Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Digestif: A Farewell to "Hannibal" (2013-2015)

Patrick: When I first heard about Hannibal, my instinct was to roll my eyes and turn the other way. Really? Yet another Hannibal Lecter prequel? Hadn't we learned our lesson from the horrendous Hannibal Rising? And starring Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter? There's no way it could possibly work, I thought to myself. It would probably just glorify Lecter's killing sprees as he killed people, and fans would eat up the violence and consider Lecter a hero. So I went on my merry little way, discarding Hannibal into the same trash heap into which I mentally relegated shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter.

Of course, then I actually watched Breaking Bad and Dexter, and I learned that the fans who admired the protagonists from those shows were wrong to do so. Breaking Bad deals with the complete moral breakdown of Walter White, whose downfall is a direct result of his pride and greed. As for Dexter Morgan, he is an unreliable narrator who lies to himself and to the audience about his feelings - he calls himself a sociopath because it is easier than examining his choices and questioning the "code" given to him by his adoptive father Harry, surely one of the worst father figures in all of television.

As I was watching these shows, Chris Chan and I would discuss them and how my views about these shows were evolving. And almost inevitably, the subject of Hannibal came up. Chris highly recommended the show to me, and because I trust his opinions, I sat down and watched it.

Hannibal begins with Will Graham tracking down a serial killer named Garrett Jacob Hobbs, who kills young female college students. As part of his investigation, Graham is brought into contact with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who manipulates events behind the scenes to engineer a confrontation between Graham and Hobbs. Will kills Hobbs in order to save an innocent life, but the event is traumatic, and so he turns to Dr. Lecter as his therapist.

Throughout the first season of the show, Hannibal treats Will as a human Petri dish, conducting experiment after experiment to see how Will will react in a certain situation. This results in Will progressively losing his grip on reality— part of his brilliance as an investigator is his uncanny ability to visualize the crimes from the killer's perspective, but as the series progresses it becomes clear that this "talent" has serious consequences on Will's sanity.

Chris: When I first heard about the television series Hannibal, my first thought was exactly the same as when I heard that they were making a miniseries based on Fargo, and a prequel series based on Psycho, where a teenaged Norman Bates went to high school (Bates Motel), and a series about Sherlock Holmes set in modern-day London (Sherlock): this is a bad idea covered in creative bankruptcy sauce with a heaping side of piggybacking of a classic with brand name appeal.

Then I actually saw these series. I have nothing but great things to say about Sherlock. I was surprised by how creative and compelling Fargo and Bates Motel were, particularly the performances of Thornton, Freeman as men with no grasp of morality in Fargo, and Farmiglia as a damaged but ultimately loving Mother Bates. Finding out that Hannibal was created by Bryan Fuller gave me cause for hope. Fuller is the creator of Pushing Daisies, a delightful mystery/fantasy series about a pie-maker who can temporarily raise the dead in order to figure out who killed them (and collect the reward money). Though Pushing Daisies and Hannibal are very different visually, at the core they share Fuller's artistic style, playfully dark humor, and a stress on characters's moral decisions. Plus, a stress on elegantly presented food.

Hannibal started like many series starting out their own mythology, like The X-Files, with "freak of the week" episodes. Hannibal would center around bizarre yet artistically incredible murder tableaus, with crimes committed for reasons that reveal the twisted darkness of some human souls.

Of course, the series wasn't really about the "freaks of the week." The real heart of the series was the relationship between two men: Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. I have read Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal, and seen the respective movie versions of each (both Red Dragon and Manhunter in the first case), though I have not read or seen Hannibal Rising. In the books, Lecter and Graham meet only once before Lecter's capture. (SPOILERS!) Graham stumbles across Lecter as part of a routine investigation, then realizes within minutes that Lecter is the serial killer he is seeking due to artwork left in Lecter's office. Lecter immediately wounds Graham serious, but Graham survives, Lecter is incarcerated, and Graham is forced to turn to Lecter years later to help catch a family annihilator. (END SPOILERS)

Hannibal the TV series explodes this dynamic. Here, Will and Hannibal meet each other early in the series, but the Spidey-sense that allows Will to enter the minds of murderers is malfunctioning, and Will fails to realize that Hannibal is the darkest serial killer of all. Indeed, Hannibal becomes Will's psychiatrist, and the two become close friends. At least Will sees Hannibal as a friend at first. Does Lecter see Graham as a friend, a lab rat, a soul mate, or a threat to be neutralized? Possibly all of the above.

