Hannibal review: Let's save this weird, excellent show
There’s a moment in Saturday’s episode of Hannibal that sums up in an image my experience of watching this beautifully twisted and gleefully subversive cinematic Grand Guignol. It comes in the scene when Mason Verger (Joe Anderson), a billionaire meat packer with sadistic proclivities and a disfigured face that only Francis Bacon could love, dines with the two men he holds responsible for his ruined mug, cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Mason’s prisoners have a complex relationship, marked by intimacy, betrayal, deeper intimacy, and deeper betrayal, and Mason knows it, and the anecdote he tells them over a dinner of glazed pork and taunting sausages more than winks at it, it explains — metaphorically — the current state of affairs between them.
“You boys remind me of that German cannibal who advertised for a friend and ate him — and his penis — before he died,” says Verger, putting some relish on that “penis.” He continues: “Tragedy had been, the penis was overcooked. Why go to all that trouble to eat a friend and overcook his penis?!” Will hardly reacts to this provocation. He’s still recovering from last episode, when Hannibal took a saw to his skull and tried to eat his brain, and besides, he’s saving his energy for a more biting protest. (I won’t spoil everything.) But Hannibal responds by doing something the poker-faced devil rarely does: He smiles — almost laughs! — with dumbfounded amusement, entertained by Mason’s outrageousness.
Add a long shaking of the head and audible snicker, and that’s been me, every single week, for the past two and half years as I’ve devoured Hannibal with hungry eyes. But unless something changes soon, that won’t be me for much longer. You might have heard that NBC decided to not renew the series for a fourth season. The six remaining episodes of season 3 — which will present an adaptation of Red Dragon, the 1981 novel written by Hannibal Lecter’s creator, Thomas Harris (it begins next week) — could be our last servings of Hannibal. Last week at Comic-Con, showrunner Bryan Fuller told fans that Netflix passed on picking up the series because its rival, Amazon, owns the streaming rights to previous seasons, and that Amazon passed for several reasons, including timing: Amazon wanted new episodes more quickly than Fuller and company could produce them. They haven’t given up hope of producing more Hannibal. A feature film is among a few options the team is investigating.
While I’d be first in line for a Hannibal movie, I’m hoping some benevolent entity in TV land will give Fuller and his collaborators at least more of the show, be it a shorter order event series, a set of Sherlock-ish mini-movies, or one of those old fashioned full season things. (Remember those?) Fuller seems to have an endless amount of imagination for his enterprise — for writing inspired case-of-the-week procedural, for exploring the Will-Hannibal relationship, for finding the philosophical themes and provocative subtext in the material, for staging the most sensational food porn this side of The Food Network. Hannibal is one of the wisest, strangest shows on TV about the potential and peril, thrill and terror of emotional vulnerability and engagement — of being known by another, of consuming and being consumed by another. That these themes are being dramatized in the context of a male relationship is both significant and irrelevant; I think anyone can connect with the show’s treatment of relational intimacy, obsession, enmeshment, and violence, regardless of sexual orientation. The show is also about the fascination with evil and our romance with the genre in which it’s most often explored, Gothic horror, and in a moment replete with cheap and shallow Gothicacka, Hannibal‘s unique brand of rich, reflective pulp is valuable.
I also want Hannibal to keep telling stories so it can keep innovating the way it tells stories. Fuller and his filmmaking team have pushed themselves to find formally bold, purely cinematic and just plain weird ways to present the drama. The meaningful, evocative use of the grotesque, the sensual cinematography, the fluid, layered editing of images, and the abstract, psychological score by Brian Reitzell are unlike anything else on television, which is a shame: I’m not saying other TV should mimic Hannibal, but be inspired by it. (I keep thinking how much better the new season of True Detective might be if it took a hit of Hannibal and loosened up a bit with its storytelling.)
This season — which has gotten away from the procedural format, for better and worse — has been especially stylized in its chronicle of Hannibal’s mopey exile in Italy with his thrall, Bedelia De Maurier (Gillian Anderson), and Will’s slow, patient search for him. Last week’s episode — the penultimate chapter in this “Hunt for Hannibal” storyline — was aggressively gonzo and clever. The long-awaited reunion of Will and Hannibal in Florence was juxtaposed with another, more literal coupling back in the United States, the consummation of a romance between Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and Mason Verger’s rebellious sister, Margot (Katharine Isabelle). The Will-Hannibal re-acquaintance depicted their faces in separate masses of roiling plasma or cloud or something, dancing and darting around each other, wanting to merge and trying to avoid it at the same time. By contrast, the Alana-Margot sex scene was a kaleidoscopic blur of joined bodies and ecstatic expressions. It was all head-shakingly strange and delightful.
Some critics find Hannibal’s ostentatiousness to be hollow and exasperating, not just with the dream imagery, but with the ornate, aphoristic language, too, and I must confess, the show sometimes leaves me in a state of I’m-not-sure-I’m-getting-this anxiety. (I’ve spent the entire season puzzling over Hannibal’s line in the premiere “Ethics becomes aesthetics.” Do I agree with it? Do I even understand it?) I’m heartened by Fuller’s recent admission to his fans at Comic-Con that sometimes even he’s not sure what things mean on his show. Sometimes, you wonder if Hannibal would be more effective if it dared in the opposite direction, toward simplicity. Saturday’s episode, in fact, is one of the season’s best, because it’s a climactic chapter full of incident and consequence, but also because it plays out the payoffs with a minimal of surreal flourish. There’s a scene with Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) that’s hilarious with deadpan humor, and there’s another scene in which Alana and Margot make a shocking discovery that’s presented in matter-of-fact fashion and all the more disturbing for it. This is why I think the upcoming Red Dragon arc has the potential to be the best and most accessible expression of Hannibal yet, as it promises to marry the show’s bold aesthetic to a strong, familiar narrative. Still, I admire Hannibal’s enthusiastic pursuit of some something unique and personal, the cheerful willingness to experiment at the risk of failure. I’d never want it to change. I’d love to see Fuller to keep pushing and refining, pushing and refining.
If there’s no more Hannibal after this season, I don’t think it will leave us with the feeling of an incomplete saga a la Veronica Mars or Deadwood. In fact, Saturday’s episode could function as a series finale. BEGIN SPOILER ALERT! Will’s “break-up” with Hannibal brings their relationship to a resting spot, and it represents a conclusion to the show’s inquiry into the fascination with evil. END SPOILER ALERT! During his Comic-Con appearance, Fuller resisted the opportunity to bash NBC for canceling the show. Instead, he praised the network for allowing it live as long as it has. He’s absolutely right. Kudos to Fuller and NBC for producing 39 hours of finely crafted effed up TV that will leave behind a legacy of stretching the medium in such a way that will surely benefit storytellers for years to come. But for a few hours more …