*Some spoilers ahead (
To be fair though the show did come out in 2013 so….)
The Hannibal (2013) TV series is one I come back to time and time again. I find it gripping and compelling in ways that I don’t often feel with most media. I’m tempted to say that it helps that the show has a strong source material to draw from, Red Dragon (2000) and Silence of the Lambs (2002) being remarkable works of fiction in their own rights regardless of what you may feel towards the less resounding latter works in the series. Though Hannibal (2013) clearly draws from and leans on its source material, it would be remiss to say the series does not hold its own ground. It’s own dark, fantastical, and disturbing ground. The carefully saturated and de-saturated environment of the Hannibal world paired with its haunting and, at times, deeply poetic and symbolic imagery make the series a standout. Add the meticulous attention paid to character development (or deconstruction) and the relationships between characters and their world, and you’ve got a near masterpiece. A fine delicacy, as the case may be. Something rich for the starving. I often savor on a different flavor every time I re-watch the show, a different line or scene lingering long after its execution in my mind. On this most recent watch-through, though, I found myself struck by an aspect of the series I hadn’t really given much attention to: the horror.
Those familiar with Thomas Harris’s work (like myself) going into the show may be prepared for a “disturbing” or, more generally, “scary” experience. Even those unfamiliar with the literary component of the series are no doubt prepped to some extent for a somewhat unsettling or possibly unpleasant viewing experience. After all, the titular character is perhaps the most well-known cannibal in popular culture give or take Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein (the latter of which inspired Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs). That said, those of us familiar with the books or even the popular Anthony Hopkins-led movies know that Dr. Hannibal Lecter is not really the main character. He is the antagonist and exists in opposition to FBI personnel Clarice Starling and Will Graham. Lecter is a dark mirror, reflecting the answers to the abhorrent questions both investigators seek. Though certainly a prolific character, Dr. Lecter is relegated to just left of the margins, his presence more implicated in the pages than directly confronted. (At least in the two initial works. Arguably, also, this is because the stories he appears in are not really about him.) Though described as far less imposing that he is usually portrayed in media, there is something undeniably predatory about Hannibal Lecter that makes his presence on the page all the more unsettling, like you only see him when he wants you to. Quite simply: he’s more threatening the less we see or hear from him. (To many critics, the departure from subtlety and ambiguity that Harris takes in the latter works of the series is what really eats away at the compelling nature of the character and the work. The unknown and the questionable is always scarier.)
Hannibal (2013) though bring Dr. Hannibal Lecter into the main cast. A risky choice that ultimately could have been an utter failure had Bryan Fuller decided to take it in any direction other that the one he did. In Hannibal, Dr. Lecter is undoubtedly a main character and, yet, the spotlight placed upon him seems to serve only to emphasize his shadow. Either a blanket of impenetrable composure masks his feelings from view or he is quite literally in shadow, his features obscured or distorted by carefully controlled lighting. A gleam in a dark eye (Perhaps anger? Dispassion?) here and there or a crooked lip mimicking a smile, one alligator tear…. that’s all we get. Mads Mikkelsen, it seems, goes to great lengths in his portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter to demonstrate how Lecter, in his very countenance, exercises complete control over himself, his surroundings, and more, his world. Blood like sauce + garnish is never splattered where it is not wanted. Bodies, blood, meat… all are merely elements in a larger tableau (a meal, a murder, etc.), the overall vision of which is never lost. It’s a truly remarkable depiction. More, a horrifying portrayal.
Most obviously, the horror works on a visceral scale. Blood, guts, overall gore, etc. It’s inherently scary and unsettling. Who wants to be confronted by their own mortality at all let alone at the dinner table in the form of a party spread that would make Martha Stewart jealous? That’s not the horror that struck me this or any time around. Rather, it was the psychological horror, the unbecoming of Will Graham designed down to the last drop of blood and bit of bone by Hannibal, that really shifted my axis. We are led to believe this is a cat + mouse game between Will and Hannibal right up until we realize it is more a spider + fly situation. Hannibal weaves the web so precisely that Will essentially wraps it around himself
and hangs. To see how each thread comes together in the season 1 finale “Savoureux” is a study in the careful construction of dread that even Stephen King would be proud of. We see how Hannibal’s insertion/trespass/ hostile takeover? into Will’s life over the course of the season (under the pretense of being his FBI-pseuso-sanctioned psychiatrist) is really an intertwining or meshing of their lives, done so that Hannibal’s crimes as the infamous Chesapeake Ripper and the Minnesota Shrike copycat killer become indiscernible from and even commensurate with Will’s increasingly erratic behavior (inflamed by Will’s purposefully untreated autoimmune encephalitis exacerbating his empathy disorder) over the season. Essentially, Hannibal turns Will into a mirror of himself, one that Hannibal can reflect his crimes onto and, of course, the consequences of those crimes.
