In 2013, Hannibal Lecter became scary again.
Mind you, the witty epicurean with a taste for human flesh had been terrifying long before — in Thomas Harris’s original novels, or when Brian Cox played him as a sulky genius in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter, and especially in Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Anthony Hopkins’s magnetic and unsettling performance in that film not only earned him a Best Actor Oscar, but also cemented Hannibal’s place among the great movie monsters.
But like Dracula, Freddy, and nearly all of his predecessors, Lecter quickly devolved into something familiar and toothless. Hopkins’s portrayals grew increasingly hammy in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001) and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002), and by the time French actor Gaspard Ulliel played the character in the 2007 prequel film Hannibal Rising, Lecter had been reduced to a familiar set of tics and quotes.
NBC’s weekly series Hannibal returned the character to his frightening glory. A network crime procedural hardly seems like the ideal venue for such a rehabilitation, but over the course of three seasons, showrunner Bryan Fuller and his collaborators created some of the most surreal and disturbing prime time television since the original Twin Peaks.
Set before the events of Harris’s first novel Red Dragon, Hannibal follows the relationship between FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), whose “pure empathy” allows him to assume anyone’s perspective, and Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), known at this time only as a respected psychiatrist and gracious host. As they investigate cases brought to them by FBI Director Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), the two men engage in something between a romance and cat and mouse game.
By his own admission, Fuller gave Hannibal a “case of the week” procedural structure as a concession to NBC, allowing it to sit comfortably alongside legal thrillers like CSI and Law & Order. For the first season and a half, episodes would involve Crawford sending a wise-cracking forensic team (featuring Aaron Abrams, Hettienne Park, and Kids in the Hall alum Scott Thompson) to investigate some bizarre crime, with Graham creating psychological profiles of the perpetrator, while Hannibal and fellow psychiatrist Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) keep Will from getting lost in murderous minds.
But despite its conventionality, the structure placed the series in a troubling alternate reality, one where anybody could be a killer. Combining the lurid absurdity of Harris’s prose with the gothic whimsy Fuller demonstrated in his earlier death-obsessed shows Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, Hannibal found grisly tableaux in the most inconspicuous places: a kindly pharmacist turns his victims into a mushroom farm, a caring acupuncturist blinds her patients and fills their bodies with beehives. Fully embracing Fuller’s “pretentious art film from the 80s” aesthetic, Hannibal portrayed the corpses in a manner both grotesque and gorgeous, eschewing realism for dream-like phantasmagoria.
In the era of The Blacklist and The Following, gory crime has almost become commonplace, accepted by both tv investigators and the audiences watching them. But Hannibal made the convention part of the show’s worldview. Throughout the series, Lecter nudges others towards acts of violence, in an attempt to normalize himself. He quotes great philosophers and Renaissance artists, but nothing proves his point better than a grouchy old man who gathers 30 years’ worth of victims into a macabre totem pole.
In a world such as this, what makes Hannibal Lecter remarkable? His ability to manipulate. Where all versions of the character have had that quality, most exercised their control through overt provocation —just recall Hopkins’s wide-eyed glee when Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) recoiled at his story about the census taker. Mikkelsen’s Lecter is a consummate observer. He’s always watching from his shark black eyes and cataloguing responses to his suggestions. So detached is this Lecter that his own therapist Dr. Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) describes him as a monster wearing a “person suit.”
And what a compelling suit it is, as Mikkelsen underplays the menace to underscore his manners. Largely restraining his murderous impulses (at least until season three, when he fully reveals his nature), Hannibal covers his machinations with good psychiatry, and his schemes with decedent dinner parties. In Mikkelsen’s hands, we understand how Lecter could live so long as among high society. This Lecter can believably demonstrate empathy for his patients, as when he encourages Jack Crawford’s wife Bella (Gina Torres) to view her terminal cancer diagnosis as change to embrace, not a defeat to suffer.
