No Exit: Hank Hell is Other People
Arlen is a town with a diverse cast of characters. Most of whom Hank finds supremely “asinine.” In fact, so much of the comedy of King of the Hill comes from Hank Hill’s annoyance with his friends and neighbors that I am reminded of one of my favorite existential plays of all time, No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre.
No Exit is an existentialist play in which three characters, Garcin, Inez, and Estelle die and go to hell. Upon their arrival in hell, they are each brought by a friendly and mysterious valet to a small room. Each character expects to be greeted with medieval torture devices. Instead of fire, brimstone, and unrelenting torture, the characters are shocked to find they simply arrive in a plain room, shared with two other people. The plot of the play is your standard “what are ya in for” in which the characters try to coax each other into admitting what it was that sealed their damnation. (For those who are curious: Garcin cheated and mistreated his wife; Inez seduced her cousin’s wife while living with them; and Estelle cheated on her husband and drowned her illegitimate baby.) Needless to say, they soon start bugging the ever loving shit out each other and the tension culminates when Estelle grabs and knife and tries to stab the fuck out of Inez like Terrance and Phillip in the Spooky Fish Halloween episode of South Park. What follows is the comedic realization that Inez is already dead, so Estelle looks foolish for trying to kill her. In recognition of this absurdity, Garcin concludes that “Hell is other people.”
KoTH is full of examples of other characters making Hank’s life a living hell for our comedic enjoyment. Virtually every character has an episode in which they push Hank to edge. This all culminates in one of my favorite episodes, Hank Gets Dusted (Season 11 Episode 5).
In this episode, it’s revealed that the Legendary Dusty Hill of ZZ Top is Hank Hill’s cousin. It is also revealed that the favorite pastime of this legendary blues rock trio is counting the veins in Hank Hill’s forehead right before he goes into full ass kicking mode. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Dusty and the boys have been tormenting good ol’ Hank his whole life, from putting a fake a beard on a newborn Bobby to just playing “one song” at Hank’s wedding (that song being Radar Love with the quote, “god dang twenty minute bass solo.”).
In the episode, we learn that Hank is ashamed of his cousin’s life choices and has tried to hide the relation from his friends and neighbors. However, when Dusty comes to town under the guise of buying Cotton’s old “Cadillac car”, Hank is forced to reconcile the torment of his past. For a brief moment, Hank is almost ready to forgive Dusty when he appears on his doorstep with a heartfelt apology. Because KoTH is the greatest piece of existential and absurdist literature in our modern time, this moment is immediately undercut by the sudden revelation that Dusty is giving a scripted reading for a promotional shot for his new reality TV show. The production crew of the reality TV show soon reach the same conclusion we all did so many years ago: nothing gets ratings like a pissed off Hank Hill. What follows in an unrelenting torment of undeserved tortured in which Hank is subjected to a series of trials that push him to the extreme. We never see Hank get quite as angry and upset as we do in this episode. The source of his anger and torment is not, however, a massive physical or emotional trauma (though to be fair, the pranks can be physical in nature) but simply other people being asinine.
This all culminates in a great reaction from Hank, who having just saved Dusty from the wreckage of Cotton’s mangled Cadillac car, says, “You know Dusty, I’m glad you’re ok but I don’t ever want to see you again, I’m tired of your stupid pranks and I’m tired of your God dang anything goes rock and roll life style.” Before Hank is able to completely write Dusty out of his life for good (an action that I will argue is akin to Estelle trying to stab Inez; because trying to write family out of your life is as absurd as stabbing a dead woman) Dusty learns that Hank had not agreed to all the torment he had subjected him to (the producer misleads Dusty into thinking Hank’s on board so that he will ramp up the pranking). Dusty learns how much the Cadillac means to Hank (and conversely, how little Hank means to Cotton) and becomes furious with his producer for causing this familial spat, leading to the cancelation of the reality show. Impressed by the show of character and reminded of their blood bond, Hank and Dusty reconcile. This reinforces a running theme seen throughout the show: that as much they annoy him, Hank cannot and will not forsake any of his friends or family (think about how much slack he gives Lucky and Luanne). For Hank Hill of Arlen, Texas, Hell is truly other people.
