“This is my design.”

Will Graham is overwhelmed by intention. In Hannibal‘s pilot, Will tells his boss, Jack Crawford, that evidence can explain Will’s capacity to solve crimes and catch criminals. Evidence can explain Will’s inductive observations. Will doesn’t have magic powers. He isn’t seeing into the past when he reconstructs a crime scene. However, Will is not Gil Grissom. He is not a forensic crime scene investigator. Will uses the carnage of brutal crimes as a canvas for exploring purpose and intent. The crimes he investigates were committed by someone who made a choice; Will’s gift is opening himself up to the feelings that allow someone to make those choices.

Of course, Hannibal would be a lesser show if Will’s talents were so simple. One of the most horrifying symptoms of the identity disorder that haunts Will and makes him such a potent profiler is the way in which the lines between Will and the murderers whose psyches he inhabits can fade away.

In the series pilot, Will begins to crack under the pressure of investigating Garret Jacob Hobbs. Hobbs is the Minnesota Shrike, a serial killer targeting college-aged girls that resemble his daughter. Unlike the sadists and psychopaths that Will usually hunts, Garret has an immense capacity for feeling. Will begins to drown in Garret’s lusts and drives. In Will’s work and in his personal life, Will sees what he thinks Garret Jacob Hobbs would see. He imagines Hobbs’s lurid fantasies. Will lives the feverish compulsion of Hobbs’s pathology.

In a Quantico bathroom, Will confesses to Jack that the Minnesota Shrike doesn’t kill his victims because he hates women. Will insists that Garret Jacob Hobbs kills because he loves these women and wants to honor them. It’s a moment where Will is so inside the head of another person that he takes their intentions and feelings at face value and communicates them to another without representing how twisted Garret Jacob Hobbs’s values are.

A thing that I used to really pride myself on as a critic was how well I could get in the heads of artists. I still can; I just don’t think it’s a particularly worthwhile trick anymore.

If I have fundamentals of art crit, they’re the following questions: What did this artist think they were accomplishing? What was the reaction it actually generated? What does that gap between expectations and reality say about the artist and the audience that consumed their work? What do our formal understandings of their medium say about their process and product? What do the answers to all of the questions above reveal to us about ourselves and our society?

I spent years and years fixated on the first question. I tend to open myself up to art. If my anxiety and depression are at manageable levels, I tend to give myself over to the work. It’s the only way that I know how to operate as a critic. Other folks are more intellectually distant, appraising and critiquing from a vantage. I can’t operate that way. I have to throw myself against the emotions and ideas of art and hope that I walk away with something to say.

Fortunately, art is a medium where that approach can offer insight. Much of the powerful art in the world is made by folks that want to open their wounds to an audience. They might obscure meaning beneath symbols and “aesthetics,” but they’re praying someone understands what they’re “saying” and feels what they want their audience to feel. Artists can’t help but to fire flares into the night sky of their emotional and intellectual turmoil.

Art is an artist’s abstraction of the world. Great artists can convince you to see the world anew through those abstractions. Those abstractions can also be a vessel for abusive artists to obscure their cruelty and mythologize their pathologies into something harmless and/or stylized.

Hannibal Lecter fancies himself an aesthete. His dinners are garish shows. Each detail carefully chosen to maximize Hannibal’s ego and his guests’ estimation of his resources and talents for the mise-en-scene of haute cuisine.

Of course, everything about Hannibal is garish. His suits are the gaudy eye-sores that Bret Easton Ellis mocked in the book version of American Psycho. Hannibal’s home overflows with expensive furniture and eye-catching art, but there isn’t a cohesive style beyond boorish, petulant excess. When Hannibal attends the opera later in the first season, he appears moved, but it’s hard to tell what’s an act and what’s sincere. And of course Hannibal would think he has to love opera. It is one of the oldest signifiers of class and “taste.” Hannibal does very little that isn’t a signifier of something else.

However, like A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex, is there anything inside of Hannibal that allows him to appreciate the power of sincere and decent art? Hannibal is a sadist and a narcissist. Hannibal only forms attachments to others because it allows him to hurt them better and because Hannibal doesn’t like to eat alone. Hannibal wears a “person suit” and he can feel offense and anger and jealousy, but he can not feel the compassionate, sympathetic emotions that drive art that matters. Hannibal doesn’t feel love in any meaningful sense of the word. He has a deep understanding of how other people work, but he isn’t empathizing with them. He studies them like a murderous child watching an ant farm, waiting for just the right moment to pick a few out and casually crush them beneath his thumb. How can you interface with art if you aren’t able to even temporarily empathize with its point of view?

When Will stumbles upon the first of Hannibal’s “copycat” killings, he dismisses Hannibal’s work out of hand. Whereas Will is flooded with Garret Jacob Hobbs’s delusions, all he can see in Hannibal’s work is hate and brutal arrogance. Garret Jacob Hobbs believes he’s paying tribute to the women he murders (and his daughter who is the real font of his murderous desire). Hannibal is mocking Garret Jacob Hobbs’s pretensions.

