Killer With My Face: Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter
Alana Bloom: ... what do you think one of Will's strongest drives is?
Jack Crawford: Fear. Will Graham deals with huge amounts of fear. It comes with his imagination.
Alana Bloom: It's the price of imagination.
The mythology of Will Graham, as created by Thomas Harris, was always a mystery. Reading Red Dragon, we were allowed glimpses into his psyche, his internal thoughts, but many of those thoughts were borrowed.
Will is described as an eideteker, an empath, someone whose mirror neurons never melted away after childhood. When he seeks out killers, they come knocking at his door. Yet unlike vampires, they let themselves into his mind without his permission.
When Hannibal the TV series begins, we learn about Will through the same methods established by Harris initially: his serial killer profiling. Of course, the film versions of Will - in Manhunter and Red Dragon - provided a visual aspect to what had only been captured in words before, but Bryan Fuller's vision of Will's unique gift is different. It is more vivid and bloody, more beautiful and terrible.
It isn't long in the series before Will meets the ultimate in beauty and terror, Hannibal Lecter. Harris created Hannibal, too, but with the Hannibal series, Fuller and company filled in the gaps that Harris didn't talk about in his novels, the time between Hannibal's childhood and when he encounters Will Graham. We, along with Will, eventually realize that those gaps are more like chasms, or the gaping maw of hell.
Hannibal as presented in Manhunter was a terrifying creation. Brian Cox did more with a scant few minutes of screen time, a clipped accent, and dead, black eyes than three movies' worth of Anthony Hopkins. That's the Hannibal that Bryan Fuller wanted to exploit, and to do so, he found the best version of Hannibal Lecter yet, Mads Mikkelsen, whose wolfish eyes and predatory smirk evoke a sense of unease and discord that none of the cinematic interpretations had quite managed to address.
As the latest incarnation of Harris's characters, Hannibal had the luxury of being able to use shorthand to convey backstory, personality traits, and motives, but instead of taking the easy route, the show adds baroque layers of complex psychology, references to literature and art, and deeply convoluted double entendres. This renders Hannibal 3.0 a wholly other creature.
Knowing he is a cannibal but seeing him portrayed as a classy aesthete and not actually seeing him kill, makes Hannibal Lecter as much of a mystery as Will Graham, who is portrayed by Hugh Dancy on the show as something of a trembling teacup (at least at first). When Hannibal's murderous nature reveals itself, it's in small doses. Although he tells Garrett Jacob Hobbs that the police are onto him in the first episode, Hannibal still comes across as more curious than outright nefarious. Hobbs seems frightening by comparison.
Bit by bit, we see what lurks underneath Hannibal's "person suit," as Bedelia Du Maurier calls it. He bashes Alana Bloom's head against a wall so she won't know what he's doing, in the first indication that he is capable of cold-blooded violence. When he cuts Dr. Sutcliffe's throat, we see this through Georgia Madchen's illness-compromised eyes, and his face is blurred. When he breaks Franklyn's neck, it's a matter of self-preservation not homicide.
What's more frightening are scenes of Hannibal looming over Bedelia as she tries to end their doctor/patient relationship and Hannibal suddenly appearing behind Beverly when she discovers his murder basement. It's a palpable threat that feels scarier than the act of killing itself.
Even when Will discovers that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper, he's so wracked by his encephalitis that it feels more like exhausted outrage than terror. In betraying Will - hiding his medical diagnosis and framing him for the murders - he's committed premeditated murder against their friendship.
When he's exonerated for Hannibal's crimes, Will decides to publicly forgive Hannibal and resume the FBI-ordered therapy with him on his own accord, but it's a pretext to gaining Hannibal's trust and exposing him. This eventually leads to Will moving from empathizing to embracing, in this case, the dark side of his nature. Instead of just catching a killer, he kills one: Randall Tier. What has always fascinated Hannibal and attracted him to Will is his ability to exploit his empathy. Hannibal wants Will to become a killer in more than imagination; his most fervent desire is for Will to become a killer in reality.
Hannibal, hiding "behind the veil," is also besotted by Will's ability to see him as he truly is. The second and third seasons of the show further explore Hannibal's dedication to transforming Will and Will's commitment to Hannibal, one which feels more like an involuntary stay at a mental institution than a relationship entered into with clear eyes and a pure heart.
Both of these seasons explore the arc of Will pretending to be one thing, while acting another, much like Hannibal did throughout the first season. By this point, of course, Will has already echoed many of Hannibal's own words and has even begun to dress more like the doctor, exchanging his fly fishing jackets for tweed coats. This cat and mouse game continues throughout the second season, until neither the audience nor Will seem to know if he's sincere about his reciprocated feelings towards Hannibal or just playing the long con. This culminates in Will's betrayal of Hannibal, and Hannibal gutting Will and leaving him for dead.
Will survives and so does his relationship with Hannibal. That already thin line between the two doesn't disappear, but becomes a blood vessel that connects them both. It's terrifying: Will has looked into the abyss and not only has someone looked back at him - Hannibal - it's someone with his own face. Through its third season, the show upends the idea of a soul mate, or to borrow a term from fanfiction, a One True Pairing (OTP) by transfiguring it into something both terrible and beautiful. Will becomes something else, and so does Hannibal. Like Hannibal, we truly see Will for the first time, in a way that we never did with the previous cinematic interpretations.
Hannibal is Will's greatest weakness, and Will is Hannibal's. They aren't necessarily, as Aristophanes proposes in Plato's Symposium, two halves of one whole, they are as Jack Crawford states, "identically different." It's a kind of love that surpasses morality or even sexuality. Not only does Will embrace his darkest nature, he embraces his darkest self, in this case, Hannibal. He embraces him literally after they kill Dolarhyde together. For the first time, Hannibal has let someone see him - all of him - and not desired to kill the voyeur. He merely desires the voyeur.
There's a reason that relationships are described as "falling in love." It's the loss of control that people fear. At the end of Hannibal's third season, in "The Wrath of the Lamb," Will and Hannibal not only embrace each other, they fall - both literally and metaphorically - off of a cliff into an abyss.
The abyss that Will and Hannibal tumble into is one of love, murder, and the great unknown. What Will Graham always feared the most was becoming a killer; when he finally becomes one, he fears that he loves it - and Hannibal - too much to continue existing. What takes place next is purposely unclear, much like the nature of love itself. We don't see any bodies at the bottom of that cliff, but we do see two more place settings at Bedelia's table.
Thus the most beautiful and terrifying aspect of Hannibal - and the legacy of the show - will always remain that abyss, the inability to know, even when we think we do. This is its design, and its genius.