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NBC’s Hannibal: Of Questionable but Delicious Taste

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“Only the good die young,” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL and that we have been sad to see struck down in their primes. A season or two that grabbed us, and…that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Cat Smith takes a look at NBC’s Hannibal.

NBC’s Hannibal broke all my rules. Never mind that it still staggers me that this show survived for three seasons on network television. Never mind that I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to violence involving children or animals, and this has both. Never mind that I am ridiculously familiar with the source material—my relationship with the Thomas Harris novels is a long and passionate one. Never mind that the show takes a flying leap of departure from said source material. Ordinarily, all those factors would be deal-breakers for me. Not here. Hannibal broke all those rules, and it’s because it was that freaking good.

A murder victim, upright, with a tree growing out of him, and the insides of his chest and stomach cavity replaced by different flowers

Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies) is so very extra and in the best way possible. Everything he makes is filmed in the most purple of prose, and Hannibal is practically porn. I don’t even mean sex (well, I don’t mean just sex). Hannibal is food porn, clothes porn, and language porn, and everything has a lush and vibrant look to it. It’s a perfect match for the Harris novels, in which the prose is a purple and bloated yet exquisite corpse, which in turn matches the works-of-art corpses featured on the show. No run-of-the-mill murders on this show, oh no. The victims that don’t make it onto the dinner table are impaled on antlers, turned into a beehive, sewn into the belly of a dead horse, sliced up and displayed in Lucite, and any number of tableaux for which the FX team should have won awards (one lousy Emmy nod for FX, what?).

Will Graham (I guess you’d call him the protagonist?) is played by Hugh Dancy with his flawless American accent. The character was introduced by Harris in his first novel to feature Hannibal Lecter, and in the book, Dr. Lecter is already in prison and Will was the one to catch him. Instead of that, the series takes us back to their first meeting (a new first meeting), when Will is recruited as a profiler by the FBI, and Dr. Lecter is tapped to assist him. It is established right away that Will’s particular gift as a profiler is that he is empathic to a ridiculous degree, almost like it’s a superpower. They don’t use the word “neurotypical,” but it’s pretty clear that Will isn’t—in fact, it’s mentioned early on that he is somewhere on the autism spectrum.

In a dim room, a closeup of Will looking up, slightly distraught

Will is able to put himself into the mind of the killer who he’s hunting, and that’s why he’s the one they call in when no one else will do. Unfortunately for Will, spending time in the headspace of serial killers isn’t good for him, and hunting them has already done him damage. When we meet Will, he’s already broken and angsty. He’s socially awful, more comfortable with dogs than he is with humans, and even though he can interact with people he knows, his defenses are always way up.

Eyes are distracting. They see too much, don’t see enough, and it’s hard to focus when you’re thinking, oh, those whites are really white, or he must have hepatitis, or a burst vein. So I try to avoid eyes whenever possible.
– Will Graham, Hannibal

Whenever Will first surveys a murder scene, we hear him say “this is my design” as he puts himself into the mind of the killer. We see the crime reenacted, only it’s Will who’s doing it, not the actual killer. We get to experience a little of what it’s like for Will, having to bear death after death, as if he himself were committing the crimes. Eventually, Dr. Lecter officially becomes his psychiatrist, and Will’s empathy becomes a two-way street as his own mind becomes the province of a serial killer.

Mads Mikkelsen is one of those perfect human beings, as far as I can tell, who is good at everything and stole all the good DNA. His portrayal of Dr. Lecter is detailed and graceful (no, I have no intention of assuming I’m on a first-name basis with Dr. Lecter, that would be rude, and we all know how he feels about the rude). The series has an interesting twist: we, the audience, already know about Dr. Lecter. The show knows that we know. And since the other characters don’t know (at least, not for a while), we get to be in on a secret. We also get to have anxiety for the other characters, never knowing when or if this man they all trust is going to turn on them and make them an entrée.

