A good horror show is rare to find. Films are common, but something about the transition in medium from a short to a long form makes it difficult to elicit that same rush of dread and fright. Which is a pity, because the longer nature of television shows offers a lot that is difficult to capture in an hour or two of a film; character development, complex arcs, a slow build of suspense — all of that is rushed in a film’s time frame.
So when I come across a good horror show, I don’t like to leave it without giving it its dues. Hannibal is… sort of good. It’s watchable at the very least. Whether it actually scares you depends on your predilections, and to be honest, that’s rarely its intent.
Its main intent is to show you characters, as well as some trippy visuals to warrant its prestige status. A decent companion to the books and films about the same character, the series presents an interesting case study of a show that is shallower than it thinks, but has enough depth to make the descent interesting.
Audience Assumptions: None
Content Warnings: Mention of LGBT+ phobia; mention and some description of death, murder, cannibalism, serial killers, body mutilation, dismemberment, gore, violence against women, psychological manipulation, forced infertility; mention of sex (that last one really doesn’t seem like much of a warning compared to the other things, but there you go).
Part One: Aren’t We All Just Mushroom People in the End?
I took notes on this show a few years back in anticipation of eventually reviewing it, and that day has finally come. I think the best way to introduce Hannibal is by quoting two consecutive notes I wrote while watching it:
- This guy’s motivation really just boils down to “I think people would be better as mushrooms”
- That’s a third character who apparently thinks people should be mushrooms
My friends, the episode in question was Season One, Episode Two.
If that doesn’t sell you on the show, I frankly don’t know what will.
Hannibal is a very weird series, even by my standards. The only thing I can think of that even comes close is iZombie, a show about a psychic murder-solving zombie, and even then, the resemblance is lacking. Hannibal is very distinct in its style, trying to capture a lugubrious elegance that regularly threatens to satirize itself, leaving you constantly wondering: Am I supposed to take this show seriously or not?
Hannibal Lector, psychologist extraordinaire and cannibal on the side, is helping the FBI solve grotesquely artistic crimes while secretly murdering people and sneaking them into meals for his coworkers.
It has all the usual crime procedural trappings – absurdly fast lab turnaround times, outdated psychoanalytical techniques, and a slew (pun intended) of murderers who are far more persistent and philosophical than their real-life counterparts. Hannibal also adheres to the common problem of framing of the police as unquestionable good guys regardless of the methods or force they use, which takes a particularly dark turn when those same characters “go rogue.” I have yet to see a self-aware crime procedural when it comes to police abuse issues, so that’s something to consider.
All that said, if you are willing to jump in, Hannibal adds multiple surreal elements on top of the usual fodder that will either make the show entirely unwatchable or bizarrely enjoyable for the right audience. Its signature move is to show slow-motion montages of meat preparation followed by Hannibal presenting the fancy dishes like he’s in a cooking show, with the implicit understanding that it’s probably not pork he’s serving. The tantalizing appearance of the dishes contrasts with the frequently graphic content of the story, creating the show’s particular brand of can’t-look-away horror.
(Well I say the dishes are tantalizing, but as with a lot of this show, the presentation sometimes gets a bit full of itself. That header image is purportedly foie gras with some blackberries and figs, next to what appears to be either flowers or a small head of cabbage, some feathers, a ball of snail shells, and a raccoon jawbone. You know, that thing everyone wants next to their food, a raccoon jawbone.)
To say this show is pretentious is an understatement. To some extent, it seems aware of this, and there’s a surprising amount of humor fitted into dialogue and interactions to lighten its step. However, the show is formally meant to be a drama with thriller-horror elements, so there are long stretches in each episode where characters pontificate about abstract concepts using turns of phrase I wager have never come out of any human’s mouth before or since. The show covets depth, but seems to lack the toolset to achieve it on its own, so it mimics actions it has seen in better shows and films in order to pull off the illusion of brilliance.
For me, that’s all part of the delightful oddness of the show. It’s endlessly easy to poke fun at because it takes itself way too seriously, but the strange knots it twits itself into while chasing prestige can’t be found anywhere else. For instance, one of the common motifs in the show is of deer and elk. The main character of the series, Will Graham, has hallucinations and dreams of people being stabbed by antlers and a room covered in antlers on all of its walls. Both of these are natural extensions of the show’s pilot, in which the antlers are very literal. But then the show continues with this motif, making it progressively more preposterous, with Will seeing a CGI elk that both aids and threatens him, walking through buildings as he conducts his investigations. Then at one point, a man covered in paint with antlers rises out of the river where Will is fishing, and this man (played by the same actor who plays Hannibal Lector, Mads Mikkelsen) keeps showing up, including in a sex scene.
