne Cryer, Sara Amini as a few key colleagues in Hank’s department, and the luminous Mireille Enos as Hank's wife Lily, the assistant principal of the local high school.
It becomes very clear early on in this show that Lucky Hank is not just about Hank's purported midlife crisis around his career - it's just as much about Lily hitting a crossroads in her career as well. She receives a job offer to be the principal of a prestigious private school in Manhattan - a job that Hank supported her pursuing under the assumption that she would use the offer as leverage to get more money at her job at the high school in Railton. When she realized that the idea of moving to New York and working at a school that has the resources and support she needs to truly pursue her calling as an educator is something she really wants, she tries hard to get Hank to join her in New York, citing it as a new beginning for him - he could start writing again (he only ever published one book and has been working on his second for decades, never able to get much done amidst the demands of being a professor), he could find a different, more fulfilling teaching job, he could get away from his annoying colleagues and the demands of being the head of a department that he hates, he could get away from the mediocrity he espouses in the first episode, and he could forge a path in his life that is independent of his desire to impress his famous college professor father, towards whom he still holds a lot of anger.
But Hank is stuck. He seems open to New York at first, then waffles. He says that he doesn't want to abandon his career at Railton (somewhat understandable, as tenured professorships are hard to come by), even though he clearly despises his job. During a dinner party at the Deveraux home with the entire English faculty when the subject of Lily’s job offer comes up, she decides that she’s going to go for it, and the rest of the faculty are thrilled for her. They start peppering Hank with questions about what he will do in New York and who will take over as head of the English department at Railton (and Paul hilariously makes more and more outlandish offers to buy their house - a house he's been coveting since before Hank and Lily moved to town 18 years ago). Hank is not pleased with this development, but Lily has his number and calmly asks him in front of everyone what percentage of unhappy he would have to be to make a change in his life - knowing exactly how unhappy he is because he talks about it at home constantly. At this, Hank absolutely loses his shit, calls his daughter and tells her that her mother is leaving them, returns to the table and screams that he's not leaving Railton and if Lily goes to New York she's going by herself, and has a full-on breakdown, sobbing hysterically, ending the dinner party abruptly and prematurely.
This is where I need to pause and say that, much like my irritation with the way Apple TV+ promoted Shrinking as a show about a therapist who goes rogue with his patients as a way of dealing with grief when really it was a show about complicated grief and how healing it is to have a chosen family to help you through it, I am massively irritated that AMC promoted Lucky Hank as a show about a college professor having a midlife crisis.
Hank is not merely having a midlife crisis. Hank is dealing with massive childhood trauma due to his father's abandonment - a situation that is casually tossed off in one line by Lily while she's trying to mediate a fight between her daughter and her son-in-law and never mentioned again. The downplaying of this trauma on the show is absolutely absurd. Because not only did Hank's father leave him and his mother, but on the day he was leaving, a young Hank, in despair, attempted suicide. Hank thankfully did not succeed, but when his father found him on the ground with a noose around his neck, he didn't acknowledge what had happened, instead walking away and calling out for Hank's mother to deal with it. And Hank's mother's solution to the problem was a hug and a promise to pretend the suicide attempt never happened. Hank then spends his entire life hating his father, missing his father, trying to become his father, and struggling with the unresolved grief he has over his father's abandonment. Lily is well aware of the circumstances of Hank’s childhood, and his suicide attempt, and yet the series keeps trying to portray Hank’s behavior as the quirky offbeat mannerisms of a man who’s just having a midlife crisis. The tone of the humor around Hank’s genuine despair is, quite frankly, inappropriate given the severity of what the character has suffered through.
A compounding effect on Hank’s existing trauma is that his father has relocated to Railton after retirement inexplicably to live with his ex-wife, Hank's mother, who it turns out has agreed to take care of Henry Sr as he is struggling with age-onset dementia. Henry Sr's mental condition prevents Hank from properly confronting his dad about the abandonment, as his father doesn't even remember what happened, basically blocking Hank from attaining anything even remotely close to closure about a seismic event in his childhood that he has struggled with for his whole life.
Is it any wonder that he wigs out when his wife takes a job in New York? Even though she wants him to come with her, to him it feels like a repeat of the scenario where his father abandoned him to take a job in New York. "Why are you trying so hard to leave me?" he wails at the aforementioned dinner party. When Lily says that her decision to take the job has nothing to do with her feelings towards him (she wants him to come with her!) he can't hear it. All he can see is someone who he loves trying to leave him behind.
As a fellow sufferer of childhood trauma with severe abandonment issues (that'll happen when you watch your mom fight cancer for 8 years and then die when you are still a child), this scene, in particular, resonated strongly with me. This is hard for me to admit, but I have said and done similar things in the past in my relationship under similar circumstances. It's not logical. It's not rational. It's not based on fact. But the emotions are overwhelming and losing control - and being unable to shift perspective and actually listen to the words being said to me, words that are trying to reinforce that I am loved and there is no intention to abandon me - is all too easy when your entire body shifts into fight or flight at any presumed threat to the safety of the status quo.
