Serial killers are a stupefyingly dull cliche, a means for storytellers to wallow in art-directed gore without dealing with the reality of crime and violence. Hannibal the cannibal, the psychiatrist and serial killer created by Thomas Harris, is as played-out today as Freddy Krueger was in the early nineties, thanks to the author’s inability to resist bringing him back for increasingly pointless repeat engagements in print and on film. The entertainment industry is on autopilot and so are viewers; that’s why we’re in the midst of another pop culture deluge of stories about burned-out cops chasing effete, cop-taunting, dungeon-building, self-mythologizing bad guys. No one has, or wants to have, new ideas, so they keep regurgitating and re-digesting the old ones.
We consider these truths to be self-evident — I do, anyway — and yet somehow NBC’s Hannibal evades their sting.
On paper, the show seemed like a bad idea, not just because it took us to to the Thomas Harris section of the bookstore one more damned time, but because it was supposed to air on a commercial broadcast network, a venue in which true horror — the sort that seeps into your subconscious and stains it — hasn’t thrived since The X-Files. In practice, though, the series is consistently riveting and often brilliant. As developed by executive producer Bryan Fuller and a phalanx of coproducers, the show gives me a rush that I used to get from the first couple of seasons of Miami Vice, and has a bit of the same appeal; by which I mean that its virtues, which are numerous, add up to less of a story than an experience: a vibe. You don’t so much watch Hannibal as give yourself over to it and luxuriate in it as one might an intoxicant.
The performances are excellent, the dialogue finely tuned, the story ludicrously and knowingly convoluted, but for all its traditional virtues, Hannibal is never exclusively “about” characterization or plot. It’s a dream show, or a nightmare show, one in which nothing that happens can be taken literally or judged by the standards of what could plausibly happen in life. A character appears in a place where he logically couldn’t be. People impulsively say, “Let’s go to Minnesota” and just go, from Baltimore, on a moment’s notice, and seem to arrive minutes later. A law enforcement agent pieces together a theory based partly on a gut feeling plus fragments of hallucinations and nightmares, with a certitude that Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper would have admired. A serial-killing classical music teacher fights a serial-killing psychiatrist to the death in the psychiatrist’s office, and not only do the cops not probe the circumstances too deeply, but the incident appears not to make the local news. (There doesn’t seem to be any news on Hannibal.) Another serial killer announces the conclusion of a decades-long killing spree by building a totem pole of human body parts on a beach. The FBI agents peruse it as if it’s opening night at a sculpture gallery. You watch the madness with rapt pleasure, never thinking, “Oh, that’s ridiculous and dumb, that could never happen,” because you know what dreams feel like, and that you’re watching one. (That totem pole is beautiful and terrifying, a primal image: silhouetted against the churning ocean and the sunlit sky, its multiple, crooked arms evoke sculptures of Vishnu.)
A friend theorizes that Hannibal is taking place in purgatory, and that Hannibal (played here by Mads Mikkelsen) and FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Will’s boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and their colleagues are mythological figures, or allusions to mythological figures. That’s a good theory, certainly as good as the one I’m somewhat half-assedly working on: that the relationship between the killers and profilers on this show is a metaphor for the relationship between the artist and a viewer. The serial killers all seem to fall into one of two categories: originals and copycats. The profilers analyze their handiwork for “signatures” and pore over crime scenes with the obsessive thoroughness of art historians or critics trying to separate bad art from good and good from great. Think about how often one cop will torpedo another’s “identification” of a crime scene by saying, in effect, “I don’t think the work is sophisticated enough to be the work of that particular artist, as you claim” — as if they’re trying to figure out whether a painting is a bona fide masterpiece or a forgery by studying the brushstrokes. The killers paint in blood and entrails, or distort corpses into sculpture or mixed-media works. One killer, Tobias, turned a symphony musician into a human cello, making the phrase “body as instrument” literal; his hobby was making bowstrings, but from human rather than cat gut. Another killer tries to frame our hero by creating a series of fishing lures from bits and pieces of corpses; they’re so beautiful and intricate, they could be exhibited under glass at the Met. The title character’s art is that of the gourmet cook. The show gets considerable comic and horrific mileage out of our knowledge that Hannibal eats his victims. The character loves to cook elaborate and surprising meals for other characters, and exhibits them with a flourish, detailing the ingredients and the preparation method; they’re often showcased in God’s-eye-view closeups that make the ingredients seem eerily alien. “I smoked the veal on a pile of dry hay,” Hannibal tells his own psychiatrist and enabler, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). “It imparts a unique smoldering flavor to the meat.”
