This post contains spoilers for “Hannibal’s” series finale, “The Wrath of the Lamb”
When TV criticism moved from a sporadic schedule to a weekly one, the rest of the coverage followed suit, leading, in the case of the most popular shows, to a regular series of interviews running anywhere from the minute to the morning after an episode finishes. The impulse is instilled in us by now: Just as you might flip to the special features after watching a movie, so you might finish, say “Game of Thrones'” Battle of Hardhome and look up what director Miguel Sapochnik has to say about how they pulled it off.
The problem, as Ryan McGee puts in a blog post called “Why It Might Be Time to Kill the Post-Mortem,” comes when we turn to a show’s creative personnel not for information but interpretation. Did Don Draper write the Coke ad? Did Jaime Lannister rape his sister? And for the love of God, is Tony Soprano dead? Whether these moments are purposefully ambiguous or just murkily staged, there’s a danger in running to the people who made them to tell us what they mean, especially insofar as it curtails our freedom to make up our own minds.
A particularly contentious example is the post-credits “stinger” of what has become “Hannibal’s” series finale (for now), “The Wrath of the Lamb,” which shows Gillian Anderson’s Bedelia Du Maurier sitting at an elaborately set dinner table, preparing to feast on a succulent roast that is slowly revealed as her own leg. In the previous scene, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) grabs Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and throws them both off a cliff, a fall neither of them could plausibly survive, and while, if “Hannibal” had continued, they obviously would have found a way to escape, the way the show ends now, they have to be presumed dead. From that, it follows that Bedelia, finally infected by Hannibal’s madness, has cut off her own leg and prepared it for him as a special treat, not knowing that she’ll be dining alone. It’s a prefect grace note to the operatic sacrifice that precedes it, and a reminder that even if Hannibal may be dead, the evil he loosed into the world will survive him. If “Hannibal” is over, that’s a pretty good ending. (As a reader pointed out, she’s like a “Hannibal” fan, waiting for one more course that will never come.)
There’s just one problem. As Fuller told HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, among others, that’s not how he meant it.
Sepinwall: She seems as if she is throwing a dinner party.
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?
Sepinwall: So it was just your tease for the possibility of more?
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!”
Does it matter what Fuller meant? Not exactly. But it can’t be discounted either, especially not in the era of the showrunner as all-powerful auteur. As McGee writes:
“TV critics, including myself, have been part of the problem, in that we have deified showrunners to the point where their voices shape the interpretation of shows above and beyond the content of those programs. Ideally, these episodes speak for themselves, and should provide all the information necessary from which to start a dialogue. Starting that dialogue opens up possibilities. Being told what that episode, season, or series meant inherently shuts them down. Such answers might provide momentary satisfaction but ultimately produce far more discouragement. The second that a showrunner provides an answer to a previously ambiguous event, that’s it. There’s no going back. You can disagree with the execution, but intent is now forever mixed, and the chasm between those two serves as an irritant.”
Given that “Hannibal’s” fourth season already exists, in some form, in Fuller’s mind, it’s not surprising he sees the Bedelia stinger as a cliffhanger. But with no more “Hannibal” forthcoming, I think the other interpretation — which was my initial read as well — is, frankly, better: more satisfying, thematically richer, even a better sick joke. If Fuller and co. somehow make more “Hannibal,” they’ll explain how Hannibal and Will survived their fall and how Bedelia ended up at that table, but for now, they’re dead, and she did it to herself. Even Anderson’s performance is deliciously ambiguous: You can read her trembling as fear, gripping her fork in one final bid at defending herself, or as quasi-sexual excitement, preparing for her own version of the Red Dragon’s “becoming.”
Showrunner interviews aren’t going away, of course, but at least we can keep them in perspective. You can’t ignore intent, but it shouldn’t be the ballgame, either. One of the measures of great art it contains more than its creators consciously put into it, and with an art form as collective as television, no one person — not even the mighty showrunner — can truly be said to be in control. Art is not an inert object, but what happens when that object comes into contact with an audience, and the product of that contact is not the property of either side.