Dr. Lecter at his dinner table, wearing a suit and looking at the fork in his hand with a satisfied smirk on his face

We don’t meet Dr. Lecter until 22 minutes into the first episode, though he has been discussed already. Our meeting him is as you might expect—he’s at his dinner table, impeccably dressed in what we will come to recognize as his trademark three-piece suit. The table is dressed as beautifully as he is, as is the food itself. The food stylist for this show was Janice Poon, and she’s brilliant. Her book, Feeding Hannibal, has recipes (using non-human substitutes) and the stories behind them. Food is always a sacred activity for Dr. Lecter, even when he’s alone. I can’t imagine that he would ever insult his dinner table by coming to it in a pair of sweatpants.

I know that part of why Hannibal gained such an intense fandom is that it became a kind of love story between these two men. It’s not strictly book-accurate, but this is one of those times when the source material becomes a kind of springboard to go somewhere else, and since it makes sense in the context they have set up, I’m cool with that. I don’t think either of them is gay or even bisexual, but that’s not really the point. There’s definitely a bond, definitely a seduction going on, but I think it’s less a case of wanting to make sweet love down by the fire and more a good old-fashioned mindfuck. In the books, it is said of Dr. Lecter that his intelligence, like his pathology, is not quantifiable by standard means, and I think that applies to his sexuality as well. Over the course of the series, his penetration of Will Graham’s mind becomes more and more intense. Would the body eventually have followed suit? Sure, I don’t have a problem with that…but it would be the result of the mindfuck and not something as pedestrian as sexual or romantic love.

Really, Hannibal is a show about connections: wanting them, wanting to avoid them, making them whether you want to or not. It is also about transition—becoming something that you weren’t before, both intentionally and not. Dr. Lecter may be terrifying, but he wants a friend so badly. And really, unorthodox methods and murders aside, he’s a pretty great therapist. At one point he tells Will, “The mirrors in your mind can reflect the best of yourself, not the worst of someone else.”

Not that I’m sympathizing with a cannibalistic serial killer, but it’s got to be very lonely where Dr. Lecter is. The show was cancelled before they managed to get too deeply into Dr. Lecter’s origin story, Hannibal Rising, but sometimes, when he expresses a desire for a friend, you can see the damaged young boy peeking out. Many times his actions are the result of a simple desire to see what would happen. His food is another way to connect with people, both in innocent ways and not. When Dr. Lecter cooks for someone, there is often the barest pause as he watches them put his food into their mouth for the first time. He’s watching them cross over, taking extra satisfaction from the fact that they don’t know it.

Lecter makes a toast from the head of his table. About 8 guests hold up glasses of red wine

His seduction of Will is about connection, too. Early on, he plants the idea of Will as a killer into Will’s head. He wants to use Will’s empathic ability to transform Will into a killer like himself. Toward the end of Season 1, Will gets encephalitis, which makes him physically ill. He has fugues during which he experiences things like missing time and hallucinations. Dr. Lecter uses this to his advantage. He tells Will that no, there is nothing physically wrong with him, which makes Will cling to his psychiatrist all the more desperately. When the encephalitis is discovered by Alana and Will is hospitalized and treated, Dr. Lecter is almost disappointed.

Will wants to connect, too. In addition to his empathy, he is sensitive and sympathetic to people who are suffering from honest-to-god mental illness. The first killer Will and Dr. Lecter apprehend together is Garret Jacob Hobbs, and Will kills him in the process. Hobbs leaves behind a traumatised, college-aged daughter, Abigail, and she is the first thing that Will and Dr. Lecter truly bond over. Will feels responsible for her because he killed her father, and Dr. Lecter sees in her his long-dead younger sister, and they both become father surrogates. A pair of murder dads is probably the last thing this girl actually needs, but she has no one else, so she clings to them both.

In fact, when Abigail commits a murder of her own (and really, she helped her father with his killings, hunting girls who looked just like her), Dr. Lecter says that he can help her if she asks him to. Asking Dr. Lecter for help is tantamount to selling your soul to the devil, and there’s no way back. It’s sort of sweet, albeit twisted, the way Dr. Lecter looks like a proud mother hen when one of his “kids” takes a step forward, even when it’s a step that could lead them closer to him.

Will agrees to lie for Abigail, too, and it’s another consummation between him and Dr. Lecter—one step closer toward the dark side. It also bears mentioning that when this happens (S1E9), it happens along with the first deliberate physical contact between the two men. It’s a seemingly innocuous hand on a shoulder, but it’s like that moment in the first film when Anthony Hopkins’s finger strokes Jodie Foster’s as he’s handing her that case file through the bars of his cell. You can’t really explain why a chill just went up your spine, but it did.