I’ve read somewhere that the antlered man is supposed to be a wendigo, but he’s never described as such, and aside from Hannibal being a cannibal, there’s really nothing in the series or these scenes remotely related to wendigos, so it’s mostly an image the show created and ran with. There is a certain coherence to the imagery, at least on an aesthetic level, as the series goes on. Just because it’s ridiculous doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. Far from it, as far as I’m concerned.
Not all of the bloviating of the show, dialogue-based or otherwise, is meant to do much outside of a particular scene or interaction. But a lot of it does add to the identity of the series. This is one of the very few series that can get away with multiple slow motion shots of a teacup shattering and an extended two-minute sequence of black-and-white close ups of snails with opera music playing in the background. It doesn’t get away with them because those are meaningful visuals – they very much are not – but it gets away with them because they’re part and parcel of the whole piece. Given the premise, you’d almost be disappointed if there weren’t a few arthouse shots peppered between characters running around trying to find the mysterious cannibal plaguing the streets of Baltimore.
Part Two: SNAIL
I mentioned that Will Graham is the main character, which might sound surprising given the premise and title of the series, but he’s a crucial foil to Hannibal as initially a friend and later a nemesis. The story is Hannibal’s, but the story itself is about Will Graham.
The first episode of the series opens with Will investigating a murder by imagining himself as the killer. Apparently he has some sort of Holmesian talent for noticing details and reconstructing events, but has to place himself in the murderer’s shoes to do so. He figures out their mindset in that moment so he can catch them, but as you might imagine, this methodology is as disquieting as it is unconventional, so he’s not particularly popular in the precinct.
FBI lead investigator Jack Crawford comes seeking Will’s help with a homicide and a series of missing girls. Apparently Will has worked with Jack and the FBI before, but was deemed too “psychologically unstable” to keep up with it. The show does something both interesting and problematic in the first few episodes where it suggests that Will is autistic, regularly noting his lack of eye contact and difficulty connecting to people socially. The show eventually drops this concept entirely, probably for the better, but it serves to frame Will as neurodivergent, making others see his strangeness as suspicious when he’s actually a trademarked Soft Boy. Will is described as extremely empathetic, hence why he can get into the heads of serial killers. Outside of work, he lives in the woods with about eight stray dogs he’s adopted over the years and spends his time peacefully fly fishing alone.
He agrees to help Jack out on one job, with the caveat that Will talks to a therapist to make sure he isn’t “getting too close” to the killer, psychologically. Enter Hannibal Lector.
You might be able to see where this is going.
Most audiences will have at least heard of Hannibal Lector at some point, likely through the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. It’s hard to beat Anthony Hopkins’ performance there, which transcends the already solid (if problematic) film and gives life to a vividly unsettling character. The basic story of Hannibal Lector that most people know is that he’s a talented psychologist and classy person who is simultaneously ruthless and has no ethical boundaries whatsoever. The oft-repeated phrase “Hannibal the Cannibal” gives you all you need to know. Lector as a character is designed to break expectations and comprehension, being intelligent and insightful in a way serial killers generally aren’t, and also so morally decrepit that he views other human beings as light entertainment at best and a source of food at worst. He is alien on all levels, but the character is also skilled at convincing the people around him that he’s normal, even respectable, so that he can lure them into a false sense of security.
Mads Mikkelsen plays a pre-Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lector, long before he’s a monster locked away behind glass. He’s working in Baltimore as a therapist with a set of regular patients, only a few of which end up as dinner or running off naked down the streets as a result of his therapy. When introduced to Will, he immediately sees someone he can manipulate, and takes an interest in Will’s abilities. Will becomes something of a project for him; Hannibal is initially unsure of what he wants to do with Will but is dead-set on ruining this man’s life.
