Kyle MacLachlan’s subtle dread and kind smile made him perfect for Fallout

[Ed. note: This post discusses Hank’s plotline throughout season 1 of Fallout in detail.]

Overseer Hank (Kyle MacLachlan) is smiling. When we first see him in Fallout — Amazon Prime Video’s great TV adaptation of the post-apocalyptic video game series — he is pedaling under-the-desk ellipticals with his daughter, Lucy (Ella Purnell), while enjoying a black-and-white Western. Dad shit. But behind his soccer-match-sidelines grin, Hank is hiding a bloody secret. And, since he’s played by Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan, I knew it.

Actors like Tom Hanks and Ted Lasso’s Jason Sudeikis make great paunchy all-American dads, but only MacLachlan knows how to turn a handsome American man into a warning shot. His most memorable roles — including those in Showgirls, Blue Velvet, and Sex and the City — are all undercut with distinctly capitalistic American aggression, a deep need for excess and domination. His characters all possess a lion’s desire for carnage, though they look like they’ve never hungered for anything messier than a key lime pie. The Fallout games similarly exploit your expectations for shiny patriotism and patriarchy in order to reveal their insidiousness, so who better than MacLachlan to deliver the disenchantment?

There was a time in American history where media preferred men to look humbly to the ground, preferably with a hatchet in their hands, and, ideally, grateful for the warm cereal settling in their bellies. “If you have no Honey in your Pot, have some in your Mouth,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in his 1753 almanac full of maxims, Poor Richard Improved. “He that best understands the World, least likes it.”

The developing nation appreciated scrappiness and, as Lucy often references in Fallout, those who followed the Christian Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But once the U.S. was established, becoming John D. Rockefeller was the whole point of being an employed man in America. “Rockefeller, you know, is reputed the richest man in the world, and he certainly is the most powerfully suggestive personality I have ever seen,” philosopher William James wrote in a 1904 letter. “Superficially suggestive of naught but goodness and conscientiousness, yet accused of being the greatest villain in business whom our country has produced.” It’s those principles that define Fallout’s Vault-Tec, and its covert need to become the monopoly of all U.S. monopolies.

The archetypal MacLachlan character is proud to walk this path; unlike Poor Richard, he loves the lying, cheating world because it started being made for him. He’s white and upper-middle class, and he has a strong stomach for domestic disputes.

But much like American values took a few years to transition from self-preservation to barbed-wire individuality, MacLachlan’s characters initially carried few ulterior motives. In David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, MacLachlan played Jeffrey Beaumont — a good, North Carolina college boy — who understands his whiteness, his maleness, his untouchability as innocence. He hides in a nightclub singer’s closet out of fascination with both the mystery surrounding her life and her womanhood, but then he’s stupefied when she finds him and she’s enraged. That character, along with his (according to Lynch) adult counterpart, Special Agent Dale Cooper, in 1990, wants to be helpful, not scary. Also, he’s really horny.

Sex eventually corrupts MacLachlan’s character, but only in the sense that sex is a kind of power he can provide. After a sweet-faced college boy becomes a man with a tailored suit, he understands that — with his warm demeanor and wads of cash — he is as unstoppable as an earthquake. And though he’s initially seems wholesome, he’s quick to grab hold of that power. In this way he’s in line with the hotel entertainment director Zack Carey, whom MacLachlan plays in Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 erotic cult classic Showgirls, and who has comically luscious hair. When it gets soaked in his impressive backyard pool, it obscures his eyes completely, like sunglasses, and Zack looks as eager as a puppy to be kissing naive dancer Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley).

She finds him as trustworthy as he appears, and starts relying on him to handle her business: castigating the showrunners’ attempt to prostitute her to businessmen, helping to secure her an understudy spot for the big role. But his eyes are always too sharp; he looks at Nomi like she’s meat to be skewered. Eventually, he lets the curtain fall, and he skewers her.

“Your father killed your mother, then killed himself,” Zack spits at Nomi, his hair completely covering one eye, now making him menacing, ragged. He lists her arrests, intimidating her out of reporting her best friend’s rape. He puts his hand around her neck, then forces her to face him, his open mouth as wide and dark as a prison cell.

Photo: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Kyle MacLachlan’s character kissing Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) in a still from Showgirls Photo: Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Ella Purnell with Kyle MacLachlan in the Fallout series hanging out inside a vault Image: Prime Video

Kyle MacLachlan as pictured in Blue Velvet (top left), Showgirls (top right), and Fallout (bottom).

