Choosing to be Evil

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Several years ago, after a Halloween marathon of the Lecter films, I got into an argument with my friends over whether or not psychopaths are born or created. Though many excellent points were made on all sides, my opinion was that you can’t excuse bad behavior through abuse, because that doesn’t vindicate the crimes perpetrated by the victim.

This week’s episode of Hannibal brought the debate to my attention again, through its less than subtle symbolism. Under the belief that an animal has committed violent attacks against humans, Will Graham visits a mental patient knowledgeable about such things to elicit his opinion on what kind of an animal is involved. The mental patient, stroking his pet rat (“don’t draw attention to him, or they’ll take him away from me,” he cautions Will), reminds Will not to blame the animal for its actions, as it has been preconditioned by its owner to be violent.

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That conversation is a metaphor for the transformation Will Graham has undertaken this season. It is asking us if we’ll excuse Will’s increasingly psychotic behavior because Hannibal Lecter has preconditioned him to it. And, as we’re gradually learning through glimpses into his therapy sessions, it’s not the first time he has done this. He successfully preconditioned Abigail Hobbes to be a killer but could not make her take pleasure in it. He’s planting similar seeds of approving behavior in Margot Verger (who is clever enough to see it for what it is and not fall for it). But his finest creation is Will Graham, an empath turned into a man who now fantasizes about killing people. And what does Hannibal do? He gives Will the opportunity to do it. Will’s assertion at the end of the episode is incorrect; Hannibal did not send someone to “kill” Will Graham; he sent someone for Will Graham to kill.

Obviously, this brings us back to the original argument: are killers born, or made? The show’s implication is that with time and encouragement, evil influences can condition unstable people to kill. Some make that choice on their own (the various murderers unconnected to Hannibal’s practice), but external approving forces gently nudge others into it. Margot doesn’t need Dr. Lecter’s approval to continue devising ways to kill her brother, so she is immune to his manipulation and aware of its deeper evils. But his ego strokes, his sense of shared purpose, and his approval is the catalyst for others to take action.

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His preconditioning of Will is significant, but matters less than Will’s decision to capitulate. Will knows right from wrong and is choosing to do wrong, which means Hannibal deserves some of the blame, but not all of it. Will is indeed a victim… but he is making a choice to descend to that level, to accept what Hannibal wants him to be, and to become it. Hannibal merely sets the stage; Will chooses to walk out and become the main player.

Our circumstances weigh heavily on us, but do not define us. We can choose to rise above them or give in to them. Though we may be “preconditioned” to certain behaviors, through either our genetics or abuse, we make choices on whether or not to act on those impulses. An alcoholic can blame his alcoholic ancestry all he wants for his inability to quit drinking, but he was the one who chose to pick up a bottle in the first place. Hannibal is predisposed toward cruelty, but it is a choice he makes every day.

As Dumbledore said, “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.”

20 Replies to “Choosing to be Evil”

  1. As much as I hate breaks between seasons of shows, I think I’m happy for this one. It will take me months to get a handle on what I just watched.

    1. Well, it was nice of them to remind the audience that Hannibal IS A MONSTER. I think people get too attached to him since many of his truly heinous actions take place off screen! Liked the ending shot, though. Those two abroad have potential. 😉

      1. The show is a masterpiece. If it weren’t so gruesome it would have better ratings. However the beautiful way it handles the grotesque is essential to its eminence, and a huge part of why it is so terrifying.

    1. You mean because he’s semi-faking this? Possibly.

      However, the case remains that he did kill someone, and he took an awful risk in almost killing someone else under the assumption that Hannibal would stop him.

      1. If I remember right, Will killed in self-defense. Everything else is obscured by the way the story is presented. So I am hopeful! I like Will and would like to see him rise above the putrid offense against him.

  2. Absolutely. This is something I think about often as well, especially about one of my villains in my fantasy trilogy. I am a firm believer in choice–after all, it is what defines us as individuals, set apart from the animal kingdom as God created us from the beginning. Life molds us, but we choose whether to fight back or give in, whether it’s hard or not.

    1. Yep. Our choices define us, not our ancestry or circumstances. Two children can have the same awful experience growing up and turn out completely different based on who they decide to be.

  3. Fantastic post!

    Will Graham. I see in him the future we could all potentially have if we listened to Hannibal. Will knows what Hannibal has done and will continue to do so the veil is gone between them. There’s no pretense anymore. And Will knows that he is fulfilling Hannibal’s plan for him. That entire conversation at the beginning of episode 9, that dream Will had about killing Hannibal, shows that Will understand what Hannibal wants from him, how he’s developing and changing and manipulating him. Will is letting Hannibal have his way.

    Ok, we’ve discussed the absurdity of Hannagram shippers. It’s like pairing a rapist with his victim. Let’s take the concept out of the weirdness of insane people and examine it from a logical viewpoint. Will’s behavior, his choices, his dreams, his lack of empathy for the killers he helps hunt, all point to one thing. Hannibal’s mind rape has paid off. The man who was once his victim, Will Graham, is metamorphosing into another mind rapist. Hannibal delights in doing this to his patients. He’s found success and failure, but Will holds a special place in his “heart” because Will is probably the first manipulated patient who figured him out and tried to kill him. Will is successfully walking the road Hannibal is laying out for him. And it ticks me off. I want to reach into the screen, grab Will by the collar, and shake him to his senses. He is letting himself become Hannibal Lecter.

