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How The Surprising Moral Strength Of ‘Hannibal’ Helps To Make It One Of TV’s Best Dramas

How The Surprising Moral Strength Of 'Hannibal' Helps To Make It One Of TV's Best Dramas

In a church in Palermo, Italy, there sits an “installation” mounted on an easel. It roughly approximates the shape of a giant human heart, down to two thick aortic valves sticking out of the top. But the materials are entirely gruesome: it’s fashioned out of a human body, twisted and reshaped. It’s the final shot of the opening episode of the third season of “Hannibal,” which aired last week, and it encapsulates for the show perfectly: it’s provocative, weird, utterly horrifying, strangely romantic and perversely beautiful. But in placing the display in a church, the show’s creators remind us of the old-school good vs. evil morality that lies at their show’s center. 

When announced a few years back, the idea of a “Hannibal” TV series was singularly unpromising, seemingly a marker of the lack of ideas that has characterized network TV in recent years. Thomas Harris’ creation Hannibal Lecter, a culturally refined yet cannibalistic serial killer and forensic psychiatrist, had been at the center of one of the best thrillers of the 1980s, Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” and then one of the best of the 1990s, Jonathan Demme’s unlikely Oscar juggernaut “The Silence Of The Lambs,” the latter making Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the good doctor one of cinema’s most iconic villains. 


But the new millennium had seen Lecter become increasingly tarnished —by Ridley Scott’s silly grand guignol “Hannibal,” by Brett Ratner’s bland “Manhunter” remake “Red Dragon,” and by Peter Webber’s unnecessary prequel “Hannibal Rising” (the first and third of the preceding were not helped by working off Harris novels that were decidedly disappointing when compared to their predecessors). He’d been Jason Voorhees-ed, transformed from a legitimately terrifying, mysterious villain to a cartoon character with a Nazis-ate-my-sister backstory. 

A network TV series, even one directed produced by international company Gaumont rather than directly by NBC, hardly seemed like the best way to redeem Lecter’s reputation, given the stream of dead bodies (normally young women) stacked up by the plethora of interchangeable serial killer shows (most of which were inspired by “Silence Of The Lambs” anyway) already airing. Sure, the idea of a show where an as-yet-unmasked Lecter aids FBI investigations was easy, but easy things are rarely worthwhile. 


And then the show aired, and it was clear that showrunner Bryan Fuller had taken an original path with a series that started strong and has only become deeper, richer and stranger over time, with last week’s third season premiere suggesting that it’s continuing to crest.

Fuller seemed an unlikely choice at first: he’s best known for the decidedly whimsical, very good but short-lived series “Dead Like Me,” “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies.” But a look past the surface shows that those series (none of which made it past a second season) rendered Fuller a perfect choice to reinvent Lecter. To varying degrees, the show is centered on death (even the lighter “Wonderfalls” returns to theme of mortality to a surprising degree), and Fuller’s approach to the serial killer show made it immediately clear that this wasn’t going to be a series that racked up a body count without consequences. The murders are grisly and inventive, but the weight of a life being taken, as well as what it is to take one, haunts the series from the off. 


It helps that those murders are presented like none previously seen on screen. From the first episode, featuring the indelible leitmotif of a woman mounted on the antlers still attached to a head of a stag (an visual perplexingly duplicated in “True Detective” —was there something in the water?), “Hannibal” has presented a series of images that reintroduce horror in its purest form to television, without the cartoonish CGI splatter or jump scares of “American Horror Story” or “Hemlock Grove.”  

READ MORE: Interview: Mads Mikkelsen On ‘Hannibal’ Season 2, ‘The Salvation’ And The Scandinavian Film Renaissance    

Horror really is the appropriate word —just when you think that Fuller and his team (with directors including David Slade, John DahlJames Foley, Vincenzo Natali and Guillermo Navarro) has desensitized you, another tableaus of death throws you off balance. From living captives turned into mushroom farms, to human cellos (exactly as gross as that sounds), to a totem pole made up of bodies, and a beloved character bisected multiple times and presented in parallel glass sheets, each death causes a lurch of horror. Yet they’re all queasily beautifully to look at, perfectly composed, gorgeously lit and painted in the show’s distinctive color palette, like something dragged out of Goya, Dante (the latter was explicitly homaged in the most recent episode) or the Chapman Brothers


Yet somehow, the show doesn’t fetishize the acts or the results: instead, these tableaux both place in the viewer in the mind’s eye of Lecter himself (he’s an aesthete through and through, the presentation of his questionably-sourced culinary feasts mirroring the immaculately conceived crime scenes —for a show about cannibalism, you’ll be surprised how hungry it can make you), while also playing up the idea of ritual in the taking of a life. 

In Fuller’s milieu, murder is an alien, almost unfathomable act that tears the universe apart, and is presented as such: the bounds of reality bear little relation to the world depicted here, and there’s increasingly a sense of dream logic to the series, matched by a level of visual abstraction that sometimes makes it closer to “Berberian Sound Studio” than pure giallo, even if the Italian setting of the new series makes it clear that we’re likely to get plenty of Argento nods. Even the staggeringly great score by Sofia Coppola collaborator Brian Reitzell often feels off-kilter and discombobulated: percussion is often at odds with everything else, including the rest of the score, putting you fundamentally on edge. 


And it’s partly through this that the show finds something like a sense of morality that something like “Dexter,” for all its attempts to excuse the actions of its serial killer protagonist, could never find. Also unlike the Michael C. Hall-starring show,  the title character is never romanticized. 

It would be wrong to say that the character of Lecter in the hands of the great Mads Mikkelsen is unappealing. He’s always dressed to the nines, has a wry sense of humor (for all its bleakness, the show can be darkly funny without necessarily relying on I’m-having-an-old-friend-for-dinner puns) and has his own perverse moral code —there is no greater sin in his eyes than rudeness, and plenty have been punished for it. He’s also, as the series has increasingly expanded on and as Fuller has made explicit in interviews, literally the devil.


Well, not literally: the show hasn’t yet suggested that Lecter is actually the mythological figure of Satan, but he’s certainly damn close: a “fallen angel,” as Fuller puts it. And as much as he’s responsible for his own victims, his role is as much about corrupting those around him, or more accurately, finding someone to play with. There’s a loneliness to Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Lecter, a desire to find someone as fucked as he is (one that drives the Tumblr-favorite semi-platonic romance between him and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham, with Hannibal’s heartbreak looking to drive much of the third season). 

That corruption comes to corrupt everything and everyone he comes in contact with, either with those that he deliberately grooms as proteges, or those whose defences to the all-pervading evil he brings with him simply can’t hold for long enough. 


Because at its heart, this is a show about evil itself, and about its nature and its effects. Like the best screen monsters, Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is impossible to take your eyes off of, and is even sympathetic in places (to return to that image I talked about at the beginning, symbolizing for all the world his heartbreak over Will, it makes you feel for him in ways you swore you wouldn’t again after the bloodbath at the end of the previous season). 

But he’s still a monster, a force of nature, and one whose backstory, even if it’s expanded on, is unlikely to explain or excuse his actions. By ensuring that Lecter remains a villain and never becomes an anti-hero, Fuller has made the character scary again, and given his show a surprising moral heft that elevates it away from genre and into greatness. 

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