Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Are We Getting Desensitized to Evil? (Hannibal)

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat, okay? Yeah, it’s about that Hannibal. The one who eats people. The one whose character has now been played by, what, four actors? Form the Thomas Harris Red Dragon books, and Silence of the Lambs, and that really terrifying mask. Hannibal the Cannibal.

I guess I speak for our culture when I say that we can’t get enough of our cannibalistic serial killers?

Okay, I’ll be straight, I am not exactly cool with myself for how much I enjoy this show. Because while it is a very good show, there’s really no doubt of that, it’s still a show about a cannibalistic serial killer, and I’m a bit uncomfortable with how easily I can justify his actions.

But let’s back up and start from the beginning.

Hannibal is a show on NBC based, as mentioned above, on a series of books by Thomas Harris about a really terrifying man named Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The books have previously been made into several films, the best known of which is The Silence of the Lambs.

This show, created by the awesome and lovely Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, so I guess he likes shows about dead stuff), follows FBI Profiler Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy. Will’s primary job is to teach at the FBI academy, because he’s unstable enough mentally to have been pulled out of fieldwork. When a series of high-profile murders occurs, though, his old boss, Jack Crawford (a connivingly perfect Laurence Fishburne) convinces him to step back into the field.

Will’s an amazing detective because his various mental disorders give him the ability to empathize with anyone, and to suss out the various motives and actions at a crime scene by getting inside a murderer’s head. Unfortunately, this makes him very prone to the crazies, since some killer’s heads are a little hard to get back out of.

And here enters Dr. Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen. Hannibal is Will’s psychiatrist, there to make sure he doesn’t go off the deep end, but not engaged in any official capacity, since that would have to be reported to the Bureau, and Jack can’t have that.

Will is also counseled by his old friend Dr. Alana Bloom, another psychiatrist (this one played by Caroline Dhavernas). Will and Dr. Bloom have a little bit of an ill-advised flirtation, but that’s tempered by Will’s raging mental instability and the interference (surprise!) of the good Dr. Lecter.

Actually, the show contains a lot of really awesome female characters, from daughter of another cannibalistic serial killer Abigail Hobbs, to the hilariously snarky and generally awesome Beverly Katz, to the ice queen of awesome and Hannibal’s shrink Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson, at her uptight best). And there are more.

The show is a basic monster of the week deal, though the monsters are terrifying and grotesque, even more so than on the similarly themed Criminal Minds. I won’t go into details here, but suffice to say that there isn’t a single crime scene from the show that isn’t burned into my retinas. All of this contrasts nicely with the absolutely beautiful art direction, sumptuous settings, and really just eye-popping visuals.

So what of the story? Well, the plot itself is much more serialized than one usually sees on network cop dramas. The emphasis is much less on the cases the Bureau investigates, and more on the relationship between Hannibal and Will, as it descends into mutually assured destruction. You see, Hannibal actually really likes Will, as much as he likes anyone, and he genuinely wants to help him. But for Hannibal Lecter, “helping” someone means helping them discover their untapped potential for, you guessed, murdering people.

Will, however, is pretty solidly good when he isn’t having his psyche hijacked by foreign killers or (SPOILER ALERT) a pretty nasty case of encephalitis. As he comes to trust Hannibal and consider him a friend, you can see how hard it is for him to deal with the sketchier things he finds his friend doing. Like admitting to covering up a murder, for instance.

Psychologically, the show is intriguing and well done. The writing is great, acting superb, and like I mentioned before, it’s beautiful to look it, if a little icky.

So why am I conflicted about liking such a well-made, thought-provoking show?

Because I am really, deeply uncomfortable with what it says about us as a culture. I am troubled by the leap we’ve made since Silence of the Lambs, where we no longer view the cannibalistic serial killer as a terrifying monster in a civilized suit, but where we think of him as funny, and a little charming, and kind of, sort of sympathize with his point of view.

That is messed up.

I’m not exonerating myself here. Hannibal is a compelling character, with his mystery, dark sense of humor, and appallingly human motives. He really just wants to be understood by someone he admires, and if that means murdering people and serving them to his guests while leaving tantalizing clues at crime scenes and framing people and being generally horrible, then that’s that.

What worries me is that I wanted Hannibal to win. Now, logically, of course I didn’t. That would be crazy. But emotionally? I was all in. Totally. Even when he was being manipulative and actually, genuinely evil.


I think it’s another form of desensitization, really. We’ve spent so long looking at monsters, on shows like Law and Order and Criminal Minds, then Dexter and Ripper Street and Oz, that we don’t really see it anymore. We know, intellectually, that this is evil, but we can’t really get there emotionally. It’s become just so much background noise. The shocking is no longer so alarming, and with good writing anyone can be sympathetic, right?

Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean we should actually sympathize with them.

I worry sometimes that with all of our anti-heroes and dark dramas and movies with villains as the lead character, and even cute shows like Dr. Horrible we’re getting too comfortable with evil. Seriously. We cozy up to it and ask it about its feelings and we forget that it is, well, evil.