Kierkegaard Vonnegut: The Cat’s Cradle of Hank Hill’s Methodism
The Hills are openly a Methodist family, but this does not necessarily make Hank any less of an existentialist (but it probably kicks my absurdist argument right in the balls. Oh geez, there I go contradicting myself again. There ya go kids, another Rick and Morty reference to bring you back in. I know it’s been a few paragraphs without one.). Hank’s religiosity does not immediately preclude him from the pantheon of existential and absurdist heroes. Some of the earliest existential thinkers (I’m talking Kierkegaard) argue that when faced with the inevitable suffering and absurdity of life, humans have no choice but to seek the divine. This leap of faith indicates a conscious decision by humans to accept the light of God. Kierkegaard takes issue with the fundamental assumption of objectivity in searching for truth. He argues that humans are not capable of a true objective understanding and therefore must rely on a subjective analysis of the universe (famously saying *Truth is subjectivity*). In other words, humans reach an understanding of truth that has a subjective value to the individual (horrible millennials and new agers sometimes call this “living my truth”). For Kierkegaard, being of a time in which God was still widely accepted as a given, this subjective process would inevitably result in a “leap of faith” in which people are able to accept and know the existence of God without any objective proof of that existence. What makes the religious Kierkegaard (and by extension Hank Hill) existentialist, is that people are making the conscious choice to embrace a belief system that fits their subjective truth (rather than molding their subjective truth to a belief system).
Kierkegaard’s argument that humans subjectively search for a truth that works for them is echoed in one the greatest humorists of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut. Hank Hill’s approach to religion is almost exactly the approach laid out by Kurt Vonnegut in his in 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle (If you haven’t read it, stop reading this right and now go read that. It’s much better than this crap. I’ve been reading it every few years since I was a teenager and I still constantly tell people my religion is Bokononism). In Cat’s Cradle, the majority of characters knowingly (and quite devotedly) adhere to a religion (Bokononism) with the following paraphrased tenets (Vonnegut, 1963):
1. All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies (foma).
2. Nothing in this book is true. Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
That’s just a quick snapshot of the religion (the complete books of Bokonon are in the above link) but it basically shakes out like this: all religions are a crock of bullshit, but that’s ok, as long as that bullshit makes you a better person (Stone and Parker’s Book of Mormon also explore this concept). Throughout the course of the novel (seriously, go read it) we see how much better off all the natives of an officially Catholic Island are when they all agree to play along with an increasingly absurd religion based on the fake cat and mouse hunt of a fugitive calypso singer and a sanctified game of footsies. Even the dictator of the island, who in public executes all practitioners of Bokononism, is revealed on his deathbed to be a devout follower of Bokonon. Everyone on the island is simply going through the motions, because it brings with it stability and prosperity (until the world ends, but that was unavoidable. For more details, read the fucking book. And if you think I’m spoiling a Vonnegut book by telling you the ending up front, then you really need to close the computer and read a fucking book my friend). What we find throughout KoTH (there are far more examples than I have time to cover in this article) is that Hank Hill’s Methodism reflects not a Christian worldview, but a Hank Hill world view. Hank Hill takes beliefs and rituals from not only Methodism, but any system of rituals that have a practical application.
In Season 10 Episode 11, Church Hoping we see the best example of this Kierkegaard/Vonnegut approach to religion. In this episode, Hank has a falling out with Arlen First Methodist over not being able to reconcile his version of Christianity (his truth) with Reverend Stroop. The source of this great schism is quite trivial (or asinine if you will): Hanks version of Methodism is one in which God knows right where he’s sitting each week (second row, right side, inside aisle). Without this ritual, the overall belief system is meaningless. Hank searches for church after church who can offer him this simple ritual, but is found lacking. Hank finds that no single church can offer him the whole package he wants. This reaches a point where Hank considers abandoning organized religion all together, and instead goes out “to services (read: drinking)” with Lucky. Once Hank’s world order and version of Methodism is restored, however, his faith is stronger than ever. Hank chooses to subjectively interpret this course of events as the big man upstairs looking on in agreement as Hank takes his seat. A more objective interpretation of these events, however, is that Hank’s stubbornness eventually broke Reverend Stroop, who only gave in to prevent more departures from the congregation. At the end of the day though, this interpretation doesn’t matter because the practicality is the same: Hank got his seat. Hanks Methodism, while subjective, provides for him the same practical reward as does his propane and his truck, dependability. It’s a system of meaningless rituals Hank can call upon to provide stability to his life.