Patrick: One of the most fascinating elements of Hannibal is just how much the writers clearly revere the books. I say this as someone who has read only Red Dragon; yet I can still tell that the writers have read the books, have loved them, and want to do them justice. The writers for Hannibal do not seem to feel “confined” by the original source material. By contrast, I often wonder whether some of the writers for Agatha Christie’s Poirot or Marple have ever read a single Christie novel. Sometimes, they change the killer just for the sake of changing the killer. Lesbianism was sprinkled liberally throughout the adaptations in order to add shock value. Often, the writers seemed to assume that a “Christie feel” means setting the story in a small village or a country house and stop at that, radically changing the tone of the story to something more “modern” or “relevant” (c.f. The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Labours of Hercules)

On the other hand, Hannibal takes its cues from the books splendidly. The “swinging pendulum” visual that Will Graham mentally uses to visualise crimes from the killer’s POV is straight from the books, for example. However, the series is not content to just adapt the superficialities. (I’m looking at you, David Suchet, who in an interview once pulled out a copy of Taken at the Flood, read a passage, and delightedly exclaimed that he did exactly what Poirot did on that page, thus proving how faithful the adaptations were to the books… neglecting to mention that the adaptation radically changed the killer’s actions and motivations.) I’m sorry, I got off track there.

As I was saying, the series adapts more than the superficial touches, it expands on the themes that the books present, on conversations about the past, and it does so with an attitude of “How can we make this great, and send people to the books for more?” For example, in chapter 15 of Red Dragon, Will Graham and his stepson Willy have a conversation which begins when the boy asks if it’s true that Will went to a mental hospital after killing someone. Will explains that he had to kill Garrett Jacob Hobbs in order to save the life of an innocent hostage, and that he got depressed afterwards because killing someone, even if you have to, is the most horrible thing in the world. (Keeping his audience in mind, Will censors the more stomach-churning details.) Comparing this brief conversation (plus Will’s thoughts) to the first two seasons of the series, they are very similar. Will’s sojourn in the mental hospital is for somewhat different reasons, but it’s the kind of story which you just know a journalistic rag like Freddy Lounds’ Tattler will sensationalize to a degree which would genuinely bother Willy. Week by week, episode by episode, a new wrinkle is added to the consequences of the Hobbs confrontation, all in spirit with the original tone, yet different enough so that even someone familiar with the books will have a surprising moment or two. For example, the writers adapted the book’s explanation of Lecter’s capture, but gave it a very different ending, showing the audience that these people know how the capture happened in the books, but that they want to explore the dynamic between Hannibal and Will Graham, and thus cannot use that.

One of the biggest changes from the books occurred in season 2, I think, where a character who suffers a grisly fate in Red Dragon suffers a similar fate prematurely, and at the hands of someone else. During season 3, as Red Dragon was being adapted, it brought to mind the question “How on earth can they adapt that character’s role/death without making it feel redundant?” The way I saw it, the only possible solution was to omit the character’s role altogether, but I couldn’t see how the story would work without it. When episode 12 of season 3 aired last week, I discovered that the writers had come up with a clever compromise which kept the role intact, but which offered a few grisly twists of its own.

Chris: One of the great achievements that Hannibal has earned is successfully answering the question: Who was Hannibal Lecter before he was jailed, and why didn't anybody know he was a serial killer?

In Silence, Anthony Hopkins brilliantly played Lecter as a caged beast, who asserted his authority and maintained a level of power through intellectual battles, attitude, and memories of past violent actions.  Brian Cox similarly showed Lecter as trying to intimidate through fear.  Some critics expressed concern with the novel Hannibal, because when Lecter was on the outside, he was just another serial killer who used gruesome means to achieve his ends.

