Who Is Will Graham?

Hannibal Lecter is back—and he's brought someone with him.

NBC / The Atlantic

NBC's new crime drama Hannibal, premiering Thursday night, marks the return—and first real reboot—of the most intriguing character The Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris ever created:

Will Graham.

It's almost appropriate that Graham never became the cultural icon that the show's namesake, or his nemesis-ally from The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling, did. As originally written in Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon, Graham is a retiring personality—and in fact retired, at a young age, from his work as a special investigator for the FBI. At the beginning of the book, Graham now lives in Sugarloaf Key, Florida, where he's married to a woman with a young son and has taken to repairing outboard motors for a living.

Graham's career at the FBI had been brief, lasting only a few years, but it was marked by renown: He is the man who caught Hannibal Lecter.

This is what we know about Graham's background: After moving from rural Louisiana to work with the New Orleans Police Department, eventually as a homicide detective, he went on to graduate school in forensic science at George Washington University in D.C. and then to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He never made special agent, however. That was ruled out by his psychological evaluation. So they put him at the Academy as a lecturer while he worked in the field as an "investigator."

We don't know exactly how Graham failed his psych test, only that he did—and that the profile it yielded was also a sign of his ultimate value to the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit and its agent in charge, Jack Crawford: Graham has so pronounced a faculty of empathy that he can go past the rational limits of the evidence he's working with and connect the forensic dots emotionally. It's a crime-story cliche now, but it was sui generis as a character concept 30 years ago: Unlike anyone else on record, Will Graham can enter the mind of a serial killer.

* * *

Which early on took the kind of toll you'd know to expect.

His career at the FBI had been brief, but it was marked by renown: He is the man who caught Hannibal Lecter.

Graham's first big case for Crawford was a psychological disaster. It was 1975. Behavioral Science was pursuing a serial murderer known as the "Minnesota Shrike" (named after a kind of bird that impales its prey and eats it later). When Graham arrived at the home of suspect Garrett Jacob Hobbs (remember that name if you plan to watch the new show), he found Hobbs's wife on the apartment landing, bleeding profusely but still trying to stop Graham from getting inside. Graham broke down the door just as Hobbs was slashing his daughter's throat. Graham shot Hobbs to death. Hobbs's daughter survived. But Graham ended up so traumatized that he had to spend a month in the psychiatric ward of Bethesda Naval Hospital before returning to the FBI.

Two years later, in 1977, the Bureau was tracking the "Chesapeake Ripper," whom they identified as a single figure responsible for multiple homicides because of the way he was methodically removing his victims' organs.

Harris's description of what happened next is the clearest portrait we have of Graham's singular ability—and maybe one of the most plausible accounts of a forensic superpower in history of detective fiction.

There was nothing outwardly prodigious about Graham's work here. He didn't elliptically surmise anyone's guilt from idiosyncratic stains on pant cuffs caused by rare brands of mustard. He just followed the evidence until it didn't lead anywhere anymore; and then he did the same with less-promising evidence; and then again; and then ... he noticed that one of the Ripper's victims had a healed stab wound among the wounds that had killed him. Checking the victim's medical records, Graham saw that the older laceration had come from a hunting accident five years earlier. So he inquired about it with the doctor who'd treated the victim in the emergency room at the time, a Dr. Hannibal Lecter, now a prominent psychiatrist in Baltimore.

Wound Man, from Johannes de Ketham's Fasciculus Medicinae

Lecter is courteous and engaging but claims not to recall much about the patient. Graham comes away with no new leads or suspicions. But something nags at him. So he follows up with a second visit at Lecter's office. Lecter again seems cooperative. Still, nothing ... until very suddenly Graham finds himself overcome with the terrible certainty that Hannibal Lecter is the Chesapeake Ripper. So suddenly, in fact, that it visibly disorients Graham; the awkwardness is a fatal tell for Lecter; and while Graham excuses himself to call in backup, Lecter removes his shoes, walks up behind Graham, and guts him with a linoleum knife.

Lecter doesn't escape; he is apprehended by converging teams of Maryland State Troopers and FBI agents.

Graham doesn't escape, either; he is critically injured, nearly killed, requiring intensive-care treatment and months of painful recovery in the hospital.

He only realizes while laid up in bed how the insight about Lecter had come to him: He'd glimpsed a picture of a medieval surgical diagram known as Wound Man in Lecter's office; and the image had closed an emotional circuit for him. Graham had previously seen just fragments of hard evidence, but he could now see the full picture, like a constellation, by feeling Lecter's purpose in creating them.

Harris wrote all of this as backstory to the main plot in Red Dragon, where Graham comes out of retirement to investigate a new set of murders, turning to a now-incarcerated Lecter for help. It's a familiar conceit for anyone who knows Red Dragon's sequel (which has been uncharitably described as a rewrite of the earlier book, subbing-in the young FBI trainee Starling for Graham). Graham never appears in The Silence of the Lambs (1988), or ever again, apart from a few brief references: Starling mentions him as being "the keenest hound ever to run in Crawford's pack" and "a legend at the [FBI] Academy." Crawford tells her that Graham's face now "looks like damned Picasso drew it." And when Starling first meets Lecter, he asks her about Graham's scars. Frederick Chilton, the head of the high-security psychiatric prison where Lecter is now kept, remarks that Crawford is still angry that Lecter "cut up his protege."