For reasons that remain nebulous to me, Will invites his new therapist to help on the case, which gives Hannibal plenty of opportunity to mess with the evidence. The groundwork of the investigation is that a girl has turned up dead, apparently stabbed with deer antlers, and matches the profile of several other girls who have gone missing over the past few months. Will suspects that the dead girl, found in her room, was returned because the killer couldn’t use her for something, and eventually figures out that the murderer is some sort of hunter who is attacking and eating young women like game. Hannibal is intrigued by Will’s conclusions and takes an interest in this murderer over their shared tastes, at one point tipping the man off so he has a chance to escape. The man, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, has a daughter with the same profile as the other women, and threatens to kill her when the FBI arrive. He and Will get into an altercation, with Hobbs injuring his daughter and Will shooting and killing him. Hannibal is with Will at the time and manages to save the daughter, Abigail, while bearing witness to Hobbs’ bloody death.
Over the next several episodes, Hannibal purports to be treating Will by helping him through the experience. Jack considers it a victory – they saved Abigail, stopped Hobbs, and found the bodies of the other women hidden around the Hobbs house. Jack invites Will back for more investigations, and Will reluctantly agrees against the advice of a mutual friend, psychologist Alana Bloom. Will is mentally vulnerable from this work, but also appears to be the only one who can stop these sorts of killings, so he sees it as something of his moral duty to keep at it. He’s plagued by images of Hobbs and those antler motifs, and confides in Hannibal, who suggests that by killing Hobbs, Will has gotten more into this man’s head than anyone else he has profiled. He puts an idea in Will’s head that Will sees himself as similar to Hobbs in some way, especially when Will takes an interest in Abigail, now orphaned and all on her own. In an odd twist, Hannibal and Will become sort of surrogate parents for Abigail, and Hannibal is more than happy to play with this dynamic.
Most of the first season consists of Hannibal and Will becoming friends and Hannibal joining the investigation team for a series of increasingly intricate murder cases. Hannibal notices that Will is exhibiting symptoms of encephalitis, a neurological condition, but declines to treat it and hides it from Will, allowing his condition to deteriorate to make him more malleable. Will starts to hallucinate and experiences blackouts as a result of his encephalopathy, but also starts to solve a few persistent cases that have lingered through the season. First, he deduces that Abigail was in on her father’s murders, and second, he realizes that a series of unsolved murders that have happened alongside the other cases are all connected as the efforts of a copycat killer who is trying to cover his tracks by disguising his murders as additional victims of other crimes. This copycat killer is of course Hannibal himself, though Will doesn’t know it yet.
Will confronts Abigail about her involvement in the Hobbs murders, but then blacks out from his encephalopathy. When he wakes up, he’s in his house and worse for wear, with no Abigail in sight. He vomits up a human ear and turns himself in to Jack’s team. When they search his house, they find damning evidence that he’s murdered and possibly eaten Abigail. On top of that, they find fishing lures with pieces of victims from the unsolved murders, pointing to Will himself being the copycat killer. Will isn’t sure of much given his recent bouts of delirium, but he suspects the copycat killer is trying to frame him. He escapes custody and confronts Hannibal, realizing Hannibal was the only one who could have tipped off Garrett Jacob Hobbs. He doesn’t yet understand the extent of Hannibal’s crimes, but he realizes the kind of manipulative, merciless person Hannibal is. Once he figures out that Hannibal is the copycat killer, he realizes Hannibal is also the one framing him and that he’s likely killed Abigail as well. Jack arrives and stops Will from killing Hannibal but believes Hannibal to be innocent. Will’s accusations are all hearsay and the evidence points to Will fabricating all of this in his delusional state, so he’s locked up in an asylum and Hannibal is let off, still on good terms with the FBI.
So the first season is a bit of a roller coaster, but you can see the potential of the series. Given its premise, the first season is fairly tight. The show as a whole continues for longer than is probably good for it, but the following two seasons also have some emotional highs that are worthwhile for those who like the first one. They’re each laid out in halves, with each set of six or seven episodes forming a more or less complete arc.
Part one of Season Two plays with the famous iconography of the films and books, placing Will in the hockey mask and straight jacket used in other adaptations as restraints for Lector. Will is in prison, awaiting trial for murder, so Hannibal is invited to join the investigative team in his place. While Hannibal is off solving (and occasionally obscuring) crimes with the FBI, Will reaches out to the few allies he still has to try and figure out why his former friend and therapist did this to him. None of them believe his accusations, but some of them are willing to believe Will’s own innocence. Lector’s own therapist, Dr. Du Maurier, shows up briefly to tell him she believes his accusations against Hannibal, cementing Will’s confidence that he is on the right track.
