Digesting Hannibal – Season 1, Ep3

Episode 3 – Potage

We open with Garrett Jacob Hobbs and Abigail Hobbs observing a deer. They’re hunting together. She misses the first time, but succeeds the second. Yet she’s distressed over killing it. She’s internally conflicted about killing, while her father is happy. She tells her father about how amazing deers are supposed to be, with regret. Her father one-ups her on each statement; they’re still beautiful and smart, even in death. He has the plan to “honor her” and use all of her parts, but have his daughter do the cutting with a knife. She’s distressed. He’s desensitizing her to what she doesn’t want to do: the horror of taking a life and the gory reality of the body afterwards. “Eating her is honoring her. Otherwise it’s just… murder.” She cuts the deer and runs her hand through its fur, flashing to the hair and body of a victim of her father.

She wakes up in the hospital, her intubation tube still in place. She’s haunted by what she did with her father. It comes out in her dreams. Many dream theories, going back to Freud, believe we compartmentalize or hide away things that are unacceptable. Yet they sneak out in our dreams, often disguised. Maybe this is because only when disguised can they get close enough to our conscious awareness that we won’t try to shove them back down out of fear/shame/etc. 

We move to Will’s home, where he’s letting his dogs out. Alana Bloom shows up on his lawn to tell him Abigail has woken up. Will seems a bit shaken, and Alana presses them to sit down for coffee. She noticed that Will is shaken, and she presses him to take a pause before diving in. She’s fulfulling a basic role: protecting him when he doesn’t think to protect himself. His impulse is to dive in. They sit silently with their coffee as Jack calls on the phone. Alana conveys that Jack believes Abigail was an accomplice. Will wants to help her. Alana wants to protect him from having to “save her.” They agree to have Alana be the one to talk to Abigail. Alana posits that the first person to talk to Abigail shouldn’t be someone who was there. Another might argue that she would feel more understood by someone who was there. It would definitely complicate things for someone who has a tendency to over-empathize, though. Will needs distance. He needs boundaries.

Alana goes to meet Abigail, introducing herself. Alana says “not medicine… I’m a psychiatrist.” It’s a funny distinction. Psychiatrists are medical doctors. We go to medical school. Then we specialize in the mind/brain and behavior. The reason this is important is many people don’t know the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Both have doctorates, but in a medical setting some people believe it to misleading to call yourself a doctor without an MD (or DO – more on that another time). More often a psychiatrist will say “my specialty is psychiatry,” or “not internal medicine.” Things like that. Alana says that she specializes in “Family Trauma.” Psychiatrists do subspecialize. Technically psychiatry is the specialty (like surgery is the specialty of surgeons), and then a subspecialty can be practiced such as forensic psychiatry (presumably one of Bloom’s real subspecialties), or cardiothoracic surgery for a surgeon.

All the more interesting is Abigail being treated at the Port Haven psychiatric facility. This is never explained. People are psychiatrically hospitalized for only a few reasons — because they are suicidal, psychotic, or manic. Few other reasons are typical, aside from an occasional drug detox. For Abigail we’ve been given zero reasons for her to be hospitalized. We could presume a rationale such as concern for trauma and PTSD, but these aren’t reasons to hospitalize someone, usually.

Abigail notes that she knows her parents are dead, and Alana seems to have information. They’re dead. They haven’t been buried. Abigail’s mother was cremated. Her father “is more complicated.” Abigail admits she knows her father was “crazy.” Alana challenges that Abigail had told the nurses she didn’t remember. “I remember, I just didn’t want to talk to them about it.” Now this is an incredibly revealing moment. For one, it’s real. People don’t talk about everything with every person. More importantly, it reveals that Abigail can be duplicitous, and lie to people she doesn’t want to talk to. It further means that no one aside from her will really know what happened unless she chooses to disclose it. 

Abigail states she wants to sell her family house. Alana watches, with the faintest airs of surprise and suspicion. Wanting to sell the house might be an effort to distance herself from the horrors of her father. We’re not sure. Alana brought her clothes, in a very sweet and motherly way. In this way Bloom is mixing roles. If she’s a forensic psychiatrist, often her job is assessment for the court, not treatment. Forensic evaluators don’t have to maintain confidentiality, and spell that out up front. Bloom, though, is presenting herself more clinically. She’s playing the role of a caregiver, presumably to get Abigail to trust and open up. She has not spelled out her role though with her, as a clinician or evaluator. And for the drama it’s more interesting to leave it ambiguous.

Alana goes on to offer her music as well, and discloses that she has a “problem” redeeming gift cards. It’s a subtle personal disclosure, for the purpose of trying to form a relationship. “By telling something about me, maybe you’ll trust me enough to tell me about you.” Abigail takes the bait. “Probably says something about you.”

Back at the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit), Jack sits down with Hannibal and Alana. He emphasizes the urgency of getting info from Abigail. Alana in turn emphasizes the need to create a safe space for her to get her to open up. This is a particularly self-psychology approach, a branch of psychoanalysis. Jack mistakenly views this as her being empathic and trying to protect Abigail. Alana reveals she questions her state of mind, believes she’s hiding something, yet doubts she could have really assisted the murders physically. She and Hannibal end up taking different sides, with Hannibal suggesting she might just be hiding the trauma, and Alana noting her history of manipulation. This is a common bias that health professionals of all kinds see: withholding of information is manipulative, and thus nefarious. In this context we don’t really know her ulterior motives, and the presence of selectively disclosing information is no more nefarious than openly disclosing everything is naïve. Jack wants Will to see her. Alana wants to protect Will, but Jack clarifies that Hannibal is Will’s psychiatrist. This hadn’t officially been spelled out before. Hannibal was at most an evaluator, rather than someone who focused on treating Will’s state of mind. 

