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by Alison Willmore
May 31, 2013 5:13 PM
31 Comments
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How 'Hannibal' Earns Its Violence By Engaging Our Fears About Watching

Brooke Palmer/NBC Hugh Dancy in 'Hannibal'

There are shows on the air with higher body counts, from the constant string of corpses being shuffled through "C.S.I." to the frequent offings in "The Following" and the hack-and-slashery of "Game of Thrones," but for my dollars, there's no small screen violence more disturbing than that of "Hannibal," the excellent "Silence of the Lambs" prequel series created by Bryan Fuller. It's not the amount of gore in the show so much as the imagination that goes into it -- that Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) frequently cooks up human offal into fussy, exquisite-looking dishes he serves to his unknowing guests is really the least of it.

People have had the skin on their back flayed and suspended on hooks like wings, have been buried alive to serve as mushroom beds, have had their throats cut open and their vocal chords treated so that they could be played like a cello. One particularly haunting scene had the child of a killer realizing her father had been using all of the parts of his victims like an efficient outdoorsman, and cutting open a throw pillow to find it filled with human hair. In last night's episode, "Buffet Froid," the victim had her face slashed in a fashion known as a Chelsea smile, her jaw gaping unnaturally wide in death.

READ MORE: NBC Renews Bryan Fuller's Serial Killer Drama 'Hannibal' for a Second Season

The intensity of these scenes has caused some mild fuss about the show -- the fourth episode, about brainwashed, killer children, was pulled at Fuller's request, with the character development sequences snipped out and released online. Salt Lake City's NBC affiliate station KSL-TV pulled the show after four episodes due to viewer complaints.

But for the most part, even the unsettlingly gruesome disfigurings "Hannibal" has come to specialize in have gone uncommented on, so inured are we to onscreen violence these days. But "Hannibal" is unusual, and commendable, really, in that part of the point of the show is the fallout of watching such things, is whether the main character, the increasingly distraught FBI special investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), will someone be changed into a killer himself by all the things he's seen and absorbed.

The link between observing violence and causing it is brought up every time a new tragedy becomes news -- what video games did this shooter play, what movies did he like? There's no real evidence of causality, but the topic gets brought up again and again. It's a convenient way to turn the conversation away from issues like gun control, certainly, but it's also an idea that haunts us in a way that has nothing to do with reason -- that people somehow become numb to the realities of violence after seeing too much of it, real or faked, that it can contaminate them. "Hannibal" is a kind of dramatization of that fear by way of a protagonist who's particularly porous, who has very little grounding and no shield between himself and the things he sees.

We watch the same violence Will does, though he exists in the world of the show in which it's real instead of comfortably on the other side of the screen. He's still fundamentally an observer, one who arrives to commune with the crime scene when it's as fresh and undisturbed as possible. His dilemma is an interesting one -- he's the theoretical problem viewer in the otherwise fine mass audience, the one who can't separate himself from what he's seeing.

That's also his superpower, what makes him such a brilliant profiler -- he has an "empathy disorder" that allows him to put himself in the place of the killers, to understand where they're coming from and why they did what they did, an ability the show displays by having Will there, committing the murders himself. He's able to lose himself in the story implied by the evidence, and as the show's progressed, he's become more and more worried he can't get back out.

"There's a grandiosity to the violence I imagined that feels more real than what I know is true," he said in "Buffet Froid" -- he's making it more cinematic, more grand, more screen-worthy. More enjoyable, or so he worries. And while the episode also made us aware of how Will's splintering sanity isn't just due to psychological stress, it also set up the external forces that are pulling him in two. Hannibal wants him to go from observer to doer, to give in to the killer he believes is within as his sense of reality continues to blur, while Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) needs him to be able to keep looking and then shaking it off, to use the fact that he's saving lives as an anchor ("Is it me, or is it becoming easier for you to look?").

