Psychological Warfare: A Look at the Real Horror Behind NBC’s Hannibal

Hannibal NBC

Hannibal is one of the best shows currently airing on American television. It tells the story of FBI Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), recently allowed back into the field because of his empathy skills—he can step into the mind of criminals and reconstruct how they committed their crimes and what they were thinking while they did it, which yields useful information for the FBI. Graham is placed under psychological evaluation because of these empathetic skills. His psychiatrist? Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by Mads Mikkelsen.) If you’ve seen the film Silence of the Lambs you’ll know that Hannibal is a cannibal and a serial killer.

But Will Graham doesn’t know that. Very few of the characters on Hannibal do.

You might assume that Hannibal deals with a different crime every week, using Will’s empathetic skills to solve cases. And so you’d be right; each week features a different, gruesome case in which the FBI must find a killer. Most of these killings are creative in terrible ways, illustrated to full effect with grimly beautiful cinematography.

You might also assume that there is cannibalism. You would also be correct. Hannibal, while moonlighting as a psychiatrist and helping the FBI solve cases by day, kills people and eats them by night. And he is quite the good cook. Some people might mistake Hannibal for a show about food porn if the food weren’t, well, people. Not that the other characters know that. Hannibal routinely has people over for dinner and feeds them the people he’s killed, disguised as beautifully presented (non-vegetarian) dishes. A large amount of the show relies on the dramatic irony of the audience knowing who Hannibal is and the characters not knowing, especially in these dinner scenes.

And those two elements—crimes and cannibalism—would be enough to sustain an interesting show. But Hannibal takes things a step further, and becomes a show about madness. And as it turns out, the madness is more horrifying than the killings and cannibalism.

The theme of madness creeps up on the audience as the show goes on. At the start, the only strange note in this otherwise standard crime show (or as standard as a show with cannibalism can be) is Will Graham’s empathy. Will is constantly warned away from getting too involved in the crimes, or getting too deep into stepping into someone else’s shoes. He must retain his sense of self. It’s harder than it would seem, especially since Will himself admits that he sometimes feels unstable.

A therapy session between Hannibal and Will Graham.
A therapy session between Hannibal and Will Graham.

Enter Hannibal Lecter as his psychiatrist. Hannibal is supposed to help Will keep his sense of self, and for a while it seems like he’s actually invested in helping Will. He finds Will’s capacity for imagination fascinating, and he starts to consider Will a friend.

But Will is slowly falling apart. He starts hallucinating, even when he isn’t at a crime scene. Sometimes he can’t tell whether what he’s seen is real or not, and in a recent episode, he isn’t even sure that he didn’t kill the victim. Hannibal helps him through exercises to establish self, place and time, but Will starts losing time. There are hours that he can’t remember, and this starts to disturb him.

Will starts to suspect that the reason for his worsening of symptoms lies in a physical defect in his brain, rather than in mental illness. And it does: Will has encephalitis. Fans were apprehensive about this reveal of Will’s special skills being attributed to something physical, fearing that this might bring the focus of the show into medical, rather than psychological territory.

But here comes the twist: the writers decided to do something a bit more shocking than cannibalism. Hannibal convinces Will’s neurologist to tell Will that he’s fine. The reason? So that they can study the effects of encephalitis on Will’s mental health, as well as on his brain, because it’s such a rare disorder. So they lie to Will and Hannibal convinces him that the problem is a mental one.

Things go downhill from there. Fast.

Will’s hallucinations intensify to the point where he admits to feeling crazy, and that he’s lost his sense of self. Hannibal at one point lies to Will in such a way that Will completely breaks down, believing himself to have lost his mind, and has a seizure. Hannibal does nothing about this. Will ends up in the hospital, and no one knows what’s wrong because Hannibal has withheld the information.

And so, the most horrifying part of Hannibal shifts from the brutal killings and the idea of cannibalism to the mind games psychiatrists can play on their patients.

Think about this: people go to psychiatrists for their mental problems and in doing so, they promise to tell their psychiatrists everything. In turn, the psychiatrist will give them advice, lead them in certain behavioral exercises, prescribe medicine and, most importantly, will diagnose their problem. Patients have little choice but to take the psychiatrist’s word, because mental disorders are intangible and can’t be diagnosed with a blood test. It’s a matter of observation and, to a certain extent, opinion. In a lot of ways, a patient puts a huge amount of trust in the hands of a psychiatrist.

Hannibal looks at what happens when that trust is broken. Psychiatrists are, essentially, given full access to a patient’s mind. They can influence the mind in many ways. Often the results are good, but sometimes, if the psychiatrist isn’t in the best state of mind themselves, the results can be horrifying.