Back in the lecture hall, Will lectures on Hobbs and his copycat. Jack and Hannibal step in and listen as Will describes the copycat (ie Hannibal): An intelligent sociopath who will be hard to catch, as he won’t murder this way again. He’s an avid reader of Freddie Lounds, and had intimate knowledge of everything of Hobbs (motive, procedure, etc). This is a fantastic device in continuing the cat-mouse dynamic of Will and Hannibal, which is played out on multiple levels. Will even opines that the mystery caller to Hobbs before his death was the copycat. The real drama in the scene is not Will, but Hannibal’s response to his own profile. The Act ends with Hannibal smiling, an uncommon act out.

At the psychiatric facility, Abigail [skeptically] talks with Freddie Lounds. It’s a game of manipulation. Freddie attempts to convince Abigail she’s worth disclosing her story to. Abigail is cautious and calculated. She gets Freddie to spill what she knows. “Your father was sick.” “Does that mean I’m sick, too?” Abigail works hard to hide the emotions, but lets slip the concern that she’s a psychopath like her father. In so many ways this parallels Will and Hannibal, with Will being the unwitting apprentice. 

Most courts do not consider psychopathy or its many forms (sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, psychopathic personality disorder) to be a “mental illness” in the form that would qualify for exculpation. Typically the term is NGRI (not guilty by reason of insanity). There’s a whole history to this, but in short psychopaths aren’t considered “insane” in the legal sense, and thus are responsible for their actions. Furthermore there is little evidence that treatment by psychiatric hospitalization is helpful, though some select countries like the UK have tried. 

Freddie makes the case that the public will perceive Abigail as being like her father, so she needs to protect against that by controlling the information she gets out. Abigail counters that she doesn’t care what other people think. This is further revealing about her state, that if she doesn’t care then her reasons for withholding information from the nurses isn’t because of shame. Or at least that’s the profile she wants to portray to Freddie. Abigail asks how her father got caught, and Freddie describes Will (as he’s walking in) as a man who catches the insane because he can think like them, because he himself is insane. What an introduction!

Abigail admits that she remembers Will as the person who killed her father. Not a great place to start engaging with someone. They go for a walk and discuss her parents. “He was loving right up to the moment he wasn’t.” Such an experience would have to shake someone’s ability to trust ever again. Anyone in the future who appears trustworthy could turn on her. Will tells her she isn’t the same as him, and that the good she saw in him must have been because of her. She admits fearing the future— her own nightmares, the psychological effects of it all. Hannibal promises “we” will help. Will normalizes her experience, that there’s no “getting used to” it. He even discloses that he fears his own nightmares over killing, calling the experience “the ugliest thing in the world.” Hannibal watches. This is undoing his agenda to transform Will. 

On the way out they run into Freddie, who attempts to manipulate Will. She offers to undo the statements about Will she made to Abigail. “I can also make them a lot worse.” Will responds with a threat, that one shouldn’t piss off someone who thinks about killing people for a living. This of course actually proves her slanderous statements that he’s dangerous. Jack of course scolds them, including Hannibal for letting him say this. Hannibal furthers his connection to Will by “trusting him to speak for himself.”

Jack wants to let Abigail go home. Alana thinks it’s reckless, and that she doesn’t appreciate the dangers of going home, as well as the risks of taking her out of a controlled environment. Again, the psychiatric system, most specifically dictated by insurance companies, doesn’t hold people because it’s risky to go home. They usually have to justify keeping someone by something they’re actively doing in the hospital, some kind of treatment. Jack inquires “you said she was practical.” Will offers “That could just mean she has a dissociative disorder.” This seems like a leap in logic. A dissociative disorder, which usually manifests as a splitting off of a part of functioning, or feeling out of one’s body, doesn’t seem connected at all to her issues. And yet, maybe it does. Many people dissociate as a way of dealing with extreme emotions such as experienced during a trauma. They leave their body a little. There’s probably a PTSD subtype where this is the response (vs. the hypervigilance subtype). In which case if she’s dissociated she might not be able to appreciate the emotions and dangers there. More commonly people would avoid the triggers of the emotions, just as dissociating it away is a way to keep the emotions at bay and not have to experience them. In this case, Abigail has shown visibly having to suppress emotions, which makes a dissociative disorder much less likely.

Alana hypothesizes about the bad outcomes of letting Abigail return to her home, including re-traumatizing her. Jack reaches to Hannibal for his opinion, who sides with Alana but notes that there’s an opportunity to use the experience to heal her. Jack openly states he’ll go with the opinion that serves his agenda. As usual, it’s an interesting power dynamic to watch play out. As usual Hannibal is the most successful at being strategic: he has his own endgame he’s working, now on Abigail as well. 

Freddie talks with NICHOLAS BOYLE, the brother of one of the victims (actually the victim of the copycat). He’s still upset over the brutality of her death. Freddie feeds him the bait that Abigail came of her coma. She is setting into motion a new antagonist.

Hannibal, Will and Alana accompany Abigail to her home, where they find graffiti covering the house, with “CANNIBALS” written everywhere. Abigail goes step-by-step through the house. Where her mother died. Where her father was killed. All cleaned up. She doesn’t seem to have any emotional response to the situation. We don’t know if this is because of her being a psychopath, or because she’s detached. Based on the earlier emotions we’ve witnessed her having, detachment (dissociation) is much more likely. Abigail asks Will about his process of pretending to be others, like her Dad. This leads back to the copycat. She talked to him briefly on the phone, before he warned her father. Does she remember his voice? This is a fantastic bit of tension building. Abigail asks whether you can “catch someone’s crazy.” Alana responds that it’s called “Folie a deux.” Technically that’s incorrect. Folie a deux is a shared delusion (a false belief). Such as if you and your partner both believe the neighbors are poisoning you. Distinguish this from the “crazy” they’re referring to, which is psychopathy. Psychopathy isn’t contagious. Though situations like cults seem to open up the possibility of violence and even enjoying violence amongst people who are suggestible but not psychopaths. Oh, and no one uses the word “crazy” in legal or psychiatric circles. At least not officially. Hannibal further clarifies that false beliefs aren’t “delusions” if they’re accepted in their culture.

