A Conversation With Dr. Lecter on the Strange New Season of Hannibal

HANNIBAL -- "Antipasto" Episode 301 -- Pictured: Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/NBC) Photo: NBC

There’s every other show on TV, and then there’s Hannibal.

Why do you say that, Matt?

Because, Dr. Lecter, it is operating at an aesthetic level so far beyond what any other current TV show attempts that it seems foolish to judge it by their standards.

What standards are those?

The standards that have governed the production of scripted television for nearly 70 years, and that still constrain the means by which stories are told to viewers. Unlike every other series, even ones with great filmmaking, it is driven mainly by images, music, and sound effects, and by composition and editing. It’s a literary adaptation, a horror show, a cooking show, a fashion show, a tour of lavish architectural interiors, a never-ending melodrama about FBI agents and serial killers, and an opera in which characters speak rather than sing.

But over and above everything else, it’s an experience. It’s a thing you luxuriate in, savor, as you might a book of poetry, a favorite record album (on vinyl, most likely) or a coffee-table book filled with reproductions of magnificent, horrifying paintings.

You’ve thought about this.

I’m obsessed with the show, Dr. Lecter. I mean really obsessed. To the point where I hear your voice in my head as I write about it.

As the critic considers the art, he becomes the thing he considers, and merges with it.

To some extent, yes. But I’m speaking more about the texture of the show, the feeling of it. The way it moves and speaks. As a person moves and speaks. That’s the main reason I have trouble writing about it in a conventional way.

And there’s that word again: conventional.

You enter into it as you might a dream.

Very much so, yes.

Dreams create their own logic.

Yes, and that’s why, even though it’s the most violent show on TV, broadcast or cable, somehow it never feels as nasty as you expect it will, because everything in it feels figurative or symbolic: You’re standing back from the violence as you’d stand back from a painting in a museum, and seeing it not in terms of cruel actions but images or gestures that are meant to put across an argument or an idea.

But arguments and ideas are meaningless without compelling characters to articulate them, and a story that can illuminate their particulars.

That’s true. And the show always did have a story, one that’s taken from Thomas Harris’s books, although the details have been combined and rethought, to the point where the show almost has a kind of “Expanded Hannibal Universe” sort of feeling.

Comic books are the myths of a secular era.

In a way, yes.

What happens in this new batch of stories?

All you need to know about the season-three premiere is that your character, who’s played by Mads Mikkelsen, is on the run in Europe following the bloodbath that wounded Abigail Hobbs, Kacey Rohl’s character, and FBI agent Will Graham, who’s played by Hugh Dancy.

I hope it captures Will’s sensitivity to emotion. Like a tuning fork.

It does. But he’s not in the premiere. The premiere is all about how your character makes his way to Paris and then Florence, with Gillian Anderson’s character, your therapist, Bedelia, and gets a job lecturing on Renaissance art at a university.

I assume there is an opening in the faculty.

No, but you create one.

Sensible. In academia, one must make one’s own opportunities. When do we see Will again?

Will shows up the following week, and you find out what happened to him after your character cut him open like a veal calf. Will’s boss, Jack Crawford, Laurence Fishburne’s character? He isn’t in the premiere, either. The structure is different this year, Dr. Lecter. It’s almost like each episode is a novella or a group of short stories about different sets of characters, and the show isn’t as interested as it used to be in making each episode feel self-contained.

Is that one of the unusual qualities you were alluding to? The fracturing of narrative at the level of a season.

Yes. Also within individual episodes. The premiere has flashbacks to Hannibal talking with Dr. Abel Gideon in prison, and they’re in black and white — or so desaturated that they seem like they’re in black and white.

What are those scenes about? What are the Florence scenes about? Illuminate the story.

I don’t know if I can really do that.

Why not?

Because the show is really not about what happens. It’s more about the experience of watching things happen, if that makes sense.

What kind of things do we watch happening?

