close reads

Hannibal Redefined How We Tell Stories on Television

Hannibal - Season 3
Good-bye, old friend. Photo: NBC

And so, in the end, Hannibal was a love story all along, and a doomed love story at that.

The third season ended like prior seasons, with a wrap-up that could double as a series ender if it came to that; and since, apparently, it has come to that — with NBC deciding not to carry a hypothetical fourth season of this international co-production, and thus effectively ending it — we should marvel at this climax’s majestic, well, finality. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) join forces to defeat the fearsome disciple/rival serial killer Red Dragon (Richard Armitage) in a super-slow-motion mano a mano: silent, gorgeously protracted, scored to an original Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin song titled “Love Crime” (what else!). As Hannibal’s showrunner Bryan Fuller put it in a Vulture interview — in metaphoric language, which, like so many Fuller observations, renders additional critical commentary superfluous — Will and Hannibal were “like two jackals bringing down a rhinoceros.”

The recent craze for CGI-rendered blood has been a problematic new development for some horror purists, but pixel crimson has never looked as extravagantly sensuous, or felt as aesthetically right, as it has on Hannibal, a series that takes place entirely in dream space. It has a truly painterly texture, a brazen unreality that tickles the senses even as it completes the show’s vision, which is as romantic as it is horrific. Blades enter flesh, skin and tendons are severed, and the blood doesn’t just spill, it jets, sprays, arcs, like acrylic slung at a canvas. The finale’s director, Michael Rymer (director of some of the most aggressively visual episodes of TV drama, especially on Battlestar Galactica), stages it as a death dance, a loving showcase for bodies in motion that never forgets its immediate narrative goal of neutralizing the Red Dragon even as it pushes its true purpose — expressing the twisted, yet perversely pure love between Will and Hannibal — into the foreground. Their bond is brotherly but also romantic and (somehow, powerfully) sexual. This battle is its long-delayed consummation: the sex scene between Will and Hannibal that has been repeatedly imagined in so much fan art, or, to quote Fuller again, a coded “three-way” — one of many imagined by this censorship-flouting network series — wherein “you eliminate the third [participant] and get to business with the two who matter.” Will’s necessary and also eager participation in a killing (he’d only been a passive accessory before) is the sex act Hannibal has been urging him toward, as seen in the dream image (Will’s or Hannibal’s? We don’t know) of the two in a church, Hannibal dressed in a seersucker jacket with a Windsor-knotted tie. “I was rooting for you, Will,” Hannibal says. “It’s a shame: You came all this way and you didn’t get to kill anybody.” He’s not a virgin anymore. He gave it up for Hannibal.

Will and Hannibal’s final moment is a mutual recognition of the loving death-grip they’ve been locked in since season one. It takes place on the edge of a cliff (the right spot for a cliffhanger), backed by a glassed-in home significant to Hannibal’s own history, but also redolent of so many great thriller climaxes, including North by Northwest and, of course, Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a very different take on the same material. They embrace: Will rests his head on Hannibal’s chest, Hannibal puts his chin atop Will’s head, and then they go over the edge. The camera moves in, after a respectful moment, to look down. The final shot (not counting, of course, the post-credits stinger with Gillian Anderson’s Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier serving a Hannibal-styled feast) is a vertigo-inducing overhead shot of the surf crashing into a suggestively V-shaped cove. It is one of the great final shots in TV history. To quote the good doctor himself: “I believe this is what is known as a ‘mic drop.’”

This is as good a place as any to repeat that I’m as surprised as anyone by how much I grew to love this show. I’m on record stating that I never had much interest in serial-killer stories. Except for the occasional outlier (such as Manhunter and parts of The Silence of the Lambs and a few of the images in The Cell) I found most of them either ostentatiously stupid or morally reprehensible: a tactical evasion of real-world evil rather than a useful way of reimagining it in terms of a fable. It wasn’t until Bryan Fuller’s adaptation, which presented itself as a dark fairy tale from minute one, that I willingly immersed myself in Thomas Harris’s fiction. It is about the capacity for evil, and how evil is a stultifying word that closes off understanding, and how empathy really is the flip side of sadism and connected to it, and also about the fragility of order — how it can be tipped very easily into chaos by people like Dolarhyde, or Hannibal, who recognize the fragility, see the thin skeins of twine holding “order” aloft, and play them like guitar strings. They are out there. They may not be as physically imposing as Dolarhyde or as cultivated and smug as Hannibal, but they are out there. As my colleague Greg Cwik points out in his brilliant recap of the finale, via a Herman Melville quote:

