We gave it an A-
The season finale of Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s sensational reformulation of the Hannibal Lecter fantasy, gave us much to chew on, and I’m not just talking about the suspiciously delicious meal Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) prepared for his shrink, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). ”Controversial dish, veal,” said the psychiatrist as she feasted on her patient’s home cooking, a young piece of meat that was most likely the fileted and finely prepared remains of the cannibal chef’s latest victim, Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl). So deliciously twisted. But just as savory — and ironic — were Hannibal’s tears when he grieved the loss of the girl he killed, as the villain had become quite attached to her. ”I never considered having a child,” Lecter told Du Maurier during a session earlier in the episode. ”But after meeting Abigail, I understood the appeal.” But apparently not as appealing as the benefit he derives from violent exercise: I was shocked by the savagery suggested by Abigail’s crime scene. Hannibal couldn’t have gone easier on the de facto daughter he shared with his de facto better half, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy)? Monster! Remind me to scratch him from my babysitting list.
I am most haunted by the finale’s final scene: Hannibal’s visit to the place he will inevitably call home (at least for awhile), the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (I imagined Hannibal had some kind of precognitive flash of his fate in that brief moment, when he paused for reflection after passing through the dungeon gates.) Lecter had successfully framed the aforementioned Graham for many of the murders he had committed over the first season — the Garrett Jacob Hobbes copycat killings; Dr. Sutcliffe; Georgia Madchen; Abigail — by both planting evidence (those trophy fishing lures — genius) and by taking advantage of the hypnotic rapport he had established with Will to convince the veritable psychic profiler that he had gone psycho. The last bit didn’t stick — Will fought through the fog and finally saw Hannibal for the devil-stag he was — but the fix worked, anyway. And so Will was sent away to The Asylum and thrown in a dark, quiet hole that evoked Hannibal’s subterranean quarters in Silence. Rising from the cot in his cell, Graham bravely squared up to Hannibal and returned his greeting. ”Hello, Dr. Lecter,” he said with creepy calm. It wasn’t the serenity of a sociopath. It was the furious cool of an activated hero; in his eyes, I could have sworn I saw escape plans and vengeance schemes taking shape.
How about that smirk that rippled across Hannibal’s lips? I would like to think that Lecter’s show of delight meant something more than just relished triumph, as I also would like to think that the ubermenchy mastermind sincerely wanted to help Will gain mastery over his chaotic internal world and transform his guilt-wracked pathology into the same kind of liberating, Nietzschian beyond-good-and-evil moral code he has for himself. Or maybe I’m just suffering from dementia. Will would certainly think so: His theory was that Hannibal was just conducting a mad scientist psych experiment in the wild, that Hannibal merely wanted to wind him up and see what would happen. Maybe: In the previous episode, Hannibal told Abigail that rank curiosity was his motivation for meddling with the lives and minds of her father and family.
NEXT: ”Are you a killer?”
Nonetheless, I believe Hannibal was chasing something different with Will. I truly believe he wanted the friendship of a man he identified as a kindred spirit. Was Dr. Lecter trying to ”cure” Will by reformatting him into a sick superman like himself, so they could be true equals and better intimates? In the moment when Will put it all together and then put a gun to Hannibal’s head, I wondered if Lecter was hoping Will would pull the trigger. ”Are you a killer?” Hannibal asked. (Excitedly?) ”Is this who you really are?” But then Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) entered and put Will on the floor with a bullet to the chest before the matter could be settled. The dream — whatever Lecter wanted from Will — seemed to be over. So perhaps the loony bin smirk was Hannibal’s realization that that their relationship was far from finished: There will be another season of Hannibal, and it will surely involve Lecter and Imprisoned Will working together to solve cases — an inversion of the Clarice Starling/Imprisoned Lecter relationship in Silence of the Lambs. We will have the pleasure of Hannibal’s company for another 13 episodes next year — and so will Will Graham.
This is all to say that Hannibal Lecter sure knows how to cast a captivating spell. Both on the fictional folk of the NBC saga that bares his name and those of us who have made him an enduring pop culture icon — a towering chronotope as monstrously monumental as Hannibal’s totem pole of corpses and as persistent as memory. (That pretentious set of prose inspired by the surreal dream sequence that opened ”Roti.” Still puzzling out the significance of that nightmare.) The cannibal king of modern serial killer villains (and anti-heroes) has held sway since Thomas Harris conjured the character in print in 1981 and Anthony Hopkins imprinted him on the mass mind with his Oscar-winning turn in The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Since then: A lot of copycat Red Dragons, a lot of wannabe Manhunters, so much blood (most of it from pretty young girls), the more the better to indulge our deep fascination with abomination. Are we genuinely interested in understanding the evil in the hearts of men, or do we just like playing in the dark shadows? Do we even know? Care? What is the cost of not knowing? Only a shrink could tell us. But then he’d have to kill you, then grill you into a gamey chick fillet, garnished with locally plucked truffles slathered in a sugar free sauce.
