Wrath of the Lamb: On Love and Cannibalism

I suppose this blog should come with a spoiler warning for those of you who haven’t seen NBC’s Hannibal, but most of you reading this have either already seen, or have no intention of ever seeing, the show.
Hannibal is one of the most brilliant and criminally underrated shows of the decade, and one of my favorite shows of all time. Everyone is relatively familiar with the narrative: Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant, worldly psychiatrist who just so happens to eat his patients. But the show takes the story so much farther in the way they explore the nature of evil and, above all things, love. In fact, during the press junket for the final season last year, show runner Bryan Fuller called the show first and foremost “a love story.”

Hannibal follows the complex and symbiotic relationship of Dr. Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham. Will Graham is an empath: he is so emotionally attuned to the people around him that he can literally step into their minds and assume their perspective. This is what makes him such a good profiler, because he understands serial killers on a deep level. He can relate to them, and understand why they do the things they do. He is paired with Hannibal for psychological counseling to make sure he doesn’t get TOO comfortable in a serial killer’s mind, and the two begin working together to track a killer called the Chesapeake Ripper, who, ultimately ends up being Hannibal Lecter. But Hannibal recognizes something in Will that goes beyond empathy. He sees Will’s relationship to serial killers as untapped potential to become a serial killer. As a being–a creature more than a person–who is so far removed from humanity, Hannibal feels a spark at the prospect of finally being understood. Of finally connecting. In essence, he falls in love with Will.

What unfolds is a deliciously evil and insidious manipulation in which Hannibal works himself into Will’s mind and gradually convinces Will he is a killer. He plays to Will’s inner darkness so well because he recognizes that same darkness in himself, and he believes that by getting Will to embrace that darkness, he will finally have a companion. By the time Will realized without a doubt what he’s always suspected–that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper–he has already killed someone himself, and is dangerously close to losing himself as he becomes what Hannibal wants.

Season 2 climaxes in a bloodbath when Hannibal, who believes he’s finally transformed Will into his soulmate, prepares to run away with him. But Will, who is holding fast to his final fragment of self, arrives at the house, not to abscond with Hannibal, but to either arrest him or convince him to run away alone.

As Hannibal slices Will’s stomach open and slits the throat of a girl they’d saved together, who they come to view as a shared daughter, he tells will, “I gave you a rare gift. I let you see me–know me. But you didn’t want it. Did you think you’d change me, as I’ve changed you?”

Before Will loses consciousness, he whispers, “I already have.”

I often find myself in Hannibal’s kitchen, having either metaphorically stabbed or been stabbed by the person I’m trying to let see me. Strip away the cannibalism and the murder, and this is the story of two people who understand each other more intimately than anyone in the world, yet spend their entire relationship trying to transform the other into a version of them self. In essence, this is the story of two people trying to consume each other. It’s the quintessential example of what the Joker meant when he told Batman, “this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”

Well, I am an unstoppable force. And I only ever fall in love with immovable objects. 

My therapist and I have a system that works pretty well. She and I have similar tastes in movies and books, so I often use scenes like the one I described above to explain what I’m feeling. She’s able to pick up on what I mean, and we analyze the scene as a lens to explore something about myself. 

“Why do you think Hannibal stabbed Will? What do you think he meant when he said Will didn’t want him?” That’s a question she’s asked a lot.

“I think that scene is a physical representation of the moment in every relationship when you realize you can’t consume the person you love–you either have to realize that you will never be perfectly understood, or exist in total union with someone, or you have to let go.”

“And what happens when you choose to accept that you can’t consume the one you love? CAN you survive the way that tears you open? Can you be okay with bleeding a little, and moving forward with the person you love and accept that they can’t be another version of you?”

“I can’t accept that yet,” I usually say. “But I want to. But I will.”

“Who are you in the kitchen? Hannibal or Will?”

It’s taken me about thirteen views of that episode and countless hours of rumination to realize that I’m both of them.

The most obvious projection of myself in this scenario is Will. Will is an empath, as am I. Will is plagued by the incredible burden of feeling–his life is governed by emotion that he fights endlessly to reign in. I myself often feel like I feel too much: like my life would be easier if I felt nothing at all. That’s where the allure of Hannibal Lecter comes in. Hannibal is unfeeling, apathetic and in complete governance of his internal world. He is the God of his own universe, and as somebody who often feels like my gods live beneath my feet and guide my every step as they hold onto my ankles, I tend to idolize people who are in control. Hannibal embodies everything I covet, all the principles I perceive to be “right.” I want to BE Hannibal, and so does Will, but ultimately I cannot. I exist in a constant state of feeling everything in and around me. My idolization creates a violent tension as I both blame myself for not being able to become the other person, and blame the other person for being so perfect. I go to the house, unsure if I’m going to join Hannibal, and end up opening myself up because that’s just not who I am.

That’s a pattern I often find myself in, which is why, more often than not, I am Will. On the flip side, however, I have a bit of Hannibal in me. I crave understanding and union with another person so much that when I think it’s within my grasp, I try harder than ever to transform the other person. I want to consume. I want to exist in total harmony with someone. I will manipulate, and I will do anything I can to make the other person see me. I can be insidious like Hannibal, in that way, and when I don’t succeed, I sometimes make a mess.

It’s strange being both people in a relationship: the empath who just wants to be himself, and the calculated puppet master who wants to be one with someone else. I often can’t tell which role I’m playing, or which of the two I’ve fallen in love with.

I guess the lesson here is to stop going into the kitchen trying to change the other person. In another scene, right before launching a knife at somebody, Hannibal says “The most beautiful quality of any relationship is to understand and be understood with absolute clarity.” Maybe understanding can be reached without becoming someone else, or without asking someone else to become you. I haven’t learned how, yet, but I’m trying to. 

Without eating anybody.


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