“I’m a great friend. I was listening to Michael Jackson last night and I burst into tears. My eyes are burning right now even talking about it. You know what I think makes me the most sad about him dying? I will never meet him. I feel if I had been his friend, I could have saved him from himself.”
This is a line spoken by Franklin, a sad and confused obsessive that has found his way into the comfortable patient’s chair across from one of pop-culture’s most famous depictions of the devil during the best episode of NBC’s Hannibal.
The infamous Doctor Lecter, played to perfection in the 13 episode season by a powerfully reserved Mads Mikkelsen, deciding to hear his client’s painful, thinly veiled plea for friendship, asks what’s in this hypothetical pop-romance for Franklin.
“I just get to touch greatness.”
It’s an exchange that exists largely to set up a grotesque set piece in the next episode – a man alone on the stage of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall with a cello neck jammed down his throat, exposed vocal chords treated and strung like gut – but it is also a succinct description of why Hannibal is the best show on network TV: It’s a horror story about a heartbreaking and destructive relationship.
As a show that runs on nightmares and presents itself as the grisliest of possible crime procedurals, Hannibal is not without scenes that can keep you up at night (like the playing of the man-cello described above) thinking “The worst part was that they were alive when it happened.” That’s why it is so surprising that its greatest strength, the one that produces the most gut-wrenching moments, is the most viscerally sterile: Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in a room trying to destroy each other while falling irretrievably deeper into a mad sort of love.
The series was created by showrunner Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies), who brings his knack for visual flair, romantic tension, and morbid humour into source material that sounds unappetizing at best when pitched cold. Nobody was asking for a Hannibal Lecter television series. One look at the trailer for Red Dragon or Ridley Scott’s Hannibal and it becomes incredibly clear why mention of the world’s most famous fictional cannibal elicits eye-rolls so hard you can hear them.
Thankfully, Bryan Fuller is a classy guy. This is not a remake of the movies, but a re-imagining of events that precede Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (the plot of which is said to be the planned focus of this show’s fourth season) including inspired reverse gender casting for notable characters Freddie Lounds, the sleazy tabloid journalist played here by Lara Jean Chorostecki, and Alana Bloom, an FBI psychiatrist played by Caroline Dhavernas.
Both roles are exceptionally cast, particularly Chorostecki, whose reprehensible Lounds manages to display mountains of dignity in a role described in Harris’ novel as a lumpy, ugly, small rat-eyed man. This is underlined with the fun tidbit that she is a vegetarian, and although clearly the lowest in the show’s internal caste system, Freddie is the only main character who hasn’t unknowingly eaten people by the end of the first season (I can’t wait for the episode where Hannibal is exposed and everyone but Freddie spends the subsequent 45 minutes vomiting their brains out).
The show is revisionist in many more ways than progressive casting. Assuming the form of a crime procedural, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal takes the case-of-the-week structure of CSI and uses it to reflect the struggles of its primary characters. Through this basic framework, Fuller and his team of writers weave a complex narrative of improvised family, troublesome love, and people eating people.
Hannibal begins with Will Graham having been plucked from his teaching position at the FBI’s Quantico campus (a slightly disguised University of Toronto Scarborough) by Agent-in-Charge of the Behavioral Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), in order to aid in the case of what are believed to be serial abductions of young Midwestern girls fitting the same description.
Not long into the case, Will deduces through his abilities to emotionally reflect a criminal in the heat of the moment – becoming a killer in his mind to know his or her design – that they are dealing with a murderer whose daughter fits the same physical profile of the missing girls.
Soon after, in order to prevent Will from going off the deep end, Jack enlists Hannibal Lecter to look over the hyper-emotional Graham. It’s far from love at first sight – Will can be a bit of an Incredible Hulk when people pick at his brain (“You wouldn’t like me when I’m psychoanalyzed!”), but after a copycat killer emerges, meticulously recreating one of these “Minnesota Shrike” abduction killings, the two men have a protein-heavy breakfast and things start to spark.
Already, in episode one, Hannibal starts to control Will. His copycat killings show Will the negative so that he can see the positive. The striking shot of a naked woman, impaled on a severed stag’s head as black carrion pick at her humiliated lung-less body gives Will everything he needs to know to find the FBI’s target: Garret Jacob Hobbs. It was a gift from Hannibal to a man who doesn’t care about him at this point in the series, but will eventually cling on to him for dear sanity as the only constant in his life.
This relationship progresses through the first third of the season as Will gets closer and closer to his inner darkness and we are fed images of human mushroom gardens, naked people made to look like angels through back-mutilation, and (in an episode pulled from air in North America) Molly Shannon convincing children to shoot their families to death.
