“You came here to look at me, to get the old scent back again, didn’t you?”
– Hannibal Lecktor (sic) Manhunter (1986)
Hannibal Lecter takes trophies. He murders a victim, removes a tasty organ with surgical precision, and then places the remaining corpse into a beautiful and ironic tableau. He’s one of those type-A personalities, not satisfied with just being a doctor and a psychiatrist, he has to try his hand at avant garde art while checking items off his grocery list at the same time, too. Throughout the TV series Hannibal, the eponymous cannibal has removed some very vital organs on his quest to push the aesthetic envelope, but the most critical keepsake Lecter ever removed from a victim was Will Graham’s ravenstag.
Part ten-point deer, part conspiracy of ravens, all nightmare, the ravenstag was born out of Hannibal’s first gift to Will Graham: the corpse of Cassie Boyle, sliced open and lungless, presented atop a decapitated stag’s head for the carrion to eat. While it was gruesome and terrible, Lecter’s gift-wrapped field kabuki manifested itself as Will’s shadowy familiar and augmented his powers of hyper-empathy.
Throughout the series, the ravenstag is always menacing but never dangerous. It remains close to Will, and while it can’t ever protect him, it serves as a guide into the darkest places of his truly upsetting mind. Graham is capable of empathizing with killers, but Hannibal starts by showing us his limit — he can’t understand a specific type of high functioning psychopath, at least not on his own.
To find Garret Jacob Hobbs, a cannibal who chooses his victims based on their resemblance to his daughter Abigail, Hannibal Lecter gives Will a boost, represented through the image of the ravenstag. Lecter innately understands Hobbs and is able to push Will to the dark places of the mind normally reserved for the kind of guy who fantasizes about eating his adolescent child. As the series progresses Will continues to solve crimes with his psychiatrist and terrifying spirit animal. He relies on each to the extent that, when the time finally comes to spring a trap on Hannibal, he must turn to self-mutilation.
In Hannibal’s season two finale, “Mizumono,” Will shoots his ravenstag from an expressionistic hunter’s perch, standing beside the image of an undead Garret Jacob Hobbs. The scene is a dreamlike way of showing us Will’s decision to betray Hannibal.
The back half of the show’s second season is a labyrinthine plot that hinges on unreliable narrator to keep the audience guessing at Will’s allegiance between his handsome doctor and extra stressful but totally heroic job. Shooting the deer is the moment revelation: up until then, Graham still had the chance to choose a life of people eating and art appreciation in Florence with Hannibal. Instead, through the sacrifice of Hannibal’s gift to him, Will chose a life lived alone and in darkness.
In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, which serves as the source material for a major part of the upcoming season three story arc, Will Graham is faced with an evil he can’t understand. Pulled out of an early Florida retirement by Jack Crawford, Graham’s quest requires him to get into the head of Francis Dolarhyde, the next generation of unthinkable psychopath. But the book, just like season three of Hannibal, takes place in a post-ravenstag world. Will struggles to comprehend the terrible Toothfairy (Dolarhyde’s nom du mort), and eventually he resigns himself to a terrible truth: Will can’t think straight without Hannibal Lecter.
Dr. Lecter’s first appearance in any media is on the pages of Red Dragon, when Will Graham pays the killer a visit, deep in the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, in order to get his empathetic groove back. It is the most famous Lecter appearance outside of Silence of the Lambs and the encounter serves to illustrate one thing: Will is incomplete.
Through the scene’s framing, it’s apparent that Will is on the less privileged end of a toxic co-dependency. The following excerpt precedes it:
“There was an opinion he wanted. A very strange view he needed to share; a mindset he had to recover after his warm years in the keys.”
-Red Dragon, p.74
Even in the world of the novels, in which Graham and Lecter had very little in ways of a relationship prior to Will’s disembowelment at the cannibal shrink’s hands, there is an intimacy between lonely and unique minds. The scene ends, on the page and in both the 1986 and 2002 film adaptations, with Lecter mocking Will: “The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike.” (Red Dragon, p.86) Having just been in the same room as Lecter, Will is then able to start working his metronome magic on Dolarhyde’s crime scenes. He’s found the scent again, welcomed the proverbial ravenstag back into his life.
The Will Grahams of olde had it easy though. Sure, each had to abandon his wife and child in Florida to get back into the grisly employ of Jack Crawford, but Hannibal was locked in a basement in the book and movie adaptations. Entering season three of Hannibal, with Lecter in Florence going through the motions of Thomas Harris’s third novel, there’s more than just a relatively short drive and conversation with Frederick Chilton between the men, there’s an ocean.
And yet the impetus is still there. Like a recent divorcee who forgot how to eat well because his partner did all the cooking for years, Will has lost his way through the terrible forest of his beautiful mind. He has lost his ravenstag, and while that might allow him to settle down, start a family and work on a tan, the day will come when he needs that monstrous deer back at his side. Lives will depend on it.
In the final moments of “Mizumono”, Hannibal is at his most human and his most brutal. The moments of betrayal in the previous dinner scene between he and Will have inspired him to end their relationship with a clean break. He murders their surrogate daughter, Abigail, and slits Will’s belly, mumbling about the life they could have had if he’d chosen his love over Jack Crawford’s idealism. All that Hannibal had given Will in their relationship — a daughter (Abigail, whose life Lecter saved), a shoulder to cry on, stability in times of turbulence — he erased.
But the most important thing that Hannibal took from Will, the surgical trophy from the bloody kitchen tableau left after the events of “Mizumono,” is the ravenstag. As Will lies on the kitchen floor, holding in his own guts, he sees what we see: a feathered deer taking its final breaths, the same one he executed when he decided to part ways with his friend; the ten point trophy buck that will hang on the mantle of a memory palace, because no one says goodbye to Hannibal Lecter without leaving something vital behind.