‘Hannibal’ Busts The Myth Of Genius

Pictured: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham CREDIT: BROOKE PALMER/NBC
Pictured: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham CREDIT: BROOKE PALMER/NBC

This piece contains plot points through the latest episode of Hannibal.

There are a lot of geniuses on TV right now. But almost all share two traits: First, they’re acknowledged as being so much smarter than the people around them, and, second, they have quirks that make functioning in normal life difficult for them. Spenser Reid on Criminal Minds, Sherlock on Elementary, Bones, on, well, Bones. You get my drift.

As a culture, we like this fantasy that there are people out there who are, in some sense, always one step ahead of us, as long as they are hobbled in some way that keeps them from getting any further ahead than that.

Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal can be brilliant and completely at ease in the world. But my favorite thing about him, the thing I most love, is that the people around him all, at one point or another, assume that, yes, of course he’s brilliant, but so are they. They are, then, vulnerable to him because they make the mistake of thinking he’s just like them.


The popular narrative of the genius is that his eccentricities must be indulged, exceptions must be made for him. But in this mode of storytelling, the assumption is that we all recognize our places, except for the poor genius whose social awkwardness means he can’t. Hannibal’s approach is uglier but probably truer. A lot of people think that they’re special geniuses, but they’re not all right.

In the episode two weeks ago, Will Graham, who who has been framed by Lecter for a series of murders that Lecter actually committed, was on trial. The head of the hospital where Graham is being held, Dr. Frederick Chilton, testified about Graham’s mental state. He goes on to describe Graham as incredibly smart and incredibly manipulative. And we watch as Lecter listens to the testimony, clearly taking pleasure in both knowing that Chilton’s insights are on the mark in describing the killer and wildly off the mark since he’s describing the wrong man.

The payoff is even richer this week when Chilton is unable to resist revealing to Lecter that Lecter and Chilton both have induced patients to kill. Again, we know that the mistake Chilton is making is double-fold. Not only hasn’t Lecter induced Graham to kill, but the idea that Chilton could be on equal footing with Lecter in badness is laughable.

Jack Crawford is constantly making a similar mistake by believing Lecter to be his peer. The second season thus far has been filled with instances of Crawford questioning himself for pushing Graham too far, thus breaking him, thus causing him to become a serial killer. But every time he wonders how he could not have seen this coming, the audience knows he’s continuing to miss the killer right before him. He’s right about the mistake he’s made, but catastrophically wrong about the identity of the killer in his midst.

So, the characters in the show are operating as if the myth of genius most television shows operate under is indeed true — that the eccentric genius must be indulged — while the show utterly dismantles that myth by showing that people like the indulged genius as long as they get to imagine themselves among the geniuses (that’s why I think it’s so important that Lecter’s psychiatrist not only revealed that she knew Lecter was something just wearing a “person suit” and not someone she could ever be like, but then she immediately removed herself from his presence. She left him on two levels. She revealed she knew she wasn’t his peer and she physically is no longer among him). But the thing I love is that the show is clear about the consequences of believing you’re among the special people. No, not that then you end up eaten by the guy truly smarter than you, but that, eventually, you’ll be seen for the fool you are.