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”

The sophisticated aesthetic developed by Fuller (and his many collaborators, whose ranks include a number of visually oriented directors and a few veteran cinematographers, such as Guillermo S. Navarro, who shot numerous Guillermo del Toro films and directed the 11th and 12th episodes of season three). The aesthetic is the reason why, despite being the most gruesome drama ever aired on network TV, Hannibal never felt unacceptably brutal to me. It is, no question about it, ultraviolent, but not in the manner of a cheap slasher film. It is ultraviolent in the manner of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and The Fury, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange (which Hannibal quotes by scoring Jack’s beating of the doctor to Gioachino Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”) and touchstones of religious painting, such as Tintoretto’s 1565 painting of Christ’s crucifixion. It is “studied” in the best way, i.e., thoughtful, considered. It is concerned mainly with exploring what violent actions mean (to us, and to the story) rather than simply attempting to replicate the physical experience of suffering (although it does that, too; every wounding and death on the show is viscerally jolting and also often carries an emotional charge).

And it pays equal attention, sometimes greater attention, to emotional violence, showing how characters (usually Hannibal, but not always) coolly scrutinize their targets, then push certain buttons to ensure a particular outcome that’s often destructive for all involved. The physical violence represents a continuation of emotional violence. This is made clear in many subplots throughout the series, but especially in the reimagining of Red Dragon/the Tooth Fairy in the back half of season three, with Hannibal and Will (individually, but also in tacit collaboration) contriving to slag Francis Dolarhyde as a disfigured, sexually inadequate freak in order to draw him into the open, knowing full well that it’s a cruel and inaccurate description, and beneath them as psychologists and human beings. (In Michael Mann’s 1986 version of the story, and in the novel, they insinuated that Francis was homosexual. Fuller realized this was unwelcome and unnecessary as well as ugly-retro, just as they realized that Dolarhyde’s necrophiliac rape of his female victims was no longer necessary to get across the idea behind his murders, violating the image of a “perfect” nuclear family.) You can see the same care exercised in the way that Hannibal manipulates Bedelia (and how she allows herself to be manipulated) in Italy, and in the many ways that Will’s FBI boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), insinuates that Will is himself behind actions that were originally envisioned, or at least suggested, by Lecter. The word psychodrama is thrown around indiscriminately in criticism (I’ve been guilty!), but here, more so than in a lot of dramas, it fits. Hannibal’s understanding of human psychology, while admittedly expressed in a knowingly stylized and grotesque way, is as sound as that of Mad Men’s or In Treatment’s.

If you read this piece with no experience of the series (and really, why would anyone do that?) you might assume that Hannibal is entirely grim, a parade of perversity, suffering, and gore. It is that. But it’s also quite funny, and somehow in a way that never trivializes the momentousness of the psychological and physical violence. No series, Twin Peaks included, has quite managed to be as deadly serious but also as winkingly ludicrous, so that you can’t easily separate one mode of presentation from the other. The show is an outrageous joke that’s not funny at all, and a horror show that’s very funny, at the same time, without contradiction. (Dreams are funny/not funny that way.) As Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen gives the sort of performance that would be called “delicious” if a 1940s ham character actor gave it, but there are many moments (particularly reaction shots of Hannibal listening to patients, or to Will) when he seems to be truly feeling the pain of others, even as he thinks about how to increase or top it, as well as moments of serene acceptance or sly amusement. The bromance between him and Will is a joke but not a joke; it’s powerful, just as the relationship between Will and Jack, and Hannibal and Bedelia, Mason Verger (Joe Anderson) and Margot Verger (Katharine Isabelle), and Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) and Margot, who leave the story as co-parents of their Verger baby, which Alana carried. In every scene, there is always humor to relieve the excruciating tension. Some of it veers toward outright camp — particularly the season-three scenes involving Verger, who sounds (as Anderson plays him) like Richard Nixon eating peanut butter, refers to the risen Jesus as “the Riz,” and fantasizes his mortal enemy Hannibal laid out on a banquet table, naked and honey-glazed, and crows, “Transubstantiation!”