Abigail mentions her father was a perfectionist. Will agrees, noting there was little evidence. She jumps on this as the reason they let her come home, questioning if it was to find evidence. As if it wasn’t her idea in the first place. Though she ask about “letting her” come home vs. bringing it up in the first place. Abigail takes it a step further, excitedly wanting to re-enact the crime, making Will play her Dad, Alana her Mom, and Hannibal “the man on the phone.” Chilling. Does she know? Probably. We aren’t sure, but her decisive ending pointing to Hannibal seems to be her not-so-covert way of telling him that she knows it was him. Not covert to us, at least. She stares at Hannibal, trying to get a reaction, but without a response aside from him walking away.

MARISSA SCHURR, a classmate of Abigail’s, shows up to talk. She tells Abigail that everyone thinks she participated in the murders. This brings home the reality that public perception is important for her. Nicholas Boyle steps up from the woods and calls out Abigail as being the bait that got his sister killed. They scare him away, including by Elise throwing rocks at him. When Hannibal and Will catch up, Hannibal conceals a bloody rock. He’s trying to protect Abigail, or perhaps just form an alliance with her to protect himself.

Will dreams of a stag, and of himself as Hobbs, slitting Abigail’s throat. For him it’s a nightmare.

Abigail leads the group back into her father’s cabin. It’s quite clean. She recognizes now that what appeared to be a philosophy about life and hunting — “no parts went to waste, or else it was murder” — might actually be his way of preventing getting caught, leaving no evidence. She even realizes that he was probably feeding parts of the victims to his family. As she tells them about his confession, that he murdered other girls so as not to murder her, blood drips onto her, leading her to find her friend Marissa murdered upstairs. Abigail is shocked, legitimately. This doesn’t track with any level of psychopathy unless she’s a very very good actress. Abigail, that is, not Kacey Rohl, the actress who plays Abigail, who obviously is very talented.

The presumption is that the same copycat (we believe to be Hannibal) killed Marissa. Jack shows up questioning Will’s profile about the copycat, which even Will is now questioning. Hannibal makes the prediction that Nicholas Boyle killed Marissa, as well as his own sister. Hannibal has a possible scapegoat for his crime, and he’s seizing the opportunity. 

Will doesn’t think Abigail had anything to do with either murder. Jack questions this, wondering if Abigail is manipulating Will. I see no evidence of this based on the evidence in the episodes. Abigail’s “manipulations” are fully explainable within a normal personality structure, considering the circumstances. But of course we only know as much as the show chooses to reveal at this moment.

Will and Hannibal conclude that the copycat killer must have done both murders, since the wound patterns are the same. At this point there seems to be very little evidence connecting this directly to Nicholas, though. Hannibal tells Jack that Abigail isn’t responsible, but she may be a target. Jack instructs Hannibal to take Abigail out of Minnesota. We aren’t given any evidence to explain why Nicholas would be a suspect aside from his approaching them angrily the day before. It doesn’t explain at all why he would kill his own sister. In short, their profile of him is kinda weak. One could see, though, that the picture is confusing Will and Hannibal might be capitalizing on that by putting in a new explanation. 

As Abigail is escorted back to her house, Marissa’s mother breaks through the police, accusing Abigail of murdering her daughter. Hannibal escorts her away. Freddie Lounds appears, wanting to talk to Abigail. This plants the possibility that a predatory reporter might even be responsible. Is she so desperate for a story that she’d kill? She has no scruples, but we haven’t seen any violent history. 

Hannibal and Alana stay outside with the police. Abigail sits in the house. She visibly shakes, shocked and emotional. This is further evidence that she is really shocked and not acting. Aside from us as audience members, she doesn’t believe anyone is watching. She remembers the “not wasting” any part of the hunted, and cuts open a pillow to find it stuffed with hair.

Suddenly Nicholas appears, telling her he didn’t kill Marissa. Abigail tries to run but Nicholas grabs her and slams her against the wall. She stabs him in self defense, shocked at what she has done. As she heads up the stairs with bloody hands, Hannibal sees this. He knocks out Alana to prevent her from seeing, and instructs Abigail to show him what happened.

They go down to see the body, and kneel next to him. In a shocked, suggestible state, Abigail is vulnerable. Hannibal says this doesn’t look like self-defense, but butchery, and that they will now assume she was an accessory to her father’s murders. This gives Hannibal a point of leverage to manipulate her. She knows about him on the phone. This gives him a way to manipulate her. “I’ll keep your secret and protect you [if you keep mine].” Though it’s not stated as such. Yet.

Hannibal offers to help her, at risk to himself. He offers to help her hide the body, something that would never occur to her. We move to Will, Alana, and Jack outside at the ambulance. They’ve created a narrative that Nicholas attacked them, and Abigail was able to scratch him as he fled. This fits the picture that he’s a killer. Though we know better. The blood remaining of Nicholas matched the tissue found on Marissa, further confirming the frame job. We know Hannibal probably got it off the bloody rock that he hid.

We find Hannibal back in his spacious office. Admittedly I’m a little jealous of his office. I know no psychiatrists of therapists with anything like this. Abigail has snuck in, and he welcomes her. She’s afraid to sleep, and he knows it’s about her dreams. She believes that because she didn’t “honor” him by using his parts, it’s just murder. He reassures that it was probably self-defense. This of course goes contrary to his earlier manipulative rationale. Now he’s admitting what it was. 

