There is a confounding, nearly two-seasons-old experiment underway on American network television. It is a hypnotic swirl of delirious, corporeal excess. No image is too grisly, no sensation too unnerving, no taboo too forbidden. I write in praise of the lyrical horror of NBC’s Hannibal.
You have seen and read much of this before: Thomas Harris’ cannibals, serial killers, debauchers, and lawmen, breathed into cinematic life by Anthony Hopkins, Edwards Norton, Brian Cox, and William Petersen, and now titrated into an eccentric-detective procedural by Bryan K. Fuller. The show’s mood could best be described as “nightmare, most constant.” Chocolaty purples, reds, and long shadows drape scenes in Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s therapy sessions. It is the beast’s lair. It is terrifying.
Out in the world—the beast’s playground—victims are re-cast as angels, obelisks, tree-human hybrids, even cellos, often inflected with religious or spiritual iconography; each victim becomes a new, lurid way to conceive of our relationship with the world, its objects, its beliefs, and contradictions. The death-images are carbon-based monuments to physical beauty, horror, nature, contortion, fluidity, all things organic and corruptible and corrupted. The myriad ways we can be twisted, carved out, spliced, diced, Fuller suggests, become Banksyesque objects. There’s a supernatural beauty to us strangled by our very desire to live (New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz described the murder scenes as “art-directed-to-the-nines aftermath, lit in such a way as to highly the artificiality, the art-like quality, of the prosthetic bodies and organs and blood”).
Perhaps the show’s most omnipresent thematic thread is what its characters refer to as “psychic driving,” where experts of the mind slither into the damaged psyches of victims, murderers, and shadowy heroes, to bury insidious seeds of self- doubt. It is a decidedly nightmarish spin on Inception: rather than planting inspiration, you inject a moral poison causing your unsuspecting victim to believing the worst possible things about himself are, indeed, possible. Your most venal and socially corrupting impulses? Not only encouraged, but praised, as your grip on reality is slowly, masterfully destroyed.
Our master is a brilliant psychiatrist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, a creation so sexily and persuasively realized, you’re not so much rooting for him as you’re trying to evade his seduction. He masquerades as the ultimate sybarite, aping the rituals of fine society: preparing a foie gras au torchon, hosting the most civilized dinner parties, mastering the harpsichord along with the perverse cadences and blandishments of sophisticated conversation. Even moments that feel concrete—Hannibal’s latest cannibalistic masterpiece, juxtaposed against a garishly lit autopsy scene back at FBI HQ—mock your sensibilities of decency and social order. The harness of civility that we impose upon our basest impulses comes to feel like a joke. Our conventions, our consciousness of them, fractured.
While Hannibal’s ultimate motivations remain unclear nearly two seasons in, we assume he’s in some part disgusted at the detritus of society, at the masks worn in polite society. He craves authenticity. As his sinister ruse unfolds—supposedly assisting the FBI on a series of gruesome murder investigations—we can only watch, suspended in hushed horror. One assumes we’ll learn more in the recently announced third season of the show, particularly as he and Will square off against the pedophiliac, cackling meat mogul and torturer Mason Verger.
It is in Will Graham, his grizzled, self-righteous, arrogant, tortured nemesis and moral soul mate, that Lecter seems to see the promise of truth. In Fuller’s story, Will is a marvelously damaged creation. Wracked with a Twitchy genius mined by the FBI’s behavioral crimes specialists, Will’s terrible gift is the power to drink in the aftermath of murder, deconstruct it, and replay the act in his mind’s eye—to divulge its “grand design,” via a most terrible, perfect empathy. The killer’s eye, his bloodied hands, his diabolical motivations, mutate into Will’s own internalized experience.
