Hannibal returns the fear of death to the TV crime drama

Hannibal returns the fear of death to the TV crime drama

Midway through last night’s beautiful, despairing season finale of the unexpectedly fantastic Hannibal, one character says to another that contemplating murders—as all of the characters on this show and all of the viewers in the audience do—is worth pursuing because it makes the contemplation of life and its end more thorough. In the midst of life, we are in death, and in the show’s particularly gruesome and gory murder scenes, it finds a way to remind us of this eventuality. We almost certainly won’t die at the hands of serial killers—since we don’t exist in the Hannibal universe, after all—but death will come for us sooner or later, and more likely than not, it won’t be beautiful. It will be painful and protracted, and we will long for a release from it. These are the emotional contours of Hannibal, a series that restores the seriousness of purpose to a genre long in need of it.

Back in February, I wrote an article about violence on television, spurred by the generally awful The Following. In that piece, I argued that too much TV violence had become empty, without purpose, there to artificially raise the stakes to the life-and-death level because it was the only way the show’s writers knew how to create tension. In many ways, Hannibal makes that argument much better than I ever could. At turns dreamy and philosophical, Hannibal is interested in death and murder as a means to glance sidelong at some of life’s largest questions. When not functioning as a cop drama, it’s an intricately twisted serial-killer thriller, but it’s also a surprisingly deep series about psychiatry and the state of the human mind. 

In an interview with Alan Sepinwall, showrunner Bryan Fuller says that he went into Hannibal wanting to tell the story of when Hannibal Lecter was a practicing psychiatrist and cannibal; he’s honored both sides of that equation, making perhaps the most famous fictional serial killer into more than just a series of funhouse scares. This Hannibal Lecter is strange, alien, almost removed from the proceedings that surround him. Lecter can’t be a psychopath, because he does feel empathy of a sort—so then what is he? The answer is that he’s a monster, someone so utterly inhuman and disconnected from that point of view that the best and perhaps only way to appreciate him is as some indefinable other. 

The serial-killer genre has been trapped by Hannibal Lecter for a long time. Thomas Harris’ original novels, especially the gripping Red Dragon, are very good, mixing standard thriller and mystery elements with a sense of Grand Guignol blood-spilling. But Anthony Hopkins’ just so slightly campy performance as Dr. Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs very quickly came to dominate public perception of the character. Hopkins was riveting in Silence, a terrific example of how to modulate ham to create a larger-than-life character that remains grounded in some sort of realism, but the aspects of the character that everybody remembered—“Fava beans and a nice Chianti” followed by that terrifying thing he does with his lips, basically—were the ones that Harris wrote to in the considerably weaker Hannibal novel that came out in 1999 and was turned into a film by Ridley Scott. Suddenly, Hannibal Lecter wasn’t a figure of terror so much as he was an enjoyably scary uncle, looking out over the many serial-killer nieces and nephews he’d unleashed on the movie-going public (and, later, with the rise of CBS’ crime procedurals, the television-viewing public as well).

This is nothing new to fans of horror. All horror-movie villains will undergo a gradual campening the longer their franchises run. By the time Red Dragon was adapted to film for the second time by Brett Ratner, Hopkins’ performance was all over-the-top ham, and while it was still the best thing in the movie (it’s hard to top Anthony Hopkins), it felt decidedly diminished from what had come before. Worse, however, was the way so many movies and TV shows became about hard-to-predict, difficult-to-catch serial killers who carried over-refined methods and a manner removed from human nature to seem all at once slightly more terrifying and slightly better than the rest of us. Inevitably, these characters, ostensibly meant to be more realistic than the slasher-movie villains of the ’80s, would become just as wise-cracking and wacky as Freddy Krueger had been. One need only look at Dexter’s Dexter Morgan to see how easily this happens. A figure who was alien and terrifying in his first two seasons turned into a befuddled suburban dad who sometimes killed people, an audience-identification figure meant to be just a bit cuddly. Dexter ends later this summer after a run that so thoroughly defanged its protagonist that it will be fascinating to see if the show’s writers can wring anything interesting from his inevitable capture at all.

At least Dexter didn’t often go in for the numbing sameness of most other TV violence, which Fuller describes in the Sepinwall interview as “rapey” and “stabby.” Because violence against women perpetrated by larger, looming men is such a reliable go-to in terms of goosing human emotions, TV turns to it over and over again, creating a parallel universe of genders split along lines of predator and prey and inadvertently trivializing genuine sexual violence in the real world. (Watch any representative episode of Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds to see what I mean.) There’s a place for these kinds of shows, and they can be done well—I still enjoy a CSI every now and again—but the effect of them becomes numbing over time.

Watching Hannibal at once dispels all of these concerns and makes it all the more apparent why most other networks go in for cuddly serial killers or sexually charged violence robbed of its power. Watching any given episode of Hannibal can be something of an ordeal—intentionally so, I would argue. The camera lingers upon scenes of horrific violence and gore, and in nearly every episode, viewers are forced to watch the protagonist, Hugh Dancy’s deeply troubled Will Graham, insert himself into the minds of the murderers he chases, committing the murders himself and struggling to keep from letting those dark visions overwhelm him. The idea of a serial-killer profiler who forces himself to think like a killer—another Harris invention—has become a cliché in the genre, yet no other serial-killer tale has so potently portrayed the weight of thinking like a killer, how difficult it would be, and how hard the stench of all that death would be to wash off.