All the while, Will is haunted by the manifestation of the first copycat killing, a hybrid raven-stag creature that comes to signify the hidden presence of Hannibal in Will’s slowly breaking mind. At first the Ravenstag guides Will to make his jumps from evidence to conviction, a sort of familiar representing the dark mirror that Hannibal anonymously holds up for him to see the workings of dark minds.
In many shots throughout the show, the statue of a screaming stag can be seen behind Lecter as he analyzes Will. The answer to the biggest riddle of his life is literally staring him in the face, but he is unwilling to see this man who understands him so completely as the predator he truly is.
The pair is bound together from the events of the pilot. The Minnesota Shrike is dispatched by Will just after severing the throat his hostage daughter Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl). Hannibal brings a calm hand to the scene and by the end of the day, Abigail lost her dad and gained two fathers.
The middle third of the season has fun, exploring the proud mythology of Hannibal Lecter by throwing focus on Jack’s struggle to catch him over all these years that he’s unknowingly been eating humans at the doctor’s table. We are introduced to Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard channeling his best Anthony Hopkins) who believes he is the Chesapeake Ripper (Hannibal’s name in the tabloids), and treated to a mid-season killing spree in the series highlight “Sorbet” which sees Hannibal hosting a dinner party buttoned with a delightful “Before we begin, you must all be warned: Nothing here is vegetarian. Bon appétit.”
In the final third, Will is pushed off the deep end, and things start to get heartbreaking. He is disassociating, blacking out and losing time, waking up places without knowing what he has done to get there. Increasingly he sees himself as Garrett Jacob Hobbs, experiencing an uncanny feeling of being on the dead man’s personal schedule.
The cases of the week continue to reflect Will’s personal life, which is becoming more and more dependent on his relationship with Hannibal. The bodies stack higher and higher, like the iconic dead-guy totem pole from episode nine, and Will discovers that his surrogate daughter is a murderer. He and Alana kiss, but she can’t be with him until he’s stable. It’s a strange love-triangle: We know as viewers that Will’s affliction is his dark marriage to the Ravenstag of a psychiatrist that controls his every move with gentle pushes and suggestions.
When this dark descent begins Hannibal smells a brain malady and has Will draw the face of a clock depicting the time. The camera forces us into Will’s perspective where the clock is fine, telling the time as he has correctly dictated. But when the camera switches to Hannibal’s observation we see that Will is going insane, having drawn something more resembling a Dali painting than a timepiece.
Hannibal says nothing. He watches his friend, prods him further, even lies about a brain scan all in the name of an opportunity to witness Will’s particular brand of encephalitis from a psychological viewpoint. It’s a haunting betrayal, but one that is executed with touching regret played by Mikkelsen in scenes between him and his own psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson).
Even after Hannibal kills Abigail and frames Will by somehow having him ingest their surrogate daughter’s ear while presumably in a disassociated state (Will barfs it up into the sink in a cold open that shocks even after a third viewing), there is a constant look in his eye and a heaviness in his breath. Hannibal is telling his shrink the truth when he dotes on another way it all could have worked out: A happy family of strays and surrogates.
The season finale sees the procedural completely devour itself. Will is the case-of-the-week, forced to try and use his magically abundant mirror neurons to find out who is framing him, not just for cannibalizing Abigail, but also for all of the copycat murders (Hannibal put trophies from all of the victims into Will’s fly fishing lures).
The Ravenstag has transformed into a shadowy Manstag. He sees it in his dream, he sees it in the interrogation room mirror, and when he finds himself shot and bleeding on the floor just as Garret Jacob Hobbs once did, he sees it in Hannibal, who to Will has become the Manstag of his dreams.
By the last scene, Will is behind the bars that we know will eventually protect the world from Hannibal Lecter as he creepily courts Clarice Starling. He’s wearing the blue jumpsuit of the criminally insane, sitting on his bed. Hannibal walks down the corridor, past the other weak and broken minds to come face to face with the only man that can understand him.
“Hello Doctor Lecter.”
Finally, powerless and behind bars, Will can truly begin to understand the mind of the friend who destroyed his life, and Hannibal can breathe easy, fully in control of their relationship. Both of them are looking at the man in the mirror and Will has been a victim of a selfish kind of love.
As Franklin learned when Hannibal snapped his neck the episode after exposing his Michael Jackson fantasy, there is a price that comes with touching greatness. As season two dawns it looks as if Will Graham has only begun to pay up.