The uninitiated might read all this and say, This sounds tired. The killer as artist? How could the show not be stupid and boring? It sounds like a bargain-basement ripoff of Se7ven or The Cell.
It’s all about the execution. The director Park Chan-Wook once said that the most important relationship in any film isn’t the relationship between any two characters, but the relationship between the film and its viewer. Hannibal quite intentionally gets at that, too. This is the goriest show on TV. In terms of lingered-on butchery, it’s far more explicit than Fox’s somewhat similar The Following, which drew many complaints of brutality. And yet somehow it doesn’t feel as violent as other less-bloody shows. Mad Men is more brutal in its conversations than this show is (for the most part) in its forensic scenes.
I suspect that its equating of serial killers and artists/performers is a big part of the reason why. The show’s control over its images, sounds, decor, and music is impressive. The misty light streaming through the windows of otherwise dark rooms seems silt-y, like fish-tank water, and the score (by Brian Reitzell) is a series of drawn-out, amorphous (or barely congealing) string and synthesizer cues which suggest what Hell’s orchestra might play as it’s tuning up. Action that almost any other show would milk for traditional suspense or excitement occurs offscreen, becoming an ellipsis in the story: Dr. Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) escaping from custody by killing two men in the back of ambulance and Lecter’s murder of Abigail Hobbs occur sometime after the show cuts to black following an act-break. You very rarely see murders themselves; mostly you see the art-directed-to-the-nines aftermath, lit in such a way as to highly the artificiality, the art-like quality, of the prosthetic bodies and organs and blood. Sometimes a “real” scene will be revealed as a dream, and that in turn will be revealed as as dream within a dream. The show itself is a dream about dreaming, perhaps.
I can’t think of a better example on TV of Roger Ebert’s famous dictum that what matters isn’t what a movie’s about, but how it’s about it. Simply by showing us things in a particular way, Hannibal communicates (subtly, almost imperceptibly at times) that it’s dealing in metaphor, and that the only thing we’re meant to take at face value are the feelings expressed by the show’s characters, in much the same way that the only thing we take at face value when dreaming are the emotions we experience as we toss and turn in our sleep. That doorway, that pit, that castle, that naked body writhing beneath us: none are real. But the fear, lust, and curiosity we experience as we encounter them is as real as the air you’re breathing now.
The emotions unify the show. They’re powerful, and detailed with precision and respect for human complexity. Few shows do a better job of communicating that people aren’t either/or, but both/and. This past season, we were fully invested in every case, every killer, every warped confrontation — the Chesapeake Ripper, the Garrett Jacob Hobbs a.k.a. The Minnesota Shrike, whoever killed Cassie Boyle, Marissa Schur, Dr. Sutcliffe and Georgia Madchen. But what really stuck were the performances, particularly in scenes in which major characters confronted each other about the truth of their personalities.
Is Will Graham a murderer? Has his extreme empathy for other people — not just victims, but killers too — allowed murderousness to be passed into his body like a virus? Hugh Dancy’s great performance literalizes the body-as-instrument; when Will’s in control of his faculties, Dancy controls his face and eyes and limbs like a maestro working a Stradivarius, but when Will gives himself over to reverie, the control vanishes, and he becomes something more like a huge tuning fork. Is Hannibal a completely emotionless person with no good in him? You watch him scheme and manipulate — Mikkelsen plays him as a dapper Mephistopheles, rolling consonants around in his mouth like sour candies — and think, “He’s faking everything, he feels nothing,” and yet the tears that flow as he talks about Abigail in the finale seem sincere, as does his affection for Will himself, a future nemesis that he sincerely calls “friend.” (He even brings him chicken soup in the hospital.) “I don’t feel like a dodged a bullet,” Will’s colleague and crush object Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) tells him in the finale. “I feel wounded.” And she looks it, too, after having soundlessly erupted in anger and sadness in her car on the way over, a woman’s whole body contorted in a primal scream.
It’s all a dream, and it hurts.