For the second time in about three days, I’m writing Hannibal meta…
As I hopefully made clear in my post from the other night, the central plot of Hannibal is Hannibal attempting to manipulate Will into being his friend. But the way Hannibal does this is fascinating: he tricks Will into not trusting his own mind or his own senses, basically driving him insane. Does this sound at all familiar? It should; this is the textbook definition of gaslighting.
If you’ve never heard of gaslighting before (and it’s a pity if you haven’t), here’s a brief explanation. It comes from the 1938 play “Gas Light” in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s insane by dimming the gas lights in their house and then insisting that she’s imagining things when she points it out. Oftentimes, it’s used in abusive relationships to convince the abuse victim that they’re overreacting to the actions of the abuser. It’s also used a disheartening number of times in arguments about feminism, when men (and even women who harbor internalized misogyny as well) tell feminists they’re going crazy over nothing.
This makes its application in Hannibal nothing short of fascinating, because the gender roles are reversed.
Will is, without a doubt, more manly-appearing than Hannibal. He lives with fifteen or so dogs, he has a generous coating of half-stubble-half-beard, he dresses like one of the Winchester brothers, and he is often shown committing violent acts (the fact that he’s in his trance state when this happens doesn’t matter in this context). Hannibal, in contrast, is very much queer-coded by our society’s standards – he loves cooking, he enjoys opera and art, he always dresses impeccably, he’s almost always calm, and the violent acts we see him commit onscreen are never as violent as Will’s, so that when we do see him slamming Alana’s head into a wall, or killing Miriam or Tobias, it’s more of a shock than it is with Will.
Think about it: the more stereotypically feminine character is gaslighting the more stereotypically masculine character.
It might be tempting to just pass this off as a side effect of Hannibal being the manipulative psychopath in this situation, if it weren’t for the fact that so much of the show focuses on Will’s descent into madness. In merely twelve episodes, Will has gone from knowing exactly where his horse is hitched to not knowing what’s real and what’s fantasy, and we see this all too clearly. He hasn’t gone into a clear trance state in something like three episodes. He panicked in “Buffet Froid” and contaminated the crime scene. He hallucinates about stags and Garrett Jacob Hobbs all the time – it’s a wonder those hallucinations haven’t gotten him killed yet. We as viewers are clearly supposed to empathize with Will. Jack Crawford’s role in Will’s madness cannot and should not be overlooked – he’s the one who keeps sending Will into these godawful crime scenes and forcing him to channel his inner psychopath – but Hannibal is responsible for a great deal of this. He insinuates that Jack will do nothing but hurt Will in the long run. He doesn’t tell Will about his encephalitis, instead letting the disease run rampant. He lies to Will’s face in “Rôti” (which begets the heartbreaking title line).
So on those select few occasions when Hannibal glances for a split second at the camera, it’s almost as if he’s asking, “See how it feels?”
Indeed, I hope everyone who’s ever gaslit anyone sees Will Graham’s face and sees how it feels to be told over and over you’re overreacting, you’re seeing things, you’re crazy.
It doesn’t feel good.