There are many reasons why Hannibal got in my head and (IMHO) distinguished itself as the best of the season’s rash of serial killer dramas. (Bates Motel, a close second.) My list includes: the performances of Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Laurence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas, Gillian Anderson, and Kacey Rohl as Abigail, who I thought did a fine job scaling the challenging arc of a young woman trying very hard not to forget, then hide, then accept that she had been complicit in her demented dad’s cannibal holocaust; the auteur stamp of executive producer Bryan Fuller, who knows how to dramatize alienation, loneliness, the need for connection and significance to be known, and yes, sick and twisted depravity in endless inventive and resonant ways; the wicked wit and offbeat storytelling choices — an off-topic conversation; ending a scene on a puzzling image or unexpected tone; and the amount of talk in each episode. Yes, Hannibal dished out a lot of violence, although I thought it was often quite intelligent about its gratuitousness; the fact that most of it took place in the nightmare forensic theater of Will Graham’s imagination was a meaningful choice. But each episode of Hannibal was also marked by scenes of protracted conversation — two adults, talking smartly (or trying to, and sometimes so hard it got a little thick), processing their experiences of horror. They lost me sometimes, but I never tired of getting lost in the effort.
NEXT: Season 1 of Hannibal was the story of…
More: I loved pondering the recurring themes of control and catharsis and consumption and perversion and parenting and parasitical relationships (even if they could sometimes get a little…well, ponderous), as well as the recurring symbols of food and art and antler horns and the dream stag thing (even if they could sometimes get a little murky). (I could regale you with my theory that Will’s nightmares and other aspects of the show can be decoded via the literary works of Dr. Du Maurier’s namesake, author Daphne du Maurier, including The Parasites and the short story collection The Breaking Point.) I loved looking at the gorgeous grotesque of the visuals — the corpse-nurtured fungi field; the religious tableaus of flayed bodies; the human-cello hybrid — so essential in a show that is, in large part, about consuming horror through the eyes as well as the mouth. We are what we eat. And we eat a lot of evil.
Finally, I enjoyed the admittedly geeky sport of decoding the story as a metaphor for the aforementioned hold that Hannibal: The Icon has on the consciousness and the scope of his cultural legacy, which includes, of course, the show itself. As the last several episodes hammered home, so much of the season’s drama was generated by Dr. Lecter playing showrunner, “psychically driving” the key actors in his life, secretly ”rearranging the furniture” in their minds like an unseen stagehand. Put another way: Season 1 of Hannibal was the story of Lecter literally capturing imaginations, especially that of Will Graham, who also functioned as a mirror to the show and the audience. Here was a man of amazing imagination, making a living by using that gift to envisage the dark designs of dark minds, loving it/loathing himself every step of the way. Here was a man whose flights into terrible fantasy were increasingly subverting his sense of reality, making him all too vulnerable to Lecter’s tinkering. His memory doctored, his confidence in his mental integrity and moral goodness shaken, Will couldn’t be completely sure he wasn’t the copycat killer, that he hadn’t taken on the identity of Garrett Jacob Hobbs (Vladimir Jon Cubrt) and committed the transgression that Hobbs never allowed himself by murdering his daughter. (And eating her, too. That upchucked ear!) By the time he came to his senses and recognized what Lecter had done to him, it was too late. Seeing the hero — the surrogate for the audience in the story; our avatar — trapped behind bars for murders he committed only his mind, I wondered if the show was asking us: Do we belong in there with him? If you say no: How do you know?
Several weeks ago, when the Hannibal season was still young, NBC announced that it was pulling an episode at the request of Bryan Fuller, who believed the story was insensitive to the cultural mood and conversation in the aftermath of violent tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Newtown school shootings. I criticized the choice at the time, and I remain critical of it today. But there is something to be said about caring about the internal lives of human beings and taking seriously the issue of how horror — fictional or all to real — impacts the imagination. In fact, Hannibal has been saying something about these murky matters all season long, and often quite artfully. My compliments to the chef. A-