This is just one of many great examples of Hank molding religion to fit his belief system, rather than his belief system being shaped by religion. I had a few more, but because this article is already dragging on (hey, I’m analyzing a 13 season show here) I’ll present them here in a super short list form.
Season 3 Episode 1, Death of a Propane Salesman: At Buckley’s funeral, Kahn tells a story about a man facing certain death by tiger. Knowing he is going to die, this man eats a strawberry, and it’s the best strawberry of his life. Hank thinks it’s a joke but finally gets the message at the end of the episode. When retelling the parable to Bobby, Hank changes the Buddhist themes to a football analogy, which better fits Hank’s world view.
Season 8 Episode 2 Reborn to be Wild: In learning that Bobby is treating Jesus as a trendy fad, Hank worries that Bobby’s version of Methodism will deviate from his own. Bobby’s version of Methodism is one that can be easily thrown away when he outgrows it. Hank’s version is one that he can stand by his whole life. Knowing that Bobby may stray from this path, Hank explains this to Bobby, showing him his old beanie babies and Tamagotchi saying, “I don’t want the Lord to end up in this box.”
Season 8 Episode 20 Hanks Back (The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hank): In this episode, Hank begrudgingly turns to yoga to treat his back pain. Hank is amazed to learn the yoga is highly effective, but he can’t stand his “jackass” of a teacher. Rather than forsake a technique he knows is good (that’s not Hank’s style) Hank creates his own version of yoga to teach the others at Strickland Propane; featuring poses such as “the modified Roger Staubach.
Season 8 Episode 22, Talking Shop: So many great examples here. “Shop makes boys into the men woman want to date” is a great line. I would say the best example is the ending in which Hank forces Bobby and Jenny to fix a car together instead of talking about feelings to fix their “relationship” problems.
Ah the Conclusion! It Feels so Good!
I’m sure if I sat down with Mike Judge, Greg Daniels, Pamela Adlon or anyone else involved in KoTH that my stupid ass isn’t naming here, they would tell me everything I have said so far is way off base. But the joy of philosophy is looking into old things in new ways, and thinking about any subject through the lens of another. I would like to think it would be a real Slaughterhouse Five moment, in which the Aliens remark at how human perception of cause and effect, while wrong, is really well thought out. Hopefully all of you beautiful people felt my ideas were well thought out (even if they’re wrong) and maybe a few of my jokes landed enough that you’ll just threaten me and not my family in the comments. I had a great time writing this piece, and I hope you all had even a fraction of that enjoyment reading it, even if only to fuel your hate fires of disagreement.
Given the shows thirteen season length, I’ve only touched the surface on examples of classic existential and absurdist themes in our favorite KoTH episodes. There were so many more I would have liked to talk about. There’s also tons of evidence and episodes I left out intentionally, because they don’t support my argument (Welcome to academia bitches! Bias URVERYWHERE!). So feel free to bring up those episodes and make me look like the bloated windbag I am! So while you’re taking the time to write a comment calling me a jizz rag who needs to check my own ego (a totally valid and welcomed criticism), maybe you could also leave your own examples of how Hank Hill shrines as the greatest example of an existential and absurdist hero. If I can leave a comment for myself: what kind of shitty asshole would write a KoTH article in November, 2017 and not mention Tom Petty once! Next time I promise a standard listicle on the best Tom Petty/Lucky KoTH moments. RIP Tom Petty, thanks for the music and the laughs.
Some Sources for Philosophers
Andrew Giachetti is a Market Research Specialist in Higher Education and Former Neuro-Cognitive Behavioral Economist