There is an elated, intoxicated quality to every frame of this amazing show. So much of Hannibal’s look and feel is what critics who prize linear, foursquare iterations of plot and character would term “excessive” or “pretentious” or, God forbid, “arty.” And there are ways in which such complaints are hard to refute. No reputable psychiatrist would hold sessions in an almost-dark room, as Hannibal Lecter and Bedelia Du Maurier tend to do. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a plague of serial killers who all seem to be auditioning for a spot in a hip art gallery, arranging corpses and pieces of corpses into sculptures and murals and mixed-media installations. Nothing on this series is “realistic” in any sense that means anything. In fact, there are moments when it seems to be channeling German expressionist dream films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu and The Hands of Orlac or The Last Laugh, or Surrealist features such as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus and Luis Bunuel’s L’Age D’Or and The Exterminating Angel, and the dream sequence that Salvador Dalí created for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the animated psychotic break that Saul Bass cooked up for Hitchcock in Vertigo.

Everything is exaggerated, distorted, reframed so that it feels at once figurative and real. Hannibal’s childhood chateau looms against a purplish sky at night like Dr. Frankenstein’s castle from a 1930s Universal horror film (there are numerous Frankenstein allusions throughout the series equating Hannibal to Frankenstein and the other serial killers under his sway as creatures that he “created” to some degree). When Will is thrown from the back of a moving train by Chiyoh (Tak Okamoto) and the camera dollies back and back, the caboose is clearly a set filmed against a green screen, and the pop-up-book quality accentuates the eerie certitude of her act. The whole Italian arc is production-designed and photographed to emphasize artificiality: Italy and Europe not as the actual places, but as fantasies of Italy and Europe, rather like the Europe presented by Lars von Trier in The Element of Crime and Zentropa, both of which are framed as dreams occurring, respectively, in a drug haze and under hypnosis. The show is a palace of dreams, and we are strolling through it.

This Surrealist-Expressionist film lineage continued on TV, but to a severely limited degree, given the medium’s “don’t scare the advertisers” edicts. You can see it on such series as Miami Vice (the first season of which has a similar feel, especially in its silent-with-music montages; check this out) as well as Twin Peaks and The X-Files and moments from The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. But Hannibal pushes it further. The whole series occurs in this mode. There are no breaks, no relief. Many TV programs have staged excellent, convincing dream sequences, but they were carefully set apart from the main story by signifiers that told us “this part is broken off from reality, you needn’t take it literally.” Hannibal doesn’t do that. What it does do is closer to this description of Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, by Jonathan Jones: “To tell a story on screen, you create a physical world that serves your purpose. But in ‘Un Chien Andalou,’ the physical world is thicker, more resistant, more alive (and more dead). Instead of smoothly setting off the characters’ desires and fears, it becomes an opaque field of desire and terror in itself. The events that can happen in such a world are full of passion, comedy, horror; it’s just that they never get resolved and tidied up by narrative explanations. There are people in the film, but it is not ‘about’ them — it is about us, our reactions, our disgust and perversity.” (Francis’s filmed images of murder have a 1930s experimental-movie quality, which, given the creative team’s cultural literacy, has to be deliberate.)

But while it is accurate to sum up Hannibal as a 39-episode dream, that description doesn’t go far enough. Because it’s not just staging dreamlike or “weird” situations, it’s routinely adopting the points of view of certain characters — not in a particular episode, or in a self-contained sequence, but in a scene, or in part of a scene.

