“Evil” has become the word we apply to perpetrators who we’re both unable and unwilling to do anything to repair, and for whom all of our mechanisms of justice seem unequal: it describes the limits of what malevolence we’re able to bear. In the end, it’s a word that says more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor.
Rollo Romig, “What Do We Mean by Evil?”, The New Yorker, July 25, 2012
First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
In this Golden Age of television, all praise for a show must be tempered for the genre it occupies. It’s the only way to be accurate, and the Internet values cavilling accuracy (“well, actually …”) as much as frothing enthusiasm. Mad Men, a Greek tragedy in the guise of a primetime soap, suffers the limits of its medium: characters whose loyalties pivot overnight, based on the requirements of the plot and the commercial breaks. That doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best dramas of the last ten years, but it also doesn’t vaccinate it against that critique.
Before diving into the first two seasons of Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s Grand Guignol dream ballet, we can dispense with some similar criticisms. We acknowledge these failings early, in the hopes of both denying the scavengers their low-hanging fruit and in seeing if these “faults” illustrate something about the work’s true core.
(SPOILERS for seasons one and two follow)
1. If read at face value, Hannibal is the story of a laughably incompetent FBI administrator, SAC Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne), whose tenure so far as the head of the Behavioral Analysis Unit is heralded by over a hundred grisly murders. Even for the Baltimore/DC area, never the safest of zip codes, that’s a lot of corpses. Bodies turn up in giant totemic stacks (S1E9), in color wheels (S2E1) and in courthouses (S2E3).
Crawford’s response to this is to show up at each crime scene and frown at each new display. He doesn’t grow increasingly incensed, or frustrated, or scared. He doesn’t even seem to suffer any pressure from his superiors. It’s as if Scully and Hitchcock, the two comic incompetents of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, were the last line of defense against a guerilla army of encroaching demons, and their response to each fresh blasphemy were a confused shrug.
2. Hannibal takes place in a world with few cops and no security guards. A creative killer can break into a museum, festoon a fossil display with the face and limbs of a victim, and exit unmolested (S2E10). Bodies are found on the stage of symphony houses (S2E8), in the middle of parking lots growing in/around a tree (S2E6), and sliced into ever-narrowing sections, suspended between narrow sheets of glass, in an observatory (S2E5).
3. None of the characters in Hannibal have any joy in their lives. Parties are stiffly formal affairs, visits to each others’ homes are soundless, and even roadtrips go unmarked by casual conversation. One can imagine the dedicated agents and staff of the BAU in any improbable situation except an office birthday. What would that even look like?
INT. PATHOLOGY LAB – DAY OR NIGHT OR WHICHEVER, THERE AREN’T ANY WINDOWS
PRICE, ZELLER, CRAWFORD, GRAHAM and LECTER stand perfectly still around a sheet cake. Each holds a plate with a piece of cake and a plastic fork. The words “HAPPY BIRTHDAY JIMMY” can be inferred from the cake, but the phrase has been mutilated by the removed slices.
EXTREME CLOSE-UP: Styrofoam cup of generic cola, dark as blood. Bubbles break on the surface, gasping like a dying breath.
PRICE: What kind of cake is this?
ZELLER: Yellow cake.
LECTER: The sweetness of the frosting calls to mind our mothers’ milk. The time before we became aware of mortality, or of our distinct identity.
LECTER cuts another slice, obliterating the word “Jimmy” on the cake. He wipes the cake knife on the ribbed plastic cover that the cake came in.
WIDE SHOT of the Pathology Lab, the only room with lights on in this entire damned floor, and five humans frozen around the table like they’re posing for a painting.
GRAHAM stares at his slice of cake, sweating.
CRAWFORD: We don’t have time for this.
CRAWFORD sets his half-eaten piece down and exits. LECTER and GRAHAM stare after him.
Hannibal is not a realistic show. It’s not even a show that attempts the hokey forms of realism we’d expect from television—office romances, self-referential humor, unexpected visits from annoying relatives. So what makes it the best, boldest, most original show to air on primetime network drama since Twin Peaks?
