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). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24875777

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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11316010

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.


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Digesting Hannibal – Season 1, Ep1
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Paul Puri

Dr. Puri is a board certified psychiatrist, in private practice in Los Angeles. He practices multiple forms of psychotherapy, including hypnosis, in addition to managing medications. He attended medical school at University of Rochester, and specialty training at University of California, San Diego. He is currently on the Vol Clinical Faculty at UCLA. In his non-clinical time he writes TV pilots, and designs iPhone apps.

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