Will’s trial starts to look dire, but gets suspiciously postponed when both the judge and the bailiff turn up murdered. One of Will’s friends, Beverly Katz, notices missing organs in a recent body that Will suggested Hannibal was behind, and she becomes a close confidant as he tries to clear his name. Once they piece together that one of Hannibal’s signatures is removing the organs, it doesn’t take long for Will to put two and two together and realize all of those extravagant meals Hannibal likes to serve contain the pieces of his victims. Will warns Beverly against pursuing him on her own, but she realizes if she can sample the organs and show they’re human, they’ve got him. She tries to sneak into Hannibal’s house, but meets a tragic fate.
The killer of the bailiff reveals himself to Will, professing a fondness for Will’s supposed work and a desire to see him freed. Will sends the man after Hannibal in the hope of getting vengeance for Beverly, and while he falls short of killing Hannibal, he comes close. Hannibal, aware that Will’s after him, tells Will that he’s impressed that he would use such an unconventional method to catch him. Hannibal sees it as a sign that he can turn Will into a cold-blooded killer like himself. Jack Crawford is less impressed. However, he’s slowly coming around to believing Will is right about Hannibal being a serial killer.
Hannibal is careful to cover his tracks, though, and when he plants fishing lures on a corpse that reveal the killer of Will’s supposed victims is still at large, he clears Will’s name. Freed of all charges, Will goes straight to Hannibal’s house and pulls a gun on him, but doesn’t kill him. Instead, he decides to resume his therapy, now fully aware of what Hannibal is.
The second part of the season sees Will a changed man, increasingly caught between wanting to pursue Hannibal and wanting to fall in with him. He makes arrangements with Jack, who is now convinced of Hannibal’s guilt and trusts Will to find a way to bring him in. As Will puts it, he’ll lure Hannibal into a trap, then give the signal for Jack to spring it. However, he starts to use increasingly unconventional means to gain Hannibal’s trust, suggesting his loyalties are not as clear cut as either he or Jack would hope.
After a few tense investigations together, Hannibal sends one of his own patients to attack Will. Will kills the man and brings his corpse to Hannibal, declaring that they’re “even,” each other them having sent an assassin after the other. He then asks for Hannibal’s help moving forward, and they dress the body up to look like one of the show’s macabre mutilations for the FBI to find the next day. When called in to analyze the crime scene, Will joins Hannibal in giving an analysis that directs the investigation off-course. He seems to get a thrill out of it, to Hannibal’s delight. When a reporter who has hounded Will for the last season and a half starts poking around his barn and finds human remains, Will knocks her out and later shows up for a dinner with Hannibal bringing mystery meat he later confirms is human.
Will is visited by one of Hannibal’s new patients, a woman named Margot Verger, sister of a deranged hog mogul. She questions Will about Hannibal’s methods, especially when her brother, Mason, becomes one of his patients as well. Hannibal suggests to Margot that one way for her to get out of Mason’s grasp would be to become pregnant with an heir, so she starts up a sexual relationship with Will.
Will seems rather dazed through the subsequent episodes but not unhappy, building up his trust in Lector while becoming Margot’s confidant. He sheds no tears for the annoying reporter who has gone missing, which concerns Alana Bloom. The reporter’s body shows up, burned beyond recognition and only identifiable from dental records. Alana learns that the reporter disappeared on her way to Will’s farm, and when questioned, Will doesn’t deny killing her, making Alana even more suspicious. When she goes to Jack with her concerns, she learns that the reporter is still alive. They’ve staged her death to make it look to Hannibal like Will is willing to kill for him, intending to use this trust to bring him down.
Meanwhile, Will has gotten Margot pregnant, as she intended. She wants to keep it secret from her brother so that if it’s a boy, her line will inherit the family’s fortune. She confides in Hannibal, who passes on the information to Mason, and Will’s crisis about becoming a father is cut short when Mason kidnaps, drugs, and performs surgery on Margot to remove her reproductive organs. Margot is distraught at being violated so horribly, and Will is furious, blaming Hannibal for orchestrating all of this out of jealousy. He suggests to Mason that he should feed Hannibal to his pigs because the doctor is manipulating all of them for his own amusement.
Jack catches up with Will in the latter’s agitated state, warning him not to do anything rash. Will is already in a precarious position for killing and mutilating (and presumably eating) the man Hannibal sent after him. Even if he killed the man in self-defense, Will is growing increasingly violent and grotesque in his methods, and very soon it won’t stand up in court. Will is dismissive but assures Jack he’s still intent on capturing Hannibal legally.