    So yes, Will has been manipulated, but he has made his own choices. He chose to turn off his emotions. He chose to delight in the feeling of killing. He chose to let himself envision killing Hannibal over and over and over again. He chose to return to Hannibal, like that proverbial dog returning to its vomit. Will is setting himself up to become another Hannibal, and in the end, he will have no one to blame but himself. He knows he’s being preconditioned and he doesn’t care. At this point, he needs someone to intervene, but there is no one to intervene since Alanna is an idiot and he has no one else.

    I like your analysis on genetic predisposition. As you already know, alcoholism runs in my family with fairly deep roots. I could toy with it a little if I wanted, try it and see if it would do to me what it’s done to some of my relations. But isn’t it better, wiser, to simply avoid testing that genetic predisposition altogether? Trying what we know is already a genetic weakness is just playing with fire. Like Will returning to Hannibal.

    1. I think Will is trying to play Hannibal’s game, but he’s becoming lost in it. Hannibal can play it, because he earnestly means it. To be convincing, Will must be sincere in how he plays – but his sincerity is transforming him. I don’t know that Will is the same kind of psychopath as Hannibal, though. Hannibal does mess with people’s minds. Will merely wants to kill others who threaten harm to society, both to protect society and vindicate his own desire for revenge. He won’t mess with their heads – he’ll just kill them and enjoy doing it. And yes, Will is his first obvious success – although he has succeeded in lesser degrees with everyone else. Even Miriam Lass’s conditioning worked – she either killed or tried to kill Dr. Chilton. He’s turning all of them into murderers.

      Will’s fantasies about killing Hannibal are a good example of why having a thought isn’t a sin, but dwelling on it can be. It’s one thing to think, “I could kill that person,” and another to give it serious weight and thought. Thoughts always turn into actions. Adultery is never spontaneous. It is thought about until it becomes an action. Everything starts as a thought.

      Yup. Don’t play with fire unless you want to get burned.

      1. What I don’t understand is why anyone would want to play Hannibal’s game? Will got out. He’s alive and he’s aware of the dangern ow. He’s like someone returning to an abusive spouse planning to beat that person at their own game. It’s crazy, and I don’t know what’s going through Will’s head right now. That’s the one flaw in the series, actually. I can’t follow Will’s mental progression from victim to predator. It makes no sense.

        1. I think–at least this is my take, drawing in part from the real life aspect that many abuse victims become abusers themselves–is that Will thinks becoming a predator himself is the only way to defeat Hannibal?

          1. As Will puts it, he is going to bring a “reckoning” upon Hannibal. At this moment, he seems like one of those victims who think that getting revenge will bring them the peace that they so desperately need. Revenge isn’t fulfilling. All it does is escalate and when it’s over and done and you’ve succeeded, it leaves a person empty and hopeless and cold.

            I’m sure you’re right. Will is determined to defeat Hannibal, and so he’s changing so he can be suitable to carry out his self-appointed task. If it means turning himself a killer, he’ll do it so he can win. I loved Will Graham from the beginning of the series. He’s gentle and emotionally fragile because of the crime scenes he witnessed. So, watching the transformation, knowing he’s doing it deliberately, it hurts. I want so much more for him than that, than fulfilling Hannibal’s plans for him. I hate watching this good man slowly drain away.

        2. Will may be out of prison, but he’s not out of danger — and the people he loves aren’t out of danger. That is enough to tether him to Hannibal, but he’s taking it a step too far. I think Beverley was what caused him to snap. He warned her to be careful, she didn’t listen, and now she’s dead. In some sick, twisted way, Will wants to vindicate her and Abigail by not only killing Hannibal but every other murderer he encounters as well.

          1. Poor Beverly. I didn’t realize how much I liked her until she was gone. So sad! The one personality type this show lacks is an ISFJ to get everything back on track, Will most of all.

  4. I agree that people are ultimately responsible for their actions. Where it gets tricky for me is people who are born sociopaths, having no conscience. They are responsible for the evil things they do, but I have to wonder… Why them? Why were they born that way and not others?

    Where I disagree with you is that Will is doing the wrong thing by trying to kill Hannibal. Under the circumstances, I think the spirit of the law and the letter of the law are two completely different things, and Will would be thoroughly justified in protecting innocent people by disposing of Lecter before he can kill again.

    I haven’t seen Friday’s episode yet, but I can’t wait!

    1. Why are some people born sociopaths or psychopaths? Why are some people born with blue eyes? Why are some people born with terminal illnesses? I happen to believe God creates our souls, but our genetics creates our bodies and mental health. It’s a gamble whether someone will be sane or insane, whole or not.

      After you’ve seen the latest episode, you may understand my position on Will better. I don’t necessarily agree with the ideology behind his behavior, but the sadistic pleasure he derives from the thought of doing it is cause for immense concern. Bonhoffer tried to kill Hitler to prevent him from killing others, but I doubt the thought of doing it ever prompted in him enormous joy, self-satisfaction and… well, the kind of sadism Will is imagining.

      1. After watching the latest episode I see your point. Will’s motives are certainly not good, nor is his new hunger for blood… but gosh darn it I still wish someone would just shoot Hannibal already! 🙂

    2. The downside to Will trying to kill Hannibal is that he will destroy himself in the process. If Will killed out of self-defense that would be one thing, but this is pre-meditated murder and that would be the end of Will Graham as we see him. At this point, he’s not really even out to protect the innocent. He’s out for revenge for what Hannibal has done to him, personally. The empathy we witnessed in Will during the 1st season is dissipating rapidly. Now it’s a game of cat and mouse where the mouse is evolving into another cat. If that makes any sense.

  5. Yes to all of this. Things happen to all of us, and some may have to fight harder against the lure of evil, but we all have choices.

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