The most prominent and pervasive artistic touchstone for Fuller’s show would seem to be Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona, a creepy, masterful study of the exchanging and blending and fracturing of identity, well-summarized and praised in this short Criterion video essay:
Note the unsettling, sharp cuts. All are closeups of Liv Ullman’s damaged countenance, but from slightly adjusted angles; they force the viewer to re-consider how shadow falls across her face, sometimes dominating, sometimes receding, sometimes in harmony, something we see often in Hannibal. The sterile quality of her hospital room reminds us of the FBI autopsy lab in the show. Then, around the :42 mark, a most direct connection with Hannibal‘s visual iconography: a scene at breakfast between Ullman and Bibi Andersson, a horizontal two-shot with the characters in the foreground, casta against a window looking out onto the coastline. It is much like the mise-en-scene in this early meeting between Will and Hannibal. I highlight the visual callbacks here only to point out that cinema’s been probing for ways to tell the story of mental bisection and amalgamation for decades, and that these two works share some strong DNA.
Will also likely dwells somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, which impairs his ability to relate to the still-living. In fact, he fits into a tradition of homage to Sherlock Holmes, whose pop-culture legacy Laura Miller describes in the latest Harper’s. The Holmes of BBC’s popular Sherlock comes off to his peers as “patently dysfunctional and perhaps even dangerously so. His Watson suggests he has Asperger’s, based on his apparent “lack of empathy, obsessive interests, and, occasionally, savantism.”
All this applies to Will as well. It makes him able, valued, and brilliant. But in his universe, such brilliance makes him a target, a fascinating intellectual prize to be needled, provoked, and unlocked, by Lecter. They are a study in physical contrasts—manicured vs. scruffed, epicurean vs. backwoods—and intellectual confluence. Lecter’s fascination with Will spills into full view early in the show. “God forbid we become friendly,” Lecter muses to Will over breakfast. “I don’t find you that interesting,” Will retorts. “You will,” Lecter replies. Soon, it becomes apparent to our hero that the psychiatrist has been brought into the fold to assess him, rather than vicious perpetrators they seek:
“What you see and learn touches everything else in your mind. Your values and decency are present, yet shocked at your associations, appalled at your dreams,” Lecter tells Will. His words often sound over determined, canned, and voluptuously entranced. Lecter will frequently speak in this manner: the world, it minds, and those who act on it, are objects of fascination, particularly those who seem to deny an impulse or an obfuscated brilliance.
As the first season progresses, Fuller takes great pains to use imagery—close ups of a cold, sweating clammy, deteriorating Will—to suggest the damage wrought by his gift of his gift. Ultimately, the central arc of season one revealed itself to have to have been Lecter’s (temporarily) successful framing of Graham for his own crimes. But he succeeds in this by uncoupling Will’s genius and detachment from reality into the belief that he is a cold-blooded psychopath. Psychic driving, laid bare:
It is my belief that Lecter does want to help Will. But only, in the end, to help himself. “This, cannibal you have him getting to know,” Lecter tells Will’s superior, Jack Crawford, “I think I can help good will see his face.” The cannibal of whom he speaks isn’t himself, in the end; but in another way, he is talking about himself, explaining in plain language why Lecter wants and needs Will to embrace his demons. Only by doing that, will Graham be able to use his perfect empathy to see Hannibal. Which, I suspect, is our prized cannibal’s chief motivation.
Through the second season, an imprisoned Will figures out how Lecter framed him and used his devices to fracture Will’s sense of self and convince him that, perhaps, he was capable of all the terrible things Hannibal himself did. Lecter, meanwhile, works even more closely with the FBI. Graham is eventually freed, but only after attempting to murder Hannibal from inside prison. If he can get Will to kill again, then perhaps he’ll be able to corral his gift of empathy to help him grasp why and how he is the beast that he is. But Will is composed, angry, and hungry.
Hannibal is emphatically not for everyone. Even as a fan, I couldn’t describe its intended audience to you, other than show maestro Bryan Fuller and his fellow producers, frolicking gleefully in their truly bananas-level haze of weirdness.