S3 promo shot, where the principal cast is arranged in the sanctuary of a church, all looking quite posh

One of the things I love about Bryan Fuller is how much he loves women. His early career involved writing for Star Trek: Voyager, and his fondness for empowered women shows in his later work, too. In a show with two primary male leads, Hannibal is loaded with kickass women, despite the source material having been less so. Dr. Alan Bloom is a minor character in the books, but Hannibal‘s gender-swapped Dr. Alana Bloom is a source of fierceness equal to the men. Sure, she also does the love interest thing, but Season 3 reveals she is bisexual and gives her a lovely relationship with Margot Verger (who is very different than book-Margot, though still a lesbian).

Also gender-flipped was sleazy reporter Freddy Lounds. You wouldn’t think that a character that was perfect for both Stephen Lang and Philip Seymour Hoffman would also manage to be perfect for gorgeous Lara Jean Chorostecki, but it absolutely works. Hannibal‘s Freddie Lounds is fearless and ruthless, and she doesn’t even care when she lies her way onto a crime scene and gets cops fired as a result.

Beverly Katz (Hetienne Park) was part of the FBI forensics team in the books, but we don’t get to know her well. Here, she’s part of the wisecracking-but-brilliant trio also including Aaron Abrams and The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson, who shows that there is more to him than sketch comedy. It’s their job to be clinical and detached about the crime scenes and the bodies, and it’s important. Not only are they able to make jokes and lighten the mood for us a bit, but their detachment is a foil for Will, who is anything but. Beverly in particular is a confidant of his, familiar enough to know that she’s a better shot than he is. According to the DVD extras, when Fuller offered Park the role, he said, “I’m going to make you a character that everyone will love, and then kill you.”

Beverly Katz, sliced up, with each slice separately in Lucite

He definitely fulfilled his promise—Beverly Katz’s Season 2 death is probably the most devastating of the series. She’s the one who gets sliced up and encased in Lucite, and in addition to being horrible, it is so very cool. Park apparently insisted on putting in the time with the FX team herself and loved every minute of it. The fandom kicked up a fuss over Beverly’s death, accusing the show of “fridging” her, and an Asian actress to boot. Both Park and Fuller have repeatedly said otherwise. Me, I don’t see her as having been fridged…just killed. Had her character been a man, the exact same death wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. Park even suggested that Dr. Lecter turn her into egg rolls. I’m not going to lie: I’m a little glad that they didn’t do that.

Bryan Fuller is one of those showrunners who looks out for his people. Throughout all his work, you see a lot of the same faces. There’s a character named Gretchen Speck who shows up in all his shows as a kind of Easter egg. I don’t know if Gillian Anderson was one of his faves before this show, but she went on to do American Gods with him and left it once he did. Her character, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, is an invention for the series, and I understand why she’s there. She’s Dr. Lecter’s therapist, whether she likes it or not, and clearly she doesn’t like it. She’s another one who made that deal with the devil by asking for his help, and now he owns her. Even after she tries to flee the country (and him), he tracks her down when he needs her to pose as his wife on his own flight to Europe. As his therapist, she gives Dr. Lecter someone to talk to, thus allowing us to hear what otherwise would only be his internal monologue. She’s not my favourite, but I get why she’s necessary.

Apparently the role had originally been written for a much older woman, and they had had Dame Angela Lansbury in mind, but they couldn’t work out her availability. I’m positive that would have made me a huge fan of the character. Lansbury makes everything amazing, and her being in another show in which people eat people would have been a fun, Easter-eggy reminder that Bryan Fuller’s favourite musical is Sweeney Todd. Also, age gap be damned, she and Mikkelsen would have looked so very hot together.

Dr. Lecter at his dinner table, apparently alone

Back to Alana Bloom and the women for a minute. Alana and Will have obvious crushes on each other from the very beginning. They circle each other a lot, sniffing, but never manage to hook up. In Season 2, she begins an affair with Dr. Lecter, and though she’s definitely the one who initiated it, I have to wonder if part of her appeal for Dr. Lecter is that he knows that Will wants her. In what had to have been really good planning ahead casting-wise, Alana and Margot (and even Abigail) are all the same physical type. So in Season 2, when Will is in bed with Margot and Dr. Lecter is in bed with Alana, they get to blur everyone together film-wise, and you can’t really tell who is in bed with whom.