THE MIND OF EVIL
Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. In the book, she characterizes Adolph Eichmann, one of the Reich’s architects of the Holocaust, as a bland, unoriginal order-taker. He was driven to implement Germany’s “Final Solution” not out of narcissism or stringent ideology, but out of a milquetoast desire to be good at one’s job, to follow orders, and to please one’s superiors.
While the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries have delivered their share of deliberate atrocities, we’ve seen a much larger portion that arose from petty concerns. Consider the Bhopal gas tragedy, where Union Carbide’s alleged failure to uphold routine maintenance caused over 3,700 deaths from exposure to pesticide gases. Consider the Chernobyl disaster, which came about because the emergency cooling pumps could not come online in time to prevent a reactor explosion. Consider any of the sadly vast number of school shooters in the United States in the last twenty years, whose ostensible causes—frustration with women, political paranoia—are always bafflingly unrelated to the havoc they wreak.
“The banality of evil” lasted as a phrase not because of a Western obsession with Eichmann, but because it captured an observed phenomenon so well.
Nothing about Hannibal is banal (per Merriam-Webster, “boring or ordinary; uninteresting; lacking originality or freshness”). No scene begins with the characters making small talk about their commute (“you find the place okay?”) or stamping their boots and complaining about the weather. In fact, most scenes begin in media res, with the characters already seated in Crawford’s office or staring at a grotesque corpse. No one goes to an Orioles game or picks apples or gripes about an aching back. Every sentence is laden with meaning and double meaning.
BLOOM: Are you going to try to hurt Hannibal again? Is he safe?
GRAHAM: From me or for you?
LECTER: No one can be fully aware of another human being unless we love them. By that love, we see potential in our beloved. Through that love, we allow our beloved to see their potential. Expressing that love, our beloved’s potential comes true.
LECTER: Occasionally I drop a teacup to the floor just to see it shatter; I’m disappointed when it doesn’t pick itself up and come back together. Someday, perhaps.
S2E11, “Ko No Mono”
By denying us the opportunity to witness these characters behaving commonly, Hannibal makes its characters transcendent, more archetypes than mortals. Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself is the apotheosis of this. Every meal he prepares is an elaborate ordeal: meat lovingly fileted, then broiled, then wrapped in some exotic flora. His home is decorated with rich purple wallpaper, ancient wooden furniture, and an overabundance of flowers. He wears bespoke three-piece suits and expensive ties to work every day, contra our image of the typical therapist in sweater vest and comfy corduroys. He composes on the harpsichord and theramin.
One can no more imagine Lecter scraping the ice off his windshield, or scouring his bathtub while whistling ABBA, than one can imagine a phoenix with a bone in its throat. We know, intellectually, that these have to be aspects of his life (there’s zero chance that Lecter would let a hired housekeeper rummage through his home), but we feel, emotionally, that they aren’t. He arrives on the scene poised and observant, ready to perform.
If most of the evil we witness in the real world arises from banality taken to extremes, then Hannibal posits a world where true evil might arise. Such an evil would be nothing if it were not unique and alien in style. This is an evil that can not be explained or rationalized. Hannibal Lecter is a man who wants for nothing—wealth, culture, companionship—and yields to no peer. He doesn’t commit evil because he lacks something, or because he’s a helpless cog in a larger institution. He commits evil because he wants to.
THE BOY WHO NEVER GREW UP
“The most disturbing facet of this ubiquitous childhood disorder is an utter lack of empathy,” Mateo said. “These people—if you can even call them that—deliberately violate every social norm without ever pausing to consider how their selfish behavior might affect others. It’s as if they have no concept of anyone but themselves.”
“The depths of depravity that these tiny psychopaths are capable of reaching are really quite chilling,” Mateo added.
It’s an Onion article, of course, but most of us have more experience with two-year-olds than with actual, DSM-worthy sociopaths. So let’s look at Dr. Lecter’s behavior through the eyes of—or rather, towards the eyes of—a child.
