Hannibal
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Credit: NBC

Hannibal is the unflinching, empathetic binge that 2020 demands

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Jun 22, 2020

"It's getting harder and harder to make myself look."

"No one's asking you to look alone."

"But I am looking alone, and you know what looking at this does."

In a moment like the one we are experiencing right now, it feels gauche to say that a work of art or fiction speaks to a moment. What we're experiencing is so beyond what art can articulate gracefully. It's not just the pandemic or the killings or the protests. It is everything, the totality of the experience of being alive in 2020 and specifically the extent to which looking away feels irresponsible, even if it's sometimes in our individual best interest for a few hours.

Can we even really look away, though? This isn't the Super Bowl — you can't just turn it off and disengage. It's our reality, one that is quite literally harder to escape than ever due to the whole national quarantine thing. Even when you aren't engaging in screentime, it's there, lingering like a virus, the realization that the world around you has changed for good, and abruptly so. That the change is still happening, and that even though some of the results of that change will be indisputably good, the process of getting there takes its toll. If you need to turn away from it for a moment, you can at best go for a walk or watch something on Netflix.

Which is, coincidentally, how I ended up watching Hannibal for the first time recently.

I think part of the 2020 condition requires you to see facets of the experience of living through 2020 in any piece of fiction you engage with, whether intentional on the part of the creators (The Good Fight, one of my recent quarantine binges) or unintentional (Survivor, another recent watch project). Oftentimes it requires only stepping away from that piece of fiction for a day or two for you to realize whether or not you're projecting. I've sat with the first season of Hannibal for a few days now and don't think I'm projecting when I say that no character has felt more like such a true articulation of what it feels like to be alive in 2020 than Hugh Dancy's Will Graham.

Some set dressing for anyone who didn't have a Tumblr in the mid-2010s: Recently added to Netflix, Bryan Fuller's Hannibal ran on NBC from 2013 to 2015, tracking the complex relationship between psychiatrist/serial killer/Éric Ripert of cannibals Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and FBI profiler Will Graham. It's violent and beautiful and immaculately shot and performed, and is generally considered to be one of the best TV shows of the decade. If you ask most Hannibal fans ("Fannibals," I think?) what the show is about, they'll immediately gravitate toward the relationship between Will and Hannibal, which is a pretty directly and intentionally queer one, even if it never becomes sexual (Fuller is a queer man and has made his intentions explicit since the show's cancellation). But in a more narrative sense, the first season of the show revolves around Will Graham's slow descent into madness thanks to a potent cocktail of the genuine mental duress his job brings on, a medical condition (induced by Hannibal), and Hannibal's subtle manipulation.

But even before the manipulation on Hannibal's end, it's easy to see how Will's job might push him over the edge. His career utilizes his unique sensitivity to the emotions of others. It would feel cliché to say he has a superpowered sense of empathy, but that's largely what it comes off as. FBI agent Jack Crawford (an extraordinarily keyed-in performance from Laurence Fishburne, for those of you looking for more genre cred) takes Will to the site of grisly murders, and as Will takes in the evidence, he utilizes that empathy to embody (in his head) the people responsible for the crimes based on the evidence they've left behind.

It's that action, and the devastation it wreaks on Will, that felt so resonant as I made my way through the first season. He observes. He takes in the world around him and interprets what he sees through a powerful sense of empathy, breaking down any barriers between him and the horrors in front of him. The horrors envelop him fully, so much so that the suffering of victims and killers alike becomes his own. He cannot stop these murders from taking place — what's done is done. All he can do is use whatever his empathy has shown him to try to make sure they don't get the chance to kill again. Often, they do. Will's struggle with his work is a lonely one. In his case, nobody around him can fully comprehend what he experiences when he takes in a crime scene. He takes on the work alone and deals with the psychic repercussions alone.

This is the lens through which I found myself reading Will's journey in the show's first season, one that feels eerily suited to the current moment. The burden of the last three months on all of us has been extraordinary, a weight I don't think any of us are wired to fully comprehend or bear. We spend our days glued to screens and hitting refresh, taking in new horrors daily regarding death counts, new discoveries about how COVID-19 ravages the human body, police brutality, and an increasing lack of insight as to when this all might be "over" or when concrete change and solutions might come about.

On top of this, we endure these horrors alone. Weekly Zoom calls with friends and the occasional socially distanced hangout is no long-term substitute for the comfort and healing power of companionship. Great horrors, which feel more plentiful than ever today, are so often the moments that bring us all closer than ever, but the very nature of this one necessitates that we stay as far apart as possible.

Credit: NBC

To look away from any of this feels both irresponsible and impossible — it's our duty to stay informed, to not let our empathy be dulled by the brutality of the world that greets us from the moment we wake up. We must look. We must, as Will might say, interpret the evidence and empathize with what it shows us. And as we do, we feel the change it creates within each of us. I don't think it's reaching to say that none of us are the same people we were three months ago when all of this began. The psychic toll of experiencing 2020 will leave us all substantially changed — and we do not know what versions of ourselves await us at the end of the journey.

We can't fix the damage that's been done. We can only take what we know now and use it to create a better — or at least more bearable, whatever that means at this point — world moving forward.

No TV show or movie is going to be able to do 2020 justice, despite the fact that attempts to capture this moment on film are almost certainly already in the works. Personally, I'm dreading it. I doubt anyone is going to want to revisit the events of 2020 through film or TV for a long, long time, no matter how prestigious the inevitable HBO movie on the matter comes off.

Still, empathy through fiction can prove cathartic. If it's a catharsis you find yourself needing, you may find some small comfort in the show about the cannibal serial killer who wears great suits.

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