This is going to be a long blog, because Hannibal (three seasons 2013-15) really was one of the best shows on television, and although I am only covering the first episode here (out of 39 made), this was the pilot and introduced most of the main characters and themes of the whole “Hanniverse.”
The cancellation of the show after three seasons was apparently due to insufficient ratings. The surveys used to determine such decisions consider total numbers of viewers, but not the fervour of the viewing. Judging by the comments on social media (and some very weird stuff on Tumblr), the fans of Hannibal were fervent and avid (Francis Dolarhyde, the “Red Dragon”, who appears in Season 3, was of course the first to call himself an “avid fan” of Hannibal Lecter). It has since become a cult series, and far more people have seen it on DVD or streaming services than ever watched it on network television.
Episodic TV when it began was usually static: the main character, whether cop, lawyer or doctor, tended to be the same at the end of the episode, the antagonist dead or defeated. You could pretty much watch any episode in any order. Such was television before video and streaming: if you missed an episode or came in late, it was important that you could quickly work out what was happening, because there was no way to pause or go back. Streaming has opened this up, to the point where now protagonist can change, learn, grow and even die (think Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones). Hannibal is all about growth. And death.
Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), the famous psychiatrist and infamous cannibal, is an avid fan of growth, evolution and death. Yet the chief protagonist of the series is ostensibly Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who lectures to FBI rookies, and can recreate mental pictures of the murders being investigated. The first episode starts with a gory crime scene (there is some speculation that Francis Dolarhyde, who does not appear until Season 3, may have committed this particular crime). Will stands and watches the police as they take pictures and collect evidence, then closes his eyes. The heartbeat starts, and then the swinging pendulum, that will become familiar as the series progresses; these props allow him to recreate the murders in his mind, with himself in the disturbing role of perp. He looks for patterns that will help him put a motive and a face to the killer. Each step of each murder is accompanied by his mantra: “this is my design”.
Lecturing his students at the FBI academy, Will tells them: “Everyone has thought about killing someone, one way or another”. At the end of the lecture, Jack Crawford, (Laurence Fishburne), head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI, asks him where he sits “on the spectrum”. Looking away, Will tells him:
“My horse is hitched to a post that is closer to Asperger’s and autistic than narcissist and sociopath”.
Will lives in Wolf Trap, Virginia, and rescues and adopts a multitude of stray dogs (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is also headquartered in Virginia, making it a very animal-friendly place). Will’s talent is empathy, and the imagination to see into the thoughts of others, even those whose dark secrets most of us would rather avoid.
This imagination is what Jack Crawford needs. Eight young women have disappeared, but no bodies have been found. When they find the eighth victim, whom Will discovers has been returned to the bed where she was killed, they discover that her liver has been removed, and then replaced. Why would the killer put it back in? The crime scene investigators Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park), Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) and Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) are baffled. Like a Greek chorus, they explicate each mystery, and lay it out for Will to solve.
Just so, Will figures this one out: they are looking for a cannibal.
Hannibal Lecter, after whom the series is named, does not even make an appearance until 21 minutes into the first episode. This is the horror genre, so his introduction involves a close-up of his face, which “emphasize(s) its shadows to the point of engulfing it in pitiless darkness” (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus). Pity, we will discover, is not one of Hannibal’s attributes. He appears to the music of Bach: the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, the music that Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal requested in Silence of the Lambs, the music that he was playing as he killed and flayed the guards during his escape.
This new Hannibal is enjoying an exquisitely prepared meal of liver, certainly not a diseased one. He is then shown at work, wearing a perfectly fitted blue three-piece suit, analysing a neurotic patient, and annoyed by the blubbering of this patient, and particularly the snotty tissue he leaves on Hannibal’s perfect side-table. At the end of the session, he is visited by Jack Crawford, who admires his drawings, and compliments him on his academic work. He wants Hannibal to help with the investigation. Hannibal agrees, but it’s a whimsical project (and as Clarice Starling says in the book Hannibal, it’s whimsy that gets him caught). He plays with them – a game of hidden identity .
Hannibal is the Renaissance man in all aspects – educated, elegant, tasteful. Crawford wants his help with the case, but his brief really is to evaluate Will’s mental stability.
Will soon realises what is going on: “Jack, whose profile is he working on?” Hannibal is analysing Will. Keeping track of his potential issues. He will use this information later in the season.
A ninth victim is found in a field, impaled on stag-horns. Velvet from such antlers was found in the wounds of number eight, but possibly was put there as a healing agent, an apology. The police and the gutter press (the gossip paper is now called TattleCrime) start calling the killer the “Minnesota Shrike”, named after a bird that spears its prey on sharp objects and then carries off the flesh for later consumption. Will immediately realises that this is not the work of the same killer.
The team finds that the victim’s lungs have been removed. In the next scene, Hannibal is preparing, flaming and enjoying a healthy dinner of lungs.
It’s time for Will and Hannibal to go do some FBI investigating (no Supreme Court jokes, please). You may remember that in Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula could never enter a house unless he had been invited. Well, if you don’t remember that, I think Bryan Fuller certainly did:
Hannibal takes an immediate interest in Will. Later in the series, we will see this develop into something resembling love, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At this stage, Hannibal sees a kindred spirit and wants Will to grow – he wants to (re)create Will in his own image. For Season 1, only we, the audience, know that the image he wants to recreate is that of a serial killer and cannibal. A man of such superior taste and discernment that eating humans is of no more consequence to him than eating a pig. A ‘super-man’, what Nietzsche called an “Übermensch”. He sees that potential in Will:
The teacup will become a very important plot point later in the show. Hannibal accepts Nietzsche’s “amor fati” (the love of fate) and so is a fatalist, but he also watches Stephen Hawking’s videos and hopes that, if the universe reverses its expansion and time begins to flow backwards, his sister will be resurrected. More on that in a later blog.