She identifies that he called the house. Hannibal lies, stating he only asked if her father was free for an interview. She sees the truth, though, calling him out as a serial killer calling another serial killer. He denies it. “I’m nothing like your father… I made a mistake… like yourself.” And he offers to keep her secret.


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Digesting Hannibal – Season 1, Ep2

Episode 2 – Amuse-Bouche

We open on bullet shells hitting the ground. Will at the firing range. He’s haunted by Garrett Jacob Hobbs. Even in his dreams. He awakens to entering a crime scene with Jack, the attic of Hobbs, filled with mounted antlers. Jack maintains that his daughter, Abigail, could be an accomplice in the prior murders. “Hobbs killed alone.” As usual, Will is very certain. But someone else was there in that attic. Someone with red hair. We meet FREDDIE LOUNDS, an online tabloid reporter.

Will stands in his classroom teaching his students. And yet he is still haunted by the experience of shooting Hobbs, to the point of having apparent intrusive memories. This is a classic symptom of PTSD, aka Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If we follow the textbook, a traumatic experience is a single scary event with threat of death or bodily harm, or witnessed threat to someone else. Though at this early stage it would at most be Acute Stress Disorder.

Will alludes that there is a copycat killer already, opening up the question as to who is it? Alana and Jack talk with Will after class, letting him know he’s free to return to the field, but that he needs to have a psych eval done, with Hannibal or Alana. Will clarifies that it’s mandated, and attempts to dismiss it by stating “Therapy doesn’t work on me. I know all the tricks.”

Of note, Jack wasn’t proposing that Will go in for therapy. He proposed he go for a psych evaluation. In the clinical and forensic worlds, evaluations are usually for the purpose of assessment and diagnosis, rather than treatment. So really therapy would be irrelevant. A better twist might be mandated regular counseling or therapy while in the field. But maybe I’m just being nitpicky. 

Hannibal immediately “rubber stamps” Will, for the purpose of moving on to therapy. Getting on with it. And the banter begins. Hannibal alludes to Will feeling obligated to Abigail (Hobb’s daughter). Hannibal states he too is obligated to her. In their dynamic, Hannibal asks a question and Will pushes back without answering. So Hannibal answers instead. This can be a therapeutic strategy to get a patient out of a defensive position, which Will definitely was in. And it works. Those in classic psychoanalytic practices would not use this technique, because it challenges the “blank slate” of the therapist. 

Deep in a wood in Maryland, three boys hike and find a dead body, in fact a whole garden of dead bodies and mushrooms.

Meanwhile, Will is back at the shooting range. Beverly Katz joins him, critiquing his stance and his need to practice. Will reveals that he was stabbed when he was a cop. This is presumably in line with the history of Will from the books, where he was a homicide detective in New Orleans prior to going to grad school for forensic science.

Back at the grave garden, Will examines the scene with Jack. Nine bodies, all buried alive and kept alive with IV fluids, to feed the mushrooms. At the periphery, Freddie Lounds covertly questions a cop. And Will does his metronome trick, imagining the scene from the beginning, again in the shoes of the killer. As he imagines this though, he continues to be haunted by Hobbs. One of the grave bodies also grabs Will’s arm, still alive. Good scare moment, author.

Will returns to Hannibal, handing back the clearance letter. He’s admitting he needs help, which is usually (but not always) where therapy begins. Will admits to having a “hallucination” of Hobbs in a grave. Hannibal attributes it to stress, yet continues his slow seeding of making Will into a serial killer, by calling Hobbs Will’s victim.

If I had to hypothesize a strategy that Hannibal is taking, he’s beginning by desensitizing Will to the process of being a killer. He has fed him presumably human remains as sausage, and now he talks to him as a killer, which Will dislikes. Will admits he doesn’t like putting himself in the shoes of a killer.

They discuss the case, and like many of the frankly bizarre murders on this show, has a deeper meaning. Each murder seems to be a metaphorical process for the killer to find a basic human need, such as connection or as a twisted cure for loneliness. 

Freddie Lounds pretends to be a patient to get to meet Hannibal, even using a pseudonym. Hannibal calls her on quickly. This is a fantastically tense scene. What might he do to her?

Jack and Hannibal dine together, eating a beautifully prepped loin dish. We’re clearly intended to wonder if they are eating Miss Lounds. They have a friendly relationship, and Hannibal clearly digs psychologically with most people he know socially.

Will in the lab, discussing the case with the techs and doctors. They deduce that since the killer was feeding the bodies sugar water (dextrose solution), that they were likely diabetic. Will presumes it was from changing their medications that he was able to make them hyperglycemic. And we follow that logic in to a pharmacy, where GRETCHEN SPECK-HOROWITZ shows up to pick up her medication.

Gretchen is the only crossover character (and second actor) from my favorite Bryan Fuller show, Wonderfalls. I encourage everyone to pick up the dvds for that brilliant but short-lived show. Apparently Gretchen moved from Niagara Falls to the Maryland area. 

Physiologically this makes sense. Diabetes Type I involves the body not being able to make insulin. Insulin helps sugar get taken up into muscle (and other areas of the body). If a pharmacist swapped insulin for saline, then blood sugar levels rise steadily, which severely dehydrates a person. Without the sugar being usable by cells of the body, fat is broken down releasing ketones. The complications of all of this is Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA). 

The FBI raids a pharmacy, trying to catch the killer, ELDON STAMMETS. But he has escaped, leaving a body in the trunk. A story is released by Freddie Lounds about Will, with excessive detail. She worked another FBI agent for info though, leaving us wondering how much she got from Hannibal, if anything.

Will sleeps in Abigail’s hospital room. As he hears Alana walking through the hallway in heels, he dreams about a giant stag walking through the hospital. He awakens to find Alana reading to Abigail. They have a warming conversation. “I feel… good.” Will exclaims this, almost with confusion.

