By Brian Richards | TV | April 7, 2023 |
By Brian Richards | TV | April 7, 2023 |
Whether or not you’ve ever seen The Silence of the Lambs, you know all about Dr. Hannibal Lecter. You know all about Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant Oscar-winning performance. You know the imagery of Lecter straitjacketed and masked while strapped to a gurney to prevent him from harming anyone (but still finding ways to do so, anyway). You certainly know about his braggadocio regarding his cannibalistic tendencies and his nonexistent tolerance for rude behavior. (“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”) So knowing all these things about Hannibal Lecter, and how he’s one of the most popular villains in all of motion picture history, it’s understandable to have wondered back in 2012, just how and why NBC thought it was a good idea to develop a series about the character. A series that would air on network television instead of on cable, and would have to come close to matching the quality, the darkness, and the gore of The Silence of the Lambs.
The answer to those questions? They arrived in the form of Bryan Fuller.
IGN: …When this show was announced, people were saying, “How can this work on network? This should obviously be on cable. It’ll feel softened on a network.” Having seen [the first] five episodes, it doesn’t feel softened to me, but what were your conversations like with the network and how did you walk that line? What was the line?
Bryan Fuller: Well, the line was really what was appropriate for the brand, and we are dealing with a brand. Hannibal Lecter is a franchise character, so we had to be respectful of honoring the genre in which this character lives. The early conversation with NBC was, “Will you let us tell the story the way it needs to be told?” And the answer was “Yes.” We talked about content, we talked about gore. Having worked on Heroes that first season, we went to some very gory places. We had Hayden Panettiere on an autopsy table flayed open right down the middle, and you saw the skinned meat of her breasts as she folded the flaps back over the open wound, and they healed. It was pretty gory! So I knew that we could go places, and I knew that television had evolved and needed to continue to evolve. We are a ten o’clock show, and we are an adult content show, and we are a horror movie. So we needed to have all those elements of a horror movie, and they were very supportive that we would go there.
Fuller had won over both critics and audiences with his short-lived but greatly appreciated shows Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies. But curiosity remained as to what he had in store for adapting Hannibal the Cannibal, and whether it would satisfy everyone’s appetites. On April 4, 2013, viewers got to see for themselves when Hannibal made its network television premiere on NBC.
Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) works for the FBI as both a profiler, and as a forensics instructor at their academy. He has been blessed and cursed with the ability to mentally and emotionally place himself into the mindset of the serial killers that he goes after, and to recreate every single detail of a murder in his mind while present at the scene of the crime. (Whenever he does so, he refers to the killer in the first-person perspective, and regularly uses the phrase, “This is my design” to describe what the killer wants to see and do upon murdering their victims.) He is approached by Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to help him find the person responsible for abducting and killing eight female college students. Crawford knows how much these abilities deeply trouble Will, so on the advice of consulting psychiatrist Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), he asks another psychiatrist to help Will with the case and with its psychological effect on him: Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).
Unbeknownst to all of them, Hannibal is a serial killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper, who eats his victims after killing them. While Hannibal does help Will in stopping the murderer/abductor of the female college students, he finds himself increasingly fascinated with Will, and how his analytical mind works in understanding the killers he is expected to find, and the two end up growing closer to one another during their therapy sessions. But he also recognizes Will as a potential threat to his own life and freedom, and decides to slowly dismantle his mind and morality in the hopes of pushing Will to become a killer like himself.
During its three-season run, Hannibal was both faithful and inventive in how it chose to adapt much of the characters and material from Thomas Harris’ novels in the Hannibal Lecter series. (With the notable exception of The Silence of the Lambs, due to some confusing and infuriating rights issues.) Much like how Damon Lindelof and his writing staff adapted and remixed Watchmen while telling their own original story, Bryan Fuller and his writing staff were able to do the same with Hannibal in telling their own story about how Will and Hannibal first met, and how they went from being colleagues, to friends, to enemies, and to Murder Husbands. As for the murders and acts of violence that happen in this show, and the killers who are making them happen? They are not for the squeamish or easily offended, so if you don’t want to see gardens lined with corpses that are used to grow mushrooms; a totem pole made from the bodies of dead people; disembowelments; one man’s lips being completely bitten off by another; a couple whose backs are sliced open so that the flesh can be assembled to look like wings; and a musician whose throat is sliced open so that a cello neck can be placed into the opening, and the killer can play this victim like a musical instrument? Then Hannibal is not the show for you. It’s a reminder that television has come a very long way from the days of The X-Files getting one of its episodes temporarily banned, due to its focus on a close-knit family of incestuous murderers.
The one episode of Hannibal that became a topic of controversy was the Season 1 episode “Oeuf,” in which a mysterious woman (played by Molly Shannon) kidnaps young boys and convinces them to kill their own families, so that they can all create their own family together. It never aired on NBC, and Fuller had said in interviews that the episode would’ve aired just a few months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and during the same week as the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Which is why he contacted NBC, and asked them not to air it.
Despite the twisted creativity visible in every crime scene, and the gorgeous cinematography that made each frame look and feel like a painting, none of this beauty and bloodshed would really matter if the rest of Hannibal wasn’t worth watching or caring about. Fortunately for critics, casual viewers, and the die-hard fans known as Fannibals who would eat their own delicious meals while watching each episode (Yes, I include myself in that last category, and yes, I also did the same thing when watching iZombie), the writing, directing, and acting on Hannibal constantly fired on all cylinders, and was deserving of many a chef’s kiss.
Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, who is hell-bent on catching every serial killer whose body count cannot be ignored, even if it means putting Will’s mental health in jeopardy, no matter how often he promises to avoid doing exactly that; Caroline Dhavernas as Alana Bloom, a psychiatrist deeply concerned about Will’s well-being, but whose compassion and confidence are replaced by anger and vengeance aimed directly at Hannibal once she learns the truth about him and what he’s capable of; Gillian Anderson as Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s psychiatrist who is just as brilliant, incisive, and inscrutable as he is, and who goes from trusting her patient, to fearing him, to standing idly by as he kills anyone who puts their freedom and anonymity in jeopardy; and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, who understands the criminal mind in ways that both disturb and terrify him, and which forces him to wonder if he’s no different than the killers he is obsessively pursuing. (He also likes being around stray dogs a lot more than he enjoys being around people, and considering how often he sees the horrible things that people do to each other, it’s kinda hard to blame him.)
Then there’s Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter himself. His portrayal of the character is as unique and memorable and unnerving as the versions played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, and by Brian Cox in Manhunter. Mikkelsen portrays Lecter as more charming, manipulative, inquisitive, and playful as he does whatever necessary in order to stay two steps ahead of everyone else. He is someone who will throw a hand grenade into a crowded room, and then watch with both curiosity and amusement as it explodes in slow motion.
The supporting cast and guest stars on Hannibal were just as fantastic and captivating to watch: Hettienne Park (Beverly Katz); Scott Thompson (Jimmy Price); Aaron Abrams (Brian Zeller); Lara Jean Chorostecki (Freddie Lounds, and this version of the character may be easier on the eyes than what we got from Stephen Lang or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but she’s no less ruthless); Raúl Esparza (Dr. Frederick Chilton); Cynthia Nixon (Kade Prurnell, a.k.a. the gender-flipped, Lawyer-Friendly version of Paul Krendler); Kacey Rohl (Abigail Hobbs); Gina Torres (Phyllis “Bella” Crawford); Anna Chlumsky (Miriam Lass); Dan Fogler (Franklin Frovideaux, the Lawyer-Friendly version of Benjamin Raspail, whose head was found by Clarice Starling at Your Self Storage); Demore Barnes (Tobias Budge, a.k.a. the Lawyer-Friendly version of Jame Gumb); Lance Henriksen (Lawrence Wells); Zachary Quinto (Neal Frank); Ellen Muth (Georgia Madchen); Suzy Eddie Izzard (Abel Gideon); Michael Pitt and Joe Anderson (Mason Verger); Katherine Isabelle (Margot Verger); Nina Arianda (Molly Graham); Fortunate Cerlino (Rinaldo Pazzi); Tao Okamoto (Chiyoh); Rutina Wesley (Reba McClane); and Richard Armitage (Francis Dolarhyde).
Despite everything that I’ve just described and discussed when looking back at Hannibal, there is one thing about this series that still has its fans talking and writing fanfic long after its finale originally aired: the relationship between Hannibal and Will. In Red Dragon, and both of its film adaptations, the relationship between the two men has always been comprised of caution, contempt, veiled animosity, and mutual respect. But from the moment they first meet in this series, with Will expressing he doesn’t find Hannibal interesting and has no desire to be his friend, and with Hannibal not even the least bit convinced while also telling Will how impressed he is by him and by what he does (“You’re the mongoose I want under the house when the snakes slither by”), it’s clear that they’re drawn to one another, not just for their intellect, but for what they each offer each other. Hannibal offers Will someone who is willing to listen, and tell him what he needs to hear while helping him keep his head above water, and Will offers Hannibal insight into what makes his mind tick, and what makes him so gifted at understanding and tracking down predators like himself. When they both learn the truth about who they are and what they intend to do to each other, their confrontation at the end of Season 2 — with Hannibal punishing Will for his betrayal by slicing him open and leaving him to bleed out slowly, and Will looking at him with sorrow as Hannibal tells him, “I let you see me!” — is every bit as heartbreaking to watch as Vincent Hanna taking Neil McCauley’s hand at the end of Heat. Hannibal literally sends Dolarhyde to Will’s house to try and kill his family and ruin the life that Will has made, and that isn’t enough to stop Will from wondering out loud whether Hannibal is in love with him, and if he actually feels the same way about Hannibal.
Hannibal: This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For both of us.
Will: …It’s beautiful.
Mind you, this exchange happens between them as they’re drenched in blood and gravely injured after teaming up to fight Francis Dolarhyde to the death, and are embracing each other in the moonlight near the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. All Hannibal has ever wanted is for Will to take off his ‘person-suit,’ to stop trying so hard to fit in with the rest of humanity, and accept who he really is, and what’s he truly capable of. And for the two of them to be together when he accepts this. To see these two sworn frenemies reach this point to become Murder Husbands, it really is beautiful.
Even if it is immediately followed by Will and Hannibal gazing into each other’s eyes, their faces close enough to kiss…and then Will forces the two of them off the cliff and into the waters below, with nothing onscreen to indicate whether they’re dead or alive as the end credits roll to the sounds of Siouxsie Sioux singing “Love Crime.”
And that is why Fannibals have been aching for someone, anyone, to give the green light for Bryan Fuller to make another season of Hannibal. To give them more of this love story between Hannibal and Will, so they can find out what happens next, now that their relationship has been taken to the next level. But then again, I’ve seen what happens when a much-beloved show returns from cancellation for a fourth season to continue its story, only to end up infuriating its entire fanbase. So…maybe it’s for the best that Hannibal went out on a high note after three great seasons of looking and feeling like a beautifully photographed nature documentary made by Stanley Kubrick about how humans can be the absolute worst, and leave it at that.
All three seasons of Hannibal are now streaming on Hulu.