~ an essay on Will Graham and Hannibal (2013–2015).
“It feels good to be seen.”
The goal of psychiatry is to diagnose and alleviate mental suffering, improving mental wellness. To be an effective counselor is to understand your patient well enough to treat their psychological ailment.
To be effective is to see them, and what’s ailing them, for what they really are.
Maybe that ail is solitude; maybe it’s murder.
Put another way: The goal of psychiatry is to understand someone as much — or better — than they know themselves. It requires empathy. And knowledge. And an intimate presence in a person’s life, their past and present. Through conversations, a doctor can cut to the core of a patient’s mind to see their demons. And help exorcise them.
Something like this could also be a definition of love. To know another person as well as you know yourself, or better, is to love them. To see them is to love them. Everyone seeks this. Being seen.
Intimately understanding the minds of others is also the goal of fictional FBI criminal profiler Will Graham in the high art cult hit Hannibal (2013–2015). I am recently obsessed, fresh off completion. 10/10, recommended to intelligent drama x horror x romance fanatics.
In the series, Will’s nigh superhuman ability to enter the mind state of vicious serial killers — just from the fresh scene of their grisly work upon people, seeing their “designs” as Graham puts it — earns him a role in strained series of events that will pit him against the king killer, Hannibal Lecter.
To the initiated, Lecter is already a literary and cinematic legend. Borne from the mind of Thomas Harris and his novels, “Hannibal the Cannibal” is a devious serial killer, and master chef, with a taste for high art and human meat. Hopkins’ electrifying performance as Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1992) won him an Oscar and projected the character’s distinguished madness into the minds of the world at large (Cox’s performance as Lecter in Mann’s Manhunter (1986), though more understated, also deserves recognition!)
The TV series, a prequel to Lecter’s inevitable imprisonment and an alternate telling of his path — “explores the early relationship between renowned psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter and a young FBI criminal profiler who is haunted by his ability to empathize with serial killers.”
It’s also a love story. A sick and twisted, and extremely brutal, and gory, one. But it’s definitely a love story.
Will Graham’s incredible ability to empathize with murderers, via what is referred to as an ‘empathy disorder’, disassociates him from his mental wellness, his reality. Self-described as being on the spectrum, Will employs a savant-like visualization technique to reconstruct scenes of brutal, often ritualistic, murder. And it must be done in the first person, with him as the one with the knife, the gun, his bare hands upon the victims doing the bloody deed.
Will’s great fear is that he will acquire a taste for the art of murder himself. His vocation allows him to help the FBI capture killers; it also alienates him from people.
Beyond being mentally taxing, Will’s manifested designs — borne of a “pure empathy” as Lecter deems it — deal untold psychic damage. To his mind, heart, soul, growing over time. The morally upright Will’s only solace is that he dips his psyche into the darkest wells of humanity for the sake of capturing monsters.
That is, until he encounters the most despicable, devilish, and dashing monster of all: Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
As Will hunts the FBI’s monsters and his mind frays, Lecter — well within the FBI’s circles of technocratic academia — begins to meet with Will on order from FBI boss Jack Crawford (Fishburne at the top of his game). Orders are to therapeutically converse with Will to get his mind back on track. To understand him. And then work with him, help him to solve the murders and put away the bad guys that he must dreadfully share a mind with.
Of course, the murders, the killers, the mysteries — they are all interconnected scenarios that Lecter is soon orchestrating.
Lecter understands Will more like a seducing lover and less like a psychiatrist. Will’s subconscious works overtime to warn him about his well-put-together friend and colleague, Hannibal, for long before the inevitable reveal.
Hannibal is impressed by Will’s empathetic revelation unto him to the point of causing a reckoning within his old paths and patterns as a living ghost of a man, a traveling renaissance man of international murder.
Obsessed, Hannibal seems ready to settle down with Will, for good, in whatever way he can. As friends, as enemies, as lovers. As soulmates of one kind or another.
Hannibal’s endgame is to enthrall Will into the beauty of doing murder. Will’s constant goal, on the other hand, is to escape the enticing palace walls of Hannibal’s infinite chasm of a mind with his soul still intact.
Hannibal and Will get into each other’s heads immediately. The show does an excellent job conveying their relationship amidst the procedural murder cases through long, poetic therapy conversations.
All in all, what is most memorable about this series is its dialogue. The dueling poems offered from the lips of Mikkelson and Dancy’s star-crossed savants deuling across the lines of Heaven and Hell, are remarkable. There’s a landscape to the psychic pictures Lecter and Graham paint with each other, with rooms and intimacy and flesh and bones.
A mutual burgeoning intrigue develops their designs for the other — to keep them alive, to hide just how much they know, to steer them toward salvation, or damnation… to find a way to embrace the love they feel for each other.
