Peace in the Pieces Disassembled: Deconstructing Hannibal, part II

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II. What Would Freud Say?

For anyone who’s ever read Sigmund Freud, it is obvious that the two protagonists are manifestations of the two opposing elements in his structural model of the human psyche/mind: id and superego.

But, let’s start with the basics, for all those who haven’t read Freud;  presuming that you have read Freud would be rude, and we  wouldn’t want to be rude in a post about Hannibal now, would we?

So, Freud’s structural model of the human psyche consists of three psychic structures: id, ego, superego.

i.  I Am … Curious

Id is the unorganized,  unconscious psychic structure that contains a human’s basic, instinctual drives, and the source of our bodily needs, wants, desires, sexual and aggressive impulses. It contains libido, the sexual drive which can be manifested in all kinds of ways, creativity being the most common. Id acts according to the “pleasure principle”,  it is egotistical, and it wants immediate gratification. It is the “oldest” one of the three psychic structures proposed by Freud, the only one with which we are born. In Freud’s own words “Id knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality… Instinctual cathexes seeking discharge – that, in our view, is all there is in the id.” Only Eros and Thanatos, the life (i.e. creativity) and death (i.e. destruction) instincts are found in the id. The archetypical manifestation of id is that of God Bacchus, or the Devil.

Enters Hannibal.

He is as flamboyant, joyful, and  playful as Bacchus.

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As vindictive and prideful as the Devil.

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Hannibal realizes that someone else is taking credit for his work

He knows how to throw a party, he knows how to dress, he knows how to manipulate others and seize opportunities; he knows how to take what he wants. He enjoys his food; his wine; his psychic chess games with Will. He also enjoys  the respect and admiration of his peers.

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Hannibal knows how to indulge his senses, his desires, his fantasies.

 He admires beauty and he wants to create beauty. Remember that creativity, or simply libido resides in the id. Hannibal lives in a beautiful home, his office is designed to look like a theater stage, and, most importantly, his own crimes are “consistently theatrical“.

As Chesapeake Ripper, he always leaves a horrific yet harmonious, and thus, beautiful,  murder tableau in his crime scenes.

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As Hobbs’ copycat, he elevates his crimes to Art.

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Field kabuki

His admiration for harmonious, beautiful things and his need for creating beauty is evident everywhere in the series. It is difficult to have to choose examples for it, but I believe that the two scenes most representative of Hannibal’s libido are both found in Sorbet.

These two scenes are : the Opera Scene, and the Cooking Scene .

The Opera scene is all about Hannibal’s admiration of beauty. Beauty moves him in a way that is almost human.

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The Cooking Scene – actually, all cooking sequences in Sorbet – is about Hannibal’s libido externalizing through creativity.

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I find it disturbing, yet beautiful, in it’s own way, that the writers decided to use these two scenes in the same episode. Hannibal is “humanized” in the Opera Scene -he finally shows emotion and that is something the audience can relate to- and “dehumanized” later in the Cooking Scene -the audience is most probably appalled by the zest with which Hannibal cooks his victims.

When Will is asked how he sees the Chesapeake Ripper he replies:

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“I see him as one of those pitiful things, sometimes born in hospitals. They feed it, keep it warm, but they don’t put it on the machines. They let it die. But he doesn’t die. He looks normal and nobody can tell what he is.”

Id is the oldest of  the three psychic structures. Children are pure id until parental conditioning creates  superego, the psychic structure that consists of our personal moral standards, which are developed through parental reward/punishment and the morals set by society/culture. That is what Hannibal lacks, just like a baby born in a hospital, without parents, in social vacuuum. Hannibal may have a thousand motives for each action he makes, but, by his own admission in Relevés, his primary motive is curiosity. He is like a 3-year-old scientist, doing experiments; and, like all boys in their early stages of moral development, he does not care whether someone will get hurt.

Hannibal adds an element of chaos in every situation; he increases the entropy in every system.  This creates opportunities for him to seize, like a hunter shaking the bushes to get the birds to come out. On an episode level, the best example of chaos creating opportunities for Hannibal is in Fromage. A series of random events that he initiated leads to the killing of Tobias which he then exploits to shape his relationship with both Will and Bedelia. On the series level, his phone call to Hobbs sets the whole season in motion.