And Will keeps slipping between reality and the world in his head, such that he's terrified he'll kill someone and not even know it. It's a fascinating treatment of very familiar subject matter -- serial killers, who deserve their own TV genre -- that manages to give it a new kind of weight and impact beyond being just lurid, something that's helped by how secondary the episode-by-episode cases are compared to the slowly developing relationships between the main characters. It's not a procedural about finding killers -- it's a drama about the battle for Will's soul.

31 Comments

  • Jassoville | June 5, 2013 11:29 AMReply

    Thanl you sooo much for such an enlightening piece on "Hannibal"; especially since is being aired on network TV. Just goes to show you how very strong people feel about this series,....me, I find that it is well written, so much so, the character studies,...are phenominal,....and it's obvious this series will 'never' be aired at the family hour. With that said, I am confused with the rants of hate,....going on and on. Hey you, hater,....turn the TV off or change the channel. This series certainly implies it is more for the cerebral types,......it has soo many deminsions, and the stories have soo much depth,....being a thinking person,...you do boubt have to pay attention to detail. A wise decision was made with th casting of Hannibal's character,.....this actor made sure he made it his own,.....NO ONE, but no one can follow in Sir Anthony's shoes. The complaints about brutality, blood, and massacres,....what the hell did you think this series was about, if you're not up for it, don't have the stomach for it,....don't friggin' watch it.

  • Debunker | June 2, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    Someone needs to ban D Paul and send him to his room without supper so he can study his religious extremist texts more carefully.

  • Troi | June 3, 2013 7:29 PM

    Could not agree with you more,......just sayin',....D Paul is ingesting(sorry for the pun) far tooo much caffiene.

  • torres76 | June 2, 2013 3:10 PMReply

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  • Mark | June 2, 2013 2:41 PMReply

    Manhunter tops all other attempts at Lecter.

  • ShaunN | June 1, 2013 6:24 PMReply

    Just a few points. I've watched "Hannibal" from time to time and been impressed by the acting and the storyline. But I find the images of violence grotesque and disturbing. Yes, I know that I am supposed to, but I am also concerned about the idea that the exposure of society to this kind of violence does run the risk of inuring us to pain and suffering.

    I say this knowing full well that there is relatively little evidence to support this and that even being inured to violence does not mean that you are going to go out and commit acts of violence. I also know that human society has been far worse and more violence-prone in the past and that a credible argument can be made that we are more moral and concerned about suffering than ever before. I also know that crime rates are falling in the entire industrialized world and have been for a long time. However, two factors inform my concern. One is the fact that the US military is recruiting drone pilots and training them based on video games. The idea that you can get people to do things in the real world by first desensitizing them using artificial violence seems to be an argument that military accepts. Second, I know from personal experience that constant exposure to fictional violence has made me less sensitive to violence in the real world. If it can happen to me, it can happen to others, and to people a lot more dangerous than I am.

  • jim emerson | June 1, 2013 7:55 PM

    After three episodes, I find myself admiring this show quite a bit, even though every one of those episodes contained gruesome images that made me feel physically ill. I didn't know this kind of stuff could be shown on broadcast network television -- I guess because I belatedly realized I've been watching cable (HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC, etc.) almost exclusively for years. For "Hannibal," I had to block off the lower part of the screen with my hand during the exhumation of the rotting, fungus-infested corpses and the gushing of blood from a girl's neck, to name a couple stomach-churning examples.

    I don't think there's any question that all the violence we witness vicariously has a desensitizing effect -- how could it not? But, Shaunn, I'm not sure your US military example -- though you're quite right to be concerned -- applies so much to the kind of violence depicted on "Hannibal." I tend to think it's the sanitized violence that causes the more dangerous kind of desensitization -- the kind you're describing, where the killers (military or not) are insulated from the consequences of their deadly actions. (Remember that chilling desert raid scene in "Patriot Games," viewed by satellite?) Those of us old enough to have witnessed Bush I's Gulf War in 1990-91 were appalled by the images of real-life video-game techno-violence Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf employed to thrill TV news personalities. That was 20+ years ago, but the horrifying truth is that desensitization has always been one of the essential combat skills drilled into warriors. Pilots learn to fly using video flight simulators; bombers and gunners learn to target and shoot using video games and actual weapons that use game-like technology.