By placing the viewer in Will’s POV, both subjectively and literally (as when the audience is treated to the swinging pendulum that demarcates gruesome reality and Will’s even more gruesome reenactments), Hannibal manages something that I don’t think I’ve seen in comparable crime shows: It forces the viewer to take on the weight of all that murder as surely as the characters do. On other crime shows, the detectives will sometimes mention how difficult it is to spend so much time around all that death, but nothing really comes of it, and it’s rare for that feeling to be transmitted to the audience. (One of the few shows to manage this trick was another NBC crime drama, albeit one with a much more realistic bent: Homicide: Life On The Street.) Frankly, it can be punishing to watch more than one episode of Hannibal at a time. When NBC would send out multiple episodes on DVD, I almost always parceled them out by the day, enjoying what I was seeing but finding it difficult to spend so much time in Will’s head. When I marathoned the season with my wife so she could get caught up, I often had to look at anything else to keep from being overwhelmed.

On many shows, this would be a demerit, but on this one, it’s a significant part of its design. What so many other shows forget is that the lives that end are all human lives, people who had plans and hopes and dreams that were cruelly snuffed out by madmen. Though Hannibal’s crime scenes are so over-the-top as to be blatantly dreamlike and unrealistic—a totem pole made out of corpses was particularly unbelievable—the show earns its realism in its emotional context. Every single death on this show matters in a way that television rarely manages. In some episodes, those deaths matter because we get a sense of the lives that were ended. In some, we meet the men and women who commit the murders and see the terrifying ways their brain chemistry has been skewed. In still others, we watch as characters contemplate their own deaths, spurred on by the murders they investigate and other events, particularly in a deeply moving two-episode arc where Gina Torres guests as the wife of Jack Crawford, played by her real-life husband, Laurence Fishburne, and reveals she is slowly dying of cancer.

Cancer is an apt metaphor for the show’s approach to murderous death, which it depicts as just as much a disruption of the body politic as cancerous cells are of the human body. Both are naturally occurring. Sometimes, cells get their wires crossed as surely as sometimes human beings are born with brain chemistry that crackles and sputters into terrifying new phantasms. Yet both also create destruction that ripples out far beyond the people they directly affect. For most of the season, the serialized storyline centered on a teenage girl named Abigail Hobbs whose father (killed by Will in the pilot so that he wouldn’t kill Abigail) preyed on young women who looked like his daughter. The strain of that—of her father’s monstrousness and her own near-death at his hands—sent Abigail off-kilter, but the season kept pulling rugs out from under her and the audience, sending her spiraling ever deeper into the shadow her father left hanging over her. She kept Hannibal’s secret, only to die for it, and she only admitted to herself that she had helped her father stalk his prey once it was too late for it to mean anything. The audience sees Abigail’s body only in the abstract—as a dish Hannibal serves to his own psychiatrist, Dr. Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson)—and that makes her death even more haunting, a rupture that may never heal.

Yet there’s something else that makes Hannibal hard to watch, and that is Hannibal Lecter himself. As played by Mads Mikkelsen in one of TV’s best performances, Dr. Lecter becomes at once angel and demon, a guardian of his patients’ psyches and a monster who would just as surely destroy them once he was done toying with them. On a series fascinated by the workings of the human mind, we get several glimpses of just how good a psychiatrist Hannibal can be when he’s not exploiting a patient for sport, but we also get to watch him push Will deeper and deeper into an encephalitis-induced fever state, until the series’ putative hero is a quivering mess, framed for murders Hannibal committed, and the man in the show’s title rises triumphant. In other depictions of this character, there’s a sick part of every viewer that wants to see him succeed. That part still exists in Mikkelsen’s portrayal, but it’s combined with a roiling nausea at just how thoroughly he cows and manipulates Will, a good man who simply chooses the wrong man to confide in. Hannibal isn’t just a character; he’s a natural force within the show’s universe, as certain to draw others toward him then tear them apart as a black hole.

Hannibal is a great show for other reasons—it’s incredibly beautiful and fond of long passages of wordless storytelling wherein it has the confidence to let its visuals carry the story, and when the characters open their mouths, the dialogue they speak is often unexpectedly amusing or melancholic or profound—but the thread uniting all of it is this fascination with death. Death is too often facile on television, a thing that happens to a guest character so the regulars can swoop in and save the day. Fuller, however, has been obsessed with death as long as he’s been making television, and he’s funneled that sensibility into a series that had every reason to be a cheap cash-in and has, instead, turned into one of TV’s best shows. In the world of Hannibal, death isn’t a thing that happens because of glibly smirking psychopaths or because a woman was dressed too provocatively or because of Edgar Allen Poe. In the world of Hannibal, death is a moth, eating away at the edges of a beautiful tapestry, until the picture is so eroded that all that remains is a suggestion of what must have been.