Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBC
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At the start of Hannibal’s “Red Dragon” storyline several weeks ago, the show’s titular attraction, a sinister sophisticate with transgressive tastes and an allegedly enlightened mind, was humbled by a newsflash: Hannibal Lecter, cultural icon, was hurting for an audience. According to his crass and unworthy jailer, Dr. Frederick Chilton, the freaky foodie had “lost his novelty” with the public. A new flavor of the month had captured their attention, a monster with more traditional ambitions, more conventional aesthetic, and a terrible name. The Tooth Fairy. “It’s not as snappy as ‘Hannibal the Cannibal,’ but he does have a wider demographic than you do,” Chilton said of serial killer Francis Dolarhyde. “You with your fancy allusions and your fussy aesthetics will always have a niche appeal. But this fellow, there is something so universal about what he does. He kills whole families in their homes and strikes at the very core of the American dream. You might say he is a four-quadrant killer.”

Of course, Chilton wasn’t just talking about Hannibal. He was also diagnosing the narrow and ultimately unsustainable appeal of Hannibal, an art-house critic’s darling that could never draw the numbers of other crime-time shows that deal with similar themes but with simpler characters and more accessible presentation. The cult fave ended a three-year run on Saturday with the conclusion of the Red Dragon arc, an adaptation of the first Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, and arguably the finest, most disciplined, and ironically, most accessible expression of Hannibal’s surreal and subversive brand of pulp fiction.

The Hannibal finale gave us another metaphor for itself. The last act saw Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and his longtime adversary and closest intimate, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), on the run from Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), a grim reaper desperate to cancel … er, murder them. They sought shelter in one of Lecter’s hideouts, a spectacular modern home on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. The sequence gave the couple a beat to reflect upon how much the location had changed over the last three years — specifically, how much the bluff had eroded. It was only a matter of time before everything and everyone perched upon this privileged but precarious piece of property tumbled into the sea.

And in the end, they did, but of their own accord. Or at least, Will’s. We watched them team up to slay The Tooth Fairy before this wannabe “Great Dragon” could “transform” them by destroying them. They sliced and chopped in a beautifully coordinated act of violence, like master chefs working together in a kitchen, or more true to the subtext of the entire series, lovers rolling in the sheets. When they were finished, Will fell into Hannibal’s arms, the two finally becoming one, their symbolic marriage finally completed and consummated. Will, our FBI agent hero, had finally gotten his man, so to speak, and the chase had changed him, for in the process, Will had given himself over a conception of himself that he had long considered evil and had tried for who knows how long to resist. Was it his true self? Hannibal certainly thought so. “This is all I ever wanted for you,” Lecter purred lovingly.

And yet, Will terminated their relationship, and their lives, and the series, by launching them off that crumbling cliff and falling into the churning abyss below. Call it The Reichenbach Falls ending to Hannibal, with our Holmes and Moriarty, enmeshed, mirror twin adversaries, plunging to their deaths. But why? Those who care – we few, we happy few! – will debate this for years. Did Will hate what he had become? Did he despair at the realization that he and Hannibal could never live free together? Or did some heroic impulse take hold and spur him to self-sacrifice for the sake of insuring the villain’s ruin? All of the above, I think. And this: They were going to die, anyway. Literally and/or figuratively. The battle with The Tooth Fairy, that “four-quadrant killer” bent on “changing” them, had left them mortally wounded. But even if they recovered, they faced the prospect of a compromised future. Perhaps Hannibal was trying to tell us something with that ending. We’re tired. And also? It’s better that we end things here, on our terms, as we are. Trust us, you don’t want another season. You won’t like what we’d have to become to give it to you.

That’s how I interpreted the coda shot, too. We saw long-suffering Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), the bride and beard of Hannibal, sitting at a table set for three, waiting for her groom and his true love to join her. She had prepared quite the meal for them: Her own leg. She represented us, the fan hoping for more helpings of a dish we’ve grown to love. But she also represented to the worst possible scenario for Hannibal and its devoted fans. Do we really want to see the show sacrifice valuable bits just to get more of it? No. To borrow from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” and a line from Moriarty: “It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure.”

I wrote an essay at midseason in which I expressed hope that some network would step up and save Hannibal. But after watching the “Red Dragon” arc, I feel my appetite for this show has been adequately satisfied. It provided me with the richest articulation of the ideas and themes that most interested me. How the imagination can be used to redeem and degrade, to shape and reshape identity for better and for worse. How we are influenced, changed, or even warped by meaningful engagement with other people, with our culture, with story. Hannibal’s version of Francis Dolarhyde was a layered metaphor for many things, not just death and banality. His struggle to transcend, his pursuit of becoming a more refined, dynamic version of himself was the constant quest of this show. It was a mad, messy project that risked baffling and alienating even its most ardent supporters, and Dolaryde embodied all of that, too, and so he also represented a confession of humility — a quality I have always seen and appreciated (among many) in Hannibal’s showrunner, Bryan Fuller, a deep-thinking, big-hearted artist and innovator with high-low range and passions. We need more of his imagination and compassion, more of his fearlessness and invention on television, not less. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

“When life becomes maddeningly polite, Will, think about me,” Hannibal said in the finale. We should do the same now that Hannibal is gone, leaving behind an uncertain legacy. I’ve seen NBC’s dramas, including the ones that were sold hard to Hannibal’s viewers the past few weeks, Blindspot and The Player. Both are high-concept mystery-thrillers, but neither approaches Hannibal’s formal daring or scope of concerns. They’re maddeningly polite treatments of their premises; they give you characters and tensions you’ve seen before, hundreds of times, presented with safe, familiar aesthetics. They are certain to have broader appeal than Hannibal, because they’re hyper-calculated four-quadrant killers. They’re Tooth Fairy shows — and toothless. They represent only one improvement upon Hannibal: They’re original ideas, not franchise properties or spin-offs. That’s something to be applauded. And yet, over the past three years, fewer shows exhibited more verve and inspiration than Hannibal. Kudos to Fuller and company for redeeming a dispiriting trend in his business by turning this reboot into something unique, and for doing something I never thought possible: Making Hannibal Lecter special again. I’m taking the advice Fuller gave the Fannibals at Comic-Con: Let’s be grateful for the three years that we got, not bitter about the year (or more) that we’re not. Let’s hope everything extraordinary about Hannibal will encourage TV toward bolder storytelling in years to come. Again, from “The Final Solution,” this time a line from Holmes: “I think that I may go so far as to say, Watson, that I have not lived wholly in vain. … If my record were closed tonight, I could still survey it with equanimity. The air is sweeter for my presence.” For three seasons, TV was sweeter for Hannibal’s presence. Sickly sweet, yes. But inspiring. May it linger.

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