‘Hannibal’s creator explains that dark, twisted and… romantic(?) series finale

Tonight, Bryan Fuller and company gave us the end of “Hannibal” as we know it. Even if the money and logistics can ever be worked out for some kind of movie or miniseries featuring Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, and this creative team, the show’s time as an ongoing TV series is done, and it ended in a way that functions as a conclusion to the story, even if it’s one that may outrage some fans. (My finale review is here.)

Earlier this week, I spoke with Fuller about that ending, potential ways he could continue the franchise, the challenges of finally doing a direct adaptation of “Red Dragon,” and a lot more – including me having a very different interpretation of the post-credits scene than what Fuller intended – coming up just as soon as you take the key from around my neck…

At what point in the season did you realize that this is how you were going to end it?

Bryan Fuller: Probably about halfway through the season. We’re always looking for a way to end a season in a way we could end the series. We never knew we were coming back. At the beginning of season 3, NBC was talking to me about new development, and that was a pretty big indicator to me that they weren’t planning on picking up a season 4. So I wanted to be sure we had an ending for the story we were telling, but also leave room for a continuation of the tale of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham should we get the option to tell more of it.

So you have an idea in mind in the event of something more where this is not the end of the story?

Bryan Fuller: Right. In my mind, the most interesting chapter of Will Graham’s story has yet to be told.

Once NBC made their decision official and you couldn’t find a buyer elsewhere for a fourth season, were you at peace with the idea that this is it?

Bryan Fuller: I knew the writing was on the wall. I knew that we had gotten ridiculously preferential treatment on this show by the network. The fact that they allowed us to tell the tales we were telling, and in a manner that was much more suited to a cable audience than a broadcast network audience. They were bending over backwards to accommodate us, and I knew they could only bend so far with ratings as bad as we had! (laughs)

Where do things stand now? What are the options?

Bryan Fuller: Martha De Laurentiis is looking into financing for a feature film. The season 4 that we were going to tell is such a restart and reimagining that I still hope in some way that we get to tell a version of that, if not “Silence of the Lambs” itself, as a miniseries. I would love to return this cast to the big screen from whence they came, and Hannibal Lecter to the big screen, from whence he came. It seems perfectly symmetrical.

Last time we talked, you put the odds on a fourth season at 50-50. What would you say the odds are now for any kind of filmed continuation?

Bryan Fuller: Oh, God. I have no idea. I think they’re less than 50/50, and not in our favor. But I’m curious to see how folks respond to the finale, and then also if that satisfies them? If that feels like “We got a conclusion to our story and it’s wrapped up in a bow, and we don’t need anymore,” then the audience will dictate. But if the audience is still there for the show and still wants a continuation of that story, I’ll continue looking for ways to give it to them.

Why does Will, to your mind, pull Hannibal off the cliff. Is it what Bedelia said about how he can’t live with him or without him, so they have to go down together?

Bryan Fuller: Essentially, the conclusion of the season really started very early in the Italian chapter of the story, where Will is admitting if he doesn’t kill Hannibal Lecter, he has the potential to become him. Then he escapes that trajectory with Hannibal being institutionalized, and finding a family, and once being exposed to the heroin needle again, as it were, he’s realizing how much of an addict he actually is, but is aware enough to know, and to start making moves toward his previous goal of ending Hannibal. And he’s willing to do what it takes. Bedelia says, “Can’t live with him, can’t live without him.” It’s not necessary for him to survive this, in order to accomplish what he needs to accomplish. There’s something so fated about that final act of Will’s. And also, the awareness of this is perhaps the best solution for both of them.

Hannibal looks so happy when Will is embracing him. Does he know what’s going to happen next, or is he thrown for a loop when they go over the cliff?

Bryan Fuller: I think Hannibal is thrown for a loop when they go over. In that final scene between them, it was Hugh Dancy and I talking about what those last moments that we see of Hannibal and Will in the series on NBC, how they need to connect, and yet Will can’t totally surrender to Hannibal, because he’s still Will Graham and still a human being, but he also knows that it’s going to be very difficult to go back to his family life, seeing his wife murdered over and over again in his mind every time that he looks at her. Any possibility of a relationship that could save him from Hannibal Lecter seems dimmer and dimmer in his mind, that it is acceptable to him that he not survive.