    "Hannibal," however, is up to something else, I think. Alison's final sentence captures it eloquently: "It's not a procedural about finding killers -- it's a drama about the battle for Will's soul."

  • Eli the Mildly Confused | June 1, 2013 5:25 PMReply

    D PAUL makes me laugh. Thanks ALISON WILLMORE for this well written review on Hannibal and for pulling D PAUL out of the shadows. Best troll comments this year (unless D PAUL is serious... in which case I worry). I do hope this series keeps going until Bryan Fuller is done with it, instead of it being canceled as per usual.

  • Hoppers | June 1, 2013 12:07 AMReply

    Killing as an artform. (Poe and Hitchcock would have loved this series.) Hannibal is a cinematic masterpiece. Each week I feel like I went to a hollywood movie and NBC should be proud that they took a chance on this show and renewed it despite many outspoken opponents. It does not feel like you are watching a network and it is interesting to see the emotion it brings out for both people that love and despise the series. The psychological commentary mixed with the slow waltz between the main characters make for complex plot-line eventhough we all know the ending of this story. It plays into the psychological need within everyone to know how and when this story ends, which thankfully will not come for another 13 episodes.

  • Charles | May 31, 2013 11:36 PMReply

    I'll only be on the soapbox for a moment, gentlemen. God bless you for your deep convictions, but your perspective is woefully short in biblical literature, history and art throughout all civilizations. D Paul, note that "Hannibal" carries the strongest warning for those images and concepts which you abhor at 10pm on a Thursday night. We aren't afforded that from FOX to MSNBC or their parent news masters when they break into their own programming to show an actual beheading in London, or elsewhere.
    The point being: "Hannibal" is a fiction. I mentioned the Bible. What besides the Word of God (literally) has sold more copies than any other and likely caused the faithful conversion of millions of souls since its beginnings and after printing was invented. Yes, Dante's Divine Comedy, and in particular, Inferno. To condemn Dante is to condemn condemnation. Imagery ever since all pales by comparison, even if real whether the Donner Party or the beheadings by Jihadists. Hieronymous Bosch's tryptich, The Garden of Earthly Delights has just as abhorent imagery as you'd find in any episode thus far of "Hannibal." Dante, 13th c.; Bosch 15thc. And they aren't deviant from other masterful artists and poets.
    And what little you know about the psychology of the ficticious Lector you betray in your summation. Were Lector and Nero contemporaneous and Hannibal real, Nero would never have had the opportunity to torture, mutilate, kill and defile his victims; he would have already been excised from the moral compass, such as it was, of Rome by one Hannibal Lector. Your guess and mileage may vary.

  • D Paul | May 31, 2013 11:13 PMReply

    How do you tell radical Muslims to "get off the boat" when American tv just "hit an iceberg"? There is no redeeming social value for "Hannibal". That is the definition for pornography used by the U.S. Supreme Court. The use of bodies to cultivate mushrooms is something deserving of sending the designers to the Gulag or to Auschwitz. This is sickness of the highest order and much like Munich before the rise of the fuehrer. Even Nero while he fiddled while watching Rome burn would have drawn the line with Hannibal and sent him to be eaten as garbage in the coliseum. It would probably be best to send the network executives from NBC along.

  • Mark | May 31, 2013 11:10 PMReply

    I cannot stomach cannibalism (pun intended). I can't even watch Sweeny Todd. I am a bit disturbed by Hollywood's recent insistence on showing serial killers and assassins as cool, attractive, or sympathetic people. They need to be shown for who they are: violent, worthless, killers, who are totally grotesque and ugly on the inside and character we want to see killed or at least locked up for life before they kill again.
    Also, what sick twisted freak writes a network TV show episode about kids being brainwashed to become murderers?