The entire series of misadventures that end with Abigail Hobbs dead, Will Graham imprisoned and shamed, Beverly Katz dissected, Jack Crawford bleeding out, and so, so many other people ritually murdered starts with one incident. Having helped Graham uncover the Minnesota Shrike, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, by rifling the files in his construction site office, Lecter lingers behind a moment to call the killer’s home. “They know,” he says. It’s because of that call that Hobbs kills his wife and threatens his child, forcing Graham to kill him and putting him on the first step down that dark path.
Hannibal Lecter likes to experiment. He likes to find people with potential who are already looking to him for answers—Will Graham, Randall Tier, his own therapist Dr. DuMaurier, Margot Verger—and give them a nudge. He does this purely out of curiosity. Anyone who’s watched a two-year-old tip over a bowl of Cheerios for the twelfth time, or flush a wallet down the toilet, will recognize this desire to tinker regardless of the pain it causes.
Lecter also shares a child’s fussiness, a desire to have everything just so. His house and his office are as lovely as museums, and just as sterile. He justifies his cannibalism by claiming he prefers to “eat the rude.” When confronted with someone genuinely unsociable like Mason Verger, who puts his feet up on Lecter’s desk and digs a knife into his fancy leather armchair, his response is to drive the man to self-mutilate. This is a man who throws a tantrum—a stone-faced, balletically precise tantrum, but a tantrum nonetheless—whenever something disrupts his precious little world.
We know from dropped hints that Lecter’s parents died when he was a child, and that the early death of his sister affected him profoundly. So, if we have to have an explanation for Lecter—and frankly I think the show’s better if we don’t, but I’ll play—then perhaps it’s in his arrested upbringing. Here’s a man who grew into a cultured, intelligent, confident man of science and art, but never learned the bare minimum empathy that most children acquire.
Of course, it’s that lack of empathy that draws him to Will Graham. Graham has a surfeit of empathy, the unnatural ability to place himself in the mind of a serial killer, reconstructing not only his actions but his plans and desires. Lecter sees in Graham a talent that he lacks: the ability to feel what others feel.
The reason two-year-olds go through stages of experimentation that we would consider sociopathic is because they’re developing their own identity. In learning object permanence and facial recognition, they’re learning the difference between their hand and the item their hand holds, between their ability to get food via wailing until Mommy brings the Cheerios and their ability to mash Cheerios into their own adorable mouths.
THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
The process of distinction between Self and Other, a process humans engage through perception, is the process of forming an identity. If you change the perception, can you change the identity?
This is the grand experiment that Lecter undertakes with Will Graham in Season 1. Recognizing in Graham a form of encephalitis that might cause lost time, he induces blackouts and lost time of his own. He breaks into Graham’s cottage and leaves an abundance of evidence connecting Graham to the victims of serial killers, including hairs from the victims wound into fishing lures. He even goes so far as to force Abigail Hobbs’s severed ear down Graham’s throat while he’s anesthetized, so that he might pass it or cough it up later.
It’s Graham’s unique powers of perception that enable him to be so manipulated. Every time he profiles a scene, we’re treated to a hypnotic wiping light across his vision. Often, we see the details of the room being erased with each wipe until the victims are restored to life, blood and viscera wiped from the walls. Graham doesn’t just deduce the scenario; he sees it through the killer’s eyes, doing what the killer does, and thereby becoming the killer. This open channel to the minds of killers attracts Lecter and allows him entry.
Of course, this isn’t Lecter’s only experiment in psychic surgery. When treating Randall Tier as a teenager (S2E9), he manipulates his patient’s personality disorder until the boy grows into a beast, or rather, a man wearing a hydraulic beast suit. He overpowers trainee Miriam Lass (S1E6) and holds her captive for two years, during which time he hypnotizes her with strong bursts of light and convinces her that he is, in fact, Dr. Chilton (S2E7). Chilton himself becomes a victim of Lecter’s power to manipulate perception: the body of Abel Gideon in Chilton’s basement, along with two dead FBI agents, convinces almost everyone Chilton is the Chesapeake Ripper.