The television series Hannibal takes a different tactic to showing Lecter's power– As the series opens, no one knows his secret, and he can present himself to the world as a refined gourmet, sophisticate, and respected mental health professional.  Since the viewer knows what Lecter is, we catch all of his double entendres, and we see the darkness, but the other characters, all trained in hunting criminals do not?  Why is this?

Perhaps the answer is that Lecter can be very charming.  Mads Mikkelsen's Lecter, for the first two and a half seasons, cannot present himself as a figure of demonic evil in order to intimidate and disturb.  To survive, Lecter has to pass as a normal human being, though as we learn, his "person suit" does not fit very well, and he must shed it frequently to satisfy his twisted urges.

In Hannibal's first season, we can see why Lecter and Graham could be good friends– they both have uncanny insight into the human mind.  In the second season, we see why they make excellent enemies– they both have ruthlessness and single-minded determination.  In the third season, we see why they are obsessed with each other.  In the famous line from the novel, not used in the first five episodes of the Red Dragon arc, Lecter and Graham are "just alike."

In the book and the two movies, the "just alike" line is the first serious wound Lecter inflicts upon Graham.  Lecter and Graham both understand evil and murder and violence.  Lecter embraces this, but Graham is repelled by his own knowledge of human darkness, and the thought that he could have any similarity to a serial killer is anathema to him.  Graham wants to see Lecter as a horrendous "other," whereas they are truly dark and light sides of the same coin.

After three seasons of Hannibal, the "just alike" like would have no real impact.  If Lecter were to say that to Will, Will would probably just shrug and say, "Well, duh!"  Of course they're brothers under the skin– that's clear.  The Season 3 Will accepts and understands this, though he doesn't like it.  With Hannibal'S habit of sophisticated inversion, I would not be surprised if the final episode ended with Will telling Hannibal that they are "just alike," reflecting either WIll's acceptance of his own darkness, or potentially offering Hannibal an avenue towards redemption that he will never take.

Patrick: Another successful element of the show is that it really shows you how much of a toll it takes on Will to hunt criminals. While reading Red Dragon, I got annoyed when Will would sit in a corner and whimper about how hard it was to do what he does – people are gonna die here, Will, now get back to work! But throughout its three seasons, the show has magnificently portrayed a descent into insanity and back. In season 1, Will mentally disintegrates at the hand of Dr. Lecter, who knows precisely which buttons to push. Throughout season 2, Will struggles to put himself together, only to have Dr. Lecter there at every turn, actively trying to prevent him from doing so. (A shattered teacup is the metaphor the show goes with.) By the midway point of season 3, when the Red Dragon adaptation begins, Will appears to have it all together – he’s got a wife and child, a bunch of dogs… it’s the life the old Will Graham would have been proud of. But as the hunt for the Tooth Fairy continues, it becomes clear that Will is still mentally fragile, and Dr. Lecter is eager as ever to experiment with Will’s life, even while remaining caged.

Thus, the effect of the show is that when Will is about to visualize the latest crime from the killer’s perspective, instead of you wanting him to speed things along and catch the killer already, you almost want to grab him by the arm and say “Are you crazy? Don’t do this! You know what happened last time!”

Throughout the show, Hannibal Lecter acts as the show’s inverted moral compass. Everything around him may change, but you can count on Hannibal always being a figure of evil, corrupting those around him. And you can see this at work by looking at the series’ other candidates for potential moral compass. Will Graham mentally disintegrates at the hands of Dr. Lecter, and when he puts himself back together, there are a few pieces of his humanity missing. He comes back darker, more dangerous than before. Will’s professional colleague, Alana Bloom, goes to bed with Hannibal (literally and metaphorically) and emerges in season 3 as a henchman for the psychotic Mason Verger, willing to track Hannibal down so that Verger can get revenge. For the majority of the series, it seems that the moral compass of the show is Jack Crawford, but he too stumbles and falls, succumbing to temptations which the Jack Crawford of episode 1 would have laughed off. In fact, at one point in season 3, the character with the moral high ground appears to be Raul Esparza’s Dr. Frederick Chilton, a scumbag from the beginning to the end, always looking to make a quick buck off the latest “freak” in his legally-approved freak show of a psychiatric institution.

