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Hannibal’s powerful visuals make it one of the best shows of 2013

For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll.

In considering Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, two of our writers decided to look at the series in terms of its brutal yet mesmerizingly beautiful images.

Sonia Saraiya: One of the first things that struck me about Hannibal is how the characters seem imprisoned by their surroundings. The whole show is characterized by a sense of creeping horror, largely because we know how terrible Hannibal Lecter is, but we’re watching the other characters figure out how awful he can get. So the direction of the show is slow and careful. It feels increasingly like the places are enveloping their characters in a grid of lines and bars.

Here, not only are the curtains around Garrett Jacob Hobbs in stripes against the windows—a kind of mimicry of prison bars—but even the dish drainer in the sink and the pinstripes on his shirts echo those lines, crossing almost the whole shot in a subtle way.

You can see this preponderance of lines surrounding the cops during a murder investigation:

And even in the exterior shots of the solid, institutional FBI buildings, or the suburbs where the characters live:

Besides being just imprisoning, these lines feel like a manifestation of Hannibal’s particular horror: He is coldly rational at all times, a calculating monster. He’s often depicted wearing an immaculate suit, sometimes decorated with plaid checks. Hannibal is comfortable within rigid color schemes and strong lines; he seems to understand the hard facts of life and death, without the fuzzy emotionality that clouds the other characters.

Here he is in his natural habitat: the library, a collection of perfect rectangles. The shot puts him in the center, where he is in harmony with the symmetry of the room. Will, by contrast, is off-center, almost slouching, rumpled and distracted. He doesn’t fit into Hannibal’s world. Indeed, there is something very cruel and indifferent about Hannibal’s universe. A world in which Hannibal Lecter can be not just successful but also, strangely, an object of admiration, is not a pleasant world. Fuller emphasizes this by drawing close to these gridded habitats, suffocating the mere mortals in slowly zooming, confining shots. It really jumps out here, when Abigail wakes up in the hospital.

The overwhelming impression is not just that the world is imprisoning the characters, but also that Hannibal is the force behind the imprisonment. The lines seem to become puppet strings: The other characters live or die by his command. The cinematography signals to us that poor Will and Abigail are doomed from the start.

Here they are in Abigail’s parents’ house, after the murder. The whole house is done like a hunting lodge, and everywhere—everywhere!—lines seem to close in on them, either in curtains or in brick patterns or in piles of documents on the floor. Abigail is caught in the web of her own past, and in Hannibal’s web, too. Will and Abigail strike me as so pathetic here. They’re both caught in the web—and so caught they can’t even really see each other. They’re conversing, but not connecting.

Todd VanDerWerff: Here’s what I keep coming back to when it comes to Hannibal: color, or the lack thereof.

The first time I really sat up and took notice of this show was in the pilot, when Will Graham and Jack Crawford stepped into this red bathroom. Why is the bathroom, a normally antiseptic space devoted to cleanliness and order so burgundy? Well, because of blood, of course, and because of…

This, as well. The demonic face behind the face. What interests me about the show’s portrayal of Will and Hannibal is that it sees them as two sides of some awful coin, something that’s reflected in the season’s closing passages, which we won’t spoil here. But that’s also set up in the opening credits pictured above. What we see is the face of the title character, depicted entirely in blood. This has the effect of making him seem somehow more than human, despite the paradox that he, like Will or like anyone else, has the same red blood coursing through his veins, the same blood that surrounds all of the characters (sometimes literally, as in that bathroom).

But Hannibal thinks he’s better than all of these people—knows it, in fact. Look at him up there above Will in his office, the god among men. (This show uses levels so well. We could do a whole article just on that.)

And we can’t discuss the show’s use of color without discussing the beautiful meals Hannibal serves, which pop amid the darkness…

…or the times when the color all but drops out, as when this “monster” pops out from under the bed, and we’re stuck in a childhood nightmare.

SS: It’s true, the color scheme is arresting. Many of the shots I discussed above wouldn’t be possible without the attention that the set designers and costumers give to the color blocking. That shot of Abigail in the hospital bed is a blue leached of brightness; she’s almost always in blue, especially when she’s with Hannibal.

The color also serves to portray blood as beautiful, which I think is closely connected to what you’re talking about, Todd. Another creepy but fascinating aspect to Hannibal is how grotesque but beautiful organic material becomes. The show seems to indicate that we ourselves—our biological processes, our shape and smell—are fascinating and repulsive, like poking a dead slug with a stick.

Even just coffee in a cup…

Or a tea blossom in a teapot…

…become these figures of revulsion, despite their everyday quality. Fuller brings us close to each organic substance, to show us just how terrible and mesmerizing they can look. To give us a glimpse, too, of how the world must look to Hannibal, where everything you eat has an element of the living, loathsome organic: As we consume tea and coffee, Hannibal consumes us.

Growth, too, is a perpetually disturbing theme in the show. These two screencaps are from the first few episodes, but it’s telling how progress is usually depicted as something negative, deathly, or evil. The antlers here look like they’re sprouting out of the dead woman’s body:

And here, the hands in the ground are macabre plants, growing slowly toward their own death and decay:

Through Fuller’s camera, we see the world the way Hannibal does. We’re not quite ready for this commingling of decay and blood and life and dinner, but that’s because we’re still learning to see things from Hannibal’s point of view.

There are moments where everyone in the show looks like they are just another one of Dr. Lecter’s creatures in his garden of horrors. The greenhouse in the third episode is a fantastic example of this: Will and Abigail are in a glass cage, and Hannibal is standing over them, watching his handiwork. Hannibal is growing them in a cage—it’s the combination of both of my points, in one scene.

TV: I know what you mean about the way the show uses the horrors of nature, Sonia—perhaps suggesting Hannibal is a kind of natural perversion, sprung up from a world that sometimes allows such things to grow—but I would suggest the show offers an alternate take. 

Maybe Hannibal is a natural perversion, but maybe he, like that grotesque, man-made totem pole above, is the human-created demon despoiling a beautiful place. Maybe he only has power because we give it to him. Maybe he is only revolting because we let ourselves be revolted.

Or maybe he’s the Devil himself, as Fuller suggested to me in our discussion of the show in the wake of its first season. What’s amazing about Mads Mikkelsen’s performance is how much he commands every frame he’s in. And what’s amazing about Hugh Dancy’s is how actively he shrinks away from command of that frame, unless he’s indulging his terrible gift, taking on the mindset of a killer, even when the only place he wants to go is home, that ship out upon the sea.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Hannibal is TV’s most beautiful current show, and it becomes all the more incredible when you consider just how cheaply the show is shot. But the central beauty of it, to me, is about this vulnerable, emotional relationship between a damaged man and a devil who would be his protector. Will wants to return to his home, yet Hannibal is actively building him new ones to lose himself in. 

The latter portions of the season sickened me, not because of the gore, but because Will was caught in a trap and he hadn’t yet realized it. These men are the same. They are not the same. They are both and neither, everything and nothing. Hannibal itself brilliantly splits the difference.