Even without drugs and restraints at his disposal, Lecter presents different faces to each of his colleagues, telling different stories to Dr. Bloom, Crawford, and Graham in turn. By doing so, he pits all of them against each other, creating the perception of mistrust where none need exist.
Season 2 ends with Lecter on a plane, sharing a drink with his former therapist, Dr. Du Maurier. The last we saw Du Maurier (S2E2), she had come to realize that Lecter’s sociopathy was not a sign of a mind free of conventional morality, but, in fact, genuine sociopathy. “I’ve had to draw a conclusion based on what I glimpse through the stitching of the person-suit that you wear, and the conclusion that I’ve drawn is that you are dangerous.” She abandons him without saying good-bye—perhaps just in the nick of time, as he shows up at her house in his usual full-body poncho.
So what transpired in the intervening dozen weeks to get her sitting next to him, happily, on a flight to Italy? We know, from prior conversations, that a patient attacked her years ago. It’s ambiguous (at least to my recollection) whether Lecter killed that patient to save her, or whether she killed the patient and Lecter took credit for it. Regardless, there is a death that binds them. As much as Du Maurier may fear Lecter, she is fascinated enough by what he’s capable of that she still sees him as a patient (throughout S1 and S2). Did Lecter sic that patient on her to unlock some murderous aspect of herself? And, if so, what change did he wreak to bring her back by the end?
The show is called Hannibal because he is the most important character in these events: the prime mover, the drop of blood that turns clear water a murky red. Without his presence in the lives of the BAU, they’d have a much easier time catching the serial killers that plague the Baltimore metro area, and fewer killers to catch. But his surgical insight into the human brain, plus his ability to lie and read the motives of others, distorts the perceptions of everyone around him. He is the ghastly lens through which they view the world—or, more appropriately, the blood-red mask.
DO YOU BELIEVE YOU COULD CHANGE ME THE WAY I’VE CHANGED YOU?
What is the nature of Hannibal Lecter’s evil?
We’re used to seeing villains who cause destruction for their own selfish ends. But there’s nothing selfish, no profit or delight, in what Lecter does. His evil emerges from him pure and unornamented, untainted by the banal. It is evil in and of itself.
Neither does Lecter revel in his evil, constructing elaborate rationalizations for it in private diaries. He knows that he can do whatever he wants, but doesn’t argue that he should: he arrogates no divine right or Nietszchean mandate. He speaks often of God, and of feeling like God, but doesn’t deny that God exists. Lecter’s evil is the evil of a young child—reflexive, without empathy, and forgotten without lasting trauma—in the body of a functioning adult.
Lecter’s evil is not contained within himself, like the narcissism of a Bond villain waiting to be dispatched by our iconic, untouchable hero. Lecter’s evil transforms everyone around him. It makes Graham question his sanity; Graham’s friends, their judgment of him. It turns borderline cases into killers, people into puppets. To do battle with Lecter means emerging not merely with scars, but with one’s perceptions, and therefore one’s identity, transformed.
Compared to Lecter, the conventional villainy of action movies and TV thrillers seems common and quaint. World-destroying tyrants like Ultron (Avengers 2) can be kept at arm’s length, negotiated with, or at least predicted. Ruthless warriors like Darth Vader fell into hate and fear because they saw it as a means of power over a capricious universe. But what of a man like Lecter, who lacks for nothing and yet kills, untouched and untouchable by those around him, who is admired by all and yet still finds ways to twist their minds?
Lecter, the dark inversion of the classical psychiatrist, defies psychiatric evaluation. He does not do evil because. He is evil in himself. If there were a Satan, set loose to torment and corrupt, I could think of no better depiction than a charismatic man who kills, tortures, and manipulates for no reason at all.
He wondered if this blight had reached Terra yet. A civilization of Palmer Eldritches, gray and hollow and stooped and immensely tall, each with his artificial arm and eccentric teeth and mechanical, slitted eyes. It would not be pleasant. He, the Protector, shrank from the envisioning of it. And suppose it reaches our minds? he asked himself. Not just the anatomy of the thing but the mentality as well … what would happen to our plans to kill the thing?
– Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch