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.
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.
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.”