Mason complicates that promise when he takes up Will’s suggestion and kidnaps both him and Hannibal – Hannibal so he can be fed to the pigs, and Will so he can watch. Mason gives Will the opportunity to slit Hannibal’s throat in revenge, but instead, he cuts him free. Hannibal feeds Mason’s goons to the pigs, takes Mason to Will’s house, drugs him, and convinces him to cut off pieces of his face to feed to Will’s dogs. He offers Will the chance to take his revenge, but instead Will sits by while Hannibal paralyzes Mason and leaves him to the care of his sister.
Will warns Hannibal that the FBI, Jack specifically, is closing in on them. Will encourages him to take a plea bargain and confess to Jack, but Hannibal, questioning Will’s loyalty, suggests the two of them run off together instead. When Jack’s higher-ups learn of what he is allowing Will to do, they revoke his authority and order him to close the investigation. His hand forced, Jack heads to Hannibal’s house to confront him and tells Will. Will tips Hannibal off, hoping his friend will be able to escape, but instead, Hannibal uses the extra time to catch Jack off-guard and severely wound him. When Alana comes as backup, Hannibal reveals that Abigail Hobbs is still alive, and, brainwashed, Abigail shoves Alana out of a window, breaking her legs.
Will shows up to the bloody crime scene and finds Abigail and Hannibal in the kitchen. Hannibal says that he figured Will was working for Jack and forgives him, but when he leans in to embrace Will, he guts him with a linoleum knife and slits Abigail’s throat in front of him. With every other major character dead or dying in this room, Hannibal leaves and escapes on an airplane with his former therapist and current lover, Dr. Du Maurier, at his side.
Season Two ends with a bang, which I think works well for it. However, the third season really feels the other side of this sort of technique, especially when it chooses to focus on Hannibal and Dr. Du Maurier’s escapades in Italy for the first few episodes.
The last thing the audience wants after an adrenaline-fueled cliffhanger is a plodding introduction to a new place and characters. There is some merit in making the audience wait to hear the fates of the characters, but they’ll only pay attention to what’s happening if it sufficiently builds tension for a later reveal. The Breaking Bad episode Boxcutter does this very well. The Hannibal episode Antipasto does not.
At this point in the story, Dr. Du Maurier has shown up plenty of times, but isn’t really characterized sufficiently to be interesting on her own. She plays a more languid counterpart to Will, being a former associate of Hannibal’s who recognized his game, tried to play him, and ended up getting caught up in his influence to the point where she is effectively his prisoner. You feel sorry for her to some extent, but like Will, she seems content to be along for the ride, harboring a love-hate relationship with her captor. The show doesn’t seem especially interested in presenting Du Maurier as a complex person in her own right, but using her as a vector to illustrate how horrifying Hannibal’s manipulations can be. I think this angle might work for some people, but I find myself far less interested in Dr. Du Maurier’s fate than those of the other characters we left at the end of Season Two.
It also doesn’t help that the artistry of the series – often overwrought in the manner of a series like Sherlock, though a lick more well-composed – catches up to it in the worst possible way here. This is where that aforementioned sequence involving snails comes in, followed by Hannibal and a long-dead character philosophizing about snails while the snails eat said character’s arm.
That was the exact point I gave up on this series. I have a high tolerance for many things, but the snails were too much, even for me. Some years later I finally picked it back up, and thankfully it improves, but that first episode is still rough.
The rest of the season is chaotic but in a way that manages to hold itself together. We learn that, despite the odds, everyone has survived and recovered. Several months after the incident, Hannibal is now a known cannibalistic serial killer. The manhunt for him is going nowhere in the US, but Will, Jack, and Alana are keeping their distance from it. Jack is tending to his sick wife, Bella, who is dying of lung cancer. Alana has quit the FBI but is working for the mutilated Mason Verger and his sister, Margot, to track Hannibal’s hiding spot. Will is in recovery the longest, comforted by the presence of Abigail, but otherwise broken, physically and mentally, by Hannibal Lector. We eventually learn that Abigail did die, and Will is just hallucinating her. Shortly after he’s released, Bella passes and Will and Jack receive a note from Hannibal taunting them to come find him. Jack tells Will not to pursue him, but Will is off to Italy on a hint before long, and Jack follows after him.
