A Thousand Ghostly Fears

Will Graham confounds me. Sometimes I watch an episode and take in his behavior, and derive such a sense of clarity I could sing my certainty from the rooftops. Other times, I watch an episode and find myself totally befuddled by what Will’s thinking or what’s motivating his actions. I mean, I want to make it clear that I think the show intends for me to swim in this cove of confusion; I think Will spends most of the series swimming there himself. But since joining Twitter, I’ve come to ponder the riddle of Will Graham more than ever before. Let me explain.

Folks on Twitter, or at least our little corner of it, seem pretty clear on what makes Will Graham tick. They’ve got a multitude of scenes they can call on at the drop of the hat to explain their perspectives, pieces of evidentiary dialogue straight from Will’s mouth, so persuasive they’re almost gift wrapped for viewers trying to figure Will out. It’s interesting to see and a lot to take in, the enthusiasm behind so many people’s solid understanding of what Will wants, needs, and feels in the innermost nooks of his heart. Just as Will envies Peter Bernadone’s hate for his manipulative social worker, I envy these fan’s certainty of Will Graham. Because I, for one, have never shared in this certainty.

Reading what everyone has to say on the subject of Will Graham has been a thought-provoking experience, and it’s made me think more critically about Will as I re-watch the show with Katharine. The biggest question regarding Will is, of course, is Hannibal right about him? This spawns many other related questions. Does Will experience joy and satisfaction in murder the same way Hannibal does? Does he delight, rather than tolerate? Does his becoming result in the same version of Will that Hannibal harbored in his mind? And does Will feel any remorse or regret for what he ultimately evolves into? Does he feel guilty? That last one’s really been sticking with me.

I found an article from the New York Times that says a lot of interesting things about guilt and storytelling. It’s an older article (1979! It’s older than me by a decade!) but it’s speaking to something that spans centuries, and so doesn’t feel dated at all. In the article, the author states, “Guilt is the oldest theme in literature, a singular drama enacted in the soul of each person. Every enduring writer from Aeschylus to Mailer has at one time or another made guilt the center of a panoramic work.” Hannibal  is no different. Many of the characters experience feelings of guilt. Jack, certainly, in season two. Alana, as well. Maybe even Freddie for not intervening enough with Abigail. It’s also worth noting the distinct absence of guilt in a couple of characters. Mason, of course, feels no remorse for anything he’s done, and Hannibal desires forgiveness for Abigail, but isn’t particularly sorry for what he did to her. 

Which leaves Will. 

Trying to assign guilt to Will is tricky. So many of the things he says, the actions he takes, are in service to his manipulations and machinations with Hannibal, and to a lesser extent, Jack. I say lesser extent because up until the final call to Hannibal in “Mizumono,” most (though not all) of his choices align with the charade he’s performing with Jack to catch Hannibal. The same can be said for his behavior in season three: most of what he does is to aid in capturing Dolarhyde, though there is an ever-present promise that he could realign himself with Hannibal at any moment. All of this to say, if I can’t uniformly count on what Will says or does to reflect his truth, how can I determine if he experiences guilt as a result of what he says or does? 

Seneca the Younger, a classic philosopher of Stoicism, had a bit to say of guilt in his book of morals. Many of his statements are a repetition of the following thought:

Wickedness, it is true, may escape the law, but not the conscience; for a private conviction is the first and the greatest punishment to offenders; so that sin plagues itself; and the fear of vengeance pursues even those that escape the stroke of it…He that is guilty lives in perpetual terror; and while he expects to be punished, he punishes himself; and whosoever deserves it expects it…His sleeps are painful, and never secure; and he cannot speak of another man’s wickedness without thinking of his own, whereas a good conscience is a continual feast.

So basically, if you’re guilty of something—in the sense that you did it and you feel bad about it—regardless of how the law sees it, you’ll feel the consequences of your action. Think the narrator in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the incessant beating sound that fuels the man’s guilt over his murder. Now I turn to Will and ask myself, does Will live “in perpetual terror”? Are “his sleeps painful, and never secure”? Can he “speak of another man’s wickedness without thinking of his own”? 