You’ve talked about this relationship in romantic terms. Bedelia makes that even more explicit in some of her conversations with both men this season. Was there any thought given to having them do more than embrace at the end, or would that in some way be diminishing the very unique and strange nature of their relationship?

Bryan Fuller: Mads and Hugh, there were a lot of takes where they got very intimate, and lips were hovering over lips. I definitely had the footage to go there, because Mads and Hugh were so game. They called me and warned me: “We really went for it!” And then I saw the dailies, I thought there was a fine line from that #Hannigraham fan fiction motive to give the hardcore audience exactly what they want in terms of this actually being a homosexual relationship between these two men, and what is authentic for the characters in that final moment. I mean, it’s not “Brokeback Mountain.” Mads isn’t gonna be spitting on his hand and getting to work. (laughs) We felt we had to keep it genuine to the tone of the relationship as we’ve been telling it in the series, and even in that moment when Will asks if Hannibal is in love with him, and Bedelia says, “Of course he is, ya big queen!” Even in that moment, it’s not quite dipping into the physical passions that would be the case if they were both homosexual. But I feel one is ominisexual and one is heterosexual and there’s a lot of influence going back and forth, who knows with a six pack of beer what would happen.

Speaking of Bedelia, the series’ final image isn’t them going off the cliff, but Bedelia waiting to serve a guest who is never going to come. How did you decide that was the image you wanted to end it on.

Bryan Fuller: Well, that’s a really interesting interpretation of the scene. You think she cut off her own leg and is going to serve it to somebody?

She seems as if she is throwing a dinner party.

Bryan Fuller: (laughs) No, that’s our little nod to the audience that perhaps Hanibal could have survived that cliff dive. She’s sitting at the table with her leg on the table and she’s looking absolutely terrified, and she grabs the fork and hides it under her napkin and waits for whoever’s going to return. This woman still has some fight in her. We don’t know if Hannibal is indeed serving her her leg, or is it Hannibal’s uncle Robertus, or Lady Murasaki, or is it Will Graham?

So it was just your tease for the possibility of more?

Bryan Fuller: Yes. But I love your interpretation! (laughs) I love the thought that she’s thinking, “Fuck! I cut off my leg for no reason!”

Well, you left a lot of ambiguity about how much control Hannibal did ultimately have over her, how much she had figured out how to survive being with him, whether she had been infected with his particular brand of madness.

Bryan Fuller: I love that you have that interpretation. Part of me doesn’t want anybody to know my confirmation of that and just see what people would think in reaction to that interpretation.

For what it’s worth, I spoke about this with another TV critic who had watched it with his wife. He agreed with me, she thought we were both insane. So she’s on your side.

Bryan Fuller: That was the original intention. No, somebody has got her, and will she or will she not survive. And what’s so fun is that on the song that Siouxsie Sioux wrote, we hear her say, “I will survive, I will survive,” as we’re pushing in on Bedelia, and that could mean she’s singing from Hannibal’s perspective and it means he has survived and will eat this woman now, or Bedelia’s point of view that it’s like, “You may have cut off this leg, but I’ve got this fork and I’m gonna do some damage before it’s done.”

When you went to Siouxsie Sioux about doing a song for the finale, what did you tell her that she wanted?

Bryan Fuller: It was interesting. She was like, “I want to write this song, and what are the things I should really be thinking about?” And I was like, “this is a love story. A love story between a full-fledged psychopath and someone who has nascent psychopathic abilities.” Actually, Hannibal Lecter is not a psychopath; he’s something else entirely. But it’s a love relationship between two men: one of them is a cannibal, and one of them understands those cannibalistic instincts all too well. What she came back with was “Love Crime,” and it was so Bond-ian, and it felt like a big, sweeping song, that, when I heard it, I said, “This has gotta go over the fight in the finale.”

In previous years and storylines, you threw in different winks and nods and spins on familiar Lecter moments, but with “Red Dragon,” you were doing a more straightforward adaptation. Was it daunting to finally have source material you had to stick relatively close to, or fun?