Alana also spends a lot of her time calling the men out on their crap, and she’s even the one to tell Dr. Lecter when she thinks he’s been rude. He takes it well, but your heart skips a beat on her behalf.

I love love looooooove Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, FBI agent and Head of Behavioural Science. In the films and in the books, he’s there as a mentor-type to Will Graham and Clarice Starling. He feels guilty for sending Will to crime scenes that break Will’s brain, but he does it anyway because Will is saving lives. No other portrayal of Jack Crawford has made him this degree of badass, and it’s wonderful. Not only is he badass, but his wife—weak and dying of cancer in the books—is played by Fishburne’s own then-wife Gina Torres, and she’s a freaking warrior. Sure, it’s impressive when Alana Bloom tells Dr. Lecter he’s been rude, but Bella Crawford hauls herself up from a hospital bed so she can punch him across the face when he deserves it. I’m pretty sure he admires her for it.

Jack describes himself as bedrock, and he’s not kidding. And, like most strong people, those times their weakness threatens to peep out, it is unseen by most. For all the trouble Will has being social, he wants to be there for Jack. Even Dr. Lecter wants to, in his way. If you watch the series Angel (and you should), there’s a word they mention a couple of times: “kyrumption.” In a specific demon language, it means “when two heroes meet on the field of battle, and they know each other.” That’s what I always think of when it comes to Dr. Lecter and Jack Crawford. Before realizing what Dr. Lecter is, he and Jack are real friends, and there’s a moment when we see the heartbreak this causes Jack.

In the middle of a gruesome fight, Dr Lecter reaches behind and stabs Crawford in the neck with a piece of broken glass

Season 2 is bookended by this amazing fight scene between the two of them. Bryan Fuller always gets fantastic people choreographing his fight work. Midway through Season 1, there’s a fight between Dr. Lecter and Tobias Budge, who is played by Demore Barnes (American Gods). According to the DVD commentary, when he found out about that fight, Fishburne made wistful noises at Fuller, to the tune of “um, you know, I’m really good at stage combat too…” I don’t know if the Lecter/Crawford fight was already on the docket or if the wistful noises helped, but yowza. And their fighting styles are visibly different, with Crawford throwing jabs like a trained boxer.

Midway through Season 2, Jack has finally become convinced that Dr. Lecter is, in fact, the intelligent psychopath for whom they have been searching since the pilot. Will is playing Dr. Lecter, but he half believes his own game, and it is causing irreparable damage to himself. When Dr. Lecter begins to feel the jaws of Crawford’s trap beginning to close, he suggests to Will that they run away together, and you really get the feeling that Will is tempted. When Jack Crawford says, “Hannibal thinks you’re his man. I think you’re mine,” the audience, even Will himself, isn’t sure who’s right.

Dr Lecter holds the back of Will's head, their foreheads almost touching, in an intimate moment

By now, Will has not only eaten plenty with Dr. Lecter, he has cooked with him, which is kind of a big deal—I always notice who gets asked to be sous chef (Alana), as opposed to who only watches (Crawford). Will presents Dr. Lecter with a packet of meat that he says used to be Freddie Lounds—“a slim and delicate pig”—and they cook it together. The act of Dr. Lecter handing Will the butcher knife is huge, and them eating the resulting meal together is practically a love scene. Physical penetration finally happens in the form of Dr. Lecter’s knife to Will’s gut. Later, consummation occurs as the two kill serial murderer Francis Dolarhyde together, in a glorious, blood-soaked display.

Hannibal also boasts an absolutely stellar lineup of supporting characters, apart from the ones I’ve already mentioned. Apparently someone else owns the rights to Clarice Starling, so they weren’t allowed to use the character. They were, however, allowed to use the stories that featured her, and so they juggled the narrative. Alana gets to take some of the Starling dialogue, as do Will and Jack. Anna Chlumsky plays Miriam Lass, an original character that works well as a Starling substitute for some of the story. Eddie Izzard is absolutely brilliant as Dr. Abel Gideon, who is essentially a substitute for Dr. Lecter himself.