Will Graham isn’t the only victim of manipulation by a psychiatrist in the show, though his struggle is the main struggle. The show parallels Will’s struggle to that of Gideon, a surgeon-turned-serial-killer. Gideon is suspected of being the Chesapeake Ripper by the FBI and is part of Will’s investigations. As it turns out, Gideon feels that the only killing he is directly responsible for is that of his family. The rest, he says, were influenced by psychiatrists who suggested (inadvertently) that he was a killer by nature. One of them went so far to tell him that he was the Chesapeake Ripper, and Gideon took on that identity for a long time before realizing that it wasn’t him. In the show, Gideon kills to try and figure out who he is, and to draw the real Chesapeake Ripper out into the open. After all, if he can confirm that the Chesapeake Ripper isn’t him, then he’s one step closer to finding out who he really is. Gideon seems to be a warning, the sort of person Will might become if pushed too far.

Hannibal has a fascination with the mind, and what happens when the mind isn’t functioning as it should, and so does the title character. At one point Hannibal’s psychiatrist (that he has one is, perhaps, the most ironic thing about this show) asks him if he’s more fascinated with Will Graham’s madness or with Will Graham himself. It’s a good question. Hannibal is doing everything to push Will to the edge and then standing back and watching him fall apart because it’s something new. He considers Will his friend, but then he hurts him for the sake of studying the results.

Will Graham
Will Graham

And that’s what’s so terrifying. Hannibal isn’t just a show about serial killers and cannibalism. It’s a show about a man’s descent into madness while his psychiatrist pushes him further and further. Hannibal is supposed to be Will’s stable foundation, the one who can help him keep his sense of self when he’s stepping into the shoes of so many other people. The worst part is that, to Will, Hannibal has never stopped being a stable foundation that he can turn to. Will believes that he’s becoming crazy independent of Hannibal, and that Hannibal is the one who can help him. He constantly returns to Hannibal for help, and whether Hannibal lies or tells the truth, Will trusts his word. But the audience knows that Hannibal is manipulating him into further madness. Hannibal likes watching Will break. And, because it’s just so terrible, we keep watching to see how it will end.

Never has a television show used such an intangible concept so horrifyingly well. But this is what keeps audiences coming back. What will happen to Will Graham? How much more madness can the show handle? There are two more episodes left, and if the writers keep on doing what they’re doing, this first series of Hannibal could be one of the best psychological horror stories to ever grace the television.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Lots and lots of gore, but personally, I enjoy it more when it’s kept minimalistic, however when it is shown, should be and indeed is, very realistic. The writing is as strong as ever with the sense of foreboding building steam… hope the quality will maintain its excellent for the remaining two episodes.

    • I have very high hopes for the next two episodes and I hope they continue to write as well as they have been for next season. And the visuals are grim but they film it so beautifully.

  2. This is one of my favorite new shows. Such good writing and even better acting. Great article.

  3. Dale Barham

    This article has inspired me to have a gander at this show, how does this incarnation of Hannibal compare to Sir Anthony Hopkins may I ask?

  4. Emmaline Forbes

    Mads Mikkelsen is AMAZING! Have you seen the new movie titled The Hunt? Watch it, NOW.

  5. Taylor Ramsey

    It was nice to see that the show didn’t become a one-note idea, but became something in its own right.
    Im glad it dodged the cancellation ax this year (however narrowly) and will return.
    I like the ‘food porn’ reference. Nice article.

    • As surprised as many that NBC did renew it. Nothing to do with the quality of the show as I consider it quite masterfully done psychologically, but the viewing figures have been very low. I suspect a change of approach in time slot and marketing for season two. If it fails still, then they’ll cancel.

      Two reasons for renewing I believe. The fact that it is an international co-production and therefore costing NBC less than it normally would, and the fact I suspect a lot of networks were sniffing around it. They know the potential of the show. Do NBC know now also?

      • The fan base is small but passionate and the show is excellent. I think it inherently has a smaller fan base/audience because of the content, which cuts out a LOT of people. But at the same time it’s different, and good, and if NBC plays their cards right they could draw in a lot of people who ordinarily wouldn’t watch a show on NBC because they don’t do stuff like that.

  6. Getter Trumsi

    Didn’t like it.. I just.. I guess I wanted more and it didn’t deliver.

  7. Payal Marathe

    Great insight on this complicated show! I wish you had started your article with the discussion of the psychiatrist-patient relationship and the madness there, because a lot of the plot description up until that point reads a little tedious. Of course, there’s a lot of content and intricacy in this show to cover, so I understand why the plot and character descriptions are necessarily lengthy.

    • I struggled with how to start it, too, because on the one hand the article is about the madness and on the other hand, a lot of people don’t watch Hannibal. It’s hard to gauge who will read the article.

  8. If Hannibal’s parents didn’t want him to eat people, they shouldn’t have named him something that rhymes with cannibal.

    Gear article- might give this show a shot!

  9. I haven’t heard of this series before, but it looks interesting based on what you said, and I’ll be sure to check it out!