Freddie leaves her motel, to be confronted by Detective Pascal (who she tricked into giving up info earlier). It’s clear she’s a shark, willing to steamroll over people to get what she wants, but is willing to help others afterwards. Until Stammets walks up and kills Pascal, point blank. With blood spatter on her, he demands she tell him about Will. He’s looking for someone that can understand him.

Freddie Lounds informs Jack that Stammets is going to go find Will. “He wants to help Will Graham coonect to Abigail… he’s going to bury her.”

Now this type of thinking that burying someone to make a personal connection to them via fungus and plant interconnectivity, I would venture to fall into the realm of magical thinking. Magical thinking, when believed literally and outside of fairy tales, is considered a form of psychosis. So here again we have evidence that this man is as much psychotic as he is psychopathic. Some might argue that he’s a psychopath because he’s willing to hurt people without any apparent remorse, though in his delusional system (his false belief system that burying people helps to connect them through plant life) it’s not for any goal of cruelty or torture. So the evidence that Stammets is a psychopath can be challenged.

We follow Stammets going into the hospital where Abigail is admitted, and changing into scrubs and hospital garb. We move on to Will entering the hospital as if any other day, but then gets a warning call from Jack that Stammets knows about Abigail. Will draws his gun and switches into game mode. He finds that Abigail isn’t in her bed, and that the nurse believes she was “taken for tests.” We don’t really need any more medical specificity than this. Tests is enough for the plot point, because we’re caught up in the chase. Will finds Stammets and shoots him in the shoulder. Stammets continues on his psychotic delusion that by burying her “she’d be able to reach back.”

A fascinating belief, but quite detached from what many would consider reality. Furthermore the emphasis on “connection” seems to weigh against psychopathy, as psychopaths are considered less interested in helping or connecting to others. They’re both kind of selfish. In that way narcissism and psychopathy are considered connected, Otto Kernberg, and psychoanalyst, wrote about a spectrum of pathological narcissism, and that psychopathy and what we now would call narcissistic personality disorder all exist on it.

Hannibal questions who Will saw when he killed Stammets, and Will replies that he didn’t see Hobbs. Hannibal continues his psychodynamic therapy through interpretation. Interpretation is a tool in primarily psychoanalytic/psychodynamic therapies, to “interpret” what is happening and give “insight” into the person’s unconscious process. Hannibal makes an interpretation – that Will isn’t haunted by Hobbs but by the “inevitability” that eventually someone will be so bad that Will will (pun intended) enjoy killing him. Here again Hannibal is making a suggestion and couching it as a psychodynamic interpretation. As if he has great insight into Will, and when Will considers it, it has an impact. Hannibal has thus implanted the possibility that Will could enjoy killing. It’s a very subtle and slow psychological manipulation. 

Will doesn’t buy it, distinguishing that he felt “just” when he killed Hobbs, and that he didn’t even kill Stammets. Though he might have had the intention to kill him. Maybe. Hannibal furthers his manipulation through interpretation, stating that if Will intended to kill Stammets, it’s because he understands why Stammets killed. “It’s beautiful in its own way.”

Hannibal is furthering the manipulation, lessening the stigma behind killing through these suggestions. He’s developing Will’s empathy (caring) for killers, rather than just his ability to think like them. In that vein he’s also desensitizing Will to the process of murder. Again, it’s a subtle slow manipulation, presumably to turn Will into a killer who enjoys killing. Every time he gets Will to consider that he himself might be like a psychopath, Will explores whether it’s true and accepts it a little more as possible, eventually as true.

Hannibal furthers the interpretation – “did you really feel so bad because killing [Hobbs] felt so good?” Will admits that he liked killing Hobbs.

And we move into the closing of their “therapy” session, where Hannibal compares man to God. God must enjoy killing since he does it so often. He killed a church of his followers during worship. Will counters “did God feel good about that?” Hannibal “He felt powerful.”

Visually this ending really illustrates the difference between Will and Hannibal. Hannibal is calm and emotionless. Will is shaky and scared. From this alone, we can see that Hannibal fits the picture of a psychopath, and Will is scared to explore that world, but will do it when led by Hannibal. The manipulation continues.


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Digesting Hannibal – Season 1, Ep1

Episode 1 – Apertif

We begin with a murder scene. A man and a woman killed. We meet WILL GRAHAM, an FBI teacher and profiler. He’s assessing the scene, and through a metronome device we watch time rewind to before the murder. Will has the ability to imagine himself in the killer’s place, conducting the murder himself, and understand the murder through this process. We watch him kill the couple, and learn about the killer in the process.

The story cuts to him lecturing a class on the murder. He’s approached by JACK CRAWFORD, the head of the Behavioral Science unit (think Criminal Minds). Jack asks Will where he lies on the spectrum (referring to the Autism Spectrum Disorder). Will states that he’s closer to Asperger’s, with difficulty in social engagement, and so he prefers teaching. And yet he has the capability of empathizing with anyone, including sociopaths.

The show creates an unusual character in Will. He’s compelling partly because he’s tortured, and he must stay tortured to do the good work that he does. But most experts would say this isn’t in the Autism Spectrum, since those in the Autism Spectrum tend to have problems with empathy, rather than have it overdeveloped as Will Graham does. He’s basically supposed to be an empathy savant, which would be difficult for someone with ASD. Even first degree relatives of people with autism, who can have an ultra-mild form called “Broader Autism Phenotype” have significant impairment in empathy. There’s a good amount of research to support this. Which makes the existence of a Will Graham improbable, at least as explained as existing on the Autism Spectrum. 

