The world of Hannibal is akin to that of a vivid nightmare. Vast desolate landscapes magnify a setting that’s isolated from any sense of western civilization. People are butchered in some of the cruelest and most horrifying ways imaginable. Characters fall into three categories: sadistic killers, law enforcement officers who are unraveling mentally as they move from deranged case to deranged case and psychiatrists who have darker secrets than the patients they’re charged to psychoanalyze. Yet show creator Brian Fuller and his team of gifted writers, directors, producers, cast, and crew have managed to explore this world in a rich, thoughtful, and expressive manner that ranks among the best interpretations of Thomas Harris’ popular novels.
We’ve seen several variations of the notorious psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter in feature films, the most popular being Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar winning performance in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. The Hannibal Lecter in this TV version is completely different. Where Hopkins played Lecter as an older man already imprisoned in Baltimore State Penitentiary, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays a younger Lecter still practicing psychiatry and helping the FBI.
The show introduces us to FBI Profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Will teaches at the FBI Academy but he also has an uncanny ability to think like a serial killer. This attracts the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit agent-in-charge Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to recruit Will in order to help his division solve the more bizarre homicide cases. The show sees Will and Jack on the hunt for three main serial killers: the Minnesota Shrike, the Chesapeake Ripper, and a copycat of the Minnesota Shrike. Along the way glaring subtleties emerge that tell the audience Hannibal is linked to all three killers. This is not apparent to either Jack or Will since they consider Hannibal a respected colleague and friend. Will’s greatest weakness is that he gets too personally invested in the cases he works on, and the more he thinks like a killer, the more his mind breaks down. The show frequently engages in hallucinations that Will experiences, mostly accompanied by a large stag that is able to lead Will to the clues that will help him solve the cases. As his mind breaks down, he starts seeing Hannibal Lecter, under the recommendations of Crawford, for both stabilizing his mind and to help him forget about the grotesque images of corpses lingering in his mind.
And the images of murdered victims are truly gut-wrenching. Hannibal is not a show for those who are squeamish at the site of blood. But despite the gore, there is an artful visual sense to the show that holds your attention. How we see Will figure out each crime is uniquely executed with colour filters, slow motion, still shots, backwards shots, and repetitive music that identifies Will’s state of mind. Every frame is expertly composed, communicating information to the audience in both the foreground and the background. Aesthetically speaking, this is Hannibal as you’ve never seen it before.
There is a key difference between the way Mikkelsen and Fuller depict Hannibal as opposed to director Jonathan Demme and Hopkins. In The Silence of the Lambs, Demme frames Hopkins staring directly into the camera. The actor’s piercing gaze and sinister looking smile depict Hannibal as some kind of monster that lacks any connection to human emotions. Any safe interaction with Lecter requires you to keep your distance and have your guard up at all times. In stark contrast, Mikkelsen and Fuller focus on exploring Hannibal Lecter’s humanity, and in doing so create an even more frightening portrait. Hannibal in the TV show is well dressed, soft spoken, polite, intriguingly mysterious, and knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics including food, art, books, and even technology. He has a much more inviting personality. It’s easy to be lured in by his façade, which often appears genuine. Characters become easily attracted to him, such as a neurotic patient who sees friendship qualities in Lecter, and Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), who used to be one of Lecter’s students. Mikkelsen plays the character so well that he’s able to trick the audience into sympathizing with him too. I frequently found myself refusing to believe that the same man who is legitimately helping his patients was also a vicious killer who could very well be eating his victims. It’s never explicitly stated that Hannibal is eating people and feeding them to his dinner guests, but there are enough shots of Hannibal slicing open organs juxtaposed with him preparing a flambe that tell you all you need to know. There is a particularly frightening scene where one of Hannibal’s guests inquires about the dish he’s eating that is interrupted by a quick shot of a wounded man being chased through desolate woods. Hannibal always remains perfectly calm, even when face to face with another serial killer.
To divulge into too much of the narrative arc would hamper your enjoyment of the show. There is a plethora of recurring characters who add a lot of depth to the story. There are unexpected plot twist and one of the most brilliant final shots of a TV season that I have seen in a long time. As Will continues to become more mentally unstable, the show focuses on the characters around them and how they are impacted by his actions. It digs deep into the psychology of Will, his partners in the FBI, the victims, the killers, and even Hannibal himself. We are forced to empathize with all these characters alike as the writers add depth and rationality to every case. We understand this through the eyes of Will, and as Will’s mental state begins to deteriorate, we begin to look deeper into the world of Hannibal for answers to help him. Some of the plot revelations are utterly shocking. Dialogue is written with a realistic sensibility by doing away with exposition. The writers respect that audiences are intelligent enough to piece together the story elements for themselves.
This psychological depth to the story, combined with great acting by Mikkelsen, Dancy, Fishburne, and the rest of the cast, helps to elevate Hannibal far beyond a typical police procedural show or a cheap celebration of the Grand Guignol. It’s a stunning horror story about characters being torn apart by their surroundings, and about how the human mind can sometimes go so wrong, whether it be by one’s previous circumstances, or completely by choice. As far as Season One is concerned, this was a gamble that truly paid off and is a must watch for anyone who enjoys gripping crime drama and disturbing psychological horror.
Another Take by Tyson Gifford
Hannibal has quickly become my second favorite show on TV, right behind Game of Thrones. I am consistently baffled by the quality, and darkness, of the series as a network product. While many might expect the series to be hampered by its placement on Network Television, I will adamantly declare that this is one of the most uncompromising TV series I have ever seen, Network, Cable, or Streaming. At no time did I feel that the quality of the series was held back, and surprisingly, at no time did I feel that the show pulled its punches in regards to violence and gore. Every frame of the series is filled with an impeccable attention to detail. Whether it comes from the art direction, the writing, the directing, or the performances, I never felt that any area was lacking, and, in fact, was often startled by the shows quality, beyond thoughts of format or medium. If you can stomach the gore, which can be oddly beautiful at times by the way, this is a deep and layered series of exceptional production and execution. Hannibal can stand as a masterclass, not only of horror, but of the medium of television itself. This is Bryan Fuller’s design.
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