Bryan Fuller: It was both daunting and fun, but I would say more fun. It was very exciting to cast Richard Armitage and Rutina Wesley in those roles, and really focus on them as characters worthy of the rest of the incredible cast of characters on the show, and tell their story equally with the stories we were telling with Will and Hannibal and Bedelia and Alana and Jack. I was excited about that, about bringing the vivid imagery of the Blake paintings to life in our hallucinogenic way. What I found often was, “We already did this before, so how do we reimagine this?” The book was pretty picked over by the time we got to season 3 in terms of quotes and situations we had cannibalized – wink, wink – intentionally early on in the series. So the challenge was trying not to repeat those things, or, in repeating them, trying to subvert them or present them in a way that was an alternate perspective to how they were seen earlier, like the Freddie Lounds death. Knowing we wanted to burn somebody in a wheelchair again, since we had played that gag in the second season, quite intentionally holding onto the thought that that was going to be the inspiration for how Chilton was going to be killed, or attempted to be killed in the third season, in our homage to “South Park.” Oh, no, they killed Kenny, you bastards!

So if the story continues in some form, Chilton would be back and covered in hideous burn makeup?

Bryan Fuller: I would love it.

But would Raul Esparza love it?

Bryan Fuller: Raul is so game for anything and everything. The highlight of our gag reels is Raul Esparza in that makeup cracking everybody up, breaking into song, doing the character that Jim Carrey did on “In Living Color,” Fire Marshal Bill. So he would do more of the same. So he would do more of the same. And, you know, grafting technology has come a long way in the last five years, and he would look somewhat like Raul Esparza again, but perhaps a little melted.

Was there a scene from “Red Dragon” you were particularly excited to present your take on?

Bryan Fuller: The tiger sequence was actually one that I was really looking forward to, because I believe it is the most romantic thing I’ve read in modern literature. That a man is so elegant and eloquent that he devises a way for a blind woman to experience the zoo because he cares so much about her, is such a beautiful act. So I was looking forward to seeing that from a blind person’s perspective, and enhancing those colors, so what the audience is experiencing is a heightened reality of what she’s imagining based on what she’s being told by Francis Dolarhyde. It’s such a beautiful romance, even though it’s horrific and one of them is a terrible killer of families, but it’s a beautiful story, and I was really looking forward to telling the romance of Reba McClane and Francis Dolarhyde, because it struck me as so poignant and beautiful in the novel, and I’m just thrilled with what Rutina and Richard did with it.

How was Dolarhyde picking his victims? In the book, his lab processes their home movies, but that’s obviously not a thing that happens now.

Bryan Fuller: Social media. Hannibal answered the question to Will. Just check your Facebook privacy settings.

You and Mads had several years to present your own spin on Hannibal, and he wasn’t really that much like the Cox or Hopkins versions. Did you have any pause about having him recite a lot of those familiar taunting lines of dialogue when Will and others visited him in his cell?

Bryan Fuller: I did. There are definitely scenes where I was like, “Wow, this is exactly the same,” but I felt a certain obligation to hardcore fans of the book. Despite us altering the story in our fanfiction approach to the novels, there are still iconic scenes that I as a Fannibal wanted to see Mads do. I wanted to see him put on those sweaters.

You’ve spoken before about wanting to avoid, wherever possible, the rape and women-in-peril tropes that have become so overused in serial killer stories. With Dolarhyde’s M.O., and with some of the things he does to women like Reba and Molly, there was no way to entirely avoid that. How do you feel you did in terms of approaching that part of the material?

Bryan Fuller: It’s such a tentpole of the novel, and we really needed the switcheroo to be done with the body and believing that Francis Dolarhyde is dead, there was a lot of cringing and crying with Reba and those scenes, because she was trying to modulate her performance. I thought a lot about it because I was like, “Oh, I don’t want her to cower so much.” But if you’re in that situation, it’s actually emotionally honest to be terrified in that way. So I did argue with myself quite a bit, going back and forth about how much vulnerability to show with Reba. I loved the spirit and the fight that Rutina brought to the role. I love that she tries to gouge out his eyes at one point, and he stops her. There is more fight than you’ve seen with the previous Rebas. But still, she is a victim in those circumstances. That was hard to write around and avoid, and hopefully, we paid some chits forward with how Nina Arianda portrayed Molly in the circumstance with home invasion, which was also very horror movie trope: home invader, and sneaking and skulking and scares, and a big run for a getaway. All of that was horror movie tropes, but for me, what made it fresh is that she could have very easily died. We talked a lot about her dying in that episode, but after I cast Nina Arianda, I said, “Fuck it, I can’t kill Nina Arianda like that. She’s too awesome. So let’s have her be the hero of her own story.