Ah yes, the love story.
Will’s ability to perfectly empathize with anyone allows him access to even the most masked mind. It allows him to see monsters in the same way they see themselves.
The devilishly masked id underneath Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s refined mask of professional personhood is what Will grows to see.
In fact, Hannibal is an expert professional of great renown. Trilingual. Respected by all, as surgeon and then psychiatrist, he is as intelligent as someone can be. And yet he’s also cultured beyond belief, wielding the best in decor, food, winery, travel, music, art… Hannibal is the archetypal prince of ruling class wunderkinhood.
Lecter lives like a king, drifting from place to place, always drinking his fancy wines.
And eating people.
The mask between his social experiences and the solitude of artful killing is nearly indestructible. Hannibal can put on and take off his “person suit” at will. Pun intended! The professional accolades and the acculturation of the finer things in life effectively shield his double life from view, making it easy to overlook his inhuman peculiarities as that of an eccentric artmonger.
The pit of Lecter’s mind is given center staging through Will’s eyes. The manipulation, the taste, the power. Will’s empathy disorder allows him to accept Hannibal’s murderous indiscretions for the sake of his companionship, and knowingness, and the intriguing change he offers to all of the lives around him.
“Will understands Hannibal. And accepts him. Who among us doesn’t want understanding and acceptance?”
~ Jack Crawford
Graham, Crawford, Bloom, Chilton, Du Maurier — every major and minor character throughout the series has their life inextricably altered by Hannibal Lecter. Not to mention his many victims, who in being killed and consumed by him, their lives are elevated to an artistic finale; in death, Hannibal’s victims are immortalized as part of his story.
But unlike any other, Will sees him. A rare thing indeed, as Hannibal softly scolds.
Like Nietzsche’s abyss, the spaces behind Lecter’s oddly alluring features see Will Graham right back.
“I can see you now.”
Through their saga together, they get so caught up in one another that they begin to care for the other’s fate beyond their own, even when it harms them — Lecter risks capture by keeping Will alive; Will risks being devoured, mind and body, by Lecter’s continued intervention in his life.
They game events for control. At the start, Will’s in firm grasp of his mind and he leads investigations while Hannibal leans in from the back. Later, Hannibal manipulates and frames Will’s breaking mind, causing his imprisonment and Lecter’s rise to lead investigations.
They game each other, one on top of the other, then reversing … competing to win but ultimately leading themselves toward each other. Will (correctly) identifies a commonality between them — they are both alone; Lecter eventually starts referring to Will as “family.”
An empath and a psychopath. Polar opposites in morals and lifestyles (Lecter is ruling and Graham is working). A killer and a detective. Yet love blooms between them.
A perfectly reciprocal understanding.
And THAT is the grand kicker of this story.
Hannibal is a pure psychopath. Impossible to catch because of a combination of intelligence, boldness, and lack of clear motive. True psychopaths do it for reasons beyond passion. Or their passion happens to be killing without leaving evidence, so they can keep doing it. Hannibal is invested in killing and cannibalism and the threat of the potential capture because of the power over people it affords him.
HANNIBAL: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?
WILL GRAHAM: Depends who you ask.
HANNIBAL: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshippers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.
WILL GRAHAM: Did God feel good about that?
HANNIBAL: He felt powerful.
Hannibal’s cannibalism is even implied to be driven by the irreversible power of eliminating a person from existence, like a God. For Hannibal, his serial-killed dinner partying is like a hurricane of unstoppable nature, a force from a God. Him.
Hannibal, the Luciferian God, the solitary rebel, human only in appearance, cannot feel human empathy. Or at least, he can shut it off at the drop of a hat. That’s what a psychopath is, relatively speaking. No empathy for suffering encourages you to cause it.
But Hannibal does have true, heart-to-heart empathy with a singular soul:
They see each other. They understand each other.
And so they change each other.
They cannot be away from each other for long.
Will and Hannibal grow to care for each other even while they are destined to kill each other.
“Madness can be a medicine for the modern world.”
The series consummates the demonic connection in the finale, when they are teaming up once more to take on “The Great Red Dragon,” for the first time fully unmasked toward the other. And they kill together, each dependent upon the other for survival against Dolarhyde’s final wrath. Backs against the wall, only the other to rely on. Death awaits them without the partnership, a return to darkness and peace in the flames.
But they fight to save each other. At long last, they embrace in a bloody release.
“See. This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For both of us.”
Says the scheming God Lecter. He hugs the only person he ever loved since his sister, dreaming of the murders past and future.
Says the tortured paladin Will, as he grabs Lecter and pulls them both over the fading bluff and into the ocean, to darkness and peace.
Hannibal has finally won over Will, it seems. But it’s over for both of them.
“Can’t live with him, can’t live without him.” ~