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