Hannibal has killed and mutilated a man as a sort of valentine for Will, knowing he will come investigate it. Will arrives in Palermo and just misses Hannibal, shouting into the distance that he forgives him for what he’s done. The local police are delighted at the prospect of catching the infamous serial killer, but Will abandons the hunt to head to Lithuania, where Hannibal grew up.
In Lithuania, Will finds a prisoner in the crypt of the abandoned Lector estate, and a guard in looking after him. The prisoner is unnamed but the guard, a woman named Chiyoh, tells Will that this man killed and ate Hannibal’s younger sister, Mischa. Hannibal left Chiyoh here to see if she would ever kill the man for his atrocities, and so far, she has not. Will admits that he came here looking, not for Hannibal himself necessarily, but something that would let him understand the man better. Taking a page from Hannibal’s book, Will frees the unnamed murderer. Chiyoh kills him in self-defense and Will taunts that she had it in her to kill him the whole time. Will dresses up the body in the grim fashion of the series, and then Chiyoh joins him in travelling to Florence, where he suspects Hannibal is waiting for him.
Others begin to converge on Hannibal. Jack arrives in Florence, looking for Will and Hannibal, and interrogates a drugged Dr. Du Maurier. Alana Bloom locates Dr. Du Maurier based on Hannibal’s extravagant tastes and informs the Vergers. However, it is Will who finds him first, tracking him down to the Uffizi Gallery, where he finds Lector in front of Botticelli’s Primavera, waiting for him.
Their reunion, as with everything in their twisted relationship, is intense, starting with a friendly hug, and turning violent when Will pulls a knife on Lector in the gallery’s courtyard. Chiyoh shoots Will in the shoulder with a sniper rifle, which Hannibal treats in one of his hideouts. Will knows his fate, and passively lets Hannibal drug him in preparation for dinner. Just as he’s cutting into Will’s skull, a squad of Florentine police arrive, working for the Vergers. They capture Hannibal and Will and take them to the Vergers’ farm where Mason, his surgeon, Alana, and Margot are waiting.
The episode Digestivo is a wild ride, concluding the first half of Season Three and taking the characters out of Italy into the ending of the book and film Hannibal. Transported to Maryland, Mason prepares to torture and eat Hannibal as revenge for what Hannibal did to his face. He intends to take Will’s face as a transplant for his own. Alana, meanwhile, has become Margot’s lover and is working more for Margot than for Mason. Margot is only keeping Mason alive for his sperm, and has been trying to figure out how to get a sperm sample for a surrogate to carry on the Verger family line. With Mason still psychologically tormenting Margot and threatening Will, Alana frees Hannibal on the condition that he save Will from Mason. Hannibal goes on a killing spree and stops the gruesome surgery, putting the face of Mason’s surgeon on him in place of Will’s, and forcing Mason to ejaculate into a test tube using a cattle prod. Mason falls into his aquarium and is killed by an eel as Hannibal walks away from the farm, carrying Will.
When Will awakes at his own home, Hannibal is there treating his injuries. Will admits that he won’t ever be able to kill Hannibal, but he suspects the same is true of the latter. He doesn’t want to go with Hannibal, and he knows that if he knows where Hannibal is going, he’ll be compelled to follow. Will tells him to leave without a trace. When Jack shows up later that night, Will tells him that Hannibal is gone, but everyone is surprised when Hannibal pops out from behind a bush in Will’s front yard; he has in fact gone about twenty feet. Hannibal deliberately turns himself in, knowing he will be sent to the asylum just down the road – a place Will can always come to find him.
Just as the first half of the season draws heavily from the book Hannibal for inspiration, the second half of the season is essentially the show’s adaptation of the book Red Dragon. Things get very squirrelly here, as I suspect the show intended to spread this out into its own full season initially. The season jumps forward three years, leaving the characters in very different positions.
Hannibal Lector is an inmate at the asylum, Alana Bloom its new director. Will has moved far away in a remote cabin, and now has a wife and stepson (again, a weird thing to introduce halfway through the season considering we’ve never met them). Will has retired from FBI work and tries his best not to think about Hannibal.
