Eulogizing ‘Hannibal’: Smart, Beautiful, Bloody And Destined To Die

“God can’t save any of us because it’s… inelegant. Elegance is more important than suffering. That’s his design.” – Will Graham, Hannibal

It’s one thing to eat someone’s liver with fava beans. It’s quite another to cut off someone’s leg, wrap the meat in string, roll it in flour, sear it on both sides, braise it in stock with a dry white wine and some vegetables, put it in the oven, and present it as veal osso bucco.

NBC’s Hannibal, helmed by showrunner Bryan Fuller, presented Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon material in an entirely new light. It gave Dr. Hannibal Lecter completely new dimensions, transforming him from an extreme psychopath into an almost empathetic character. It defined Will Graham as never before, and reimagined Jack Crawford. It was beautiful, a work of art unlike anything network television has produced in many years. Naturally, it was doomed from the start.

A Thing Is Not Beautiful Because It Lasts Forever

To paraphrase a line from Age of Ultron and Joss Whedon (whose shows likewise have faced untimely ends), a thing is not beautiful because it lasts forever. Hannibal was beautiful because it was doomed, and because of what it did in full knowledge of that fact. And while there’s still a glimmer of hope that this is not the true end of the series  – Fuller has said they’re seeking financing for a feature film – that doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

In the hands of another auteur, Hannibal could have been just another bland, lifeless procedural prioritizing violence over depth and story; another adaptation that went for the cheap thrill. But with Fuller at the helm, we were gifted a series that did away with the simple dichotomy of good versus evil and instead looked into the very nature and meaning of those words.

Hannibal And Will

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Hannibal Lecter was a murdering, sadistic, deranged cannibal, yet he genuinely cared for Will Graham in his own way. Everything he did to Will, he did because, in his mind, it was the best thing for his friend. The character of Hannibal Lecter has always been intriguing and interesting, but this was the first time he was an empathetic character. No matter how many times he tortured and twisted Will’s mind, Will was still drawn to him, and so were we. When he discovers Will’s betrayal and gives him one last chance to confess, only for Will to continue the charade, we feel a tinge of genuine sadness for Hannibal.

To the very end, Hannibal was dedicated to his vision of Will’s well-being, which to him meant embracing his darker side. When Francis Dolarhyde is lying on the ground, blood seeping from wounds produced by the hands (and teeth) of Will and Hannibal, the two share what proves to be a fateful embrace, with Hannibal telling Will “You see, this is all I ever wanted for you.”

Jack Crawford was the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, which would, in any other series or iteration, cast him firmly as a “good guy.” But Jack used Will, and continued to do so even as it drove him to, and over, the edge of insanity. When Will finally got away from that life, it was Jack — knowing full well what would happen — who dragged him back.

Will, meanwhile, was caught between wanting to catch Hannibal and wanting to be with him. He conspired with Jack in a long con to capture Hannibal, but even on the night of the plan’s culmination, he warns Hannibal in a moment that harkens back to the series’ first episode. When Will wakes up, miraculously surviving Hannibal’s gutting, his first thought is not to build a new life, but to find the good doctor.

“Will you slip away with (Hannibal)?” Jack asks Will when the two finally catch up to Hannibal in Italy in season three.

“Part of me will always want to,” Will replies.

It was uncomfortable and compelling, watching this abusive relationship unfold, and one of the main letdowns of the finale. In season one, we see Hannibal exert his control over Will — holding back his encephalitis, lying to him about his delusions, crafting Will into what he wanted him to be. As the second season progressed, it’s Will who begins to take the upper hand.

“I don’t want to kill you, Doctor Lecter,” Will says in one of his therapy sessions after being released from prison “Not when I finally find you interesting.” There is a sense of control, and aura of self-confidence never before seen within the character. This all came to a head in the mid-season finale of season three, when Will tells Hannibal “I’m not going to find you. I’m not going to look for you. I don’t want to know where you are or what you do. I don’t want to think about you anymore.”

Left as is, it’s the culmination of Will’s escape from Hannibal’s abuse, and re-asserting control over himself. Yet, in the series finale, we are told that it was a lie, that Will had to say those things in order for Hannibal to turn himself in. It’s still a victory of sorts, but only insofar as it placed Hannibal behind bars. It was the FBI’s victory over the Chesapeake Ripper, but it wasn’t Will’s victory over Hannibal.

But one uneven series finale (which may not prove to be the true series finale) should not ruin what was truly a singular show.

What A Painting It Was

One was not simply murdered in Hannibal. One was impaled upon an arrangement of antlers, buried alive in a forest and used as soil for mushrooms, had their backs peeled and pinned to form wings out of skin.

Characters did not simply have sex, either. Rather, they blended into one another, a kaleidoscopic orgasm that was neither rough nor romantic, but cinematic.

The spray of arterial blood was like watching a painting in progress. Even in the final chapter of season two, with Will and Abigail writhing on the floor, their blood pooling around them, the sensation wasn’t shock, but anger at Hannibal and sorrow for Will. Too often, shows concerning crime and murder seem to make a concerted effort to shock the viewer. In Hannibal, blood was but one of the many colors used in the painting.

And what a painting it was — this weird, wonderful, horrific, beautiful series.

No show induced nightmares just with its soundtrack. Brian Reitzell, the show’s composer, used every instrument – musical and non-musical in nature – to create an atmosphere of constant dread and discomfort.

No show could convey emotions through sheer silence. The scene with Will and a bloody Abigail, sitting together in amiable quiet, wistful smiles and far-away looks painted on their faces, is perhaps the show’s most haunting and painful scene.

An Uncompromised Vision

No show could or would do what Hannibal did, which is precisely why it was never meant to last. In fact, it’s a miracle it even made it to a full three seasons. It was not always an easy show to watch or follow. The very soundtrack that made it so haunting is also what made it somewhat repellant to casual fans. The viewer was rarely rewarded with a happy ending; usually, the best they could hope for was less suffering for their favorite characters. The acting was always tremendous, but it never overpowered you, nor was it meant to. Madds Mikkelsen’s Hannibal, while revolutionary, was one bereft of catch phrases. Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham was worthy of much more recognition than he received. But he had no signature moment, no Tyrion Lannister On Trial or Don Draper’s “It’s not a wheel” speeches. He had torture and more torture. The series was methodical, purposefully paced. It demanded your attention, and was not something to be left on in the background.  None of these are bad things, they’re just things that, when compounded together, don’t lead to overwhelming commercial success.

Fuller could have saved the series by taking it in a more traditional direction – cutting out the esoterica and taking more notes from, say, The Blacklist. Fuller was completely aware of this, as he told Grantland’s Alex Pappademas:

“I think there were many more commercial approaches we could’ve taken to the material. It would start with casting. We cast Mads Mikkelsen, who’s a brilliant actor, but he’s foreign, and perhaps to some mainstream audiences a little bit hard to understand with his accent. If we had cast James Spader in that role, [or] if we had cast Hugh Grant, [we would have] played much more to the pop-cultural understanding of Hannibal Lecter as a character that had become camp in some of the later films.”

Yet bending to commercial desires would have betrayed everything Fuller, the cast and crew worked towards. The work of art would have become a dull reproduction – the Mona Lisa on a postcard. So Fuller and his merry band took the other route. They worked with what time they had to create something unique, something beautiful. Anything else would have been inelegant.