With regard to fear, first I think of a conversation between Alana and Jack in the very first episode of the series. They are, of course, speaking about Will.

Alana: Normally I wouldn’t even broach this, but what do you think one of Will’s strongest drives is?

Jack: Fear.

A: Mm-hmm.

J: Will Graham deals with huge amounts of fear. It comes with his imagination.

A: It’s the price of imagination.

It’s arguable the show never really clarifies what Will is afraid of (his power to empathize or the darkness inside him and others, maybe), but it establishes from the start of the series that Will is motivated by fear. That fear goes hand in hand with his ability to empathize, and it suggests that this fear is what makes “getting too close” so dangerous for him. 

As for issues with sleep, we all know Will has a terrible time with the darker hours of the day. In season one, Will is riddled with bad dreams, made worse by his empathy disorder, untreated encephalitis, and psychic driving from Hannibal. He often wakes sweat-soaked and gasping, unsure if he’s truly awake or not. The subjects of these dreams range from crime scenes and victims to the eerie Ravenstag, often with overlap between them. He’s not free of these dreams in season two either, though he’s no longer ill nor receiving Hannibal’s less conventional treatment. Towards the end of the season in episodes nine and eleven, Will experiences a pair of violent Ravenstag-based dreams. In the first, he dreams about ordering the Ravenstag to choke Hannibal, presumably to death if the dramatic arterial spray is anything to go by. In the second he dreams of himself being forcibly born from the dying Ravenstag’s belly, screaming and covered in blood. 

I think the last question posed above, can Will “speak of another man’s wickedness without thinking of his own,” is the one that is the most interesting to me. Will Graham is surrounded by the wickedness of other men. As a former police officer, a professor at Quantico, and consultant for the F.B.I., he’s constantly asked to either understand, explain, or apprehend “bad” people, which the series reveals damages Will the more he does it. It’s killing Garret Jacob Hobbs in service of protecting his daughter, Abigail, that sets Will on this path in the first place, and memories of that incident haunt Will throughout the series and particularly within the first season. 

It’s Hobbs that defines much of the first season for Will, appearing in Will’s mind at various crime scenes and reminding Will of the satisfaction he felt when he killed him. Hobbs becomes Will’s shadow, a reminder of his potential for harm at a point in the show when no one knew that Hannibal was the real danger. In the season one episode, “Potage,” Will and Hannibal have the following conversation about Will’s connection to Hobbs:

Hannibal: How did you feel seeing Marissa Schuur impaled in his antler room?

Will: Guilty.

H: Because you couldn’t save her?

W: Because I felt like I killed her…I got so close to him. Sometimes I felt like we were doing the same things at various times of the day. Like I was eating or showering or sleeping at the same time he was.

He says a similar thing of Hannibal and to Hannibal in the season three episode, “Dolce”:

Will: You and I have begun to blur.

Hannibal: Isn’t that how you found me?

W: Every crime of yours…feels like one I am guilty of. Not just Abigail’s murder, every murder…stretching backward and forward in time.

H: Freeing yourself from me and me freeing myself from you, they’re the same.

W: We’re conjoined. I’m curious whether either of us can survive separation.

So, can Will think of himself without thinking of the crimes of others? I think the answer to that is a resounding no. And at least twice now he has described his feelings about that as “guilty.” I therefore feel by Seneca’s standards, Will Graham is a pretty guilty man. 

There’s a poem by William Wordsworth called “Echo upon the Gemmi,” that reminds me of Will. Here are the last six lines: 

A solitary wolf-dog, ranging on

Through the bleak concave, wakes this wondrous chime

Of aëry voices locked in unison,—

Faint, far-off, near, deep, solemn and sublime!

So from the body of one guilty deed

A thousand ghostly fears and haunting thoughts proceed!

It’s a beautiful rendering of the impact one action can have. That from one “guilty deed” can come so many consequences, telling us that nothing exists in a vacuum. This feels like a sentiment that Will would understand. That one choice, like shooting a man about to slit his daughter’s throat, can have a rolling domino effect that leads to a thousand other results, like the death of a friend, or the loss of a family. Maybe even the plunging off a cliff after facing the truth of your own pleasures feels too painful to bear. 

Further Reading: 

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