The Abyss Stares Back: "Hannibal"
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The Abyss Stares Back: "Hannibal"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | June 6, 2013 | Comments ()


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 You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Mariazinha

    Boy, do I disagree!!!
    I do think it's got a lot of qualities, such as pretty much all thinks visual, pace and acting.. But sometimes it's got seriously ridiculous developments...
    The scripts need some serious help!
    The super nice lady psychiatrist borders on caricature (and is the weak link acting wise), the angel episode.. how the fuch did he carve himself in the back and tied himself up that high while dying?!? And many other such things...
    I'm watching it, and it's good at times... But lets not go over board here..

  • Duley Dooly

    Really?? Condemn the other procedurals for fetishizing the violence and then praise Hannibal for the forcing the viewer to recognize the inherent art in the crime scenes? It may be artful and well done for what it is, but it glorifies the vile nonetheless.

    Let this put things into perspective:


  • Glory

    I really love the relationship between Will and Hannibal. Hearing Hannibal speak to his therapist about friendship was touching and then I felt weird for hoping Hannibal makes a friend.
    Was also disappointed when he proved himself to be less of a friend and more of a scientist.
    Then I remembered he eats people and I should probably adjust my expectations for this particular relationship :)

  • Viking

    I was feeling the same way, but I haven't been able to figure out if he means it or if he is screwing with Will, what with slicing up the doctor that ordered Will's MRI, and leaving the body there where Will would find it, like that is ALL Will needs. I can't quite understand his relationship with his therapist either. He was going on about manipulating people, so I wonder if he isn't doing that to absolutely everyone he meets, and has no desire for actual relationships. I know he is a fictional sociopath, where a real one would feel nothing for anyone but themselves. I do get that he is happily screwing with Jack.

  • Damn, this was a fantastic piece, and really got at the heart of why I love Hannibal so much. Brilliant.

    And it really is one of the (if not the) most visually stunning shows I've ever seen on television. Every frame is gorgeous and striking.

  • foolsage

    OK, ok, fine. You talked me into it. I'll check it out.

  • foolsage

    Hell's bells. That was a compelling pilot. This show's version of Will Graham is far more interesting than the one in Red Dragon (the book).

    I'm in. Let's do this.

  • foolsage

    Damn, this series is compelling. I'm binge-watching and am up to episode 6 now.

  • Anna von Beav

    Weirdly, one of the things I always feel compelled to comment on is the pacing: it's pretty well perfect.

    But, yeah, STUNNINGLY beautiful, phenomenal casting (even the stunt casting is well done), and ABSOLUTELY AMAZING how Mr. Mikkelsen managed to make a character preparing and consuming (and feeding to others without their knowledge, no less) human internal organs for consumption so chillingly graceful and choking a woman to death somehow both paternal and sexy simultaneously.

  • Do I look Pretty?

    I was so disturbed that I found the way Mikkelsen was strangling that FBI agent in Episode 6 arousing. I've never been so frightened and seduced by a character in all my life.

    This show is a masterpiece and I've actually never used that word for TV show in my life.

  • Anna von Beav

    That was a *fantastic* scene, and I think it's because Mads really got Hannibal's *fascination* with empathy *as a concept* across (since he is unable to feel it himself; particularly as a psychiatrist).

  • DarthCorleone

    Hmmm...maybe I should give it a chance. My broadcast network bias is just so overwhelmingly strong these days...

  • You definitely should, and I'd really like to know what you think about it.

    And I still wonder, every week, just how something this good ended up on NBC of all places.

  • RilesSD

    You should. At the very least, it will be probably the most beautifully shot pilot you'll ever see.

  • Chelsea

    What a beautiful review, and I couldn't agree more that it's one of the best shows on television. I sometimes can't believe that NBC got its hands on something so stunning, so intelligent, so intensely artful. If there is any justice in this world, Hannibal needs to be nominated for an Emmy this year, as do Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy for their brilliant performances.

  • Do I look Pretty?

    So true! Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy need Emmy nominations pronto. Those two are seriously legit actors. Amazing.

  • Do I look Pretty?

    Mads Mikkelsen is perfection. His portrayal actually is far more frightening than Hopkins in my opinion, cus it's subtle. Plus he's really weirdly attractive. Another lethal combination. You find your self confused as a viewer as to why you're attracted yet frightened by Hannibal. Brilliant writing too. My fave quote from the show is>>>>> ''Killing must feel good to God too, he does it all the time''.

  • Less Lee Moore

    Beautifully written.

  • Pretty Hate Machine

    I hesitated watching Hannibal at first, but was intrigued by getting a dose of Mads weekly on network television. I scoffed when I saw the promos on NBC. I reluctantly watched the first episode after reading about it here and was hooked. I have never been so completely enveloped by a show. When I watch, I feel like I'm drowning in a cocoon of dread, my heart afraid to beat. The cinematography is so lush and decadent. The music, which reminds me of Nine Inch Nails, is eerie and industrial, but is totally appropriate to the detached, yet emotional scenes. I feel a creepy attachment to Mads as Hannibal, which makes me question a lot of my real life interactions with people who could be monsters. I feel lots of empathy for Will, who needs someone to give him a hot bath, warm meal, and an inappropriate hug. I'm not sure what I think about Fishburne, but I guess I don't have to like his character. I'm wondering what mistake the hot psychiatrist chick is going to make, Will or Hannibal?

