When I first started watching Hannibal, I thought I would hate it.
There were a couple of reasons for this. On first glance it seemed to be yet another serial killer show, and also another crime procedural, with the slight twist that a serial killer was secretly helping the detectives. That just sounds bad. I’ve never seen The Following, but it sounds like that kind of bad.
I also initially thought the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter was kind of on the nose. He’s an actual, genuine Bond villain. Even though I was a fan of his – Valhalla Rising is a trippy, disturbing delight, and he does an amazing job grounding it (as much as this could ever be possible) without saying a word – it felt like NBC was just kind of rummaging around in a box labeled “villains.”
I didn’t know Bryan Fuller was doing the show. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much: I never got too involved in his other shows, despite my wife’s frenzied adoration of Lee Pace. I was just aware that Silence of the Lambs was a good movie with two landmark performances in it, and there’d been a noticeable trend of shitty, lurid spinoffs. This seemed like just another one of those.
But then I started hearing that Hannibal was worth.
No, not worth watching – that it was damn good.
So I tuned in. And though it started out as a guilty pleasure, it’s now one of the shows I most look forward to.
I wish they’d said right off the bat that Hannibal was, in some regards, a kindred spirit of Twin Peaks operating within the loose guidelines put forward by Thomas Harris’s books. That’s another thing I wish they’d mentioned: that Fuller was basically flushing all of the pre-Silence canon down the toilet and was starting over. (As a note, I have read Red Dragon and part of Silence of the Lambs, and I thought the former was decent and the latter so intent on being nasty that it was difficult to enjoy it, lacking all the subtlety of the movie.)
Hannibal is a weird-ass dream show, a bizarre, surreal, hallucinatory vision-quest through the frozen wildernesses of the Rust Belt. It completely discards the blue collar stagnation so thoroughly examined in Silence of the Lambs,and instead explores impossibly ornate, baroque set-pieces, whether it’s the cauterized, sterile modernism of the FBI headquarters, the bleak and windswept winter fields of Virginia, or Hannibal’s living quarters, which don’t seem to exist within any reality I recognize and instead reside within the troubled human subconscious: where else could Greek myths, tangles of antlers, and endless library shelves clash so perfectly?
The show moves between settings much like one does in a dream: quickly, naturally, and without explanation. This could be very well pointed out as a flaw: how exactly does one character get from Baltimore to Wisconsin so easily? And there’s also the eternal critique of the serial killer show, because boy howdy, there sure do seem to be a lot of serial killers within the jurisdiction of the leads on this show, and they sure do seem to kill a lot and kinda-sorta get away with it.
But what lessens this is that Hannibal couldn’t give less of a shit about crime procedural. It took about half of the first season for the show to figure this out (the first half was a bit wonky, I still feel), but Hannibal is more about examining the psychic damages murder and immorality inflict on human beings. This is unusual for what’s usually such gleefully lurid subject matter, but Hannibal might be the most soulful show on television right now, let alone the most soulful show about cannibalistic serial killers. Sometimes this show feels less like it’s taking place on television, and more like it’s taking place in some Boschian medieval woodcut: we are seeing human flaws and desires – and their consequences – hugely perverted and contorted over a dark canvas.
If anything, this show is about a war of psyches. The main conflict would be between the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter and FBI Special Investigator Will Graham. Both of these men possess impossible talents: one for perception, the other for illusion. Will Graham is an impossible creature, able to completely understand the most twisted of human souls simply by glancing at a murder scene and entering what can only be called a dream-state. Hugh Dancy does a remarkable job as will, and though Hannibal takes gruesome delight in marring and warping the physical bodies of the victims on this show, it’s in Hugh Dancy’s performance that one can see the spiritual pain inflicted: Dancy is nervous, sweating, unshaven, ill, trembling. The show depicts him as a man on a spiritual journey, burdened with incredible empathy (bordering on telepathy), sensitive to pain, yet only by exposing himself to this pain can he bring justice for countless victims. He’s picked a hard road to travel, like a dark, savage inversion of Pilgrim’s Progress, as you can see in the example, where Will, asleep, is persecuted by the show’s avatar of murderous evil:
The question is, did he really pick this path? Or has he been forced onto it by someone else?
Mads Mikkelsen deserves credit for perhaps the most stoic and understated performance this side of Don Draper. His strange, angular face is capable of attaining what is almost like negative space, a dead-eyed, stone-faced expression that somehow brings the entire room to a stand-still. And this may make his version of Hannibal Lecter so much more unsettling: Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter wanted to scare you, to disturb you, to reach out from his tiny cell and terrify you into submission. Mikkelsen’s Lecter, however, is indifference manifest. The impression one gets from his totally static, expressionless face is that he can only recognize other humans, appropriately enough, as flesh: he cannot quite bring himself to focus long enough to acknowledge there is intelligence, and perhaps a soul, within the mortal trappings of those around him. He is frightening in the same way an Elder God is frightening: he is remote, inaccessible, indifferent, and vast.
And it’s his character which, initially, was the most difficult for me. At first, this show was basically Hannibal Lecter Fucks With People. He did things, and it was difficult for me to understand why he would ever want to do them, why he would risk himself in this manner. He didn’t seem to have any motive.
But eventually, a motive, of a sort, became clear: he wished to create another human in his image. His goal, however, indirect, was to invade and pervert the psyche of Will Graham until he looked into Graham’s eyes and saw his own staring back. I say this like it was a personal mission for him, but that’s not the case: I feel as if Hannibal started on this grand plan of mental torture solely out of curiosity, a pleasant diversion in between his sprees. There’s something classically Satanic about that, beautiful Lucifer wandering through the vaults of Paradise, idly kicking out supports to see what will make everything fall.
As Will Graham finally put it on the most recent episode: “He wanted to see what would happen.” A simple motive, but perhaps the most chilling, when done right. And here, it is.