MacLachlan employs this same dizzying bait-and-switch as Overseer Hank, holding himself with the effortless composure of a brick building… until he can’t fake it anymore.

Initially, Hank presents himself as a conscientious leader to his doting Vault Dwellers. Their mission, he reminds them, is to repopulate the irradiated, lawless surface world with their well-bred American values. “I’m sometimes afraid that mean old [Wasteland] will change us instead. But then, I look at my daughter,” he says at Lucy’s wedding reception, his voice shaking with presidential conviction, “and I am not afraid. I feel hope.”

MacLachlan most famously transformed a noble man into an American abomination in Twin Peaks. In the series’ initial run, Dale Cooper is an unflustered leader worthy of a Rockwell painting; he’s cool in a crisis, as long as he gets to have coffee and cherry pie. But the third season, 2017’s The Return, exsanguinates your tenderness for Coop by presenting to you, instead, his disheveled, homicidal doppelganger Mr. C. That’s the guy you want? Well, this is the guy you deserve.

He is not a man possessed; he is Cooper finally enmeshed with the kind of physical and sexual domination he’s always skirted as an FBI agent. Because MacLachlan presents Cooper’s lightness and darkness as inextricable, the 1991 finale of Twin Peaks’ season 2 is still unforgettable. When Mr. C announces he needs to brush his teeth, and then rams his face into the bathroom mirror instead, a part of you wants to keep believing that this is Cooper, that he’s OK. You want to look past the bright blood he’s enjoying, allowing it to fill his unfixed eyes and grinning mouth, because maybe he’s just had a bad dream.

The image of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) superimposed on the face of Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return. Image: Showtime

It’s important that so many of MacLachlan’s characters are rooted in the midcentury American type of masculinity. In the 1950s, where retrofuturistic Fallout imagines culture to remain in perpetuity, America began developing a unique relationship to sex and gender. In part, that is because sexologist John Money came up with a new term: “gender role.” It should be appraised “in relation to […] general mannerism, deportment and demeanor […]; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies,” and so on, he wrote. The same year, a 1955 ad instructed women that they could torture their husbands either by placing them in a spiked iron maiden, or by giving them “the same hot cereal every morning for breakfast.”

Overseer Hank is all right with repetitive meals — Vault 33 seems to almost exclusively feast on two slices of Spam and a scoop of mashed potatoes. The Vault-Tec American dream he believes in, instead, reflects ’50s masculinity in the way that he assumes his right for control, especially over his wife and children. MacLachlan skillfully reframes this malicious need as the gentle face of a concerned father. But, as many MacLachlan characters are fated to do, put-together Hank ultimately freaks out.

At the end of Fallout, Lucy discovers that Hank is a Vault-Tec Corporation envoy, existing only to repopulate the surface with his preferred crop of corpo-born babies. He even dropped a nuclear bomb to ensure this future, wiping out Shady Sands and making his estranged wife — Lucy’s mother — turn into a brain-dead mutant, her skin peeling from her skull like wallpaper.

When Hank rages against Lucy’s wide eyes, which insinuate that he’s done something horrifically, unforgivably wrong, MacLachlan’s performance is genuinely chilling. “Look at me!” he barks like he’s been wounded, shaking the bars of the cage his rival, Moldaver (Sarita Choudhury), trapped him in. His mouth is wet and desperate, looking so much like Showgirls’ Zack, or Sex and the City’s Trey MacDougal, who couldn’t get hard unless he was looking at unrealistic porn. MacLachlan makes it impossible for you, as well as any other character, to resist the fact that these charming, beautiful men are actually massive disappointments. He plays them carefully, at first, like an illusive snake patterned like grass, so that you want to spend more time watching, waiting to see if you can figure out his heart. But when you’ve waited long enough, MacLachlan makes it obvious: There is no pot of gold. This is the truth of being all-American.

Just as that reality alienates you, it forces MacLachlan’s characters to face the lonely situation they’ve spent, in many cases, their whole lives creating for themselves. Once MacLachlan reveals Hank’s true intentions, the former Overseer has no defense and no other options. He only huffs and clutches his cell bars, overwhelmed that his plan failed. His dedication to his employer meant nothing — it couldn’t stop him from getting cursed by its violent ambitions.

In 2024, the state of the “all-American man” is contested territory. It feels like proof that capitalism — its false promises and never-ending greed — can ruin its favorite believers. It’s a depressing, inescapable reality, and it saturates a post-apocalyptic show like Fallout. MacLachlan, at least, makes it entertaining.

Fallout season 1 is now streaming on Prime Video.


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