Emperor Jack

I love tarot. I’ve been reading cards off and on since high school, having gotten more serious about it in the last few years. I only read for myself and my friends, but it’s an important part of my life, and so of course I’ve found a way to think about tarot in terms of Hannibal and Hannibal in terms of tarot, because I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t. 

Tarot has also played a role in the actual show, most obviously seen in Hannibal’s broken heart in season 3, which notably references the three of swords card. But as an esoteric tool steeped in symbolism, mythology, and psychology there’s a lot of more generalized overlap between the narrative of the tarot and the narrative of Hannibal

If you’re new to tarot, here’s a basic overview. There are 78 cards (traditionally) broken up into two sections: 22 cards in the major arcana and 56 cards in the minor arcana. The major arcana is made up of cards with names like “The High Priestess” and “The Hanged Man” and “Wheel of Fortune.” Each of these cards represents an archetype of sorts, and refers to the bigger picture of your life and how you exist in it. It starts with “The Fool” and ends with “The World” representing the journey all people go through, starting with naive innocence and ending with sage understanding of how the world moves. On the other hand, the minor arcana (divided into four suits) speaks to smaller scale experiences that people may have in their daily lives. Combined, the entire tarot speaks to all facets of life, and can offer insights and advice to the person getting their cards read. 

Like I said above, there are lots of tarot energies in Hannibal. Many figures in the show fit the archetypes present in the tarot, and over the course of the series you’ll probably see more posts from me about exactly that. But for today, I want to start by talking about Jack Crawford. 

There’s a card early on in the major arcana that can bring out strong feelings in the person doing the reading. This card represents both authority and stability; control and patriarchy; structure and guidance. Its name is The Emperor, and depending on your relationship with your dad, the establishment, and/or authority in general, this card can bring up bad blood or a strong sense of comfort.


For me, Jack Crawford fits this conflicting description perfectly. At his best, Jack is a leader. An authority figure. A strong foundation in shaky times. In episode 10, “Buffet Froid”, Will tells Jack “My moorings are built on sand,” to which Jack replies, “I’m not sand; I’m bedrock.” And I think, at his core, that’s exactly what Jack strives to be. A major player in the Behavioral Science Unit, Jack is responsible for the work done by his team (Graham, Katz, Zeller, and Price) and offers to each of them direction, structure, and incredibly high expectations. Given the difficult and intense nature of their work, Jack is also responsible for providing a sense of stability in distressing times, including the murders of families, children, and even friends and coworkers. It’s a lot to shoulder, and it takes a strong figure to do so effectively. That’s the nature of all Emperors, and certainly of Jack Crawford.

But the Emperor is also a card of fathers and family, at the best of times and the worst.  According to Beth Maiden, “As the Emperor is often read as the archetypal ‘Father’ (with the Empress as ‘Mother’), there are Freudian and Jungian explanations for this that are rooted in father-child (and mother-child) relationships.” And as many of us know, when family and psychoanalysis mix, things get complicated. Jack is sometimes connected to Will in terms of family, notably in episodes four (“Oeuf”) and five (“Coquilles”) of season one. In “Oeuf”, Hannibal tells Jack, “Children transport us to our childhoods. Will may feel the tug of life before the FBI. Before you. Simpler times in boatyards with Dad. That life is an anchor stringed behind him in heavy weather. He needs an anchor, Jack.” The statement pits Jack against the memory of Will’s life with his father, suggesting that in some ways Jack has replaced Will’s father in a particularly unhealthy way. This connection is further emphasized when Jack directly denies the relationship later in episode five, “Coquilles.” 

“This is bad for me,” Will tells Jack at the end of the episode. “Maybe I’ll find a job as a diesel mechanic in a boatyard.” Perhaps angry to hear Hannibal’s warning spoken aloud directly from the source, Jack spits back, “I’m not your father, Will. I’m not gonna tell you what to do.” Though Jack does just that consistently throughout the rest of the series. And at the direct cost of Will’s sanity and safety. 

The Emperor as a card has a dark side. At best, the Emperor is fair and consistent. A level head in difficult times. A source of guidance, stability, and support. Sometimes, Jack is all of these things. At worst, though, the Emperor is despotic, dismissive, and too easily cuts losses when it comes to making power plays. He is the other side of the authority coin, the leader who takes discipline to the most dangerous edges of control. And unfortunately, Jack is often all of these things too. 

Hannibal - Season 3

The Emperor is a complicated card, which makes him a good fit for Jack—a very complicated character. Jack is both a valuable leader (and loving husband) as well as cold as ice when it comes to his work. And while many other characters in the show benefit from this duality, others suffer from the freeze.

Further Reading

  • Little Red Tarot
  • Melissa Cynova – Kitchen Table Tarot
  • Rachel Pollack – 78 Degrees of Wisdom

1 thought on “Emperor Jack

  1. Pingback: An Empath’s Intuition | Read the Rude

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