We’ll Eat You Up, We Love You So: How ‘Hannibal’ Rebooted Rebooting

Sophie Giraud/NBC

The great literary and television critic John Leonard once opened a piece about Norman Mailer’s gargantuan CIA novel, Harlot’s Ghost, by declaring that instead of reviewing the book, he’d decided to haunt it. NBC’s Hannibal, which wraps up its second season Friday night, has done something similar with the oeuvre of bazillion-selling thriller writer Thomas Harris. It’s found weird psychological crawlspaces and complicated shadows in Harris’s books and set up shop inside them. It adapts Harris the way Tori Amos’s cover of “Raining Blood” adapted Slayer. It’s also the first network TV show on which almost every recurring character has consumed human flesh, unless you count 60 Minutes.

(Warning: Many, many spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 beyond this point. Do not touch or approach the glass.)

This season opened with a flash-forward of Laurence Fishburne’s FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford and Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter in Lecter’s elegant stainless-steel-and-barn-wood kitchen, trying to kill each other with any and all available utensils. Tonight we’ll finally find out how that fight started and how it ends. Maybe Lecter will wind up on the run, or even behind bars, as he was when readers first encountered him, in Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon. Or maybe he’ll succeed Tommy Carcetti as governor of Maryland and ride through the streets on a meat wagon, throwing out samples of his special homemade blood sausage (wink, wink) to grateful constituents. On a show like this, who knows? Hannibal has gradually become a surreal fever dream about the already-pretty-febrile Harris universe, so anything seems possible, even in what’s technically still a prequel to a story as old as the first Go-Go’s album. You think you’ve seen it all, and then Michael Pitt eats his own nose.

Series creator Bryan Fuller has said that if Hannibal lasts long enough — a biggish “if,” given the ratings — the fourth season will be the Red Dragon arc. And if certain character-rights issues can be ironed out — apparently an even bigger “if” — Season 5 will in some way address the events of 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs, the inspiration for the 1991 Jonathan Demme movie that taught everyone in the world the proper wine pairing for a meal of fava beans and human liver. (A nice Chianti, although in the novel it’s “a big Amarone.”) In the meantime, though, Fuller’s been taking everything we think we know about where this story’s going and using it to mess with us, diabolically and delightfully. Hannibal is a collage that plays fast and loose with Harris’s plots while staying weirdly and admirably true to the deep-purple, fat-marbled tone of his prose. Anybody planning to adapt just about any preexisting genre text could learn from this show’s approach, which is faithful and unfaithful in all the right ways.

Fuller still says he wants the show to be canonical, provided Gaumont International Television, the studio that produces Hannibal, can convince MGM to loan out Clarice Starling. This season the show has seemingly killed off two characters who figure prominently in the Harris books, Raul Esparza’s Dr. Chilton and Lara Jean Chorostecki’s Freddie (now short for Fredericka) Lounds. Freddie soon turned up alive, and when the AV Club asked him about the implications of the episode where Jack Crawford’s brainwashed ex-protégée (Anna Chlumsky, pretty clearly playing a darkest-timeline Clarice) shoots Chilton in the face, Fuller clammed up after pointing out that Frank Serpico survived a similar wound. But in a sense, Hannibal zagged into its own private Baltimore a long time ago. It’s established early in Harris’s Red Dragon that FBI profiler Will Graham freaked out and spent some time in a mental institution after shooting a serial killer named Garrett Jacob Hobbs, then reemerged to help the FBI catch Dr. Hannibal Lecter, brilliant and genteel shrink and sometime people-eater. Hannibal wedges a new story into the space between those two cases, but some crucial details have changed. When Graham (Hugh Dancy) tracks down Hobbs in the pilot, he does it with help from Lecter, who’s still a free man and a respected psychiatrist. After the shooting, Lecter becomes Will’s therapist, as well as a trusted adviser to Crawford and the FBI, albeit one who’s also abetting and copycatting the killers they’re chasing.

