Hannibal Lecter, the Greatest Mom
Villains often fall into one of several categories of tropes. They can be the greedy businessmen, the pure embodiments of evil, or just plain jerks. Characters of different genders adhere to certain tropes over others. One of the most common female villain tropes is that of the overbearing mother, a trope with which the show Hannibal on NBC takes an interesting approach in its expression.
Before getting into what exactly Hannibal is, it’s good to rehash the trope mentioned. The overbearing mother is most commonly embodied in literature and film by older women. As the name implies, these mothers are extremely overbearing and protective of their children. Justified by their “love,” overbearing mothers will engage in an increasingly manipulative series of actions to keep their children close, even if it means hurting the children in the process. In the end, the reasons for this obsession have nothing to do with concern for children, but with other unconscious goals the overbearing mothers have.
Now, we can talk about Hannibal.
Hannibal (NBC) is about the relationship between Will Graham, a mentally-unstable FBI consultant detective, and Hannibal Lecter, a forensic psychiatrist and secret cannibalistic serial killer. The show follows Will as he progressively loses his sanity due to Hannibal’s efforts to turn him into a killer. The pilot sets off the show with Will and Hannibal meeting and solving a case of the “Minnesota Shrike,” a cannibal murderer like Hannibal. At the end of the episode, after a face-off with the Shrike (revealed to be a man named Garret Jacob Hobbs), Will and Hannibal find themselves to be the new ‘fathers’ of Hobbs’ (now) orphaned daughter: Abigail.
Later on in the show, Abigail figures out the truth about Hannibal’s criminal life. Many viewers believe that Hannibal will figure out a way to get rid of her. After all, he's done it so easily to others. However, it’s revealed that Hannibal has other plans. Through manipulation under the guise of “blind fatherly love,” Hannibal helps Abgail get away with a murder (that he manipulates her to commit). Though in self-defense, Abigail still commits this crime, a crime that if made public, will cause many to believe she is an accomplice to her father’s crimes, a suspicion many detectives on the case suspect to be true. So, once black-mailed, Abigail keeps Hannibal’s secret, and he keeps hers.
It’s no secret, however, that Hannibal manipulates Abigail; in fact, she and the viewers find out right after Hannibal reveals himself to be a killer too. Instead of shying away from Hannibal though, Abigail depends on him more than ever. She feels open and free with him, despite what he’s done. He welcomes her with open arms, and even gives her normalcy, by having her spend more time with Will and him, the only actual people in her life who genuinely want to help her (even if both have their own selfish reasons for doing so). However, this dynamic doesn’t last long. By the end of season two, Will betrays Hannibal and turns him over to police.
It is here where we, as viewers, understand why exactly Hannibal keeps Abigail alive. Because it is a way to spend more time with and to manipulate Will. When Will strips Hannibal of his freedom and life, Hannibal finds that Abigail has only one use left―dying. Hannibal kills Abigail as revenge for Will’s betrayal. This shows that while caring for Abigail and risking his own freedom for her, Hannibal never loved Abigail. Not in the way she loved him. Rather, Abigail was a means to an end to attain something else: Will.
This treatment and relationship Hannibal has with Abigail is a picture-book example of the overbearing mother trope. The most interesting part is Hannibal’s expression of the trope as a man who’s brutality is only matched by his manipulation, as the viewer learns from his relationship with Abigail. I think that this expression of evil in a man, in this case, is far more scary than it would be in a woman, and, forgive the pun but, executed properly, it certainly doesn’t seem to foreign.
My final thoughts are this: Hannibal (NBC) is an amazing show and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in unique expressions of character motivation and deft execution in achieving them.