The Abyss Stares Back: "Hannibal"
I had no intention of watching “Hannibal” originally. There was little there to recommend it at face value, other than Brian Fuller being the showrunner. But then Fuller’s past shows, while highly regarded, didn’t seem to lend much support for this particular show, being from a very different universe of fiction. It seemed more a curiosity that this would be a show he ended up running. My mind sort of worked a logic that the show must be really bad, such that they tossed an unrelated showrunner with a good track record, who really needed a paycheck, on top of the heap. It didn’t occur to me that this was Fuller’s project through and through.
And of course the premise had issues. A television serial documenting how Will Graham works with Hannibal Lecter and eventually catches him? How many times have we seen this in one form or another in books and increasingly bad movies? The character of Hannibal, while one of the great fictional characters of our time, is also one that owes most of its lasting impact to Anthony Hopkins’ rendition. Removing that rendition from the equation reduces the character to the background noise of interchangeable fictional murderers. So the television show seemed upfront like it would be one of those tedious exercises of network television trying to shock the viewer each week (and failing due to the limitations of what they can show), while winking ponderously at awkward double entendres that the audience gets because of familiarity with the character of Hannibal. Get it? Hannibal brought chianti to the party! Low ratings, cancelled by summer, never missed.
I only ended up watching it because it auto-played after something else on Hulu while I was cooking dinner, and I allowed it to run since Joanna had spoken so highly of it on Station Agents the day before. “Hannibal” is not a procedural any more than “Breaking Bad” is just a show about drugs.
What really works on the show is a subtle twisting of the trope of the cop who gets in the minds of the killers. The typical trope is that the protagonist can think like a killer. And there’s the usual darkness associated with all that, the wallowing in the things that they have to see every day. But “Hannibal” quite distinctly sets up the protagonist as not a thinker (though he’s hardly an idiot), but a feeler. It’s almost something out of fantasy noir more than crime fiction. The man who can feel what anyone feels, can feel what the killers feel as well. But the cost is ever so much more pronounced and tragic than the thinking detective, because by being able to feel what the killer feels, Graham also feels what the victims feel.
The approach allows a deeper look into the nature of evil as well. The secret underlying the thinking detective trope, is that it relies on the assumption that evil is logical, that it can be measured, and understood, and rationalized. In that way, no matter how horrific and dark the traditional stories about serial killers go, they are fundamentally tales of comfort, because they assert an order to the universe. By making the protagonist an empath instead of a sleuth, the show allows evil to be what we really fear it to be. Infinite and incomprehensible, the unseen monster outside the circle of flickering flame. Something that can be felt but not reduced to mere facts.
And even more it sets up Lecter and Graham as true literary foils. The man who cannot help but empathize, hunting the man who has no capacity for empathy. And in another layer of inversion, Lecter’s ruthless intelligence makes him the symbol of everything civilized, even while his violence represents the darkness that civilization should oppose. I’m reminded of an old quote, Hunter S. Thompson I think, though I know that I’m paraphrasing it badly here. Objectivity is an excuse for evil. Objectivity is how you get to the holocaust. Subjectivity is the source of good. And Lecter and pure sociopaths are the purest form of objectivity in the human race.
And in true form, it is Graham’s sanity that slips over the course of the show, while it is emphasized by one character that Hannibal is the sanest person he’s ever known. And it’s true, Hannibal, for all his atrocity, is perfectly sane. His feelings don’t work the same as us, but his thinking is immaculate. That sort of evil is terribly uncomfortable, because it’s a solace to us to believe that horror is commited by those whose brains are broken, and a nightmare to think that horror and rationality can be intertwined. It chips at our foundations, at our core assumption that civilization is different than savagery because of the suppression of the animal to the rational.
Notice that to a lesser or greater degree every murder on “Hannibal” is one of art, one of constructing something that to the killer’s mind, is beautiful. They are all trying to build something, sculpting with human flesh as the clay. A sociopath can feel a limited range of feelings, but cannot empathize, cannot associate the feelings of others with those inside themselves. And so all the people walking around are elaborate bits of lumber or granite for their craft. And perhaps even more importantly, humans are the ultimate material for their art, because they are thinking and acting machines. To sculpt with human flesh is to be God.
Lecter has an odd ability to smell disease, that comes up twice thus far in the show. Because he is a conessieur of humanity itself, he can pick out the aromas of the tiniest defect, like a gourmand tasting the barrel in which his wine aged.
Build a human totem pole, peel the fake faces off, plant a mushroom garden with live humans as mulch, carve humans into praying angels, make leather of their skin, pillows of their hair, mount them on a stag’s antlers, and yes, carve them into roasts and culinary delicacies. Every case on the show is intertwined by that single thread.
Shows like “Criminal Minds”, purport to get inside the killer’s minds, but rarely succeed. They manage to provide rationalizations but rarely really step into the shoes of the killers. They understand their killers only in the most clinical of ways, the most scientific. They do not feel the art that they are witnessing, because they are tripped up by the destruction and never see the creation. I imagine that to Hannibal, the emotional response of those around him to something like a totem pole built of human bodies is as inexplicable as someone looking upon Michelangelo’s David and only bemoaning that a marble block was so savagely mutilated.
That’s understandable, my god, something would be deeply wrong with our cultural psyche if one of CBS’s top shows showcased the art made of bodies by killers. But there’s something even more twisted in a sense in the traditional procedural. The butchery present in shows like “Criminal Minds” is for the vicarious, always with a tut-tut by the characters, but with a fetishization that approaches the pornographic. It excuses looking at atrocity by constantly and vocally insisting that it’s bad. This is evil! Let’s stare at it!
“Hannibal” by contrast doesn’t allow you the comfort of the moral high ground, it tries to force you not to just think like a killer, but feel what he feels, to see the beauty in his works. Will Graham’s empathy is the gateway into this, and it’s designed to make you uncomfortable, to force you to look on evil in its own terms instead of from the safe distance of judgement.
This show is one of the best on television, a vicious gut punch counterpoint to the dozens of procedurals that try to top each other with the creativity of their serial killers. It casts those other shows in a harsh light that reveals just how juvenile they are. It doesn’t point and stare at the abyss, it embraces it.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.
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