Jack Crawford is back working for the FBI when a new serial killer case comes around. Apparently this is the most gruesome set of murders the bureau has come across in recent years, and they’re stumped on how to catch the guy. Nicknamed the “Tooth Fairy” for his unusual teeth marks, he kills entire families and lays broken glass over their eyes. (If you ask me, I would say it’s not much more gruesome than the guy who turned people into cellos, or the guy who made a totem pole of corpses, or the guy who planted bees in people’s skulls, but that’s what happens when you get weird with your monster-of-the-week right off the bat, show.)
With the FBI at a dead end, Crawford turns to Will for help. He initially refuses, but his wife believes he won’t be able to turn it down. Hannibal tracks down Will’s address and sends him correspondence suggesting the same, and although Will destroys it, he eventually agrees to go to the latest crime scene and help out. After profiling the murderer and finding a print, Will asks to talk to Hannibal.
The two of them face off once more, separated by glass. Will runs the notes of the case by Hannibal to peruse his thoughts like in the old days. Alana doesn’t like the arrangement, but stands by while the two speak, prepared to stop it if Hannibal tries to use Will for his own purposes.
Hannibal has been following the case in the news and has even published a journal article about the Tooth Fairy. His article was more dignified than the others and promoted the murderer as a force to be reckoned with, which has attracted the man’s attention. After Will leaves, Hannibal gets a call from the Tooth Fairy and keeps it secret, pretending it’s his lawyer. The Tooth Fairy tells him that he is becoming the Great Red Dragon.
We see glimpses of the murderer’s life in between all of this. His name is Francis Dolarhyde and he’s a bit of a strange but mostly quiet man. He suffers from delusions and hallucinations, thinking that he’s possessed by the spirit of a demon in a painting he saw. He believes he undergoes transformations, during which he murders families to sate the Dragon’s thirst for blood. He seems to have few qualms about these murders, even recording them on old-fashioned film. However, when he meets a blind woman named Reba, we learn that he has a softer, more complex side. He fears that the Dragon will command him to kill Reba, and tries to resist it as they spend more and more time together.
Dolarhyde travels to an art museum where the painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun is being held and eats it. At Lector’s hint about the Dragon, Will Graham also goes to see the painting around the same time and runs into Dolarhyde before being knocked out.
Dolarhyde calls Lector again asking for help. He briefly explains that the Dragon in his mind wants Reba, and Lector suggests giving it Will’s family instead. In an intense chase, Dolarhyde nearly kills Will’s wife and son, but they manage to escape thanks to an early warning and the wife’s intuition. She’s seriously injured, but alive. Recognizing that he can’t solve crimes – certainly not with Hannibal – while also having a family, Will leaves them at the hospital. They are in the show for all of about four episodes.
Dolarhyde reveals to Reba that he’s the killer everyone is looking for. She’s horrified, and as she fears for her life, he appears to kill himself and set the house on fire. She confirms that he’s dead when she reaches around his neck for the house key and escapes, but during the subsequent investigation, Crawford’s team discover that Dolarhyde staged his own death by substituting a different body. Will decides to use Hannibal as bait to draw him out, noting Dolarhyde’s interest in Hannibal. Everyone agrees to this plan (which is bonkers to me on all levels). Jack and Alana intend to use this as a chance to kill Hannibal in the ensuing chaos. Will, meanwhile, intends to set Hannibal free, possibly so he can kill him personally, though he remains cagy about his intentions.
While Hannibal is en route, Dolarhyde attacks the convoy with a rocket launcher and sets him free ahead of schedule. Will is in the cab with him, and they escape together to a remote property Hannibal owns. They reminisce while they wait for Dolarhyde to come find them. Come nightfall, Dolarhyde breaks into the house and a fight begins. While it seems at first like Will wants to let Dolarhyde kill Hannibal, Will and Hannibal eventually team up against Dolarhyde and savage him until all three are covered in blood and Dolarhyde is dead.
Will stumbles around and admits that he liked killing Dolarhyde. Hannibal tells him that’s all he ever wanted. He sees Will as fully transformed into the sort of person he is, and Will seems to see it too. They embrace lovingly, and Will takes the opportunity to grab hold of Hannibal and lean off the edge of the cliff.
Both of them fall, presumably to their deaths, though we don’t fully see what comes of them. An end-credits scene teases the survival of at least one of them, with Dr. Du Maurier positioned as being served her own leg at a fancy dinner table.
Part Three: “A Romance Between Two Straight Men.”