What conversations did you have with NBC standards and practices about Dolarhyde biting off Chilton’s lips on camera?

Bryan Fuller: I can’t tell you how delightful Joanna Jameson, our standards and practices executive, has been throughout this entire experience, and how collaborative she’s been. My approach with her has always been one of utmost honesty. She knows the show that we’re trying to make, and what we’re trying to get away with, and she wants us to get away with as much as the broadcast standards and practices will allow her to allow us to get away with. It was always a conversation with her. I said, “We’re going to have this thing where he’s going to bite off somebody’s lips.” And she says, “Well, you know how to light it then. Don’t let me see too much red, keep it as dark as you can, and silhouette the lips so you don’t let me see too much gore, and we’ll let you get away with as much as possible.” And we submit a cut to it, and she’s like, “Okay, we’re on that shot for a little too long; shave it down for me.” I shave off four frames, and she’s like, “Shave it down a little more” and I shave off four more frames, and she goes, “I suppose that’s good enough.” I wish on everybody who works in network television to have a broadcast standards and practices executive as collaborative and willing to fight more for the show as she did. All the Fannibals should send Joanna Jameson a big thank you.

In the past, you’ve said that you wanted the violence on the show to be operatic and almost like science-fiction, because you weren’t interested in evoking all the real violence out there in the world. And for the most part, the most graphic things on the show are done to dead bodies. This season, though, we had incidents like the lip-biting, or the eel swimming right down Mason’s throat, that seemed much more graphic and explicit than anything you’d done before, especially since they involved victims who were still alive at the time. Why the shift?

Bryan Fuller: In a way, it felt like it was all a part of this devil’s bargain. All the characters made this devil’s bargain with Hannibal, and they suffer for it. In fact, the only person who appears to get away with somewhat of a happy ending is Alana Bloom. You see her flying away with her wife and her child. You see one getting away, and you know she’s going to be surrounded by men with guns for the rest of her life to make sure Hannibal doesn’t come in through the window. It really was about where the story was taking us. The investigations, where we’ve used the pendulum to reverse time and allow Will to crawl through a wormhole into the headpsace of John Malkovich or whoever was doing the murders and see them that way, it felt with Chilton in particular, it was a little bit of that “Let’s kill Kenny” zeal of, “Oh, we’ve got to do this to Chilton.” He got shot in the face, he got gutted, and part of the meta fun of the show was that we’re going to do something horrible to Raul Esparza every season, and the hope is that you really dig it.

Originally, Europe was supposed to be the entirety of this season. At what point did you realize it couldn’t fill that much time?

Bryan Fuller: It was in the breaking of the story. I love the Italian chapter, and I love the grand departure from the procedural story. Creatively, this was a breath of fresh air for me. “Oh, this is the ‘Hannibal’ series that I always wanted to tell.” I am not a big fan of the procedural storytelling. To me, that is the artsy-fartsy “Hannibal” that I’ve always wanted to explore. And I love that we shifted the dynamic – not away from Will, but to include Bedelia, and then creating that dynamic of the brides of Hannibal having to snipe at each other through the second half of the season because both of them think they understand Hannibal, and both of them are correct and both of them are fucked, as far as their fates go.

There were some viewer objections to the Europe arc in the way it went all in on that dreamlike, artsy-fartsy narrative quality. Did you feel you had maybe reached a limit of how far you could take that approach?

Bryan Fuller: Honestly, it didn’t really occur to me to say, “Ohmigod, is this too far?” As a storyteller you go, “This is a story I understand and I’m going to tell it.” As opposed to having an agenda of, “Who can I make happy with this version of the story?” If we leapt back into a crime procedural story after the trauma of everything people experienced at the end of season 2, that to come back out of it and to be investigating murders felt disingenuous to the characters. So much of what “Hannibal” is and how we’ve been telling stories on “Hannibal” has been subjective to the characters’ experience. This is the headpsace that we’re all in after all of have been so brutally deceived by someone so close to us. So it felt like it wasn’t organic place to take the characters, because in reality, that’s what it felt like to me. That’s the headspace that they are in. They are in a traumatized headspace. They are in shock. That Italian chapter is so much PTSD, and then it’s not even post, it’s traumatic stress disorder. So you have a feeling that you’re walking around in a dream, because everything you’ve experienced is so terrible that you’re trying to wrap your head around it. That is very much the arc of the first chapter of the season: trying to get back to reality, trying to swim through the muddy murk of the trauma, and get back to a place where you can identify reality as reality and you just don’t feel like you’re trapped in your own insanity.