It’s a reversal of the literature the series draws from and it works effectively to create a terrifying horror narrative, one who’s impact reveals how tenuous and vulnerable our own relationships can make us. Will trusted Hannibal to be his mirror, to remind him who he really is. Will trusted Hannibal to be a psychiatrist and, more, a friend. Instead, Hannibal abuses that trust and warped Will’s perception of himself until Will could not say for certain he was not responsible for the murders Hannibal committed as the Chesapeake Ripper. Will, who’s empathy disorder makes him such a profound criminal profiler because he can feel and be the criminals he profiles, could no longer discern who he was or what he was capable of being. It’s horribly ironic. Any attempts at introspection become overwhelming for Will, as evidenced by his increasing nightmares and waking visions of being drowned. Will even comes to question whether or not he can confirm that he is alive when he cannot even confirm his presence from one moment to the next. (“Buffet Froid”) His entire sense of self becomes shadowed. The more he tries to see, the less he is able to perceive. And, that was all Hannibal’s design. His “curiosity”. Hannibal, a high-functioning psychopath bar none and an unapologetic sadist, has no discernible motive for perpetrating this unbecoming of Will other than to “see what would happen”. It’s senseless. Unrepentant. Some would say “pure evil”. I would say horrifying. (If prompted, delightfully horrifying to watch.)
Of course, I would be remiss in this review if I did not mention the “stag” in the room. Throughout season 1, Will is haunted by a stag nightmare/dream creature that is, presumably, representative of Will’s guilt over killing the cannibalistic serial killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs (I.e. The Minnesota Shrike) in the first episode of season 1. Hobbs was a hunter and clearly saw the teenage girl victims he killed as prey, “honoring” every part of the victims as if they were merely another kind of deer. Despite this, Will feels a deep sense of grief over his actions — grief that he vacillates between identifying with remorse and revelry. Will struggles with taking the life of a man who deserved to die, struggles with the sense of power he felt when extinguishing that life as well as the remorse he felt over making Hobbs’ daughter, Abigail, an orphan by killing him. He feels a deep responsibility over his actions, regrettably claiming them rather than taking ownership over or claiming satisfaction for them (as Hannibal does over his crimes). Will’s grief and guilt (and responsibility?) manifests as the stag.
At least, that is what we are led to believe.
As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the stag is not just representative of any one emotion. More, it is more apt to think of it as representative of Will himself. Of how he “sees” himself, even, as it seems a subconscious part of him realizes he is prey being pursued (I.e hunted). This representation becomes clear and/or realized in the final episode of the series when Will witnesses the stag being murdered and devoured by the shadowy figure of the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a monster because of its cannibalistic nature, reviled most for how there is a perceived element of “choice” in its actions. It embodies deep-seated, old human fears about how the greatest monster is often the human one. (It is also representative of transformation and change but the series doesn’t go into that aspect of the creature until the second season so we won’t do that here either.)
Anyway, I could go on about the symbolism of the stag and the Wendigo for several posts. (Sidenote: I love how the series carried over Harris’s attention to motifs and how remaining loyal to the motifs in a narrative can be powerful —-I.e. lambs, dragons, teacups, etc.) For this review, what is most interesting is the identification of the Wendigo with Hannibal and his crimes in the final episode of season 1. When Will envisions the Chesapeake Ripper’s and the Minnesota Shrike copycat killer’s crime scenes, they become painted black like the Wendigo’s flesh, entirely shadowed by the monster as if being claimed. In Will’s mind, the Wendigo slowly takes form and looms behind Hannibal as if similarly taking claim. Will’s subconscious is finally revealing what it knows—Will has always been the prey, Hannibal the predator wearing a well-tailored “person suit”. Now that the predator has struck (I.e. set Will up to take the fall for Hannibal’s crimes), Will can finally see the monster for the human he pretends to be. The scene itself is slight but its implications vast and damning. The “scales [or shadows] have fallen” from Will’s eyes and he can finally see.
In Hannibal (2013), Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a manifestation of our greatest fears when it comes to senseless violence and the cruel meaninglessness of life. He doesn’t just want to watch the world burn. He wants to watch us burn our worlds down – Just to see what happens. Hannibal is our greatest fears and our worst selves reflected back at us. A relentless reminder that we are all prey one misplaced step away from being devoured.
I hope you enjoyed that small delve into one of my favorite television shows. There is so much to talk about in any one episode, let alone an entire season, so please forgive any oversights on my part. This was meant to be just one interpretation of the show. As I am re-working my way through the entire show slowly in between working from home, I may post reviews of the next two seasons as well. I am also thinking about analyzing the more subtle cues and ways in which Hannibal presents the character of Dr. Lecter as a predator. (I.e his “keen sense of smell”, etc.) So, look out for that if you’re interested! Otherwise, feel free to let me know your thoughts below~