There is a hypothesis (primarily put out by those diagnosed with ASD) that those with Autism actually have plenty of empathy, but just are too easily overstimulated by social interaction, so avoid it to avoid the stimulation. This model might fit the picture for Will, which could make it all the more difficult for him to use his gift. The more he uses it, the more overwhelmed he gets. Of course they never explain it, but the drama works well as it is if you can suspend disbelief. 

Some additional research may help this discussion, examining the idea of Theory of Mind (TOM). Theory of Mind is the ability to know that others have beliefs and thoughts different than yours. Technically this is different than empathy, which focuses on the feelings of another person. Some research has found that those with Autism have an impaired Theory of Mind, and impaired empathy. Other research, particularly in children, found that they can have intact TOM while empathy might still be impaired (in those on the spectrum).

In short, TOM is the ability to consider how another person thinks, believes, and what they want. This is closer to the nature of Will’s ability, particularly in being able to understand another, without necessarily having to feel what they feel. Research seems to indicate that those with full autism have severe impairments in TOM, but that those on the spectrum vary. So it’s plausible that Will could have intact TOM. Pain empathy also seems to be intact in ASD. Empathy is distinguished by the ability to resonate with the emotions of others.

Jack brings Will in on a case of multiple presumed kidnappings, all of girls similar in appearance. They’re looking for the standout case that tells them what the killer is really looking for. They go to the family home of the most recently disappeared girl. Will deduces that because the cat was fed, that she was at home, and that she must be in the house. He finds her body. We meet Beverly Katz, apparently a pathologist who was examining the body and found Antler velvet in the wounds of the dead body. Will thus deduces that the Antler velvet was used for healing, and thus that the killer was trying to undo what he has done. “This is an apology.”

These deductions by Will mark a clear procedural approach on the show. Will deduces from scant evidence, and we suspend out disbelief and follow him on it. Primarily because we’ve seen his process (in the opening), and that up until now he hasn’t been wrong. It’s fantastical, and thus fun to watch, even if the leaps in logic seem large at times. 

We follow Will traveling home, where he sees a lost dog running in the street. He takes a lot of time to bring the dog in and help it. We’ve learned that he cares about animals, and that actually he’s an animal rescuer.

While this might be a device to make Will more likable, it also reveals that the character connects well with animals even if he doesn’t with people. This fits with Autism Spectrum Disorders as well. 

Will has nightmares of the murder, even to the point of night sweats. He’s haunted by the murders he sees.

This is consistent with the idea of those with ASD being overstimulated because they can’t filter their empathy. 

Jack confronts Will about the case, and whether the killer is a psychopath. Will deduces that the killer loves one of the girls he kidnapped, and therefore shows special care with her corpse. The Sensitive Psychopath.

Next Jack meets with Alana Bloom, a forensic psychiatrist and lecturer with the FBI. Jack wants clearance to have Will in the field. Alana worries about him.

During the autopsy, Will has the visual that the girl (victim) was mounted on the antlers, “like a hook.” Her liver was cut out but put back because she has liver cancer. Will deduces that the killer is eating the livers.

Now in a traditional scientific approach, information is gathered, and multiple hypotheses are developed. Maybe one is more likely than others. More data/evidence/information is gathered to support one hypothesis over another. That one is then pursued. It happens with detective work. It also happens with medicine. If someone comes into the hospital with shortness of breath (information), a doctor has a list of possibilities for that, such as pneumonia or heart failure. A history and physical exam is conducted to gather more data to narrow the possibilities (hypotheses). Will Graham doesn’t do that. He makes large leaps in his hypotheses, and he’s always quite certain of it. How does antlers goring someone, plus removing livers in someone that cares about the victim lead to the conclusion that the killer is eating organs? I know of no precedence in psychopathology, and no clear evidence that they presented witth the case to make that leap. Yet we as viewers are willing to follow this logic. It moves the story forward, and we’ll suspend our disbelief because Will is not your average detective. He must know something we don’t. 

And of course this leads us to HANNIBAL. Hannibal the Cannibal. We join Hannibal Lecter with Franklin (a patient), a man who’s crying and complains about being too neurotic. Hannibal replies that if he wasn’t neurotic he’d be something much worse.

This likely refers to an old psychoanalytic system of thinking (originally Freudian) that people exist on a spectrum between neurosis and psychosis. Hannibal is implying that if the patient wasn’t neurotic, he’d be psychotic. This is also the origin of the term borderline (personality disorder), referring to the borderline between neurosis and psychosis. Nowadays if we use the word neurotic at all (most practicing therapists don’t), it’s in reference to a trait of the personality, but only one of many traits. This is a source for a much longer blog about personality and the different ways of understanding it, from DSM to the five factor model. 

“Our brain is designed to experience anxiety in short bursts, not the prolonged duress that your neurosis seems to enjoy.”

A great quote, reflecting the nature of an anxiety disorder. It is in simple terms, the fight-or-flight mechanism turned on for what feels life threatening, yet isn’t.”

“It’s why you feel as if a lion were on the verge of devouring you… You have to convince yourself that the lion is not in the room.”

This reflects a simple approach to therapy. Which for the purposes of such a small scene is needed. Hannibal generally uses Psychodynamic Therapy as his particular brand of psychotherapy, kind of like psychoanalysis lite. Psychodynamic therapy of uses the relationship with the therapist as an tool of change, and can use “interpretations” also, working to make a patient aware of things they’re doing automatically (unconsciously) and might not be aware of.

Jack approaches Hannibal for help. In their conversation we learn that Hannibal had his internship at Johns Hopkins (fitting since much of the show takes place in the DMV — DC, Maryland, Virginia). Jack asks to come in, and Hannibal tells him he can wait in the waiting room. We see an early display of who is in charge in this setting. This is Hannibal’s turf. Jack goes on to humble himself, calling himself a layman in Hannibal’s company. Hannibal deflects the role of expert at first, appearing humble. He then even goes on to point out Jack’s attempt to flatter with use of the term layman, but ultimately allows it. Jack proved worthy.