Very few characters in Hannibal or the books or films previous to this series refer to Lecter as anything other than “a monster”. Monsters are supposed to scare us, fill us with dread of the “other” who plans to ambush and devour us alive. The genre owes much of its success to our evolution from the tiny, prototype mammals who lived, hundreds of millions of years ago, in terror of the dominant reptiles. We can go back further; most animals will feel fear when faced with a predator. Fear is a biological necessity, a warning; fear keeps us alive. Monsters are grotesque, horrifying, easily identified. Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, the Wolfman – these are what monsters should look like.
But Hannibal is not such a monster. He is a well-respected psychiatrist, a snappy dresser, a renaissance man who loves art, classical music and rare wines. He is also a sophisticated gourmet cook, albeit with a slightly wider range of meats than your average chef. But here’s the main thing about Hannibal – we like him. It’s difficult to like Dracula, or the Wolfman, or the Walking Dead. But it’s hard to dislike Hannibal, and his evident pleasure in his meals only makes us appreciate his skill the more, even as we realise what he’s cooking. He accepts the consequences of his decisions: Hannibal has staged the copycat crime as a mirror image that will lead Will to the killer, and ensure that Will will have to use lethal force, the trauma of which will change him. Change, growth, death. But the serial killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, has killed all those girls because he doesn’t have the heart to kill his daughter, for whom he has incestuous feelings (the other taboo that Freud used to lecture us about).
When Hannibal warns Hobbs that the FBI “know”, Hobbs kills his wife and slits his daughter’s throat, forcing Will to shoot him. Hobbs’ final words to Will are “You see?” Will sees: he sees death, he sees change, he sees the thrill of the chase and of the kill.
The daughter, Abigail (Kacey Rohl), has been orphaned and almost killed by Hannibal’s ploy. She is collateral damage in Hannibal’s design. Hannibal rarely admits to regret, but he still can take responsibility for this girl, for reasons that will become a little clearer later when he addresses the death of his sister. Will finds Hannibal in Abigail’s hospital room asleep, head bent sideways, clothes crumpled, the devoted parental figure guarding the child.
The character Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was terrified by his creation. Similarly, in the foreword to the book upon which the Hannibal series is based, Red Dragon, Thomas Harris considered Hannibal a monster, and was also terrified by him. He described “meeting” his characters as he wrote them:
“I am invisible to my characters when I’m in a room with them and they are deciding their fates with little or no help from me…. Graham and I went on to the Violent Ward and the steel door slammed shut behind us with a terrific noise. Will Graham and I, approaching Dr Lecter’s cell. Graham was tense and I could smell fear on him. I thought Dr Lecter was asleep and I jumped when he recognised Will Graham by scent without opening his eyes. I was enjoying my usual immunity while working, my invisibility to Chilton and Graham and the staff, but I was not comfortable in the presence of Dr Lecter, not sure at all the doctor could not see me.”
Luckily for us, unlike Dr Frankenstein, Harris did not abandon Hannibal to his own devices but gave him brilliance, taste and opportunity. And a massive superiority complex.
Bryan Fuller, the showrunner, reimagined some of the plot and many of the characters. Jack Crawford is now black, Alan Bloom is now Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and is a kind of love interest for Will, the journalist Freddy Lounds is now Fredricka “Freddie” Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki). Many of the other characters we knew from the books and movies will be reinvented in later episodes with different skin colour, sex or other characteristics.
Hannibal Lecter himself is quite different, and not just because he is now played by a Danish rather than Welsh actor. Hannibal actually grew more complex and nuanced in each textual rendition of the previous stories. In the book Red Dragon, he was called a psychopath, and Will reported that he had tortured animals as a child, which is a very common marker of that affliction. But by Hannibal Rising, the prequel book and film that explained Hannibal’s history, he is a deeply traumatised child who has witnessed (and perhaps indulged in) the cannibalism of his baby sister. However, his cruel responses are never to non-human animals and never to weaker children – Hannibal picks on the bullies at his orphanage, and his first murder is a vulgar and uncouth butcher who insults his aunt. From that time, he prefers to eat the rude – “free range rude” as he calls them. In the films (most of them) Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal as brilliant but twisted, the crazed jester.
Mads Mikkelsen prefers his Hannibal to be a fallen angel – the devil himself, first diagnosed by a gypsy in the book Hannibal, but brought to full rendition by Bryan Fuller, Mads and the production crew. Director of Photography James Hawkinson explained how this effect was achieved from this first episode, where Hannibal emerges from the chiaroscuro effects that are so prominent in the show:
“He’s basically Satan hiding in plain sight. He’s right there in front of everybody, but no one is able to see him for what he really is. We determined that he should always be shrouded in a certain amount of darkness because of that.”
The use of darkness continues through the whole series. Consider the scene in Will’s motel room, where Hannibal brings Will a breakfast of sausages and almost certainly turns him into an ‘innocent’ cannibal with their first shared meal. What’s in those sausages? What’s really in any sausage?
Hannibal brings the darkness into the lives of the other characters as he instructs, feeds or kills them. Hannibal has reversed the Frankenstein story: the talented doctor is now the killer, creating serial killers, super-men and women in his own image. Far from running away from his creations, he devises convoluted ordeals to forge their new personas.
Satan, if he walked among us, would no doubt ensure he was rich, brilliant, and a connoisseur of all the good things of life, those things that the rules of religious humility would disdain. He would also be incredibly powerful. He would be a super-man, an Übermensch. I’ll get to Nietzsche when we arrive at Season 2. That may be a while. Super-men, like psychopaths, are very hard to catch.
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