Will understands just from the tableaux of that faux Minnesota Shrike murder that it would be nigh impossible to catch Hannibal. He isn’t revealing anything about himself other than the fact that he’s a shallow sadist that he thinks he’s better than other psychopaths. Hannibal has hardly any other depths to reveal.

Even a year and a half ago, I would have gladly admitted that two of my favorite screen writers were Woody Allen and Louis C.K. With Woody Allen, I would have added the caveat that he was likely a monster but I would have also insisted that Annie Hall was a masterpiece and that you have to be capable of separating the art from the artist. I had heard the rumors about Louis C.K., but like many folks in our deeply misogynistic rape culture, I dismissed them as rumors.

With both Woody Allen and Louis C.K. (or Brand New’s Jesse Lacey or Kevin Spacey or so on and so on and so on), I took the artists’ work at face value instead of interrogating the art against the backdrop of the harm those men had committed.

I have always had a bad tendency of giving art by and about problematic men the benefit of the doubt. When I was a teenager that identified as cishet (and not queer and trans as I do now), Chasing Amy was one of my favorite films. I can’t return to it. I tried to watch it about six months ago and I stopped about thirty minutes in. However, as a teen, I took Kevin Smith at his word. I thought he was making a film that was about the dangers of being a shitty, close-minded, judgemental man that thought they had a right to the past and sexual trauma of their partners. What Kevin Smith was actually doing was making an apologia for his own abusive past in relationships without owning up to the homophobia of his social circle or the cismasculine misogyny that caused his real-life relationship with Joey Lauren Adams to disintegrate. Chasing Amy allowed him to paint himself as the flawed hero in his emotionally and psychologically cruel romantic past.

What is it with men casting their women exes in films about themselves where the men get to be the good guys, even if there’s a wink-wink, nod-nod to how fucking awful they were to their partners? Although Annie Hall started out as a crime drama called Anhedonia, the final cut of the film is just Woody and Diane Keaton’s relationship played for nebbish, neurotic laughs.

I had an ex who called me out on how much I loved the film. She watched it on a flight to Scotland. Afterwards, she messaged me immediately and asked me how I could like a film that was so explicitly about an abusive relationship. Alvie is emotionally and psychologically abusive to Annie. Alvie stalks Annie after their break-up. He condescends to her intellect constantly as they date. He resents when she begins to find success as a performer. He can’t re-orient anything about his life to meet the needs of their relationhip. When Annie is upset, Alvie does nothing to comfort her or make her happy; he only caters to his own, selfish needs.

My response to that ex was that I believed the film knew all of these things about Alvie. That Woody Allen was making a film that shined a spotlight on the casual ways men can mistreat women just through sheer emotional neglect and neurotic narcissism. The film seemed to care about Annie too much and seemed to have too low of an opinion of Alvie for me to be able to intrepret it any other way.

I honestly don’t think I’ll ever watch Annie Hall again even though it was probably the film to get me into movies in any serious way. I’m not capable of looking past who Woody Allen is anymore, and I just know that he’s so much worse than the version of himself that he puts into his films. Like Louis C.K., Woody Allen’s compulsion is to self-flagellate through his art, but it never goes deep enough and he never gets any better, and we can all cut those sort of men out of our lives. They put on just enough of a show to make us think they’re evolved and learning, but they’re really manipulating us into looking past the worst of their crimes.

And the worst part is that there’s a part of those artists’ sickness that will stick around inside of you for years and years and years if you let them in at all. I learned how to think about art because of Woody Allen films. How much work will I have to put into unlearning everything he taught me and all of the ways that he infected me?

Even after Will kills Garret Jacob Hobbs, the Minnesota Shrike lives on. The Minnesota Shrike simply lives on through Will. Will never becomes the monsters he’s hunting (although the back half of the second season comes close to verging on this territory). Hannibal is a better series than a simple Nietzsche re-hash (although I bet Hannibal himself both loves and hilariously misunderstands Nietzsche).

Will had to see the world through Garret Jacob Hobbs’s twisted mind. He couldn’t partially see it. He had to see it totally and without any filter or obfuscation. That connection he formed with all of Hobbs’s darkest impulses left a sickly, cancerous imprint in Will’s mind.

It isn’t a coincidence that Hobbs’s final words to Will before he dies are “see it.” He knows that Will can see what he sees. He can sense it. He knows that there was no other way that Will could have caught him. Hobbs likely couldn’t articulate that, but he sensed a kinship between himself and Will in his final moments. Will opened those doors.

Empathy is the most valuable social skill that we possess. It’s what keeps most of us from killing each other any time someone else has something we want. It allows us to love and to be generous and to care for one another beyond superficial concerns.

It also confuses us. Folks that know how to manipulate empathy use it to gloss over the horrors they leave in their wake. They convince you that they deserve your sympathy and emotional (and psychological and financial and physical) labor because they have maybe hurt at some point. These people use our innate predilections to empathize to take advantage of us.

You can’t turn your empathy off. Why would you want to? But you have to exercise it with care. Otherwise, you might have a Garret Jacob Hobbs or a Woody Allen living inside of you, and once they take root, it’s not easy to get rid of them.