It’s an interesting first exchange, if you really think about it.

Now the reason I chose to get into such detail of this one conversation, is the idea of psychopaths having a place in society. They are considered to be “intraspecies predators,” and maybe served a purpose in tribes of being the soldier or hunter. It’s exciting to them to kill, and in tribal warware it’s beneficial to the society to have them do that, to protect the tribe. We might expect, though, a need for domination or power in other social circumstances. Here Hannibal wants the power, but he doesn’t want it as part of a manipulation by Jack. He wants the offering to be legitimate. 

Jack asks for Hannibal’s help in making a psychological profile. We don’t know if it’s about Will or the killer, and we’re left wondering. Hannibal examines the crime photos, as a guise presumably to get in the room to examine Will. He challenges Will about his poor eye contact. Hannibal makes leaps in his logic, and Will makes the correct assessment that Hannibal is there to profile him. “Don’t psychoanalyze me, you won’t like me when I’m psychoanalyzed.” A Bruce Banner moment which I love. Hannibal tipped his hand a little. In the process he developed the formulation that Will is “pure empathy.”

A Paper that Hannibal authored is mentioned – “Evolutionary origins of social exclusion.”

Social exclusion refers to a social disadvantage, where a group (or person) is relegated to being an outsider in a society. In the US this might be based on race, or sexual orientation, for example. In other countries it might be based on religion. Of the few papers published on this type of topic, the hypothesis is that stigma/exclusion serves a purpose for the benefit/survival of a group, and in keeping out those that can’t conform to the agreed upon rules of functioning for a group.

We move to the finding of the next body, of a girl impaled on a stag head. The killer has a name now – “The Minnesota Shrike.” We get a full definition of a shrike in the episode. Will concludes that the killer is mocking her.

In some ways Will seems to see each murder as a conscious expression by a killer, as if he’s trying to communicate something to others or to the victim. Some therapists view all behaviors like this, as an expression of something. Others might just say a cigar is just a cigar.

Will can conclude that the emotion is so different that it must be a different killer. We move to see Hannibal cutting up lungs, which were missing from the victim. Will makes a distinction in the twisted intentions between two killers. One wants to consume women as food, as he would an animal. The other wants to consume them as a tribute. I am not aware of any documented cases of psychopaths fitting the latter category, but one could hypothesize that ritual human sacrifice might have arisen from such human inclinations. At least it’s a fun thought experiment.

Will makes further leaps that the Shrike is really a father with a daughter who matches all the murdered girls, and that he’s afraid to lose her when she leaves for school soon. This is a very human concern, and a very abnormal way to express it. Others would more likely try to control their daughter, or seek affection elsewhere. Instead this person kills women and eats part of them, to somehow honor his bond to his daughter? It’s a strange leap, but we follow it because with Will we’re able to suspend most of our disbelief. It doesn’t necessarily fit with the girl that was put back to bed, or the other missing girls. 

The copycat killer he identifies as an intelligent psychopath, without clear motive. He knows they can be near impossible to catch. Which sets the stage for the dance between Will and Hannibal. Will Hannibal ever get caught?

Will is haunted by images of the stag. Hannibal shows up and brings breakfast, including a “protein scramble.” This is the beginning of Hannibal feeding Will his way of thinking. And it comes symbolically through eating as a cannibal, without even knowing it. We are what we eat, after all. There’s another exchange, where Hannibal attempts to qualify his inquiries as just the way they will relate. Will shuts him down with “I don’t find you that interesting.” That was almost a challenge to Hannibal, I suspect. 

“How do you see me?”

“The mongoose that went under the house when the snake slithered by.”

Cryptic, and as usual requires multiple leaps in logic before it slips away like a Zen koan.

They investigate a construction site and Will goes through the files, finding a suspect. Hannibal secretly calls him to warn him, as a “courtesy call.” We see Will with blood spatter, but he metronomes back in time to before the incident. He takes some kind of a pill. The killer (Garrett Jacob Hobbs) steps out the front door and throws his wife out, her throat cut and dying. Hannibal observes her body with at most a detached curiosity. He finds Hobbs holding his daughter at knifepoint. He slices, and Will shoots him repeatedly. He trembles as he tries to clamp her throat. Hannibal removes his hand calmly and takes over. A bonding experience, constructed to a degree by Hannibal.

Will heads to the hospital to see the daughter. He finds her intubated and unconscious. Next to her, Hannibal sits by her side, asleep in a chair.

And we finish Apertif (title of episode), the drink before the meal.


Return to index


Is Walter White a Psychopath?

 Walt’s pathological and Machiavellian level of manipulation of others, even those who might describe him as a friend, makes us question who the real Walter White is. Is he a psychopath? Is he a guy who suppressed his basic needs so much during his life that that now he’s just having a narcissistic tirade to prove he’s all-powerful as he approaches death? As a psychiatrist, I view the evidence that points in one direction vs. another. As a writer, I see the brilliance in how we’re led into watching his dark side unfold, while still empathizing with him.

Modern psychiatry can’t give definitive answers about a diagnosis for Walt, because the field itself still has debate on even where to draw the line on what makes up a psychopath. Plus he’s fiction.  It does give us some good bearings, though.  There’s the DSM definition (antisocial personality disorder), there’s research models used in forensic evaluations like the psychopathy checklist revised (PCL-R), or the Psychopathy Personality Inventory. There’s Cleckley’s work, and the Macdonald triad (bedwetting, firesetting, cruelty to animals). There’s even ideas floating around of a “multi-hit” hypothesis, with genetics, child abuse sometimes, head trauma all playing a role.  Each of these have some level of support, and all have significant amounts of criticism.