Where did the idea for the kaleidoscopic sex scene between Alana and Margot come from?

Bryan Fuller: Originally, it came from Caroline Dhavernas, who came to me between seasons. We were doing a commentary for one of the blu-rays, and we asked them to remove it from the commentary to avoid spoiling it, but she said during the scene where she has the five-way with her and Mads and Hugh and the Stag Man and Margot that her only regret was not being naked in bed with Margot, because she got to be naked in bed with Mads and Hugh. And I thought, “That’s actually a really great direction for the character, and it makes sense for all of these reasons.” I always wanted the sex scenes on “Hannibal” to feel the way that really amazing amyl nitrate-fueled sex can be, where you’re out of your body, and your flesh is merging with the flesh of your partner, and it’s also a great metaphor for penetration in many ways. A wheel of legs is like scissor sistering all around the clock. I just thought, “What a cool way to do a sex scene that is poetic and also reminiscent of really good sex in a very strange way.” I wanted it to feel like sex, hypnotic, like you’re giving yourself up to sins of the flesh.

And Alana’s decision to essentially appropriate Hannibal’s wardrobe for herself?

Mine. I wanted her in suits for season 3 and sat with (costume designer) Christopher Hargadon and these beautiful houndstooth suits, and said, “This is Alana’s look for this season. She’s been so immersed in Hannibal’s world and trying to come up out of it. It’s like the slime clinging to her body are these patterned suits.

I saw a number of viewers say they found it genuinely upsetting or sad to see him in those drab coveralls while she essentially got to strut around in his clothes.

Bryan Fuller: I thought that was fascinating. He’s gone to a blank slate, and now she’s the one who’s holding the strings.

Going back even earlier in the season, how did the corpse-turned-hart-turned-stag come about?

Bryan Fuller: We were in the writers room, and we were talking about, “What can you do to a body to twist it and break it in such a manner that it resembles a smaller piece of the body?” Then we talked about the heart, and then the tarot cards of the heart with three swords in it. And from there, when I was doing a polish on the script, I changed it to the Franksentag.

I still have nightmares about that.

Bryan Fuller: That’s great. I want action figures of it.

If this is really it, other than finding a way to adapt “Silence of the Lambs,” is there anything you wish you could have done with these characters and this world that you didn’t?

Bryan Fuller: The story of the fourth season, which is a rebranding of the Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter relationship, that was very exciting. I looked at it and said, “This was actually the most interesting aspect of this story.” So I regret we weren’t able to tell that. But who knows what the future may bring?

You talked before about NBC really indulging you over the years, and your own lack of interest in the procedural stuff. In a million years, would they have allowed you to come in at the start of the series with the season 3 aesthetic? Or did you have to slowly immerse them in the water and heat it up or else they’d have never let you get that far?

Bryan Fuller: Absolutely. We had to earn their trust. We had to be able to say, “This is the procedural version of the show.” If the show was a huge hit, and really connected with an audience in a way that “The Blacklist” did, they would have said, “No, this is the format of the show, and you’re keeping to it.” But because the show wasn’t a huge hit, and had a very niche but passionate audience, I think they saw no harm in allowing me to play.

Hannibal is a character who’s had a long and successful run in other media. Why do you think this one didn’t connect with a larger audience?

Bryan Fuller: I wanted to be very authentic to the tone of the books, and very authentic to Thomas Harris. And I think there is a version of Hannibal, say if you cast James Spader, or Hugh Grant as Hannibal Lecter, and leaned into the slightly campier, more accessible aspects of the films that we began to see in the later movies, then that might have connected in a way that pop culture understood Hannibal. But I chose to go back to the source material and make it as genuine to the source material and my fanfiction approach as I could, and give it a level of sobriety and dignity, even I look at the show as a very black comedy. It was very literary, it was very pretentious, and very niche. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised that it didn’t find an audience. Initially, there was a lot of fatigue with the character, and people felt the character was played out, and I heard from countless people how they weren’t even interested in seeing the show because they weren’t interested in Hannibal Lecter again. But the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter gave us, for me, the best version of Hannibal Lecter. But perhaps not the most commercial.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com