NBC’s Hannibal has dealt with its fair share of mental illness in its first season, the first episode of which aired in April this year. The show has truly revolutionized the way psychological disorders are portrayed on television, both in the sheer number of different issues covered over the twelve episodes that have aired so far, and in the way the characters with these illnesses, as well as the illnesses themselves, are treated on screen.
As the finale of this season approaches, and being assured that a second season is to follow next year, let’s take a look at some of the psychological disorders portrayed on Hannibal, both those touched on in one or two episodes and those that are dealt with more long term.
Most of the criminal characters we deal with on the show — including Garret Jacob Hobbs, the cannibalistic killer from the first episode, as well as our notorious Dr. Lecter — are classified as some form of psychopath. The identifying traits of this disorder include antisocial behavior and diminished capabilities for remorse.
This is especially interesting to note in the case of Hannibal Lecter himself: we see on numerous occasions that he is able to act as though he cares about the situation at hand, namely Will Graham’s descent into further mental instability and the continuing spree of murders by the “copycat killer,” whom the viewer knows is Hannibal himself. However, the moment Dr. Lecter is no longer being observed by someone else, we see that caring façade slips right off his face: we get a glimpse at the utterly unfeeling, dispassionate true self that Hannibal hides from everyone, even his own psychiatrist.
Cotard delusion, also known as Cotard’s Syndrome is a psychological disorder that commonly causes its victims to believe they are dead. On the show, we encounter a woman named Georgia Madchen, who is operating under this delusion and also has a disorder called prosopagnosia, which causes her to be unable to perceive faces. These two psychological defects combined take a heavy toll on her mental state and she kills her friend before going missing.
Even though Georgia Madchen has killed someone, the show does not portray her in the same cold, unfeeling light as it paints Hannibal. This is an important distinction: one of the most common disappointments in media portrayal of mental illness is that it either portrays the victims as completely unable to function on their own, or as dangerous people who should not be allowed to be free in society. Georgia Madchen, to contrast both of these stereotypes, is a woman who, despite having had dark points in her past, is legitimately seeking help and trying to get better. Even though she states that she “doesn’t want to remember” the terrible things she’s done, she’s by no means refusing the chance to get better. And neither is she completely dependent on others to function: though she acknowledges that she needs help, she’s still her own person, with a strong sense of self and a will of her own.
Unfortunately, Georgia is killed before she gets the chance to improve on either of her conditions, but I’m confident that her recovery process would have been handled just as realistically as her illnesses were.
Perhaps the most important portrayal of disorders we see on Hannibal is in our chief criminal profiler and definitely the most unstable person on the show, Special Agent Will Graham. Dr. Frederick Chilton, one of the psychiatrists on the show, describes him as having a “unique cocktail of personality disorder and neurosis that makes [him] a highly skilled profiler”; by Dr. Lecter, he’s described as having “pure empathy,” which helps him put himself in the minds of the criminals he tracks. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with Will in particular.
Will describes himself as having his “horse hitched to a post that is closer to Asperger’s and Autistics.” To clarify, disorders on the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome, are commonly characterized by a lack of socialization skills, communication difficulties, and in some cases, cognitive dysfunction. Most people, as well as the media, seem to fixate on the last of these symptoms: the stereotype for Autistic people and those with similar disorders is for a slow mental process, even though there are plenty of people on the spectrum who experience no such difficulties.
Will Graham is one of these cases: he definitely has, and admits to, having problems communicating with people and socializing with people, which is cited as one of the reasons he teaches: it provides interaction with other people without a real need for socialization. But at no point in the amount of time the viewers of Hannibal have known Will has he ever displayed anything less than the sharpest of intellects, a dry wit, and enough cognitive ability to make connections over and over and save countless lives by following the thought patterns of criminals: he has an amazing, if slightly unconventional, mind, and that’s something new in terms of media portrayal of Autism-spectrum disorders (ASDs).
It’s also important to note that although other characters such as Jack Crawford are initially keen to step lightly around Will, that quickly fades away over the season. Thus, Will doesn’t really get any sort of special treatment, even as his condition worsens.
Some of the most famous media portrayals dealing with mental illness have been at least a bit problematic in terms of realism. That doesn’t at all take away from the makings of a good movie or TV show; but since media forms a lot of the public’s expectations about many things that aren’t commonly discussed, it’s important to note where those movies go wrong.
A study confirmed that most people think of iconic movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or A Clockwork Orange when they think of mental illness. In both of these films, psychological disorders are linked very solidly to a propensity for violence and getting people in danger, creating a stereotype that might cause people to discriminate against those who struggle with such disorders. Yet other portrayals, sometimes even on televised news programs, paint people with mental illnesses, especially those with ASDs, as those needing constant care and support, as needy individuals who can’t survive or function on their own.
NBC’s Hannibal has truly presented all sorts of psychological disorders in new, much more realistic lights than previously portrayed on any sort of media, whether in fiction or in reality. People with these dysfunctions are not seen as dangers to society or as helpless victims, but something much more accurate: they’re simply people, and their disorders, while having some measure of influence on them, do not define their characters.