But the show never lets us forget that Hannibal’s compassion is an extension of his curiosity, not of his humanity. When Bella attempts suicide, ending life on her own terms instead of allowing the cancer to kill her, the camera rests on Hannibal watching her expiring body before he casually pulls out a coin and flips it into the air. He decides to revive her, to prolong her suffering and create turmoil in Jack’s life, all based on a coin toss, just to see what they would do.
This inhumanity also allows Mikkelsen to bring plenty of playfulness to the role, as someone who, as Du Maurier puts it to the FBI, can be brought down by his own “whimsy” toward his crimes. The camera catches the twinkle in Mikkelsen’s eye when he talks of having friends for dinner, or of eating the rude. The jokes are funny, sure, but they’re also terrifying, and not just because they’re about cannibalism. They’re terrifying because we’re enjoying the thought of eating people.
Take the end of the 7th episode of season one, which features Hannibal’s first on-screen murder spree as he collects ingredients for a dinner party. The final scene begins with a pan across a table filled with ornate dishes, guests clapping as baroque classical plays, eventually landing on Hannibal, taking it all in. “Before we begin, you must all be warned,” he declares with a pregnant pause. “Nothing here is vegetarian.”
We viewers share in the attendees’ satisfied chuckles, and when Hannibal raises a glass in salute, he raises it directly toward the camera, toward us as well. As his smirk reveals, Lecter has accomplished his goal: he’s made his guests into ravenous cannibals and he’s made us enjoy it.
That’s why Fuller’s most effective stroke was making Will Graham the protagonist of Hannibal’s story. An FBI agent who cares for stray dogs obviously makes for an easier audience surrogate than a cannibal psychiatrist (no matter how charming), but Will’s empathy abilities better serve the show’s primary theme and builds the tension.
The series’s iconography demonstrates the relationships between Will and the criminals he hunts, particularly Hannibal himself. Throughout the show, Will has visions of a black stag, a representation of the serial killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs (Vladimir Jon Cubrt), who Will had to shoot in the series pilot and to whom he feels a connection. As Lecter pushes Will into becoming a butcher himself, it mutates into a slate black creature with Hannibal’s face and the stag’s horns, sometimes stalking Will and sometimes giving birth to a chimera with Will’s face.
But for viewers, the most powerful illustration of Will’s vulnerability is the visual representation of his empathy. These sequences open with establishing shots on a crime scene, such as a man with a cello neck protruding from his throat or a dead family with mirrors in their eyes. Yellow bars wipe across the screen, each pass erasing the viscera until all lives and limbs have been restored. The audience then watches the crime play out, with Will taking the place of the murderer, narrating each of his bloody actions until he declares, “This is my design.”
As with the killer of the week structure, these empathy sequences serve a generic purpose by providing exposition. But they also show us Will’s unraveling mind; they make us scared for him and, by extension, scared of Hannibal.
One of the best examples occurs in the 4th episode of season two, which features the death of Beverly Katz (Park), a member of the show’s forensics team. Pushed by the incarcerated Will to investigate a murder, Katz discovers evidence of Hannibal’s involvement. Director David Semel frames the scene in classic horror movie fashion: in the foreground, dread creeps across Katz’s face as she realizes what she’s found; in the background, Hannibal emerges from the shadows. Cut to black.
The real terror comes in the next episode, in which Jack finds Katz’s body, cut into vertical slices and displayed in glass. Jack brings Will from prison to profile the killer, and viewers watch a recreation of the scene. After the yellow bars undo the carnage, we watch Will strangle Katz. We see him freeze her body and cut it into bits, preparing it for the display. We see him fully corrupted by Lecter.
This tension plays out in various ways throughout Hannibal’s three seasons, giving us a fresh take on Lecter. He’s just as charming and witty as he’s ever been, and despite the constraints of network television, Hannibal kills and cooks with memorable violence.
But as we grow to know and love Will, Jack, and the other characters, and as we continue to enjoy Mikkelsen’s mesmerizing performance, we find that Lecter has stuck in our head. Our bodies might be safe from a voracious tv cannibal, but we experience a new horror as we turn off the tv and still feel him there, nibbling on the corners of our minds.