So far, so routine. In the decades since Harris turned from crime reporting to fiction, the profiler who projects himself into the minds of killers but at what cost and the serial-killer expert who’s really a serial killer himself have become stock characters, tropes done to death in dozens of mind-of-a-murderer movies and TV shows. There’s a case to be made that the ripping-off–Thomas Harris trend started with Harris himself, since The Silence of the Lambs is essentially just Red Dragon with Graham swapped out for Starling. After Silence, Harris helped Hollywood wear Lecter thin, cranking out an impressively bonkers sequel (Hannibal, 1999) and a risibly pointless origin-story prequel (Hannibal Rising, 2006) for Ridley Scott and Peter Webber to make into bad movies. So on paper, even with an inventive writer like Wonderfalls’ Fuller in charge, Hannibal sounded like the property’s death rattle: One of the greatest fictional villains of the 20th century, reduced to a foil on the kind of psycho-of-the-week procedural his exploits helped inspire, as if living through the serial-killer equivalent of Jake LaMotta’s washed-up nightclub-comedy phase in Raging Bull.

Instead, Hannibal turned out to be much more — a queasy psychodrama, a blood-spattered romance, and the most operatic manifestation of the same antihero arms race that’s lately given us TV dramas about Norman Bates, Dracula, and (via Rosemary’s Baby) the Devil himself. But from week to week, it’s also a pretty darn entertaining procedural. I love how Hannibal’s Maryland turns out to be conveniently overrun with serial killers, the way all the terrorism on 24 seemed to target Los Angeles suburbs like Chatsworth or Santa Clarita. I love how those killers invariably turn out to be pretentious artistes, murdering as a means of coded self-expression, sewing their victims’ corpses together in Goldsworthyesque spirals, presenting them speared on antlers in dream-catchery outdoor folk-art assemblages, or fashioning them into surreal facsimiles of the inanimate — cellos, totem poles, honeycombs. And I love how the FBI forensics team — Hettienne Park, Aaron Abrams, and former Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson — are written like characters from a CSI spinoff, delivering straight-faced cause-of-death exposition over surreally mutilated bodies, as if blissfully unaware of the mindfuckety drama swirling around them.

Hannibal - Season 2

Brooke Palmer/NBC

But this season, Park’s Beverly Katz followed a hunch into Lecter’s murder-basement — yet another sliding-doors reference to Silence — and wound up sectioned on giant microscope slides, like one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde cows. (This show!) Beverly’s murder happened while Will was in jail, awaiting trial for a bunch of murders Hannibal had actually committed; in the meantime, Hannibal and the FBI team worked cases, just like regular TV work-families always do. Sometimes Hannibal feels like the medium of television itself is having a baroque nightmare, possibly after digesting one too many hour-long dramas that hinge on postmortem ligature, semen swabs, and liquefied decomps. The uniformly terrific cast is full of rerun-ghosts who’ve drifted in from points further up the channel guide to play looking-glass versions of former roles. Associations accrue: Dancy’s Will is a traumatized, Asperger’s-ish version of a role originated, in Michael Mann’s great Red Dragon movie Manhunter, by William Petersen, who went on to play the similarly on-the-spectrum forensic scientist Dr. Gil Grissom on nine seasons of CSI. When Petersen left that show, Fishburne joined the cast as pathologist Ray Langston, although his wise-yet-oblivious Crawford here is probably more of a joke about Morpheus, who taught Keanu Reeves to see through illusions. And just as Dr. Melfi periodically unburdened herself to Peter Bogdanovich, Hannibal also sees his own psychiatrist, played by Gillian Anderson. Her name is Bedelia du Maurier, so that in addition to thinking of rationalist monster hunter Dana Scully, we’ll think of Daphne du Maurier, whose writings were the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds.

Fuller likes to quote the principle of suspense that Hitchcock articulated to Francois Truffaut, about how it’s better to reveal the ticking bomb under the table to the audience and make them wait 15 minutes for it to blow up instead of just jolting viewers with an explosion that comes out of nowhere. In this scenario, Hannibal’s the bomb. And over the course of the past two seasons, it’s occasionally been tough to fully buy the idea that a veteran detective like Crawford (a frequent dinner guest at Lecter’s place) and an almost psychically intuitive investigator like Will Graham wouldn’t think to, y’know, investigate under the metaphorical table. On the other hand, Will did spend the back half of Season 1 suffering hallucinations stemming from a case of encephalitis that went untreated after Hannibal gave Will’s physician a Colombian necktie. (This show!) And if it wasn’t brain inflammation that clouded Will’s judgment, maybe it was emotion. Like Thomas Harris, who couldn’t help but morph Lecter from a stone psychopath into an avenging angel over the course of the Hannibal quartet, he’s kind of fallen in love with his psychiatrist.