In one of the Abel flashbacks, there’s some kind of meat braised in red wine, maybe a kidney. You see it close up, in a pan. When you unveil it, there’s a low-angle close-up of steam rising, and you’re in the background smiling, and the steam clouds in the foreground make you look like the devil.

Does Abel think so?

Yes. He says as much. Then you say, "The devil really has been a yoke around the neck of humanity." And then you and Abel start talking about cannibalism, and he says, "The missing link was missing because we ate him." And then you talk about fairy tales and you tell him, "Let it be a fairy tale, then. Once upon a time."

Fairy tales are dreams made comprehensible through simple narrative, and with a moral lesson affixed to the end, to shape values.

That’s one way of looking at it.

But fairy tales feel no obligation to be believable, in the sense that modern audiences use that word. Isn’t that alienating for the viewer?

Maybe for some, but only if you decide not to experience the show in the way it’s meant to be experienced. You never think about how plausible or implausible any of it is because the show has created a universe based not upon orderly, linear storytelling, but sensation. Hannibal is about a psychopathic trickster who kills people and encourages others to kill — sorry, but it’s true — while holding forth on art, music, philosophy, and gourmet cooking and whatnot.

But mostly it’s about the look and feel of Hannibal. The shots, the clever edits, the sound effects, the music, and all those good-looking actors prowling across the screen, clothed and sometimes unclothed, spouting dialogue that sounds like what vampires might say to each other if they got stoned.

Can you give me an example?

When Bedelia says, "You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal, you have aesthetic ones,” and you say, "Ethics become aesthetics.”

I don’t know what I mean by that, but it has a pleasing ring. In which scenes are the characters unclothed?

You get a nice, long look at Gillian Anderson’s naked back at one point, and the way it’s lit sort of reminds you of a lute. And we see you just out of the bath, your torso.

Beauty for its own sake.

Yes. Like the shots in the opening sequence of a flashlight beam turning into a full moon, and then the headlight beams of a motorcycle you’re riding on the way into Paris, and then the light on top of the Eiffel Tower: The editing makes it seem like it’s all one light. And then there are the close-ups of snails crawling on herbs and vines, and Champagne bottles being hacked open with sword blades, and a rabbit being bled at a butcher shop. A drop of blood falls from it and lands in a puddle, and you see it in slow motion. It looks like an artillery shell landing on a battlefield.


Yes. That’s the word, all right. I like that word.

It sounds like what it is.

Yes, it does.

I wonder: What do you think about, and feel, as you watch these scenarios, particularly the murders, the consuming of flesh?

I think: Wow, that’s really beautiful. I mean really beautiful. And that’s what I’m feeling, too: Wow. It’s like what I feel when I’m listening to a concerto or watching a fireworks display. At one point in the new episodes we see a character immersed in blood. I mean swimming in it. Literally swimming, like you’d swim in the ocean. And it’s magnificent because it’s so extravagant, so far beyond what was probably needed to become, as we keep saying, abstract. Figurative.

What does that say about the show, and about you, that they seem beautiful? If violent images are beautiful, do they cease to be horrendous, or does their beauty make them all the more horrendous? Is it permissible to identify with, and even enjoy, a killer?

I think it is, if the situations are very clearly marked as those of a dream or fairy tale or myth, and I think they are.

"Jack the Giant Killer." Jack cuts open a sleeping giant's belly, fills it with hasty pudding, and sews it back up. The story is meant to be read to a child at bedtime.

Yes. And fairy-tale signifiers are everywhere here. The show is all signifiers. They tell us how to watch the show. As a painting, an opera. A bedtime story. A poem. There’s talk in the premiere of Dante’s Inferno, and when they show you lecturing a class on it, they have you standing in front of a slide projector, and the projector is casting an image of Satan onto you, so that his face is superimposed over your face, and his wings seem to be growing out of your back. Admittedly it’s a bit on-the-nose, but dreams often are, too.

Dreams interpret themselves.

I don’t know what you mean by that, Dr. Lecter.

We can discuss it further when I have you over for dinner.