When Francis Dolarhyde imagines himself as the Red Dragon, there are individual shots that show him completely transformed into something like the creature he worships in William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun. Very late in the series, after the incarcerated Hannibal has tried to psychologically manipulate Will into thinking himself a potential serial killer on par with Francis (something Hannibal has been attempting to do, to varying degrees, since season one), an episode starts with similar images that we assume are from Francis’s point of view, but these are ultimately revealed to be Will’s, in a session with Bedelia. The Florence church scenes from the early part of season three recur throughout the final leg of the story. They’re presented as fantasies of Hannibal’s while he’s in lockup, shorn by Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) of signifiers of dignity, including his books and a proper toilet. It is also subtly indicative of Hannibal’s simultaneous wish to mock God and become a god himself by manipulating mere mortals. The church scenes also recur as fantasies (shared, perhaps?) by Hannibal and Will, who are far from Florence by that point. There, the church is a place of mental peace and fulfillment. It seems paradisiacal or heavenly or utopian, and there is no hand-holding explanation for the function that it serves: The show just assumes we’ll figure it out and not be confused, and it’s correct in assuming that we can.

Ditto the crime-scene imaginings of Will Graham. In Manhunter, Will (played by future CSI front man William Petersen) stands amid the mayhem after the fact, speaking his speculations into a tape recorder. The dramatization of atrocity occurs mainly in his face and voice, and via the droning synthesized score, and in our imaginations. But on Fuller’s show, Will is an imaginative (visually active) participant, actually performing the deeds he’s attempting to visualize, including pulling a small child out from under a bed and killing him (off-camera) with a pistol shot. We are implicated in a way that other horror films rarely attempt — for good reason, because few horror stories are capable of achieving the precise tone that Hannibal nails in episode after episode, making situations psychological and viscerally real (Will is suffering, visibly suffering, in these sequences) but also stylizing them in order to provide enough distance for the images not to seem trashy and exploitive. They are real and not real: imaginative projections of Will’s empathy for both killer and victims.

Season three could easily have been broken into two mini-seasons or mini-series (Italy and the Red Dragon arc), and there are points where the second feels very much like a follow-up to the first, but Fuller and his collaborators have planted many lines of dialogue and images in the early section that recur in the second, so that on rewatch, they feel like pieces of an intricately conceived whole. The architecture of images is ingenious. Sometimes the Italy arc seems to be foretelling events that happen later. Some of the most dazzling moments in the Red Dragon arc bring back images from an earlier episode in a different context, so that they have different meanings or associations. My favorite example of this is the series of flash cuts that occur after Will and Hannibal kill Francis: We see flashbacks to Francis’s burning scrapbook (the frame itself seeming to burn and curl as the character’s soul is released and his torments ended) and, most strikingly, a shot of Francis, seen from the back, standing before a burning mass of celluloid film strips arrayed in a starburst pattern. This is a visual callback not just to Francis’s film fetishism (which included a moment where he seemed to swallow a projector beam and “become” the record of his atrocities) but also to the sequence of Will visiting the Jacoby home, where FBI forensics officers had mapped the spray of blood jets with suspended strings.

These daring structural flourishes bring Hannibal closer than any commercial series to embodying the phrase “a novel for television.” A novel is not merely a novel because it is long. It is a novel because of the freedom it takes, or can take, in telling its story. It can adopt different points of view and slip back and forth between past and present, not just from chapter to chapter, but within the context of a page, a paragraph, even a sentence. Hannibal makes almost every other TV series seem aesthetically impoverished in comparison because it takes these freedoms and actually plays with them, to make the story and its telling more surprising, confounding, and multilayered. (One of the best examples are the sex scenes, which are shockingly explicit, in that you always know exactly what the characters are doing with each other physically, but also figurative, smearing and doubling body parts into prismatic tangles of limbs and whirling graphic patterns.)

Anyone who makes scripted television should look at this series and think about ways to apply Hannibal’s experiments in tone, point of view, image, and sound to non-horror material, because what it’s doing is not innate to the horror movie, but to the most sophisticated third-person omniscient novels. It is literary and cinematic at the same time, in such a way as to suggest that one mode can be the continuation of the other, without falsifying or oversimplifying the uniqueness of either form. It represents a major step forward in scripted TV’s artistic evolution.

Hannibal is dead. Hannibal is the future.

Hannibal Redefined How We Tell Stories on TV