  • Charles | May 31, 2013 10:40 PMReply

    I'm a Harris fan, so much so that I can find rationales as to why the film of "Hannibal Rising" has its place, as well as the novel, on the lower pedestals of "Lectorism."
    This series, however, is groundbreaking. We're seeing not only Lector, but the whole solar system of Lector through new eyes, not as by Copernicus, but through a Hubble telescope.
    The production, the whole production of the series thus far, is pristine and a flawless new gem, showing spectrums not found in either novels or films thus far. I suspect that it will become an issue very quickly in season two how to expand upon quoted themes from other scripts (the proto Clarice getting too close and consumed, etc.), and as long as they can successfully mine Red Dragon and add to it with Hannibal's shrink, Crawford's personal foibles, and the amazing amplification, of Will by Hugh Dancy and his possible relationship with his ex-psych shadow, it's going to be a hell of a ride.

  • Elaine | May 31, 2013 9:48 PMReply

    The show is not for everyone. Thus why you are able to simply turn the TV off if you don't like it. I actually enjoy it, but rest assured I am not a serial killer, I am not strung out on drugs or a drunk. I simply find the show interesting along with The Following. Glad it got renewed.

  • Van | May 31, 2013 8:59 PMReply

    A clear and thoughtful review, well written and concise. You touch on the central struggle of the show, not the one to catch a killer, but the battle for Will's soul. Will is droning in his own, overwhelming state, and the viewer is along for the journey. Will he win his battle (hard to say, with his own {late} neurologist working with Lechter to keep Will in the dark abut his own, serious condition) against his own, deeply troubled mind? It is engaging to watch, not for everyone, to be sure, but real art truly is. If strong imagery bothers you, go watch the Cartoon network. I will be enjoying the intense storytelling in "Hannibal."

  • Troi | May 31, 2013 9:47 PM

    Hey VAN,....soo concise and on point. Nothing is more irritating that folks who do critiques, blasting at a show like Hannibal,....my goodness, what did they think it was going to be,.....a walk in the park? It certainly early on explains the relationship between Jack crawford and Hannibal, how it all began,....and the new Hannibal,....isn't he just magnificent ? Smartly he doesn't try and fill Sir Anthomy's shoes,...but without a doubt has made it his own. The profiler Will,...he can be scary as well.....as for this series,.......it's clear, some people get and obviously some people don't.

  • Troi | May 31, 2013 8:58 PMReply

    I am often surprised at the trolls who toss out critiques,...but continue to watch it,....simplicity is best,...don't like it, don't watch it.
    This series is phenominal, especially with thw writing,....all things considered,...with full knowledge of Sir Anthony's dazzling perfomance, bringing it to TV, you best bring your A game, and then some. The actor is chilling, and with his own spin on the character,...but, my goodness he is mesmerizing; have to admit though, the profiler is just as freaky as Hannbal himself. The cutaways, exterior shots, and lanscape overall vision in motion,.....breathtaking. So pleased it was renewed,....well worth the watch,.......it's right up there with The Following for it's creepiness,......

  • rosana | May 31, 2013 8:42 PMReply

    I agree it's a great show. The writing and the imagination is fascinating.

  • D Paul | May 31, 2013 11:14 PM

    You need to have a long interview with Nurse Ratched.

  • Dianne | May 31, 2013 7:55 PMReply

    I find this show very difficult to watch. It promotes killing to a grotesque art display. There is rarely any attempt to give voice to the victims, who are there to be killed and for no other reason. All empathy is for the killers. Hannibal is portrayed as a rather glamorous, if chilly, gourmet cook. And it is so amazingly boring...the characters talk endlessly but much of the dialogue is mumbled. I would really like sub titles so I knew if anything interesting was said, but I doubt if there is. Despite the gore, despite the endless perversity of the elaborate deaths, it is predictable in every other way. I don't understand the fascination for serial killers to begin with, nor have I ever thought Hannibal was a particularly well-developed character, so I admit my bias. But why anyone would endure this show for long is beyond me.

