To kick things off with a bit of a controversial thesis: I believe that NBC’s Hannibal is a show whose quality that I place on par with contemporaries Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
It’s a very different kind of show than those others, but I find it equally enjoyable. Its lush and sumptuous art design and direction make it stand out from anything else on television. As does its sometimes meditative pacing, which can be a bit of a double edged sword.
As Hannibal concluded its run this past Saturday (which was on NBC’s accord rather than showrunner Bryan Fuller’s) I thought it was a good time to view its greatness and frustrations as a whole.
Major spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned.
Season one revolved around Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham (fantastically brought to life by Mads Mikkelson & Hugh Dancy) as the co-lead characters, despite only one of them having his name in the title. Graham had been portrayed without much fanfare in the 1986’s Manhunter and 2002’s Red Dragon, so Dancy had significantly less pressure on him. Lecter had been portrayed by Brian Cox, Gaspard Ulliel and (most famously by a wide margin) Anthony Hopkins.
Hopkins won an academy award for playing the role in Silence of the Lambs before revisiting it to diminishing returns in Hannibal (the movie, not to be confused with this TV show) and Red Dragon. SotL made the character an icon, but I will fiercely defend my opinion that Mikkelson plays the character better than he has been in anything other than SotL. That includes Hopkins’ two subsequent portrayals.
But I don’t want to venture too far off course here, and so I’ll bring it back to the show itself. Jack Crawford (a convincingly authoritative Laurence Fishburne) and Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas, given maybe the most active character arc through the series) become more important as the show moves through seasons one. Each episode had a killer of the week that Will is brought in to profile and help the FBI catch, which sounds fairly rote, until you consider exactly how it’s done.
Will steps into the mind of the the killer, which is illustrated in dream-like sequences where the crimes are recreated with Will as the killer. The actual killer is generally revealed halfway through the episodes, so that the show can deal with its true interest: what makes these people do the horrible things they do. It’s this difference that allows Hannibal to surpass anything like the Law & Order or CSI shows.
The real neat trick is how showrunner Bryan Fuller and his team make ghastly things appear beautifully gothic. Dead bodies are positioned like magnificent sculptures, blood flows in a manner that seems to give it a mind of its own. It’s pretty similar to something you might see from a Guillermo del Toro film, almost like the visions of a dark fairy tale.
Hannibal spends most of this first season assisting the FBI in the cases that they bring Will in on, primarily due to his fascination with the impossibly empathetic Graham. He also serves as Will’s psychiatrist, all the while continuing his killings and cooking as the Chesapeake Ripper. At this point it’s worth noting that they always make the meals prepared from human parts look so delicious that it has been widely considered Food Porn.
The developing bond between Hannibal and Will is really the driving force, as they are two sides of the same coin, and Hannibal believes he can flip Will.As things progress, Hannibal allows Will’s encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain do to infection) to go untreated, which takes a very heavy toll on Will’s mental and physical states.
Eventually, Will works through it enough to realize what Hannibal really is, and he tries to stop him once and for all. However, by that point, Hannibal has already framed Will for his own crimes as The Ripper and, in an ironic twist of fate, Jack Crawford stops Will from killing Hannibal. Season one ends with Will in a very familiar looking cell as Hannibal visits him. A full reversal of how most people were introduced to Lecter in the earlier films.
Season two is broken into two halves. The first half involves Will, fully recovered from his illness and sharp enough to take on Hannibal with equal footing. Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a mental hospital with all his allies thinking he’s a cannibalistic serial killer. This doesn’t stop Will from digging deep into his mental reserves and trying to figure out how best to bring Hannibal down.
Will manages to prove his innocence and, once freed, enlists Jack to help him finally get Hannibal. So the second half of season two has Will trying to beat Hannibal at his own game. He uses Hannibal’s curiosity and twisted affection for him to lure him into a trap. The whole game makes for fantastic television, but the finish is where the show makes its first fumble.
Season two ends with every major character, other than Hannibal, lying in a pool of their own blood from a trap set by Will and Jack gone awry as Lecter strolls out of his home. This was a mistake – not only because they didn’t have a season three renewal at the time, but because they missed out on a great opportunity to finally bring about some catharisis for the viewers after two years of Hannibal putting Will through the ringer.