As far as drama series go, this one is a bit out there. I won’t pretend that gruesome content like murder, maiming, and cannibalism are rare on television – heck, they make it to cable TV in series like Bones – but the tone in this series is oddly romantic, which makes it a bit tricky to parse.
I should clarify, I mean “romantic” in both the modern and classical sense; despite the attempts the show makes to rationalize its characters’ actions through lengthy philosophical conversations, the point of those conversations is not the words that come out of them but the emotion those words convey. How a character says something in this series matters as much as what they are saying, often more so. Hannibal is a deeply expressive series. What it’s attempting to express… well, that’s partly up to the audience.
There’s underlying tension from multiple perspectives, the loudest of which stems from the dynamic between Will and Hannibal. The driving force of much of the plot, these two characters capture attention when either of them is in a room, and the energy they bring when cooperating is frequently just as potent as when they’re at each others’ throats. Much of the overarching melodrama revolves around Will’s steady descent into corruption, which provides some platform for the show’s more bizarre visuals, and contrasts neatly with Hannibal’s own sense of serene chaos. The two characters work well off of each other even as their relationship changes and delves into increasingly unrealistic boundaries, and I think it’s largely the strength of the acting that holds the show’s more tenuous moments together. The two leads as well as the other major cast members are capable of reigning in the show’s more out there concepts, lending just enough of a wink to the audience to let them get immersed.
And let’s not forget that other definition of romantic you can apply to the show. While I wouldn’t call the series a beacon of LGBT+ representation, the romantic subtext in Hannibal and Will’s relationship is hard to miss. When I first caught wind of this series being popular for gay shipping, I wondered how exactly that worked. After the first few episodes I realized, “Oh, that’s how.”
The writers lay it on very thick, the creator once describing the show as “a romance between two straight men.” There are occasional homoerotic references in the paintings and literature Hannibal references, but it’s largely the framing of particular shots and scenes that makes the romantic undertones apparent. Hannibal describes his attraction to Will with loaded language, stopping just short of declaring it sexual in nature, and the intensity of his pining increases through the seasons. Various characters describe Will and Hannibal like they’ve been in a romantic relationship, especially once Will seems to abandon prospects of working with the FBI just to be near him. At one point near the end of the series, Will flat-out asks Dr. Du Maurier if she thinks Hannibal is in love with him, to which she asks if he feels the same way.
Oh, also, there’s a raunchy sex scene when both men are having sex with women that is cut to make it look like they’re banging each other. This show is many things, but subtle is not one of them.
Whether is a good idea is another question entirely. The show conflates many aspects of the characters’ intense relationship, trying to hide the men’s interest in each other on an intimate level as interest in each other’s capacity for violence and vice-versa. There’s a romanticization of bloodshed and serial killers that I’ve seen in other shows like Dexter, and it’s part of why I generally don’t like this particular subgenre very much. Drawing parallels between violence and homoerotica, even if it is presented as subtext, also isn’t a wise move considering how The Silence of the Lambs left its scars on the trans community.
I don’t begrudge anyone who looks at Hannibal and turns it down, having watched it or no. It’s not for everyone, and even for the right audience, I think it warrants metatexual examination beyond what the characters within it are trying to say.
At the same time, I don’t think it’s reasonable to judge the series in the same way you might a true crime show, for instance. It’s horror, and more to the point, it’s fiction. Not just in its story, but in everything about its aesthetic. Another show mimicking this format would not succeed, because it’s the more ridiculous, surreal, and stylized aspects of this series that assure its success. Hannibal is not meant to be a reflection of our own world, but something almost akin to a dark fantasy. In fantasy, murder and bloodshed take on a much lighter tone, presenting as things which can be grim and cause drama for the characters, but which lack much of the awful tragedy of the real thing. Horror lives on this distinction, allowed to flourish as a genre only when it creates those boundaries. Its ability to stick in the mind depends on it being able to mimic reality enough to elicit the right emotion, but keep its distance where it matters so the audience doesn’t find it distasteful.
Whether horror oversteps those bounds depends on the person. Hannibal itself is very gory, and I imagine a lot of people will find its approach disquieting. But that is kind of what you’re signing up for with it. For my money, I think it’s is sufficiently distinct to render fear of it hitting too close to home moot. It’s a weird series, to be sure, but if the melodrama of friendship and betrayal calls to you, and you have a strong enough stomach, Hannibal might prove a surprising gem that’s easy to overlook.
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5