  • Dianne | May 31, 2013 9:21 PM

    I am sure that you win many arguments by insulting people. It shows the level of intelligence I would expect. I watched three episodes because people were saying how wonderful it was. I thought, well, maybe I can't judge it on one episode. So I watched two more and continued to find it distasteful. And so I stopped watching. I also believe freedom of speech goes in two directions. Just because you don't agree with me does not mean I don't have a right to voice the reasons why I would not waste another hour on this show. You don't need to agree, but you don't need to insult me as you disagree. Oh, yes, I guess you can insult me but that says more about you than it does about me.

  • Van | May 31, 2013 8:43 PM

    Dianne: You are rather stupid to watch a show which disturbs you so much. Your post complains about the dialog being "boring," and the fascination with serial killers...but you WATCH IT ANYWAY, you contrary, wheedling wench. If you had nothing to contribute to the dialogue about this brilliant, well made show, then why do you watch, and why did you post here? I would wager that you complain about violent video games, too, without ever playing one, or books you don't like the cover of. TURN OFF THE TUBE ON THURSDAY NIGHTS, and let those of us who appreciate a good shack watch in peace.

  • Amy | May 31, 2013 7:53 PMReply

    Best show on TV! Hugh Dancy is phenomenal and I was thrilled to see Gillian Anderson join the cast. This is one of the most intelligent and thrilling shows in years.

  • D Paul | May 31, 2013 11:16 PM

    It's called decadence and perversion. Actually, you are one of those who fuel the radical Muslim lust for the radical overthrow of this once great nation.

  • Jill | May 31, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    what worries me is that people are enjoying this level if violence.I cannot stomach it and will not watch it ,nor do I watch any of the other ones that are on. Where have we turned that this is whats on for entertainment on television ? What happened to suspense?I don't live in convent nor am I a prude.I just can't understand why people enjoy watch others be hacked to death.

  • Van | May 31, 2013 8:48 PM

    Again...did you get lost on your way to the bake-off, Dearie? You and Dianne need to go pick up your brats at Gymbortee--turn off the set if you do not like what is on--like all the rest of us do, when Pat Robertson or some other wolf in sheep's clothing comes on. Exercise your right of choice, and quit whining.

  • Amira Smith | May 31, 2013 6:06 PMReply

    This is an exceptional review!

  • Jill | May 31, 2013 9:47 PM

    To Van, yes I do exercise my right to not watch in fact I never seen it at all. I find it rather disturbing as I do your comments defending such violence. Have you or a family ever been a victim of any sort violence,had a friend murdered? Obviously not quite whats on this show but violence non the rest haunts you without having to bloody images on the TV screen.

  • Amira Smith | May 31, 2013 6:05 PMReply

    This is an exceptional review!

  • Edward Copeland | May 31, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    Very well written and keenly observed, Ms. Willmore. I was very skeptical about the show when I heard that it would be coming, thinking, "Do we really need ANOTHER serial killer show -- especially one that dips into the Lecter well again?" The mostly positive reviews encouraged me to give it a chance and I've watched it ever since. I'm glad they decided to give it a second season, albeit not to return until spring 2o14, but somehow I think the decline in its ratings and NBC's hesitancy about whether or not to renew it underscores how good it is. It makes viewers uncomfortable when they prefer their violence to be of the generic type of a CSI, SVU or Criminal Minds.

  • D Paul | May 31, 2013 11:20 PM

    CSI, SVU, and Criminal Minds are basically just good old fashioned "graphic violence" which is ignorant and useless. The next logical step in the undermining of America is "graphic perversion". That is the same sort of thing as glorifying Jeffrey Dammer. If you know anything about how he died in prison with the use of a broomstick, then you will know that the show on NBC and possibly even NBC itself should suffer the same fate.