With Hank, "Parenthood" Takes A Different Approach To Addressing Autism
After a two-season struggle to figure out if he has Asperger's, it seemed like Ray Romano's character finally reached a conclusion on Thursday's episode. But showrunner Jason Katims told BuzzFeed News it's still unresolved.
With Parenthood's sixth and final season underway, many storylines revolving around the beloved Braverman family are beginning to find resolution. Joel (Sam Jeager) and Julia's (Erika Christensen) marriage seemed to have taken a turn at the end of Episode 7; Kristina (Monica Potter) and Adam (Peter Krause) have successfully built and opened a school for kids like their son Max (Max Burkholder), who has Asperger's; Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) is dealing with heart problems that have been teased since the show began; and Hank (Ray Romano) seemed to finally reveal that he is also on the autism spectrum. But according to Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, that last plot point is not resolved. "His diagnosis hasn't changed," Katims told BuzzFeed News.
Hank was first introduced on Parenthood at the start of Season 4 when the Bravermans hired him to take a family photo. In his debut episode, Sarah (Lauren Graham) heads to his studio to drop off a deposit and, in the process, convinces Hank to hire her as his assistant. It's a quick exchange and one in which Hank seems both annoyed by Sarah's peppy attitude and somewhat preoccupied. But then, Hank shares a scene with Max, Kristina and Adam's middle child whose Asperger's diagnosis took place at the beginning of the series and has been closely followed since. Hank and Max seem to bond almost immediately. "You're a little weird," Hank comments as Max puts olives on his fingers. "Yep," Max replies. "I like you," Hank adds.
At the end of the episode, after firing Sarah for having no photography skills, Hank, in a very roundabout way, hires her back because, as he put it, he "hate[s] talking to clients. [It makes him] a little sick to [his] stomach sometimes." Social anxiety isn't a rare characteristic, but it's a prime one for someone on the autism spectrum. As Season 4 progressed, Hank developed relationships with other Bravermans as well, but the writers also dropped behavioral clues, hinting that Hank may have the same disorder as Max.
Sometimes, Hank seemed to have successful social interactions, like a one-on-one talk with Sarah's son Drew (Miles Heizer) after Drew gets dumped. "It's OK to be sad," Hank tells him. But people on the spectrum often have difficulty dealing with emotions, instead focusing on the rational. Many people with Asperger's are unabashedly honest and direct, something Hank later exhibited when he told Sarah that the brownies she made him are "honestly, mediocre."
Throughout Season 5, there were hints that Hank might also have Asperger's. When Kristina tells Sarah she wants someone more professional than Sarah to photograph her for the mayoral election, an upset Sarah turns to Hank, who doesn't understand why Sarah's hurt by Kristina's choice. Instead, he tells her that her family has no real reason to view her as a serious photographer. Similarly, in the following episode, Max tries to take a picture of a girl crying in the hallway at school and refuses to stop because he thinks he's getting a good shot. Neither Hank nor Max picks up on the emotions of those around them, nor do they understand how their words and actions affect others.
As Max continued to take interest in photography, he and Hank became friends. Their relationship worked not just because of their shared interest, but because they mirror one another. In Season 5, Episode 12, both characters are faced with rejection and neither understands why. Max apologies to Micah (Hayden Byerly) after telling him he could never play basketball because he is in a wheelchair. Though Micah accepts his apology, he winds up hanging out with their classmates who make fun of Max. Meanwhile, Hank is shocked to see Sarah interviewing for the same job he is. Hank undoubtedly has more experience than Sarah, but in his interview, he only focuses on his vision for the photo shoot, unable to accommodate the employer's wishes. Instead, a more personable Sarah gets the job. Neither Max nor Hank can understand why behavior trumps logic.
Also in Season 5, Hank reads a book about Asperger syndrome that Adam gives him to teach him about Max and how to work with him in his photography studio. But as Hank learns more about the disorder, he finds he's already very familiar with what he's reading. Suddenly, he begins to see himself in Max.
Hank's situation is compelling and not one often portrayed on screen. Asperger's is typically diagnosed in children, as was the case for 8-year-old Max in Season 1. In the five years since his diagnosis, Max has worked to improve his behavioral and social skills with a specialist, a behavioral aide, and his caring family. In many ways, Max has followed a very common path for a child with Asperger's. But Hank's surroundings are quite different. He has an ex-wife he only speaks to when it comes to their daughter, with whom he has a strained relationship — one more complicated than your average teenager-parent embarrassment. And he's somewhat self-diagnosing his Asperger's by looking at the actions of a 13-year-old with whom he has formed an unlikely but genuine friendship — even seeing Max's specialist.
But Hank's path has been a frustrating one at times for Parenthood viewers. When Hank first entered the world of Parenthood two years ago, it seemed somewhat bizarre that a new character was seemingly brought in to cast a shadow of what Max's life would be like in about 30 years. And if Hank is on the spectrum, he is extremely high functioning. But showrunner Jason Katims told BuzzFeed News in May that Hank's storyline was intended to stand apart from Max's, and meant to be uncertain.
"It's a jump ball. I think that Hank has struggled enough in his life that there's sort of a flavor of it," he said. "I was somewhere the other day and someone said we have to start using the phrase 'autisms' instead of 'autism' because it is such a spectrum. It can look like so many different things. Even within Asperger's, it can present in so many different ways."
Katims continued to recall how Hank's storyline, similar to Max's (which was inspired by Katims' own son with Asperger's), was inspired by events in his own life. "When we first started doing the show, I was invited to speak at this Asperger's conference, and after I spoke, I sat in on one of their smaller group workshops," he said. "They put me in a group with dads and two of them had been diagnosed themselves with Asperger's. They had been diagnosed through their children being diagnosed, so it came late in their lives. This is a phenomenon."
"There's more awareness now and more medical professionals understand it," Katims continued. "There are people who are diagnosed as adults, and Asperger's has all different kinds of ways it can present. Lots of people can have seemingly normal lives and hold jobs and have relationships and all those things and have Asperger's. One of the people said, 'It's like I finally understand why I've screwed up my whole life.' Imagine having that epiphany. That was kind of the inspiration in telling the story with Hank."
But, after two years of conflicting characteristics and conversations with professionals and people close to him, in this week's episode, Hank finally came to the realization that his issues stem from Asperger's. After finding Sarah's daughter Amber (Mae Whitman) crying and not asking her what was wrong, instead focusing on getting his camera back from Max, Hank realizes that his behavior is not the norm. He goes over to his ex-wife's (Betsy Brandt) house to tell her their marriage failed not because of something she did, but because he never knew how to properly communicate with her. While Hank's speech to his ex about his path to discovery is heartfelt, Katims told BuzzFeed News the morning after the episode aired that Hank's placement on the spectrum is not yet resolved.
"To me, that line was less about the diagnosis changing and more about how Hank sees himself, which is leading to try to change and evolve," Katims told BuzzFeed News on Friday. "Hank was never officially diagnosed one way or the other to begin with. When the therapist said it was a jump ball, that was Hank pushing to hear what his gut instinct was. He never went through a formal diagnostic analysis."
Hank's placement on the spectrum, if at all, remains debatable. But on a spectrum as vast as autism, for Katims, that's exactly the point.