Why isn't Hannibal a psychopath? Bryan and Mads and everyone I guess keeps saying he's not and I'm not sure why.
One, the character is meant to be mythologized above anything quantifiable. Specifically, they like to equate him to the human embodiment of Satan, which is inspired by the novels in that he presents temptation to others, passes judgment, consumes and punishes, and does it all with a healthy dose of blasphemy to boot.
He’s supposed to be unique, not a “garden variety” anything, and labeling him a psychopath (or anything else, really) will tempt some audience members to reduce him to just those characteristics and miss how important understanding him as completely unique is to the overall narrative. This is important because it raises the stakes of the story to be about something bigger and more legendary than just capturing any psychopathic murderer, and they’re aiming for a mythological morality play, not for a realistic depiction of criminal (or any other) psychology.
There’s a reason why Will chose to describe the Ripper as a monster rather than a human being with a diagnosis. While we have a differentiation in the English language between a devil and the devil, we don’t have the same for psychopaths, and that’s what we would need to tell the story the way the storytellers want it told. Hannibal is not just a baddie. He is the Big Bad, and calling him a psychopath would be a little like calling him a baddie rather than the Big Bad—it’s not entirely untrue, but it’d definitely be inappropriate. Sometimes you’ll hear Bryan Fuller or Steve Lightfoot refer to Hannibal as a psychopath, but then they’ll often then attach a “not simply a psychopath” kind of statement to it, and I think this is largely why.
Additionally, the base premise of the story is that Hannibal and Will are each completely unique, so that the only person in the universe who could truly understand and appreciate each is the other. This is fundamental to understanding everything in the show, and so it’s necessary to understand that whatever their particular issues, “we don’t yet have a name” for what these two sweethearts are.
Two, serial murderers are a dime a dozen in Hannibal’s universe, even if significantly rarer in our own, but even in Hannibal’s universe, most of the killers are not conventionally psychopathic: their murders are largely (though not exclusively) those of “sensitive psychopaths,” as Jack called them—which tends to cherry-pick the psychopathy checklist: they don’t actually fit the criteria well enough to be considered actual psychopaths.
This is also true of Hannibal. As Miriam Lass puts it, he has “some of the characteristics,” but not enough of them to actually be what they call a sociopath or psychopath.
Keep in mind that there is no actual diagnosis for psychopathy, and the issue of psychopathy is one that’s fraught with much legal and (often pseudo-) scientific wrangling. But, generally speaking, no one has yet replaced Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist with something better. This ascribes point values to various items, 0-2, and a score totaling 30+ means an individual is probably a psychopath (someone told me 25+ in the UK, but I don’t know if that’s true—but it does show that a difference in legal definition can exist, illustrating just how “soft” a science this all is).
- glibness/superficial charm
- grandiose sense of self worth
- need for stimulation/prone to boredom
- pathological lying
- lack of remorse or guilt
- shallow emotional response
- callous/lack of empathy
- parasitic lifestyle
- poor behavioral controls
- promiscuous sexual behavior
- early behavioral problems
- lack of realistic long term goals
- failure to accept responsibility for their own actions
- many short term relationships
- juvenile delinquency
- revocation of conditional release
- criminal versatility
As I total these, even if I give a 2 for any time I think Hannibal only deserves a 1, the highest I can get him to score is 24, and I’m being REALLY UNFAIR just to get him that high. I think, if we score him at a 1 for anything debatable, where it depends on circumstance or how you look at it, 0 for not at all, and 2 for undeniable, then he probably scores ~18. (The highest I could get Will to was about 19, again being REALLY UNFAIR, but he might score as high as ~11, more realistically.)
It should be noted, as a point of comparison, that most people score 5 or below, so Hannibal (and even Will) is way more psychopathic than most…yet not actually high enough to be considered a psychopath. This would make Miriam Lass’s assessment of the Chesapeake Ripper very accurate.
There are other checklists and descriptions of psychopaths besides Hare’s version, but in my observation, Hannibal does about the same on all of them: he fits some categories quite well, and others not at all. There is no official diagnosis, remember, because the whole thing, like many things in the field of mental illness, is pretty pseudo-science to begin with.
In addition to all this, I think Mads specifically has a tendency to not just mythologize the character, but also to emphasize how emotional he is. Hannibal is not experiencing shallow emotional response or a lack of empathy, he just controls himself really, really well while he actually feels very deeply. I’ve seen people argue that this is exactly what should make Hannibal a psychopath (although that doesn’t really fit the checklist above), but that’s still debatable: studies have shown that while psychopaths may have an “empathy on/off switch,” people believe that this may be true of everyone, the difference being that the psychopath’s default position is “off,” and an ordinary person’s default position is “on.” I think, if presented with the question, that Mads would pretty unequivocally state that Hannibal’s default is most definitely set to “on.” Finally, I’ve also seen Mads appear to draw from the older definition of sociopathy or secondary psychopathy—wherein psychopaths are made that way by childhood trauma—and dismiss that completely. I don’t know if Mads knows all that much about the issue, really—he may, he may not…it’s hard to say. But those seem to be the factors that influence his opinion: mythologizing the character, deep emotional and empathetic capacity, and an absence of childhood trauma, at least as a cause.
And all of the above probably holds for Bryan Fuller.