Not in the usual way people fall in love, of course — but not entirely in the way people come to respect a nemesis or feel grateful to a torturer who occasionally takes their pain away, either. (I refuse to cheapen what they have by calling it a bromance.) “The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike,” Lecter shouts at a retreating Will at the end of their first meeting in Red Dragon. It’s a stray thread in the film; on the show, it’s the spine of the story. Harris’s Will had a wife and a kid and a place by the water in Sugarloaf Key, Florida; Hannibal’s Will lives in a farmhouse in Wolf Trap, Virginia, not far from Quantico, alone except for a small army of semi-feral dogs. His job has made him as edgy and reclusive as the killers he chases. Once he lets Lecter inside his head — something Crawford warns Starling not to allow in Silence, and now we see why — a kind of intimacy develops between them that Will can’t achieve with anyone else.

Hannibal - Season 2

After Will kills Hobbs, he and Hannibal end up briefly coparenting his daughter together. Many episodes and status-quo shifts later, they dine on Armagnac-soaked songbirds, a delicacy whose consumption is shot in a way that pretty much turns homoerotic subtext into text. And when meatpacking heiress Margot Verger seduces Will in order to conceive a child, a series of expressionistic dissolves transforms the scene into a trippy five-way between Will, Margot, Hannibal, his former student turned lover Alana Bloom, and the giant mythological stag-man who stars in many of Will’s weirder hallucinations, either as a stand-in for Lecter or some repressed, Lecterish part of Will. How big that part is remains to be seen.

Speaking to The Backlot in April, Fuller described Will and Hannibal’s relationship as categorically nonsexual, but also “beyond sexual,” born from a “very primal basic male bonding place.” When Will kills again, this time with his bare hands — in self-defense, but still — and shows up at Lecter’s house with the body, admitting, “I’ve never felt as alive as I did when I was killing him,” Lecter tenderly washes the blood from Will’s knuckles, equal parts lover and proud parent. This seems like as good a place as any for me to pause and report the not-particularly-surprising news that Tumblr ’ships the hell out of the hypothetical gay couple it calls “Hannigram,” on blogs that range from somewhat work-safe to not remotely so.

The episodes immediately following that twist were some of the most unsettling network TV in years. This was partly because Margot Verger’s twin brother, Mason — whom you might remember as the faceless human chew toy from Scott’s Hannibal movie, the one who spoke with the voice of Gary Oldman and tried to feed Lecter to his pigs — finally made his first onscreen appearance, played by Michael Pitt. But you know a show’s turned a serious corner when Michael Pitt harvesting the tears of orphans to garnish his martinis is the fifth- or sixth-weirdest thing in it. We saw Will apparently kill Freddie Lounds and then deliver her fear-flavored meat to Lecter’s kitchen like Sam the Butcher, so they could roast it while making macabre jokes about “slicing the ginger.” We also saw that crazy sex scene, which played in context like the consummation of two seasons’ worth of warped will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Will and Hannibal, even if they didn’t actually touch.

Even before Freddie resurfaced, there were hints that Will’s black-swan turn was a scam. But there was also a sense of dreamy narrative free fall to Will’s “transformation” — and an eerie lack of empathy to Dancy’s performance — that made it hard to tell for sure. NBC had yet to renew the show when these episodes aired; the idea that Fuller had decided to dynamite the bridge to Red Dragon by corrupting Will in some irreversible way didn’t seem totally out of the question. That hasn’t exactly happened, but there’s no way Will walks away from this situation unscathed. There’s also no way this won’t be a completely different show next season. We still know where it’s going, but at this point it’s impossible to tell how it’s going to get there, and how often can you say that about a reboot? Hannibal’s been on rails from the beginning, but it feels more like a runaway train than ever. As Mason Verger put it last week, “I am enchanted and terrified.” Then he cut half his face off with a knife and fed it to Will’s dogs. This show!

Filed Under: TV, hannibal, Lawrence Fishburne, Mads Mikkelsen

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.


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