Hannibal Lecter has much to answer for. Far beyond his list of heinous crimes — up to and including pairing liver with Chianti, when Julia Child always insisted upon Bordeaux — the character’s three-decade-long killing spree across pop culture has left behind some particularly brutalized corpses.
Born as a supporting character in 1981’s Red Dragon, a highly regarded novel by Thomas Harris, Dr. Lecter achieved mainstream ubiquity thanks to Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of the elegant cannibal in The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-sweeping 1991 adaptation of Harris’s Dragon sequel.1 America fell hard and fast for this articulate demon. For a time, face restraints were de rigueur, and orange really was the new black.
Yet the brilliance of Lecter stemmed from the limited way in which he was used: In Lambs, Demme had him onscreen for a total of 16 unsettling minutes. During much of that time, the only muscle Hopkins moved was his mouth. What terrified about Lecter was his fierce intelligence and his even more ferocious potential: how his very presence made the bars around him look temporary. He was the monster lurking under the bed, the shadow hovering at the edge of the frame. The further he was from the spotlight, the darker that shadow loomed.
But Hollywood has a different opinion about spotlights. Once Harris was done writing what was, by all accounts, a dreadful follow-up to Lambs, the gravy train was off and running. Between 2001 and 2007, there were three more Hannibal movies — only two of which starred Anthony Hopkins, because at a certain point dignity takes precedence over vacation homes — each in poorer taste than what had come before. Worse, Lecter had been transformed from side dish to main course, his unnatural appetites now meant to entice, not repulse. Hannibal Lecter was no longer a fearsome and original character. He was a franchise and needed to be marketed as such. Whatever interesting things he had to say about human nature, obsession, and depravity were drowned out by the screams of his (nearly always deserving) victims and the cheers of his legion of gore-starved fans. In just 16 years, the dread Lecter had gone from haute cuisine to fast food.
This sort of corporate gluttony was only one of the reasons I was initially wary of Hannibal, the NBC series that debuted on the back of great hype last April and returned for a second season two weeks ago. The idea of Lecter on television not only seemed unnecessary, but also redundant. In 2013, TV was awash with copycat killers, a burgeoning cottage industry of quirkily malevolent geniuses who murdered their victims with meat hooks and their audiences with boredom. On Fox’s deeply stupid The Following, murder becomes a national craze, akin to friendship bracelets or krumping. And over the course of 200-plus episodes, CBS’s Criminal Minds has made ritualistic killing seem as commonplace as jaywalking. By fictionalizing murder on such a grand scale, shows like these remove any possibility of either empathy or examination. That makes death strangely impersonal, something to be gawked at like a tornado on the other side of the world or a Banksy mural. The contemporary serial-killer story offers no particular insight into the human condition. It’s just a way for lazy filmmakers to show guts without actually having any. After all, it’s far easier to kill off a bunch of characters than to take the time to craft one who feels really and truly alive.
I’m happy to report that “easy” is not a word I would apply to Hannibal, not in the conception, not in the production, and certainly not in the watching. Though it’s adapted from well-known material, not a frame of it is familiar. In fact, it’s safe to say there is absolutely nothing remotely like Hannibal on television. I mean this with equal amounts of praise and gratitude: I’m not sure either I or the medium could survive much more. The story of Dr. Lecter when he was still hiding in plain sight, helping the FBI on the surface while dining out — often quite literally — at their expense, Hannibal is equal parts playful and horrific, compelling and cruel. Once begun, the show envelops and clings to you like a thick syrup or one of the bad doctor’s particularly viscous and over-reduced stocks. One doesn’t watch it so much as succumb.
Hannibal is the rare network show with an utterly unique visual palette — even if it’s one many might find distinctly unpalatable. Credit for this goes to showrunner Bryan Fuller. Where others might have viewed Hannibal as a chance to cash in, he greeted it as a chance to class things up. Fuller had already made a name for himself2 with a fancifully goth aesthetic perched someplace between Candy Land and Mordor. Though the wit remains — consider the blood-red tiling in the FBI bathroom, the casting of Kids in the Hall loudmouth Scott Thompson as a buttoned-up medical examiner — the baked-in grotesqueries of the Hannibal universe have handed Fuller a deeper and more resilient structure for his weirdness. A veteran of two shows about whimsical resurrection, he’s now performing autopsies through opera glasses. He makes death seem not just beautiful but also fascinating.3
It’s a trait he shares with his antisocial protagonist, Will Graham. Dedicated Harris-heads will know of Will as the haunted lead of Red Dragon. But Hannibal takes place during the previously unchronicled years before that book was set. Fuller’s Will is green, though all he sees is red: A criminal profiler with borderline Asperger’s, Will is able to dive so deeply into the minds of killers that he can see through their eyes and use his own imagination to re-create them at work; in their skin he wields knives like paintbrushes, delicately intuiting each Pollack-like splatter. (As played by the beautifully controlled Brit Hugh Dancy — that’s Mr. Claire Danes to you, pal — Will’s antisocial tics are as graceful as ballet.) Will’s gift can be a curse — as a colleague says, “You catch these killers by getting into their heads, but you also allow them into your own.” But it’s a boon for FBI honcho Jack Crawford (a wonderfully restrained Laurence Fishburne), who sends Will out into the field to catch the sort of psychos who accessorize with antlers and take lungs as souvenirs. Will’s balancing act between stopping the criminally insane and becoming that way himself is also an opportunity for Hannibal Lecter, an immaculately tailored psychiatrist with a passion for cooking4 and other forms of polite savagery.
