Hannibal is a perfect example of true excellence in writing. It’s horrific, hideous, and intensely intellectual. It gets up, close, and personal with its audience with the intention of ripping out our hearts, messing with our heads, and forcing us to endure nightmarish horrors right along with its characters. In a way, Hannibal deals with us the same way Hannibal Lecter deals with his victims – by luring us into a false sense of security, forcing us to confront our own belief systems, and then viciously turning on us.
The show works on a multitude of levels, which resonates on several in particular – in its character development and consistencies, its emotionally abusive twists, and in its subtle intricacies.
Hannibal Lecter has, from the start, been totally consistent in his manipulative, sadistic, and abusive behavior, all under a façade of gentlemanly interest that takes us aback whenever we actually ponder the evidence of his crimes (“my sister was still breathing when her lungs were torn out!”). Our inability to comprehend, much less identify with him, makes his actions incredible to us, since we can’t fathom the depths of his evil. He is a total psychopath with zero compassion or humanity, who esteems no one enough not to kill them, and takes vicious pleasure in ensuring others’ continued and prolonged suffering for his own amusement. He is the most iconic “human” depiction of the Devil ever inscribed in fiction or brought to life on-screen: a merciless, soulless monster hell-bent on tormenting other souls.
If we thought he was unbelievable last season, with his careful entrapment of Will Graham, driving him to near-insanity and framing him for all his crimes, last night’s episode absolutely convinced us of what a truly evil bastard he is, when he took a woman’s life in his hands and saved it, just so she can continue to be a source of intense mental anguish (and a distraction) for Jack Crawford – and so she can suffer a long and humiliating death from cancer. Man, that is a whole other level of screwed up.
But the brilliance in this method is that as moral, sane human beings, we continue to search for a shred of human decency in him, but have yet to find it. We know what a monster he is, but he still shocks and horrifies us with it. We know Hannibal caused a patient to attack Bedelia and then convinced him, within sight of her, to swallow his own tongue, therefore introducing her into a moral quandary of cover-ups and lies; then, he insisted on maintaining their professional relationship just to dump salt in the wound and keep her close enough to impose future torment, if need be (“I hesitated to even discuss this with you…”).
We know he injected Will Graham to induce seizures, fed him things that further progressed his brain tumor, and finally framed him so brilliantly for murder that Will is half convinced he actually did it.
We know he incited Abigail’s father to violence and saved her life merely to manipulate and abuse her; we know he formed a façade of fatherly attachment to Abigail only to turn on her when it suited him – and in such a way that she experienced the full anguish of betrayal.
And that is where the strength in the show lies; Hannibal is consistently the villain and consistently evil; there is no excuse for his behavior, no moral justifications for it, no attempt to make us feel sorry for him, and no soul-searching remorse over his actions. In a world of de-fanged vampires searching for redemption, and bad guys who were potty trained wrong, Hannibal is a refreshing if sadistic reminder of the nature of true evil. The writing makes no apologies for him and doesn’t shy away from having every action he takes be totally selfish.
Even more remarkably, it doesn’t diminish the intelligence of his victims – Abigail discerns his identity too late to save herself, but she still knows the truth of him months before anyone else; Beverly alone gets close enough to the truth to unravel Hannibal’s lies – and dies because he is so predictably evil as to be unpredictable to any sane mind. Her death isn’t a weakness, it’s the result of strength. Hannibal only kills the people he sees as a threat to his deceptions. Those that remain pawns in his game are weaker than those that are no longer in the game.
The Symbolism Beneath the Façade
The show’s creator, Brian Fuller, sees Hannibal as an incarnation of the devil, and has woven in themes of deception (the Serpent), temptation (the Fall), and consumption (Satan consuming souls, as Hannibal consumes the bodies of his victims). The first season established this pattern with symbolism in Hannibal’s office, often requiring characters to retreat from the moral high ground on his bookshelf balcony and join him in the scarlet-papered room beneath (a hell of his and their own making), where most of his abuses and manipulations took place.
One of the more ingenious moments this season (so far) is Hannibal stitching a demented artist into his own murderous work of art. Having observed and “admired” the murderous arrangement of bodies, Hannibal takes total control of the soul through verbal manipulation and convinces him to willingly be forever immortalized in his creation; he sews the man into a literal interpretation of hell – just as Satan admires evil, entices the evil-doer to further action, and then abandons him in a hell of his own making.
Luring others into evil actions while evading capture is one of Hannibal’s usual methods of operation; he incites and orchestrates acts of violence as much as he participates in them, and particularly enjoys forcing others to abandon their moral high ground; it gives him pleasure to see the ethically driven psychologist withhold evidence from the police, to entice a morally questionable therapist to condone unorthodox procedures, to manipulate a victim into becoming a murderer. He attacks each of them at their weakest points and those he cannot corrupt, he kills.
A Fantastical Sort of Intelligence
This is a show as delectable as it is repulsive, as hideously ugly as it is sickeningly beautiful; a series that places intelligent and attractive people against horrific crimes, that indulges in as many sick twists as it does flights of fantasy. It isn’t concerned with logic or reasonability so much as it is the darkest feats of imagination, but it is crafted in such a way to keep us continually emotionally uncomfortable – both in the diabolical, awful nature of its crimes and in its brutal characterization. It uses low lighting to create in us a sense of unease and discomfort, beautiful food to distract us from the monster in the fine suit, and disquieting manipulations that make us want Hannibal to get caught, and also afraid of what will happen when he is caught. It’s as enticing as it is hard to watch, and that’s partly what makes it magnificent.
Disclaimer: I don’t recommend this show to sensitive viewers. It’s gory. It’s sick. It’s envelope-pushing. It’s twisted. And, I love it.