    On a side note, my son tells me there is a weird fandom for Hannibal on tumblr.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    There is a weirdly FASCINATING fandom for Hannibal on tumblr, you mean.

  • RilesSD

    THIS. Exactly how I feel. Overall I think Game of Thrones is a better show, but Hannibal is my favorite on TV right now. I fucking love it, and am now looking for all things Hannibal. I'm halfway through the Red Dragon novel, and it's an excellent companion to the show. SO glad it got picked up for Season 2.

  • Rochelle

    Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter is my recurring childhood nightmare come to life. I love this show. Very thoughtful article.

  • "There was little there to recommend it at face value, other than Brian Fuller being the showrunner."

    Except, Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, a couple of good books and interesting characters... Nothing could have kept me away. In addition, I think Fuller had assured this wouldn't be the usual procedural (as if his involvement didn't guarantee). He'd said all along that "Hannibal" would focus on the relationship between these two men and the idea that they were more alike than different. And these two actors together are pure genius,

  • Ok, and maybe this is just me being a fan of the majority of Fuller's work, but the guy has a knack for picking interesting topics and showcasing them in elaborate, albeit often unconventional, ways. That, and the fact that he seems to have a bit of a penchant for morbid topics, suggested to me that he'd be just the person to make a series like this as compelling as it turned out to be.

  • See, when I first heard about Hannibal, I thought it was a joke. Seriously. Who would bother making a show about a character that was so thoroughly owned by Sir Anthony Hopkins? Why even try?

    I'm glad I gave it a try, though. It is so good!

  • Natallica

    I've just watched the fourth episode and I'm hooked as fuck. Dancy plays Will with such a sense of endless inner turmoil that he breaks my heart. And Mads... MADS! I don't know if I'm in love with him or absolutely terrified by that strangely chiseled face and that awesome dose of pure cool

  • Less Lee Moore

    "I don't know if I'm in love with him or absolutely terrified by that strangely chiseled face and that awesome dose of pure cool."


  • Pants-are-a-must

    My favorite thing about Mads Mikkelsen is that on three separate occasions, moviemakers agreed that his character doesn't even need two eyes to terrify the audience. He makes horror look great.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Wonderful. Thank you for this.

  • Fabius_Maximus


    I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Amen, brother.

    "Criminal Minds" used to be my favorite procedural, after I got bored with "House." The strength of the show, like in all longtime procedurals, was the balance of the violence and gore with the positivity of teamwork to overcome it. Affection triumphs over evil, and so forth. And hey! That Character! It's just like you! Or, perhaps, you're attracted to That Other Character. And eventually, this becomes one-note and you stop watching.

    One of the (enormous) strengths of "Hannibal" as a show, to me, is the incredible depth of both main characters. The pilot launches you so deep, so fast, into the mind of Will Graham, that everything else seems a bit weird in comparison. And then in comes Hannibal Lecter and jars it all, slowly but surely seducing the viewers into his world. Their worlds are rich. They're luscious. They're colorful and dark and terribly affecting. Even the sociopath weeps at great art.

    I haven't had a show I've loved this much in a long time. I sincerely hope it refuses to give way in terms of artistry and quality, because what it's doing right now is award-worthy.

  • Jerce

    Brilliantly insightful, SLW, as I have come to expect of you.

    I nearly gave this a miss as well. It was Mads Mikkelsen who drew me, out of curiosity, and I am SO GLAD.

    If you gauge television shows by their originality, and I do, then this is not "one of" the best shows on television--it is THE best show on the air, in years, bar none and by a long mile. (And this is from someone who is loving GoT and is awaiting the return of Breaking Bad like a child anticipating her birthday party.)

  • Basement Boy

    Mads will always be "One Eye" to me...

  • Chelsea

    That was his most iconic role for me too! He's incredible. And now he's truly the definitive Hannibal Lecter in my mind. There is no one more suited to it.

  • Do I look Pretty?

    I saw Valhalla Rising cus of his portrayal of Hannibal. I couldn't believe he carried an entire movie on his own without saying a single word! Brilliant actor, no wonder he won Cannes best actor in 2012 for the Hunt (Another great Danish movie)

  • Boo_Radley

    "We needed a name...and you only got one eye..."

  • RilesSD

    Just watched that this weekend to see more Mads. What a fascinating film, and an incredible performance.

  • Karen H. Davey

    @disqus_A9T0S7cbqJ:disqus my bеѕt friеոd'ѕ ѕtеρ-aսոt makеѕ  $77 aո hοսr οո thе iոtеrոеt.  ѕhе haѕ bееո firеd fοr ѕеvеո  mοոthѕ bսt laѕt mοոth hеr  ρaymеոt  waѕ  $19585 jսѕt wοrkiոg οո thе  iոtеrոеt fοr a fеw hοսrѕ. Gο tο  thiѕ wеb ѕitе aոd rеad mοrе,

  • Do I look Pretty?

    bish please

  • Jerce

    Your step-aunt is a whore. You know, that, right?

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