More than that, though, we’ve lost the ability as a culture to find value in the uncomplicatedly good. We love our dark twisted heroes with their angsty backstories and messed up motivations. I’m just as guilty of it as anyone – that’s literally the exact reason I can’t stand Superman, because he’s so just plain good.

But good is good. There is value in it. And really, a talented writer can make an interesting character that is also truly and deeply good. A talented writer should do that.

There’s enough evil out there in the world that we don’t need to be inviting it into our television sets too, then making it tea and asking it about its feelings. Hannibal is a very good show, but it’s a good show that makes me feel like a bad person, and I’m not okay with that.

Oh, and Gina Torres is in it too.


  1. I'm not sure I entirely agree. On the one hand, yes, we don't want to excuse people who eat folks as though they've done no wrong.

    But I think learning to empathize even with those we consider evil is actually a sign that we are becoming MORE empathic as a culture, rather than less. More and more we see the world as full of shades of grey, and don't want to blindly hate people without good reason. I think we're starting to believe more and more that true evil doesn't exist; that everyone's actions HAVE an explanation and a motivation, even if we would be otherwise tempted to just see them as monsters.

    Obviously if this leads us to seeing serial killers as "just misunderstood," maybe that might be a bad thing. But what if it leads us to seeing gang members as just misunderstood? What if it leads us to wanting to understand the motivations of people in poverty who commit crimes to prevent their own starvation or protect their own safety? What if it makes us understand the root causes of what we see as "evil," and therefore sympathetically help to address and cure it, rather than just dismissing it or blindly attacking it in fear? I think understanding the nuances of people's actions and their point of view - ESPECIALLY people that we would otherwise dismiss or fear - may actually be a healthy sign.

    You see what I'm getting at here, right? I think perhaps that we, as a culture, ARE Will Graham.

    1. Yes, I think the increase of empathy is a good thing overall, but I actually do believe that there is a line that must be drawn. It's not one we've crossed yet, but I think understanding what the line is would help us immensely. It's lovely to have empathy for the hurt and broken and misguided we see every day. But. Having empathy for their plight and fully understanding why they made the choices they made doesn't mean we let them keep doing those things. It's fine for our culture to be Will Graham, but if Will Graham ever starts excusing murderers because he understands where they're coming from too well, then that's a bit much.

      What I'm saying is, I believe in compassion. Hardcore. I've devoted quite a lot of my life to it and the belief that understanding where someone is coming from can change how you view them and how they view themselves. But I believe firmly that there is such a thing as evil in this world. I don't think we should go all nuts and start firing randomly and protecting ourselves against any possible threats, etc. Nor do I think we should go full on relativist and accept that everyone's point of view is equally valid. Both of those things are dumb. We need a middle ground.

  2. More than that, though, we’ve lost the ability as a culture to find value in the uncomplicatedly good.

    This is why I like Ghost Whisperer.

    1. I haven't actually seen it. I take it I should?

    2. It's often schmaltzy and sappy - though it can put its heroine and guest stars through the wringer on the way there - but at its heart, it's about a woman who can see ghosts, and decides that this means she can help people both living and dead, and so she should do that. Mostly episodic, but a short arc kicks in near the end of each season.

      First three seasons are better than the latter two, but that's far from uncommon.

    3. Very true. I'll have to check that out, it sounds up my alley! Thanks for the rec, dude.

  3. Hi Deborah, very interesting post! I took another angle on this topic on my blog and focused more on the gender imbalance in these shows: WHERE ARE ALL THE FEMALE SERIAL KILLERS ON TV? http://www.femitup.com/jackie-the-ripper-where-are-all-the-female-serial-killers-on-tv/

    1. PS, I liked your blog! Good stuff. I do a links post on Saturdays, and you're fully welcome to come and self-promote in the comments. :D

  4. Hi Deborah, this is a very interesting post! I also feel very conflicted when watching these programs since I also find myself secretly empathizing or kind of rooting for the killer, at least when he's given a sympathetic portrayal by the writers. Not so much with Hannibal or the truly sadistic and misogynistic killers TV tends to romanticize these days (like Red John or Joe Carroll), but I think many viewers really love the notion of Dexter and find themselves identifying with him. Is this good for our collective psyche? Probably not, especially when the victims are predominantly women.

    I took another angle on this topic on my blog and focused more on the gender imbalance in these shows: WHERE ARE ALL THE FEMALE SERIAL KILLERS ON TV? http://www.femitup.com/jackie-the-ripper-where-are-all-the-female-serial-killers-on-tv/

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Nice article! I guess I fall more into the side of things where I would prefer fewer serial killers and less violence in general on our screens. I do agree that female representation is important, though women are statistically less likely to be serial killers. I guess I feel mixed. On the one hand, I love a good female villain. But on the other, I'd really like it if I wasn't turning on the TV and constantly seeing murders and rapes and serial killers. That would be good.

      So I don't know.

      Oh, and Moriarty on Elementary was fabulous and I think you'd love her. Natalie Dormer is awesome.