By indulging in two of modern society’s most fearful taboos – murder and cannibalism- Hannibal smashes his superego.  Since all three psychic structures are important in the development of  personality, Hannibal’s “fractured” superego constitutes arrested psychic development. Hannibal’s personality – like Will’s- is incomplete. So, from a strictly Freudian perspective we could say that Hannibal is pure id, therefore he is true Evil.

But things are much more complicated than that. Hannibal may lack the kind of morality that a superego imposes, but he is not amoral. He has his own code of ethics, a moral compass completely free of all the “should”s and “should-not”s of  modern society. Hannibal kills only those he believes to be rude, and thus, cruel and not deserving of the precious gift of Life. In his conversation with the Crawford couple  in Coquilles it is apparent that Hannibal truly believes that what he does is ethical.

“I have no taste for animal cruelty, which is why I employ an ethical butcher… No need for unnecessary suffering.”

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“Human emotions are gifts from our animal ancestors. Cruelty is a gift humanity has given itself.”

Imagine his frustration when Will criticises Chesapeake Ripper for his cruelty in Sorbet:

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Hannibal : Displaying one’s enemy after death has its appeal in many cultures.

Will: These aren’t the Ripper’s enemies, these are pests he’s swatted.

Hannibal: Their reward for their cruelty.

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 Will: He doesn’t have a problem with cruelty. Their reward is for undignified behavior. These dissections are to disgrace them. It’s a public shaming.
Hannibal: Takes their organs away because, in his mind, they don’t deserve them.
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Hannibal is disappointed, Will!

Finally, Hannibal exhibits signs of remorse whenever he kills someone who does not fit his code – namely Myriam and Franklin. His morality is not the kind idealized in a modern society where the sanctity of human life is considered the highest moral standard; but it is a kind of morality.

ii. I Am Fluid

If Hannibal is id, then Will is superego. Superego is the ethical component of the psyche, the one that provides the moral standards by which the ego (i.e.  self) operates. Cultural morality, and parental  punishment/approval during the first years of life form superego, and the superego’s criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions, form a person’s conscience.

Violations of the superego’s standards result in shame, guilt, remorse, and a need to atone for one’s actions.

Will’s superego is so strong that it stands an obstacle to human contact and meaningful relationships with his peers. It is his introversion that prevents him from having relationships. Dr. Gideon will point in Rôti that people who live inside their head can’t have relationships. But it is Alana who first speaks of the loneliness that comes with introspection, when she says in Fromage that she can’t date because she thinks too much.

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A beautiful shot of Will’s introversion

Will’s  introversion is established early in Apéritif, through his inability to maintain eye contact, especially with authority figures, like Jack. When Jack asks him to be a part of his investigation on the Minnesota Shrike killer, Will replies “That would require me to be social.” The fist person in the series with whom he makes eye contact is the dead girl’s father. This suggests that only his empathy (here also referring to sympathy) can overcome his introversion.

It is Hannibal who explains why Will avoids making eye contact, during their first common appearance in Apéritif.

Hannibal: Not fond of eye contact, are you?
Will: Eyes are distracting. You see too much. You don’t see enough. And it’s hard to focus when
you’re thinking “Those whites are really white” or “They must have
hepatitis”, or “Is that a burst vein?”.  So I try to avoid eyes
whenever possible.

Hannibal: I imagine what you see and learn touches everything else in your
mind. Your values and decency are present yet shocked at your
associations, appalled at your dreams. No forts in the bone arena of your skull for things you love.

(Will immediately resists.)

Will: Whose profile are you working on?

 Where id breeds self-obsession, apathy, aggression, sociopathy etc, superego breeds altruism, empathy, neuroses, and anxiety disorders. We can see how powerful Will’s superego is in i) his paranoia about what other people might say about him. “Anything scholarly on Will Graham would have to be published posthumously” , remarks Alana in Apéritif.

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“You wouldn’t publish anything about me, would you Dr. Lecter?”

ii) his shame for being emotionally unstable,

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Alana rejects Will for being unstable

iii) his inability to enjoy the smallest victory,

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“They applauded. It was inappropriate.”

and iv) his fear that others may realize how messed up he is.