Chris: Like Breaking Bad, Hannibal's central character development revolves around the Chestertonian view expressed in The Flying Stars that men cannot simply maintain a level of evil– that road goes down and down. One sin leads to another, and the only way to escape is to flee from evil. But once Hannibal Lecter is in your life, it's very hard to get him out. This is one of the issues that the fandom on Hannibal or Dexter often misses.

Many fans seem to believe that there can be such a thing as a tame serial killer– a sociopath that you can keep as a buddy for amusement– Hannibal Lecter can be viewed as the sort of murderer who you can invite to parties, share amusing anecdotes with, and kick back a few Chiantis. It's important to realize that the friendships between Lecter and the other characters are never on equal terms. All of the people in Lecter's orbit fall into two categories: potential victims and lab rats.

Of these two groups, the potential victims are perhaps the luckier ones. They only lose their lives– or perhaps a piece or two of their anatomy. The lab rats tend to lose their souls.  Lecter delights in setting up situations that turn people into killers, or to release their darker instincts.

One character, Dr. Bedelia du Maurier, is Lecter's own psychiatrist, but over the course of the series it is unclear whether she is his victim, partner, nemesis, or soul mate.  Early in season 3, it's implied that Bedelia is studying Lecter in his natural habitat, much like Jane Goodall amongst the chimpanzees.  If evil can be fascinating, it can also be a trap.  Hannibal makes it clear to Bedelia that there is a fine line between observing and participating, but it's obvious that observation is merely a sin of omission.  Letting a killer run free is to become complicit in creating evil actions, rather than merely viewing them.  A historian can study the atrocities of evil regimes of the past without adding to them.  One cannot simply sit back and watch an active serial killer work without becoming an accessory.

Lecter knows that a conscience isn't killed with a single blow.  It's poisoned slowly over time. The pentultimate episode of the series sees the "good" guys (Will, Alana, Jack) considering a fourth person as an expendable loss for the greater good in catching the Red Dragon.  In a game of chess, the goal is to protect the king, and place the other king in checkmate.  A clever chess strategist can sacrifice pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, and even a queen in the service of the king.  As long as the opposing king is checkmated, losses are acceptable.  But in real life, the loss of a single human life is not a morally viable option.  This illustrates the moral slide– at the start of season 1, an ill-fated character would have been seen as an annoyance, but an annoyance who deserved to live.  By the end of season 3, this character is treated as an expendable pawn, or as a piece of cheese in a mousetrap.  This is the heart of the corruption fueled by Lecter.  He makes people view other people as much less human.

Patrick: Sadly, Hannibal was cancelled by NBC earlier this year as season 3 was in the process of airing. It seems that Bryan Fuller now has at least two shows to his credit — the other being Pushing Daisies — which, despite being absolutely brilliant, got cancelled far too soon.

There was a lot to like about Hannibal, and I will miss tuning in. There was so much to like. The stories were good, even those "filler" episodes or the killer-of-the-week episodes, which grow so tiring in other crime dramas. The visuals were created lovingly, and had a dream-like quality to them which was most appropriate to the more nightmarish crime scenes the show explored. (Also, due to the show being on NBC, I think network standards prevented the show from pushing the gruesome visuals too far.) The acting was brilliant all around — Mads Mikkelsen made for a worthy successor to Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne delivered his finest performance in years, and Hugh Dancy quite simply brought Will Graham to life.

I look back now on my reservations about Hannibal, and I realize there was nothing to fear. The show was put together by a team determined to tell a good story, and I think they succeeded brilliantly. This was a prequel which told you who Hannibal Lecter was on the outside, how he got caught, and it left you wanting to see more. 


  1. I have yet to see the last season - like you I was very apprehensive but ended up liking it tremendously and was especially pleased with hos successfully it managhed to have Will int he asylum for half a season 2 without really suffering at all. Having only seen two thirds of the show I have only skimmed your review chaps, but very well done all the same!

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