TV Rewind: Why Hannibal Is the Unexpected Story of Empathy We Need Right Now

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TV Rewind: Why <i>Hannibal</i> Is the Unexpected Story of Empathy We Need Right Now

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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In the midst of everything we’re all dealing with right now—global pandemic, civil unrest, social isolation and loads of vague, general anxiety—it seems more than a bit bizarre to recommend one of television’s bloodiest, most violent, and downright disturbing offerings as something akin to a comfort binge watch. Yet, there has rarely been a better time to watch Hannibal, NBC’s (!) incredible small screen adaptation of the world of Thomas Harris’ best-selling books, which fills in the backstory of his most infamous creation, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), alongside an unstable FBI agent named Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).

The show is monstrous and beautiful by turns, crafting dark tableaus of death and torture drizzled with blood and gore that are nevertheless stunning to behold. Its bizarre, dedicated focus on death—and the twisted minds that often perpetrate it—isn’t exactly soothing, yet its heightened, frequently operatic tone often prevents viewers from feeling as though these graphic horrors are terribly immediate, or ones they might encounter in their own lives.

This distance allows for a certain feeling of space from the show’s most frightening elements. But Hannibal also employs its excessive premise to focus on interiority—using dark, flashy murders as a way to investigate what makes its characters, and by extension, its audience tick. (Particularly in its first season.) Just maybe not quite in the way you expect.

Because, yes, Hannibal Lecter is a monster: a man who murders others and eats them, who manipulates everyone around him, who tortures and gaslights even those he claims to care about. He’s also charming, charismatic, highly intelligent, and impossible to look away from. It’s easy to understand how he brazened his way through the real world he despised for so long. And, for viewers, half the fun of Season 1 is watching others determinedly not see that a monster was sitting among them all along.

But it’s also not really the point.

Though the show is named for Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal, is actually the story of Will Graham, a FBI profiler and everyman figure who suffers from a unique psychological condition that makes him highly sensitive to the emotions of others. His empathic ability is so pronounced that it’s generally seen as a superpower around the Bureau, and he’s frequently asked to use his special gifts to put himself—literally—in the minds of serial killers and other violent criminals.

In the world of Hannibal, Will Graham isn’t a hero so much as a tortured soul, a highly emotionally-aware individual whose very existence in the world often appears to serve as a sort of 24/7 debridement. Despite knowing how difficult—even dangerous—this empathic sensitivity can be for him, FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) continues to drag Will to increasingly grisly crime scenes, in the hopes that he’ll be able to use his ability to figure out what kind of murderer his team is dealing with and where he might strike next.

Given how difficult some of these scenes are to watch—and they include everything from bodies skinned and arranged to look like angels, a human throat strung like a cello, and corpses used as a garden to grow rare mushrooms—the idea of mentally inhabiting them, even with the best of intentions, feels horrific. Yet, this is what Will does week after week, offering himself up as a sort of psychological sacrifice to try to see and understand the worst among us, over and over again.

Over the course of Hannibal’s first season, Will repeatedly tells his FBI colleagues and us, the audience watching at home, how difficult it is to keep looking these horrors, to willingly surrender himself to the mindset of killers and victims alike. There’s something both kind and also frustratingly performative in his coworkers’ insistence that he isn’t alone in his dark work—because no matter how well Jack the other FBI team members may intend, Will’s path is one he must walk alone. He alone is envisioning himself slitting the throats of teen girls, or burying victims alive. And it is he alone who must bear the emotional and mental consequences of that work.

As Neitzsche once famously explained, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” As Will struggles to maintain his grip on his sanity, the audience is continually asked whether we still trust his motives, and whether we can have a similar empathy for the character who has been our repeated window into the darkest places of the world. A communal experience, that’s distinctly at odds with Will’s solitary one, but no less important or necessary.

Hannibal repeatedly asks us not to look away—and not just from the gory, highly staged blood baths on our screens. This is a show that urges us to not look away from others or the pain they carry, no matter how difficult this is or how dangerous it can ultimately become. But it wants us to do it anyway. Together.

There are many lessons to be found in Hannibal, about the beauty of death and the messiness of life, about the complex nature of what it means to love someone, about mental stability and the importance of asking for help when we need it. But perhaps its greatest takeaway is proof of the power and necessity of empathy.

As we live through frightening and uncertain times, perhaps more than ever we need our entertainment to remind us that we cannot allow the brutality of the world around us to dull the ways we respond to it. We need to look, even when it’s difficult, because to not do so is irresponsible and dangerous. Granted, we aren’t all out here investigating brutal serial murders (and if you are, you probably need a much better coping mechanism than Netflix), but we are witnessing something that’s unprecedented in our lifetimes. Look at it, and embrace the way that internalizing that horror can be used to help stop it. It’s what Will Graham would do.

Watch on Netflix


Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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