The big problem with Hank is that his unaddressed trauma impacts everyone around him. He insults three years' of Tony’s work after a failed presentation at a conference by making a not-well-thought-out joke about how conferences are dumb, resulting in his best friend, deeply hurt, telling him that he doesn't understand how year after year Hank becomes more cynical, more withdrawn, and more depressed without doing something about it. Decision paralysis is another key hallmark of unresolved trauma, and Hank's decision paralysis leads him to keep stonewalling Dean Rose when asked to provide a list of three professors in his department to cut for budget reasons as decreed by the nefarious Dickie Pope, leaving the employees in Hank’s care on edge and in limbo. Hank screws over Meg, one of his post-doc students, by refusing to give her any classes to teach even though he could have, because he is passively trying to force her to leave Railton and not get stuck there like him - but he isn't honest with her about why he does it, causing a permanent rift in that mentor-mentee relationship. And while he's so focused on pushing Meg to leave Railton, why won't he himself leave? Why won't he go to New York with his wife?
The season culminates in Hank finding a way to expose Dickie Pope's corruption and questionable reasons for the budget cuts, thus saving the jobs of his colleagues and the other departments who were subject to layoffs. After trying to share the good news of his success in saving his department with his father, hoping to receive some kudos from the former esteemed academic, he learns that his father was forced to retire from Columbia not for his dementia, but because he had falsified a memoir piece that was about to be published claiming he had participated in the 1965 Civil Rights March on Selma and in the fact-checking process the falsehood was discovered. When Hank asks why his father would do something so reckless, Henry Sr claims that it’s not that big of a deal (and his mother infuriatingly agrees), saying he did it because that’s the job of a career academic: you do what you have to do to keep getting published, you have to keep publishing to remain relevant, to keep getting invitations to conferences, give talks, appear on panels, be “famous” - even if the fame is only in the rarefied world of higher education. By the time you get to the level of prominence that Henry Sr reached, that dubious fame becomes part of your sense of self, and losing it is destabilizing.
This rather shocking and pathetic reveal from his father seems to be the wake-up call Hank needs to get away from a career path he hates. He submits his resignation to Dean Rose and drives to New York, finally feeling free of his burdens, to be with his wife.
But we end on a point of ambiguity - Lily doesn't seem all that happy to have him there in her new Brooklyn apartment. When she first arrived in New York for her new job, she indirectly admitted to one of her grad school friends that she's considering asking Hank for a divorce - that in the marriage she feels she has grown. He's remained where he was when they first met, and she can't keep taking care of his needs at the expense of her own.
She doesn't say this to Hank when he turns up on her doorstep, triumphant with his success at saving his colleagues’ jobs, sticking it to Dickie Pope, walking away from the circle-jerk of academia and the looming specter of his father's abandonment in his psyche, and consciously deciding to change his life by coming to New York and fully supporting Lily's career the way she did for him for so long. While he excitedly whoops with joy in the bathroom, she sits down on her new bed in the new space that she’s set up exactly the way she wanted quietly, with an uncomfortable look on her face.
And in the meantime, Dean Rose, upon reading Hank's resignation letter, immediately puts it in the shredder. Hank may think he's released himself from the shackles of Railton College and has found a new start, but it seems that those around him may not feel the same way.
Lucky Hank is a smartly written, fun romp in the pretentious world of academia, and it's also a thoughtful exploration of the complexities of a marriage between two people who love each other dearly but may have grown apart. (And Bob Odenkirk boxes a goose!) There's great stuff here, and I'm excited to see how this all continues to shake out next season.
But until AMC - and the showrunners - accept that the show is not about a professor having a midlife crisis, but about a deeply traumatized man with maladaptive coping mechanisms he developed in place of treating his trauma who may be permanently destroying his marriage, leaving him languishing in a career that exacerbates his depression, the real heft of the emotional stakes at play in Hank's story won't ever be fully realized.
I liked the first season of Lucky Hank a great deal. It’s smart and witty, the dialogue is sharp, the season’s structure is well-plotted, and the characters are very well-developed - even the more minor characters who make up the English faculty Hank oversees at Railton. I hope that the show can do a bit of a course correction for season 2 so that we fully acknowledge the harm that Hank has inadvertently wrought (and those around him have enabled) on himself due to his unresolved trauma and see if he's capable of healing and true change, or if he is going to remain stuck and repeat the cycle of family abandonment trauma that has so truly damaged the course of his life.
You can catch the entire first season of Lucky Hank on Prime Video with an AMC+ subscription. Go check it out. Bob Odenkirk’s work as Hank is exceptional (despite the show’s flaws), so much so that you may even forget that Saul Goodman exists…
Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.