Kill Your Darlings: Hannibal, Culture & Morality

By Emma Louise Backe

When I was a child, I would ask my parents why the bad guys never won in the movies. I asked not because I necessarily sympathized with the villains—although my favorite Disney character was Scar from The Lion King—but because, even as a kid, I was not naïve enough to believe that the good guys always won. I knew for a fact that the bad guys probably won just as often, if not more so, as the good guys, and I wondered why those more sinister stories never made it to the big screen. It seemed neglectful to me that directors always favored the so-called good guys and were never brave enough to cleave closer to the truth by revealing an ending that perhaps favored the treacherous, the selfish, the cruel. This desire to see the bad guys win has never left me, and subsequently I’m often drawn to more macabre media.

Most recently, I’ve been intrigued by the second season of Hannibal and its willingness to show the disintegration of its titular character Will Graham. Throughout the past season, the likable protagonist of Season One has begun to grapple far more directly with the very monsters and criminals he so loathes to inhabit mentally. From its very beginning, Hannibal established a unique character dynamic and perspective on iniquity. Anyone familiar with Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon (both the movies and the books) knows Hannibal Lector to be a cannibalistic, though cunning killer. Yet in the show, Hannibal as a still practicing psychologist is charismatic, refined, and, dare I say, likeable. If you follow news on the show’s fan base, especially on the platform Tumblr, you’ll discover the coterie of admirers that actually lust after Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal. Though the essential conceit of the show is the audience’s foreknowledge that Hannibal’s exquisitely prepared meals feature human flesh, we can’t help but be attracted to him, lured in by his equanimity. In such a way, Dr. Alana’s Bloom’s sexual relationship is almost the embodiment of the audience’s own projections—though she can sense the danger lurking just beneath the surface, Bloom instead allows herself to be seduced. We don’t sympathize with Hannibal but we also don’t detest. As thigh, liver and heart pâtédance upon Hannibal and his guest’s palette, we relish this conniving, self-conscious killer who has no quips with his own morality and is the most self-assured character in the cast.

At the end of Season One, Will Graham is framed and wrongfully accused of being the Chesapeake Ripper, set up by Hannibal Lecter in a bizarre psychological experiment. We yearn for Will, so much like the puppies he rescues, to be exonerated and redeem himself in the eyes of his colleagues and the court. But instead, incarceration allows Will the space to probe and explore his own inner darkness, the darkness that has always allowed him an uncanny insight into the minds of killers. His desire to kill Hannibal and his duration in prison unleashes a more menacing side of Will Graham, one willing to accept the pleasure he gets from killing. This is the season of Will Graham’s monstrous becoming, in which the more malevolent aspects of his personality gain ascendency over his more benevolent ones, and we’re never entirely certain of his intents. Yet he pushes against classification.http://fuckinghannibal.tumblr.com/post/52739848402 In Episode 10 of Season 2, Will says to Hannibal during a therapy session, “You can’t reduce me to a set of influences,” gesturing at the nature vs. nurture debate, as well as the role culture plays in personality and identity. Indeed, Hannibal actually reiterates the same line to Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, adding, “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened […] You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism… nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?” Such a statement confronts the contingencies of morality, the mysteries of the human mind and the interstitial spaces between good and evil.

More generally, Hannibal aims to vex philosophies of morality. Anthropologists have often debated the cultural dependency and relativity of values or morals, the mutable and variable shapes that good and evil can take. Many anthropologists even question whether the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights comes from an inherently Western, and therefore ethnocentric and Christian approach to morality, and subsequently whether such stipulations can truly speak and be applied to all humans in all cultures. Cannibalism has been historically practiced in a multitude of cultures, many of which consumed human flesh to honor the human, rather than defile it. Some cultures believe that they need to consume the bodies of deceased relatives to absorb their power and honor their soul or spirit. Early archaeological evidence of Neanderthal remains even suggests that cannibalism may have be a practice dating back to our very emergence as a species that practiced religion and imbued death with a ritual significance.

Will Graham derives pleasure from killing killers through his own version of vigilante justice. He hates the murders he helps to bring to justice for their horrific crimes, but he also intimately understands and empathizes with them. Is it necessarily wrong to find some sense of vindictive justice in killing a man who slaughtered children? Is Will more culpable for his crimes if he enjoys them, even if they come from a “morally just” ideology? The underlying philosophical question that still charges comic book movies today is what makes a person or an action good or bad. Can we truly separate the two into discrete boxes? It is a question that has plagued philosophers, political scientists, economists and social scientists for centuries. Do we rely on Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian motto, “The greatest good for the greatest number?” or are some acts more morally reprehensible than others? Many structural functionalists (such as Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life) have theorized that religions were invented to create a social pact and moral code that would thereby ensure the stability and success of a community. What is criminal in one society may be considered heroic in another. Scientists, neurologist and geneticists have similarly been attempting to test whether people can be genetically, biologically or socially predisposed to violence. What really terrifies us, and what captivates us about shows like Hannibal, is the moral ambiguity the suffuses real life.

Hannibal breaks the mold by finally showing us what it means to see the demons beat the angels, like when Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight Rises is so consumed by hatred and anger that he transforms into Two Face. Shows like Hannibal reveal the dark and the light sides of life, highlight the expanse of gray that lies between and reveals the seductive power of badness.

 

References

Eckholm, Erik (1986). “What is the Meaning of Cannibalism?” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/12/09/science/what-is-the-meaning-of-cannibalism.html

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn (1995). “Anthropologists, Cultural Relativism, and Universal Rights.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/gender/culturalrelativism.html

“Functions of Religion.” Boundless. https://www.boundless.com/sociology/understanding-religion/the-functionalist-perspective/functions-of-religion/

Harris, Thomas (1991). The Silence of the Lambs. St. Martin’s Paperbacks.

“The History of Utilitarianism” (2009). Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/

“The Psychopath Test” (2011). This American Life. Chicago Public Radio & Ira Glass. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/436/transcript

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About Emma Louise Backe

I graduated from Vassar College, which makes me an official liberal-arts witch, where I majored in Cultural Anthropology and English. I focused on the intersection between medical anthropology and folklore, indigenous narrative practices and healing techniques, and the role of language and storytelling in healing. I'm a logophile at heart--the bookish type that's always carrying around three or four books, loves experimenting with language, and has something of an Indiana Jones complex. I've worked in South Africa at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit; interned with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The NAMES Project Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health; served as Head Consultant of Vassar College's Writing Center; volunteered with Peace Corps on community health empowerment; and worked as the Research Assistant at The Global Women's Institute at George Washington University. I have spent most of my professional career working on human rights issues, specifically violence against women and girls and reproductive health rights. I am currently pursuing my Master's at George Washington University.

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