Lecter here is played by the Danish film star Mads Mikkelsen, best known Stateside for crying tears of blood in Casino Royale. At first I found his performance to be excessively arch and removed. But now I see the wisdom behind his choice. Mikkelsen, tall and severe, is built like an old-fashioned shaving razor. For the first few episodes, he was playing the sheath. It would be some time before he gave us a glimpse of the blade. It makes sense for this Lecter to lack the steel-eyed charisma of an Anthony Hopkins — as far as the world knows, he’s merely a well-dressed Samaritan with excellent taste in wine. Blockbuster-movie rules forced post-Lambs directors to dive into Lecter’s inner life and reveal what made him tick. Fuller is able to ignore all that and just show him merrily ticking.
Lecter arrives in the pilot as Will’s colleague, and then slowly worms his way into becoming the profiler’s therapist and friend, all the while delighting in orchestrating his downfall. Season 2 begins with the familiar roles reversed: Lecter visiting the Baltimore State Hospital to talk with an incarcerated Will. The intricate, topsy-turvy duet between Lecter and Graham is exceptional theater. It features two men who share a unique way of looking at the world but disagree violently on how to conduct themselves while in it.
Let’s pause on that word for a moment: “violently.” Despite its legacy and ample bloodshed, Hannibal isn’t so much a violent show as it is a show about violence. Each episode does things to human bodies that I never thought possible — and now I pine for that innocent ignorance. Women are hung like trophies, men are flayed and splayed like angels. In last week’s stomach-turning episode, a would-be visionary was using needle and thread (and a fair bit of heroin and preservative) to human-centipede together a Benetton ad of humanity on the dusty floor of an abandoned corn silo. The “artwork” supposedly depicted an eye, looking up at God. Hannibal Lecter called it a masterpiece. I called it something more profane, particularly after one of the brushstrokes tore himself out of the canvas, leaving a good deal of his back and shin behind.
This is unquestionably rough stuff, and no matter how smart or stylized it may be, it’s not for everyone. Even Breaking Bad would have more naysayers had it included a forced intubation scene involving a feverish protagonist and a severed human ear. All I can do is offer up myself as evidence: I’m as squeamish about this stuff as a vegetarian at a slaughterhouse, and yet I find Hannibal to be perversely artful, almost hypnotic in its savagery.5 Perhaps that’s because the bloody lump it’s most concerned with is the one between our ears. Hannibal is, above all else, a brilliant show about psychiatry. Everyone here is in some form of therapy,6 and most conversations, whether in session or out, are shot like a Tony Soprano–Dr. Melfi tête-á-tête: two seated individuals, facing one another across a table/room/prison/void, the frame policed as rigidly as a Wes Anderson film. Words cut more deeply than scalpels, and delusions of grandeur aren’t limited to those who collect teeth like trophies. Concepts like guilt and innocence are batted back and forth, civilly, like a shuttlecock.
There are times when Hannibal seems to detach itself from reality and float skyward on the buoyancy of its own dream logic — surely the woman in the hospital oxygen chamber didn’t really ignite the air around her (and, soon after, herself) with sparks caused from idly running a comb through her long, lustrous hair? — but nearly everything onscreen is “real.” There are precious few dream sequences; instead, every moment of consciousness within the show’s world feels like a waking nightmare. Hannibal regards the human beings forced to live like this with an odd mixture of appreciation and dread. Everything about them is pliable, everything can be easily bruised and broken: their flesh, their minds, their spirits. Is it madness to take advantage of that fragility or is it madness to resist?
Bryan Fuller has spoken of a seven-year plan for Hannibal, elegant in design and radical in scope. (Characters are rebooted in Hollywood constantly, but to my knowledge this is the first time anyone has ever rebooted an author’s entire career with the express intent of improving upon it the second time around.) The first three seasons, though laced with familiar faces and ideas, would tell an entirely new origin story for Harris’s playthings. The events of Red Dragon would be dramatized in Season 4, The Silence of the Lambs in Season 5, and Hannibal in Season 6. Season 7 would be an original finale — a digestif, if you will.
Except you probably won’t. If you’ve forgotten or just can’t quite wrap your head around it, let me remind you: Hannibal is on NBC. That means any grandmother who dozed off during Brian Williams last Friday night and came to at 10:45 p.m. would have been greeted with the sight of the sexiest man in Denmark running a human leg through a band saw. NBC, to its credit, hasn’t blinked at the gore — let’s face it, the network is no stranger to bloodbaths — but it has wept over the ratings: They’re lousy. And while the network is grateful for the show’s critical acclaim, acclaim doesn’t pay for what looks to be an awfully expensive production budget. The most original series in TV history were born of an alluring cocktail of creativity and desperation, but NBC, unlike, say, AMC in 2007, actually has a great deal to lose. Which is to say, I wouldn’t start dream-casting a new Clarice Starling any time soon.7
It’s a shame. Because while television doesn’t need more shows like Hannibal, it definitely needs Hannibal. The arterial spray that began gushing into the cultural mainstream around the time Buffalo Bill started tucking his junk is still misting down on us today, particularly on TV. It’s left a bright red, easily recognized stain that can sink promising shows and can elevate mediocre ones far beyond their station. (This past Sunday night, HBO’s True Detective ended with what was essentially an extended homage to the immortal Jame Gumb. It puts the lotion in the Big Hug Mug.) It’s ironic that the franchise most responsible for all the pervasive tropes of serial killers — the evil-genius-speechifying; the backwoods creepazoids; the fucking antlers — has also provided the first essential take on it in years. Strange, stylish, and deeply disturbing, Hannibal isn’t a bloodletting. It’s a transfusion.