His admission that he liked killing Hobbs comes with buckets of shame and guilt. He is so neurotic that he won’t let himself feel a tiny bit of joy for saving Abigail’s life.

Alana: Abigail Hobbs is a success for you. Will: She doesn't look like success.

Alana: Abigail Hobbs is a success for you. Will: She doesn’t look like success.

Will doesn’t have a design. His personality -like Hannibal’s- is incomplete. It lacks id. In fact, because of his empathy, his id manifests only during the pendulum scenes, where he becomes all those psychopaths and serial killers. As the crime scenes become more gruesome and Hannibal’s psychic driving begins to take its toll, his repressed id starts to manifest in reality, too.

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“Had to open you up to make a decent sound out of you.”

Both Will’s and Hannibal’s personalities are fractured. They lack important psychic structures, for which they compensate by exaggerating their opposite structures. The reason why Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter have such great rapport, is that their psyches are complementary.

Does Hannibal see Will’s psyche as complementary to his own? If yes, does that make him feel afraid of Will’s superego, reminding him of a psychic structure, “a humanity” he no longer possesses? It might be the case that just as he smashed his superego and used the pieces to assemble a morality of his own, he wants to smash Will, as a symbol for superego, only to reassemble him in a way that suits him.

It makes perfect sense that the representation of superego in the series would be someone who has so much empathy that he starts to disassociate, to lose himself, his own sense of identity.

Hannibal was correct in suggesting in Apéritif that fear is the price of Will’s imagination.

Will’s primary fear is not knowing who he is; of having a fluid personality.

His early resistance and denial of the fact

“I know who I am, Dr. Lecter.”

becomes doubt

“Do I seem different?”

and finally, realization.

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“I don’t know how to gauge who I am anymore. I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I ‘ve been gradually becoming different for a while. I just feel like somebody else.

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Hannibal: What do you feel like?
Will: I feel crazy
Hannibal: That is what you fear the most.
Will: I fear not knowing who I am.

And later he will also confide in Jack.

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“I feel like hell. Actually, I feel fluid. Like I’m spilling. Must have come down with something; hope it’s not contagious”

Will’s fear that his madness might be contagious is the most powerful manifestation of superego I have ever watched. And the most heartbreaking.

One of the things that this series does best is using the “case of the week” serial killers as mirrors for its protagonists. As Will’s mental health deteriorates, he relates more and more to these killers.  In Rôti, Dr Gideon’s sense of identity loss evidently mirrors Will’s own state of mind.

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“I don’t know if I will ever be myself again. I don’t know if I’ve got any self leftover. I spent so long thinking I was him it’s gotten really hard to remember who I was when I wasn’t him…
It’s hard to be your own person when you can’t get out of your own head.”

Will’s fear of having a “fluid personality” is also manifested in his dreams and his hallucinations in Rôti.

Take for example this dream/hallucination sequence.

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In the end, there is nothing left of Will.

Only water.

iii. I Am Bedrock

Finally, ego is represented by Jack Crawford. Ego acts according to the “reality principle”. It represents reason, common sense, and control.  Ego wants to satisfy both id and superego, it tries to mediate between the id’s instincts/desires and the superego’s cultural morality. In order to cope, ego has to employ reason and decide what is best in each situation, what suits the psyche better.

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“We have a difference of opinion. Therefore, I’m going to choose the opinion that best serves my agenda.”

From his first appearance in Apéritif, Jack establishes power and control, when he “fixes” Will’s glasses.  He violates Will’s personal space within 5 minutes of meeting him, a transgression made more serious by the fact that Crawford knows Will is on the autistic spectrum.

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The same way ego mediates between id’s desires and superego’s fears, Jack has to calm down both Hannibal’s psychopathy and Will’s neurosis in order to win the game. To do that, he needs to use all resources available. Note that ego employs a set of many psychic functions such as: reason, judgment, control, planning, memory, various defense mechanisms (denial, rationalization, intellectualization etc), and reality testing.

In Apéritif  Jack tries to establish control. He wants Will to see him as an authority figure, as someone who knows what he’s doing. At the same time he reassures Will  that he ‘s got confidence in him, and that he ‘s got his back.

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“Do you respect my judgment Will? Because we will stand a better chance of catching this guy with you in the saddle.”