It should have ended the exact same way, but with one major change. Will should have retrieved his gun, and emptied it into Hannibal as he tried to leave. The last shot of the season could have been Will and Hannibal lying across from each other with their blood mingling between them as they watch one another through dying eyes. It would have been a greatly poetic shot for a show that rarely passed on the chance to break out some gory poetry.
Which brings us to season three, the current and final season. Fuller had said that he wanted to do the Red Dragon story for season three, which was previously adapted to varying degrees of success the the 2002 movie of the same name and the 1986 movie Manhunter. For the second half of the season, which ran its series finale just last night, they did a fantastic job of running with that story. Since they kicked it off, the show has been every bit as good as it was prior to the season two finale gaffe.
The problem was with the first half of season three. The pacing of the first seven episodes were meditative, even by this show’s standards. In fact, the first four episodes were spent catching up with all the primary characters some months after the bloodbath at Hannibal’s home.
This would be perfectly fine for a show on Netflix or Amazon, where all episodes were released at once and you can blow through the first couple episodes to reach the point where things really ramp up. But asking your viewers to spend a full month getting back up to speed is asking a lot. Which is probably why they ended up hemorrhaging viewers, and got the cancellation notice passed down at this point.
The story they were telling was perfectly serviceable. It shows Will, Jack and Alana all tracking down Hannibal to Florence, a chance to roll out some gorgeous scenery, using their own methods. In episode five, they ramp up the momentum again by giving Jack his long awaited rematch with Hannibal, which is actually an joyously one sided beating laid down on Lecter. The next logical step was to have Will finally find what was left of Hannibal after the fight with Jack and lock him into that all-too-familiar cell.
But they didn’t give us that. After three years of build up, they didn’t give us the showdown between Will and Hannibal that many viewers were craving. The most frustrating thing about it was that there were two perfect setups in as many episodes for such a clash: one in Florence, and the other at the estate of Mason Verger (originally introduced in the SotL sequel Hannibal, but brought in earlier for the shows purposes). Instead, Hannibal carries a wounded Will Graham home, and then turns himself in.
The next episode jumps three years ahead to kick off the Red Dragon story. Running it over the course of six episodes, rather than a two hour movie, gave the story more room to breath than it previously had been given. These episodes got the show back on track, and may have even been better than any previous story arcs. Going with one killer, Francis Dolarhyde A.K.A the Tooth Fairy A.K.A the Red Dragon (played with the conflicted ferocity by Richard Armitage), for the home stretch allowed the show to open up avenues of greater character depth than it had before.
So, the driving narrative of season three was essentially a three way courtship of sorts between Graham, Lecter and Dolarhyde. The season, and series, wrapped up with another of planned trap going sideways, as Dolarhyde helped Hannibal escape during what was meant to be a fake escape that would lure Dolarhyde in with Hannibal as bait. Hannibal and Will ended up at the former’s secret cliffside home as they awaited Dolarhyde’s arrival.
In the end, Will and Hannibal had to team up to kill Dolarhyde – even though they were both motivated to slay the Dragon for different reasons. Hannibal always wanted to share a kill with Will, while Will wanted to stop Dolarhyde before he massacred another family. The two shared a blood soaked embrace – the blood being their own, as well as Dolarhyde’s – on the edge of the cliff before Will tightened his grip on Hannibal and pushed them both off the into the abyss below.
Graham’s reasons for taking this course of action are complex enough to deserve their own post, but part of the motivation was that he knew this might be the best chance he’d have to finally stop Hannibal. He’d unsuccessfully used himself to bait Lecter in season two, but this time Hannibal steps right into the trap. The trap, unfortunately, was Will himself. This is not exactly the direction that I would have gone in but, after painting themselves into the corner with the season two finale and the season three mid-season finale, it was about as fitting an ended as possible.
The biggest overall misstep that I feel they made was making the subtext of the twisted bond between Will and Hannibal into actual text. That ended up driving the show into a place far less accessible for most viewers. It’s always admirable when creative people do something different, but they still need to leave enough common ground to fit more than a handful of Fannibals.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a great show and I’d highly recommend watching the entire run to anyone and everyone. But the rough patch that ran from the end of season two through the first half of season three has dampened my affection a little bit.
I will no doubt remember the show very fondly, and revisit it again in the future. Mostly, though, I hope to find something to fill this vacancy in my complex, prestigious television viewing slot. Much like Hannibal himself, I’ve developed an appetite for something a bit hard to come by through traditional means. Although, since I’ve never seen anything quite like it on TV before, I’m not sure I’ll see something like it again.