Hannibal’s Will Graham: A Self-Exploration

One would think that a show titled Hannibal would have Dr. Hannibal Lecter as the main character. However, FBI Profiler Will Graham took the spotlight throughout all three seasons of Bryan Fuller’s psychological horror-thriller on NBC (2013-2015). In the opening scene of the pilot episode, Will is shown in a bloody reenactment of the crime scene he is investigating. As the episode progresses, it is revealed to the audience that although Will comes off as an awkward individual, his excellence in profiling these cases stems from his empathy.

Will Graham’s empathy is so great to the point that he is able to think and feel exactly like the criminals he is investigating. Dr. Lecter described his empathy as “…a remarkably vivid imagination: beautiful, pure empathy. Nothing that he can’t understand, and that terrifies him…” and for very good reasons. There are moments where Will seems to lose his own self-identity throughout the first season, especially after the events of the pilot episode. His empathy gives him a great capability, but it also makes him extremely vulnerable to outside influences. That vulnerability hinders Will to have a solid foundation of who he is as an individual and results in never-ending psychosomatic turmoils. So, when Hannibal pushes him to his limits, Will is put in a position where he is unaware of the true source of his distress.


Adapt. Will is forced to slowly adapt throughout season one to the circumstances that he is put through. There would have been no other way for him to withstand anything if he hadn’t. If Will had tried to maintain himself in his comfort zone then maybe he would have reached a point of self-destruction. In one instance, Will states after experiencing multiple hallucinations “I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I’ve been gradually becoming someone else. I feel like I’m crazy. I fear not knowing who I am.” For him, having some sense of his own reality reassures him of his own self. This journey raises questions such as: Is the construction of the self in relation to time? To your environment? To the people you interact with? Is the self only important in action with others rather than individualism? Similar to an animal pushed to adapt to a new environment, Will had to begin to shed his old skin and ways no matter how terrifying and painful it might have been. Of course, one cannot deny that Hannibal was the main instigator for this adaptation because he saw something in Will that others had not. Even then, Hannibal was not able to completely predict the outcomes of Will’s new adaptation.


Evolve. Little by little, once Will discovers who the Chesapeake Ripper truly is, we see a complete change in his demeanor.  His evolution has begun. In a conversation with Hannibal he explains, “You wanted me to embrace my nature, doctor. I’m just following the urges I kept down for so long, cultivating them as the inspirations they are.” By the framing of the story, it is difficult to separate this change in Will from Hannibal’s influence especially since the prior quote perfectly reflects this one by Hannibal, “If you followed the urges you kept down for so long, cultivated them as the inspirations they are, you would have become someone other than yourself.” However, it is also important to realize that even with all these influences it all truly came done to Will and whether or not he wanted this evolution of his Self. How much was Hannibal truly influencing Will? To what extent did Will have the free will to proceed with this change? This all comes down to the century old question of Nature vs Nurture. Will’s evolution would most likely be a result of both. It could be viewed in a way as Hannibal being simply the trigger, and it was up to Will to nurture his nature that he had tried to suppress for so long. For the first time in the series, we see a Will who is sure of himself and of his purpose, but there are still challenges he is trying to overcome.


Become. Will’s evolution of self often revolves around the idea of Hannibal and what he represents. He feels a disgust for him and at the same time, beyond curious, almost enamored, by Hannibal’s lack of limitations and restraints. Hannibal is a character who is a refined individual, but he also isn’t afraid to tap into that animalistic hunger he possesses. Whether this is a good thing, it is hard to decide since it has created him a cannibal, but it has also shaped him into an individual who holds himself to high standards, from his wardrobe to his culinary taste. This sort of certainty that Hannibal seems to exude is what Will finds attractive like a moth to a flame. It is only natural for human beings to be attracted to those that we perceive as the ideal person, or the person we wish we could be. The difference in this situation is that Hannibal felt a sense of understanding with Will. He believed Will understood him like no one had before, and understood that Will could become more than what he was. He no longer shied away from the darkness that often consumed his mind. Will’s becoming is simply accepting who he was and who he had become: “I felt terrified. And then I felt powerful.”

It might be hard to grasp how a gentle character such as Will becoming a blood-hungry person can be seen as any positive character development. However, what is important in this exploration of the self is that he became more reassured in himself, even if that person was what the viewers expected. Will took the circumstances he was placed in and did what he had to do to survive. If he had continued to remain the hero of the series, would he survive until the end? The empathy that was used to hinder his potential was amplified to help along with his evolution of self by using that empathy on himself rather than others. He overcame his fear of losing himself by using empathy to remain grounded by a characteristic of his self. By retaining that trait, he was able to rebuild himself from there. His empathy had been his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Nonetheless, it was up to him to let it consume him or allow him to grow.

To be able to come to terms with who you are as an individual is a difficult task for anyone to accomplish. To see a character like Will Graham struggle and understand the fears that come with allowing your true personality to be liberated is truly inspiring. One’s self and one’s perception of the self is an ever-growing process, and sometimes we are asked to look things in the face that we would rather not. But like Will, until we allow ourselves to open up and be free from hiding and we stare ourselves in the face with no shame, we can finally say, “I am who I’ve always been. The scales have just fallen from my eyes. I can see you now.”