* * *

Will Graham has been interpreted and reinterpreted by actors before. He was played onscreen first by William Petersen in Michael Mann's 1984 Red Dragon adaptation, Manhunter, later by Edward Norton in Brett Ratner's market-responsive 2002 remake. But Graham has never been reimagined by writers. Neither, I suppose, has Hannibal Lecter, unless you count Harris's own attempts to rework Lecter into the antihero of Hannibal (1999) or to give him a post hoc Chikatilovian personal history in Hannibal Rising (2006).

Until now.

Bryan Fuller (veteran Star Trek guy; writer and producer for Heroes; to his eternal credit, co-creator of the short-lived Wonderfalls) has been developing the new Hannibal since 2011 as a procedural whose central protagonist isn't the flamboyant titular character but his original adversary, an unassuming forensics specialist with an unusual hyper-empathy problem.

This is good news for two reasons: One is that Hannibal Lecter has never really worked as central character on his own. The more you explain him as a whole—the less you let him recede into the dark, showing himself only in aspects—the less frightening he will be. But the other reason is that, as little as we know about Will Graham from the source material, the Protagonist Zero of pop culture's serial-killer-mind-entry trope is as complex and compelling as any character in crime fiction. If you're able to understand why, and to develop his relationship with Lecter accordingly, you may not just be pulling a Contemporary Hollywood Special in recycling old ideas; you may be realizing a dramatic potential that Graham's original creator—who knew him impeccably—never fully realized.

Which would bring it all down to the execution.

Hannibal 2013's main twist on the Lecter-Graham relationship isn't entirely new. When Ratner shot Red Dragon a decade-plus ago, the script implied that the two had been acquainted for some time, with Lecter advising Graham on a number of cases before Graham figured out that Lecter was himself a serial-killing cannibal.

Fuller's show stretches that premise out. We know early in Hannibal, from the time Lecter starts collaborating with the FBI as a consultant to Graham, that not everything is as it seems with the urbane psychiatrist. Or rather, we would know early if we didn't know already, given that he's, well, Hannibal Lecter. Indeed, Fuller puts the world's familiarity with Hannibal to clever use: You'll watch every scene between Lecter and Graham with a tense anticipation, knowing that the plot will turn completely, just not when or how.

Lecter has never really worked as central character on his own. The less he can recede into the dark, the less frightening he will be.

The new Lecter himself may be perfect. Mads Mikkelsen plays him with a controlled, understated menace that recalls Le Chiffre from 2006's Casino Royale, the role that almost surely got Mikkelsen this one. When you take in Mikkelsen's Lecter, you may find yourself second-guessing the relatively over-the-top way Anthony Hopkins calibrated the character for his Academy Award-wining performance in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs—e.g., his teeth-bearing flourishes in enunciating how he responded to a census taker who once tried to quantify him: by eating his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(Harris may subsequently have given you reasons to doubt him, too, but bonus fact for the oenophiles: He wrote the pairing as "a big Amarone.")

In fairness to Hopkins, he was playing a very specific version of the role for Demme: a monster behind a facade of charm behind bars. There are fans who still prefer Brian Cox's more understated portrayal in Manhunter. And Cox is certainly brilliant. But Mikkelsen could well own Lecter. We'll see. I imagine he's a character you can lose control of, if you, or your writers, aren't careful.

The new Graham, however, may be Hannibal's lost opportunity.

As Harris wrote him, and as both Petersen and Norton played him, one trait Graham shares in common with the creatures he hunts is that he appears normal. If you saw him on the street, you might imagine he has something on his mind, or maybe even some stress in his life, possibly from overwork or a mortgage. You'd not know that he was psychologically tortured, let alone that he was psychologically tortured by a regimen of terrible emotional abuse that he imposed on himself in order to uncover horrible people.

Well you will now. There is literally nothing about Graham's internal suffering that Hugh Dancy—the English actor playing him, whose American accent is coming along just fine—doesn't amplify with every facial muscle, vocal tremor, or disturbed gesture he can deploy. Everything—everything—Dancy's Graham says or does is Tortured. Yes, the show's writers are playing up Graham's anguish for effect, but you'd think that would be reason to modulate it rather than taking it constantly to 11. If Dancy could give Graham's inner life some slack and play, he might be able to start making Graham as believable as he was intended to be.

But the rest of the gap between TV-Hannibal's Will Graham and Red Dragon's is on Fuller and his writers. In framing the new show as a weekly procedural, while also an ongoing drama, Fuller seems to have decided on populating his world with roughly as many serial killers as our world has diabetics—with little regard for psychological plausibility and lots of occasion for Grand Guignol spectacle. One of our killers, for instance, flays his victims and pulls their detached skin above them with fishing wire to make them look like angels. Why? Because he's dying of cancer. "They're not praying to him," Graham says at a glance. "They're praying for him." And how does Graham know this? He "intuits" it—not because he's struggled with the physical evidence until one of his uncommon synapses flashes off despite him, but because it's irrationally "obvious" to him what these hideous mutilations mean. That is: because the writers decided he knows it.

This isn't really Will Graham; it's Sherlock Holmes without the burden of deduction.

By establishing a partnership between Lecter and Graham, while representing Graham more as a troubled psychic than as a real person who suffers for overusing a real human trait, Fuller has put a defining irony at the center of the new show: Graham can see all the killers around him except for the closest and the worst. In Red Dragon, Will's dysfunctional excess of humanity overwhelmed Hannibal's distinctive ability to hide his inhumanity. Now Hannibal is invisible to Will. That's a very different story, well beyond the plot points.

NBC / The Atlantic