Walt began as an inhibited chemistry teacher, presumably for over 16 years. He obeyed the rules. He paid his taxes. He followed the rules, but he was miserable. Then he passes a turning point. His cancer diagnosis means he has nothing to lose. In a way, his reasons for restraining himself and obeying the rules are removed (or lessened), since living a long life out of jail has less meaning. At the same time the incentive to break the law rises in his mind, which was to help others. In that way his breaking the law seemed justifiable, which makes it easier to follow him as viewers and keep him sympathetic. At least at first. As he descends into the world of methamphetamine production, we see him unleash a very different side of himself. This raises the question for viewers: what kind of a man could do such horrible things and not seem bothered by it?

Now I’m not a forensic psychiatrist, I’m a psychiatrist and writer who tries to follow the research as best I can. So let me do my best to boil down some concepts.

There is not one definition for being a psychopath. Or  a sociopath (interchangeable term for many experts). The wiki page isn’t bad at summarizing some of the different takes on the definition.  There’s specific common criteria, which can include a lack of empathy, lack of conscience, violence or cruel behavior (sometimes impulsively), manipulation, superficial charm, lack of remorse.  As you can imagine, many of these overlap, and someone can have some of these traits without having them all.

“God, I’m so antisocial.” I hear this thrown around a lot by people who don’t want to be around other people. They actually mean asocial, rather than antisocial. Antisocial can be conceptualized as going against social rules, particularly in a criminal form.

The DSM, starting with DSM-III, began listing a type of personality disorder called Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). ASPD was intended to list what Cleckley (a grandfather in the field) was finding in those who went on to have dangerous and violent personalities. Unfortunately, like much of medicine by committee, the results didn’t quite map out to be valid in all real world situations. But the forensic psychiatry and psychology fields continued to do research. They developed the idea of psychopathy as possibly more of a trait, supported by the PCL-R.

When we hear the word psychopath, we think of serial killer. Psychopaths would usually meet criteria for ASPD, but not all those with ASPD are psychopaths. I lump ASPD into two categories to simplify an explanation – con men and serial killers. Con men lack a conscience, and generally don’t see external rules as valid. They have a level of narcissism, viewing themselves as superior, and acting in whatever way ultimately serves them. They can be very superficially charming to get what they want.

Serial killers, though, might be a different breed. They have a higher level of the psychopathy trait (think of it like a spectrum from none to a lot). With that comes a lack of fear in circumstances that would arouse fear, possibly explaining the need to be violent to feel physiologically elevated. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist, likes to talk about psychopaths as “intra-species predators.” Think of a wolf hunting its prey. Normal people if they had to follow or hunt someone would get nervous during the chase. Their heart rate goes up. They might be sweating more or deal with conflicted emotions in the process. A psychopath has the opposite physiological response when hunting. They get calmer. Their heart rate goes down. It’s possible that they’re an evolutionary development, which may have been advantageous in tribal times when killing was necessary for the group survival.

Property of AMC TV

Property of AMC TV

Both the con man and the serial killer lack a conscience. They both do what society deems as terrible acts or unacceptable acts for their own benefit. The difference is that the con man does it moreso for his own selfish gain, or to get away with something. The serial killer more likely does terrible acts because he enjoys it, because nothing else gets him excited. Even more importantly, the serial killer more gets excited from physically hurting others, from causing others to suffer. This starts in childhood with hurting animals, which in the DSM is one of many criteria for conduct disorder (considered the precursor to ASPD).

So we come back to Walt. We as viewers are a little shocked because he has gone from a schoolteacher to the most deceptive man in New Mexico. He has lied to his family, co-workers, and many others, all for his own gain. It seemingly all started as a selfless act, that of supporting a family. It eventually grew into the “Empire business,” serving his own ego. Every morally questionable acts that he does, though, is for a particular aim. He’s able to justify it in a twisted logic based on his business. He doesn’t seem to have any of the childhood precursors of conduct disorder (that we know of) such as fire setting, animal cruelty, truancy. He doesn’t seem to necessarily enjoy killing people, but will do it when he deems it “necessary.” So he’s closer to the con man than the serial killer spectrum of psychopathy.

Jesse is even lower on the spectrum.  He probably met criteria for conduct disorder as a kid.  He broke the rules and made meth because it seemed advantageous to him.  He is Walt’s counterpoint.  He seemed like a bad kid who had lost his way.  He was the criminal, and based on the superficial way we think about criminals we’d think he’d be the bad one.  He was a wanna-be criminal, wearing the guise without the internal lack of morals.  He crossed the line with murder.  This triggers his conscience, which makes him question all of his life.  He is less than a con man.  He can barely lie.  He doesn’t fool anyone.  He has remorse.  Interestingly, only by Breaking Bad was he able to find his way back onto a path.


A deeper curiosity arises from this discussion, portrayed periodically in the media: are there psychopaths among us, who are not criminals? Some theorize that psychopaths with certain environmental circumstances may have social opportunities to channel their predatory instincts. I’m not talking about Hannibal, necessarily. If someone thrives on hurting or taking advantage of others, what job opportunities might fit them? Perhaps those with competition or built in deception? Business, sales, some sports, even some fields in medicine that thrive on competition (I’ve heard ideas about some of my surgical colleagues), all could be possible. Snakes in Suits covers this topic in more depth, where psychopaths can thrive in certain work environments.

Walt clearly has psychopathic traits, but we’re led into liking him in the beginning because he seemed to break the rules for good cause. We follow him, hoping for his redemption. Our curiosity though might reflect our own hidden impulses, played out in a safer way onscreen than in our real lives. It’s not that we are evil, but that with every attempt to force ourselves to be one way, an opposite side can develop to a degree. Thankfully for society, most of us don’t unleash it the way Walt does.

If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, I’ve contributed to a number of articles on about the show.  Find the links on my media page.


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