  10. I think any person who honestly thinks that a realistic individual even one with encephalitis could be swayed in this “psychological manipulation” way is absurdly naive to the depths and lengths a psychiatrist can go. Most psychiatrists despite being book learned could not follow the language of this show because it uses a tactic used in shows like “house” it throws out large undefinable terms that have ambiguous meaning to shroud everything in an air of mystery and intrigue. When really the plot is so thin such conversations could easily be whittled down to simple “do you trust me will?” “not entirely but you agreed with my theory Hannibal!” dichotomy.

    This show merely uses the psychological bond of friendship and trust to ignore actual intellectual manipulation. Manipulation is much more subtle and consistent, Hannibal likes to play with Will’s ideas of good and evil like a cat toying with a ball of yarn, batting them back and forth and watching him war with himself. It may be personally gratifying, but its intellectually tedious. Real manipulation is how a guy learns to only look at women when his wife isn’t around to make her feel more comfortable with his lustful behavior, or changing the conversation by using nuance like sexuality when your husband begins to suspect or ask if you were cheating.

    Hannibal, frankly, as a character is too narcissistic to think he gives off these kind of cues to people, and as such he thinks these cues are of no use to him in manipulating others. This is only mildly redeemed by his extreme vigilance of others and his intense paranoia. I enjoy the show, but to think it is intellectually or psychologically valid, is just painfully ignorant.

  11. “mind games psychiatrists can play on their patients”?

    I don’t want to ruin all the fun, but this article is dissapointing and somewhat misleading. It just follows the old stereotype of the manipulative psychiatrist, master of the mind, abusing his power. Because this sells a lot better than the real story, where a psychiatrist is simply a doctor like all the others, treating conditions which can actually be diagnosed with lab tests but it just doesn’t pay off since you can diagnose them with an interview and a clinical exam (and this is also valid for so many other non-mental diseases).

    And now if we’re talking about the movie, it’s a totally different story than the doctor-patient manipulation. Hannibal isn’t playing mind games because he’s a psychiatrist, but because he’s mad. He’s the maddest of them all, it’s what you call a psychopath, who kills and hurts people without a glimpse of emotion. And that is the paradox of the movie, a mad psychiatrist. It’s like an escalated version of the joke which states that psychiatrists wear lab coats so that you can tell them apart from the patients.

    I don’t want to sound very drastic, but this pop culture mentality played a huge role in denigrating psychiatry and diminishing people’s trust in this field. Moreover, Hannibal Lecter is using psychotherapy in the movie (at least in the episodes i’ve seen so far), not psychiatry. But thanks to pop culture again, people are confusing these two.

    (sorry for the poor choice of words, English isn’t my first language)

    • Thank you Maria for articulating so well what I came here to say.

      Watching Hannibal makes me feel like I’m watching a B-List horror movie where the characters keep making stupid decisions to further the plot, while you’re screaming at the screen, “Don’t do that! That doesn’t happen in real life!”

      From the entire first season, I feel like EVERY SINGLE psychologist/medical professional is ethically compromised in some way. Does this actually make for good storytelling? Maybe, if you believe in the Hollywood method, but other networks such as HBO has proven that it can tell a good story (e.g. Breaking Bad) without compromising the integrity of the narrative.

      And don’t get me started on the way that this show deals with mental illness. I can assure you that this will only make the stigma worse for people who are affected.

      I do think that Hannibal has the potential to be brilliant, if the showrunners play the endgame right. If you think about it, the show’s protagonist (Will Graham) is a deeply empathetic individual, but it seems that the show lacks compassion for many of its characters — whether they are victims or killers. How is it that Will Graham is so compassionate but the show lacks so much compassion?

      My take on it is that the show could be about Hannibal influencing the viewer’s mind — he lacks the most compassion of them all, and treats each character as a tool to be used or disposed. Considering that most characters on the show lack any believable characterization, I believe this is an intentional ploy to get the viewer to see things from Hannibal’s eyes — a world that is devoid of sympathy for the people around him.

  12. Catherine

    Well,the show was about him, Hannibal after all. But I,for one found it hard to believe that all these professionals (law enforcement and medical) could be so OBTUSE about Hannibal! When I read about Ted Bundy, many people commented on his charm and good looks,but there were plenty of women who didn’t fall for it and so escaped becoming another victim. The women later said that there was something “off ” about him,that he made them uneasy and uncomfortable. So why can’t there have been people like that in the land of fiction? Instead of just bobble-heading along with whatever Hannibal Lecter says? I kept thinking through out the series that if Gibbs and his team (NCIS) had been on the case they would’ve nailed Hannibal before the end of the first season! Thanks to Gibbs and his Rules and also his extraordinary intuitiveness,many a bad man and woman have been put behind bars or six feet under. You should update this article and cover the remaining two seasons of Hannibal. 🤗

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