In Buffet Froid he desperately tries to make Will see him as a source of stability in his life.

 Jack: Stability is good for you Will.

Will: Stability requires strong foundations, Jack.  My moorings are built on sand.

 Jack: I’m not sand. I am bedrock.

Jack uses all kinds of defense mechanisms in order to cope with being in the middle of one psychopath and one neurotic. Most often he uses denial, humor, and rationalization/ intellectualization in order to justify the way he treats Will.

In Apéritif he uses humor as a defense mechanism for alleviating his guilt , when he says to Alana “I wouldn’t put him out there if I didn’t think I could cover him. Allright, if I didn’t think I could cover him 80%.”

Humor is also used as a defense mechanism when he asks Will to do the psych eval.

Will: So, psych eval isn’t a formality?

Jack: No, it is so I can get some sleep at night. I need my beauty sleep!

In Fromage he tries to deny  the obvious deterioration of Will’s mental health.

"Is it me or is it easier for you to look?"

“Is it me or is it easier for you to look?”

In Buffet Froid he urges Will to intellectualize the crime scenes : ” What you do is you take all of the evidence available at a crime scene. You extrapolate. You reconstruct the thinking of a killer. You don’t think of yourself as the killer!”

In Rôti, he is still denying Will’s mental health issues, even when Will himself admits them.

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“This work that we do, it will  compromise your immune system only if you allow it. You gotta keep things in perspective, gotta keep yourself in perspective. You ve got to start taking better care of yourself. You just can’t take it all in. You’ve got to let go of as much of it as you can. You just got to let go.”

Even when he momentarily loses his grasp with reality because of his guilt for the death of Myriam Lass and his fear that the same thing will happen to Will,

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Jack never really loses his cool. By the end of the episode he has most probably rationalized the situation.

He looks over the wall with the photos of the Chesapeake Ripper’s victims.

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The shot implies that Jack is rationalizing that finding the Ripper, the man who murdered all these people, is far more important than one man’s mental health. He then leaves the lab, casting one last glance at the morgue where he hallucinated Will’s corpse.

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This time he doesn’t stop. He continues walking, fully aware that he might have to sacrifice Will in order to catch the Chesapeake Ripper.

* This is the second part of my meta-analysis on the tv show “Hannibal”. It covers episodes 1-12 but I might update it after watching Savoureux. You can read the first part of the analysis here.

As always, special thanks to @weirdymcweirder for her insights on the series and for proofreading this.


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5 thoughts on “Peace in the Pieces Disassembled: Deconstructing Hannibal, part II

  1. Pingback: Peace in the Pieces Disassembled: Deconstructing Hannibal, part III | Waiting for a TARDIS that never comes.

  2. Once again, this is truly amazing. You’ve got such clarity and insight into the show, I’m getting more and more excited to rewatch with all of this in mind. I’ve needed a refresher course on Freud and psychoanalysis for some time. I will definitely be referring back to your blogs!

    • Thank you so much for all the positive feedback, you are much too kind! The reason I started writing the analysis in the first place was so that I could clear my mind and better comprehend the show. I didn’t even intend to post it online at first. Most of the insights in these posts are things I have discussed with friends, and I hate to take all the credit for them. The show is so multilayered and open to interpretation that it can support all kinds of analyses (anthropological, sociological, cinematic, psychoanalytic, literary and so on). A friend told me the other day that this show is a feast. But in order to really enjoy and appreciate it you have to bring something to the table. One may bring one’s personal experiences, another a theoretical background in art or sociology or literature, cinematography, psychology etc. It doesn’t really matter what you bring as long as you are willing to offer something that is yours and yours alone: the show will support any kind of interpretation as long as the audience is fully engaged. It only asks your undivided attention. I have watched some episodes five times, and I still learn more things with each viewing.
      Bryan Fuller is a genius. And his work is so powerful that it brings out the best in his audience/critics/reviewers, too.
      Thanks again for the positive feedback, it means a lot. It’s always nice to know that your obsession/weirdness/madness is shared by others. Hannibal taught me that. ♥

  3. Pingback: Peace in the Pieces Disassembled: Deconstructing Hannibal, Part V | Waiting for a TARDIS that never comes.

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