With “Hannibal” ending, television loses one of its finest examples of how to delve into psychiatric matters and still tell stories that are lush and complicated while upholding the clear-eyed humanity the subject matter deserves.
In the now-canceled series, Hugh Dancy portrays Will Graham, an FBI special agent who suffers from an empathy disorder that allows him to put himself into the mind-set of anyone, through the power of pure empathy, making him gifted at tracking serial killers.
His antagonist is Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), the sociopathic killer and cannibal played so memorably by Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs” and adapted from the series of books by Thomas Harris.
When “Hannibal” debuted on NBC in 2013, much of the show’s critical and fan acclaim centered around its luxurious visuals and respectful treatment of death, a departure for many crime shows. But the true heart of “Hannibal’s” brilliance came from how seamlessly mental illness was incorporated into the show’s very DNA.
Populated almost entirely with psychiatric professionals, conversations about the mental health of a suspect abound, but so do well-being checks for all of the characters involved.
Mental illness has long been a topic that television has shunted off in “very special episodes” or portrayed by one-note fringe characters who are defined wholly by their diagnosis.
What made “Hannibal” such a profound and important show is how it incorporated conversations about mental health into every aspect of the show, whether it was analyzing a suspect’s state of mind or determining whether or not the act of exploiting Will’s empathy disorder was moral, given the likelihood that it may destroy him.
In the finale, Will is consoling a woman who has the misfortune of falling in love with a man who turned out to be a vicious killer. In the aftermath she says, “I drew a freak,” to which Will responds, “You didn’t draw a freak. You drew a man with a freak on his back.” That may be the most clear and obvious description of mental illness one could make.
In the wake of “Hannibal’s” three-season run, there seems to be a flurry of shows that have taken up its torch and taken to addressing issues of mental health head-on.
Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” for example, tells a tale of an animated horse (voiced by Will Arnett) who can’t overcome his depression, despite all of his professional success.
“UnREAL,” on Lifetime, examines the psychological underbelly of reality television, while also following its protagonist Rachel (Shiri Appleby) as she attempts to recover from a breakdown.
“Mr. Robot,” on USA, focuses on the life of a computer hacker whose depression, anxiety and delusions make him a deeply unreliable narrator.
This is not to say that these shows wouldn’t exist without “Hannibal,” only that the television landscape would have been much more difficult to traverse without “Hannibal” there breaking new ground with its raw and open looks at the debilitating journey of depression.
Similarly, “Hannibal” owes a certain amount to its forerunners. “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) taught audiences how to process a bipolar protagonist in a tangible way, while “In Treatment” paved the way for stark psychological analysis in its multi-therapy episodes per week style.
Even when characters on “Hannibal” were at their least stable, they were still treated with emotional integrity, something that goes a long way in a culture that still jumps to label perpetrators of gun violence as “crazy,” yet is uninterested in funding treatment facilities for those that would require such services.
In the much-talked-about world of television, there is no end of conversation surrounding each and every episode, no limit to the amount of dissection people will go through to try to understand the inner-workings of a show they love. It’s for this reason that continued portrayal and examination of mental illness matters.
(Caution: spoiler alert)
When Will Graham goes over a cliff in the final moments of the “Hannibal” finale, it means something if people stop and think about what was going through his mind in those moments and what circumstances drove him to that decision.
What “Hannibal” and Will Graham alike gave pop culture was the ability to empathize with those you don’t understand. That they happened to further a cultural conversation on mental health is just a bonus.