On TV, mental illness has long been a topic shunted off in “special episodes” or portrayed by one-note fringe characters. What made “Hannibal” different is the way it did just the opposite.
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 portrayed Will Graham, an FBI special agent suffering from a disorder that allowed him to put himself into the mindset of anyone through the power of pure empathy, making him gifted at tracking serial killers.
His antagonist was 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 on 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.
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With the show populated almost entirely by psychiatric professionals, conversations about the mental health of a suspect abounded, but so did well-being checks for all the characters involved.
On television, mental illness has long been a topic shunted off in “very special episodes” or portrayed by one-note fringe characters defined wholly by their diagnoses.
What made “Hannibal” such a profound and important series was how it incorporated conversations about mental health into every aspect of the show, whether it be analyzing a suspect’s state of mind or determining whether the act of exploiting Will’s empathy disorder was moral, given the likelihood that it might destroy him.
In the finale, Will was consoling a woman who had the misfortune of falling in love with a man who turned out to be a vicious killer. In the aftermath, she said, “I drew a freak,” to which Will responded, “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 wake of “Hannibal’s” three-season run, a flurry of shows seems to have taken up its torch to address issues of mental health head-on.
■ “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 to break 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 who 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 went over a cliff in the final moments of “Hannibal,” it would mean something if people stopped to think about what was going through his mind 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 didn’t understand. That they happened to have furthered a cultural conversation on mental health was just a bonus.