The writing team of the show was brilliant in their use of the Harris novels. Not only did they become very skilled at aping Harris’s smart, purple style, they used every possible bit of Harris dialogue and prose they could. The novel Hannibal is stripped for parts like a Mercedes in a crappy neighbourhood, and weirdly, I didn’t mind. I was probably very annoying to watch this show with, since every time some text from the book showed up on screen, I would notice and say so. I think my roommate turned it into a drinking game.

Raúl Esparza (Company) is a wonderful, much less smarmy take on Dr. Frederick Chilton, and Margot Verger’s sadistic brother Mason is played by Michael Pitt, who seems to be having a ball being a character actor, as opposed to the handsome brooding leading man he was in Boardwalk Empire. I need to give a special mention to Jeremy Davies (Lost) too, even though he’s only in a couple of episodes. He’s one of my favourite character actors. As the gentle-but-broken Peter Bernardone, who loves animals enough to have forgiven the horse who kicked him in the head and caused him brain damage, he is positively luminous.

There’s also the dogs. Remember how I said that animal death is usually a deal-breaker for me? I needed an assurance right away, from a friend who had already watched the series, that none of Will’s dogs would come to any harm. The most prominent of Will’s dogs is Winston, the stray Will takes home in the very first episode. Winston is a bit of a superdog, with a bit more of a clue than the others. When Dr. Lecter persuades a hopped-up Mason Verger to slice off his own face and feed it to the dogs, Winston abstains courteously and stays outside on the porch. Good boy, Winston. As Alana says to Will, when Will insists he isn’t collecting strays, “dogs keep a promise a person can’t.”

S1 promo shot, with Lecter, Will, Alana, and Jack around a beautifully dressed dinner table

I know neither Fuller, the cast, or the fandom has given up hope of another season somewhere else. I’m one of those people, too. That said, I do understand why it was cancelled. Remember the thing about Bryan Fuller being extra? The show starts out on a bit of a leash, and as it settles itself and gets comfortable, the leash gets looser and looser. I personally think that if they could keep the Season 2 vibe they had going, that would have been the sweet spot. But everything gradually got more and more art-house and extra.

It’s all very pretty to look at, but the pacing of the show becomes glacial. And that’s particularly odd, considering they were trying to cram the next three planned seasons into one. It didn’t help that Bedelia Du Maurier is in it a lot, and she’s doped up most of the time so she makes the pacing even slower. It also brought the homoeroticism out of the land of subtext and into the forefront, and as I said earlier, I think it’s stronger as subtext. I ship Hannigram as much as the next Fannibal, but any sex or romance should be a by-product of the bonding and the violence.

All of that said, I miss this show a lot and I want it back. There’s got to be a streaming service or a cable station that wants to give it a chance. I hope it happens. Hannibal broke all my rules, and for that, I thank it very much.

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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

5 Comments

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  1. Not enough love; too much hate for Gillian Anderson and Dr. Maurier. She fit in rather well I thought. Especially with the over the top clothes and scenery. She was the female equivalent to Dr. Lector in her career, her success and her intelligence. I really like her character and thought at any moment she would turn out to be the Mastermind behind the Dr. Lector personality all this time. I loved the recap and the review was spot on otherwise. Thank you for writing and I do hope we can see more of this show soon.

  2. An excellent contribution to the canon of cannibal studies. Just a bit confused over the Steve Buscemi reference? When did he play Freddie Lounds?

  3. Oh my gosh, I’m wrong. Thank you for the catch, I shall go fix it – I hadn’t seen Manhunter in years, but I was POSITIVE he had played Lounds there. Clearly my brain invented that because it WOULD have been a perfect role for Buscemi…apologies to Stephen Lang, and thank you again, I shall go correct that.

  4. @James. I totally agree with you on Bedelia, an amazing character, and Gillian’s acting in the role was sublime. Bedelia, to me, always felt like someone who was both attracted to and repulsed by Hannibal – simultaneously wanting and needing to remain in his life through some sort of psychological fascination to understand him (despite it being impossible, and terrifying – like watching a car crash where she was simultaneously the viewer and the victim), while also desperate to be free of him when she was already caught in his web, and knowing escape was always going to be futile in the end anyway.

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