One of the more intriguing bits of what-if movie trivia in recent years has been the discarded premise of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, purportedly abandoned after the director felt a media leak of the information had ruined its potential impact. The psychosexual drama certainly doesn’t read like a compromised project; it appears instead that an expository scene or two simply went unfilmed. Originally, though, the script contained a crucial fact of worldbuilding that informs its miniature universe: that in the beginning, the world was created not by God, but the devil.
This is the realm of NBC’s Hannibal, network television’s bleakest and most frightening drama. It bears the trappings of a CSI procedural but none of its tidy endings. A new serial killer appears each week, each with their own fanciful method or “design”, and by the end of the hour are nearly always captured or dead, yet there are no victories here. The work of the FBI unit led by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and aided by the talented, tortured Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is essentially Sisyphean. They are toiling to create a pretense of justice in a universe where no moral order is visible.
Hannibal accomplishes its unique atmosphere through triumphs of design and direction, not least of which is the casting of its title character. The actor Mads Mikkelsen has spoken directly about approaching the character as if he were Satan incarnate, so this is not a new critical observation. Mikkelsen has one of modern cinema’s most beautiful faces, eyes like glittering diamonds and cheekbones of hardest granite.
Critics often speak of settings that behave like characters: in the proper lighting, Hannibal becomes part of the setting himself, his eyes glaring cruelly atop the landscape of his inhumanly perfect visage. His home, adorned with plants, has the look of some sinister forest: the snake at home in a fallen Eden. A crucial scene in the first season’s finalé lights Hannibal in profile, crocodile tears glistening on the face of a statue. The stag motif that haunts Will’s dreams after he kills hunter-murder Garrett Jacob Hobbs in the premiere climaxes in a vision of Hannibal as an antlered wendigo, a mythical demon over which Will realizes he ultimately has no power.
The soul of Will Graham is, ostensibly, the series’ major subject, the deterioration of his mental, physiological and spiritual health its A-plot. The character, animated by Dancy’s eggshells performance, is more haunted than a Poe protagonist, the vessel of showrunner Bryan Fuller’s engagement with horror fiction. Will is a film theorist’s dream, the ultimate spectator whose capacity for pure empathy allows him to examine any scene of horror and imagine the mind responsible. The constant dialogue between supporting characters about the effect Will’s work has on his health is the series’ one moral throughline, one which seems, again, futile in the context of the Hannibal universe but engages seriously with how real-world horror audiences consume media.
This implication of the audience in a critical examination of the horror genre extends even to basic plot premises. The sixth episode, “Entree”, introduces Eddie Izzard’s Dr. Abel Gideon, a surgeon-turned-murderer who enters the plot after butchering a nurse in his psych ward in the exact manner of the notoriously at-large Chesapeake Ripper, revealed to be Hannibal by the episode’s end. In Gideon’s first scene of dialogue, Will and his colleague Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) visit him at his cell, where they try to determine whether he is who he appears and claims to be, or simply another copycat. Izzard’s costume, windowed quarters and arch performance suggest a clear stand-in for the iconic incarnation of Hannibal Lecter as played by Anthony Hopkins. In other words, the audience, as positioned through Will and Alana, must evaluate the layers of performance at work, and determine what is the true face of evil - complicated, once more, by the nature of the in-story world.
Psychiatric professionals will probably not take too kindly to the show. Not only does the thematic weight of Hannibal’s relationship with Will crush the potential for adherence to real science in their therapy scenes, but the shrinks in Hannibal are presented as either sinister or tragically ineffective. Alana’s romantic feelings for Will and subsequent inner conflict with her professional standards keep her at a distance from which she cannot help him, while Hannibal manipulates him like a child torturing ants. Meanwhile Hannibal’s own therapist, the enigmatic Dr. Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson, totally at home), appears conscious of how useful her meetings with him really are, while her knowledge of his true nature is gradually revealed to make her either complicit in his work or serenely apathetic.
Another prominent twist on the source material is the reporter Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki), reimagined as a woman in the series, and in the obligatory update, as a blogger. Her first appearance, fresh from a shower and topless behind her laptop, feels like a knowing joke from Fuller, since the character is consciously asexual in every subsequent scene. Superficially, Hannibal’s take on Lounds is an utter cliche, a transparent plot device, the ruthless tabloid reporter who only serves to be a thorn in the heroes’ sides before inevitably receiving her vaguely sexist comeuppance.
Lounds receives no just desserts. She is a cynic because in this world she has every right to be, never losing her cool even when under threat of imminent arrest or in the clutches of a dangerous psychopath. Chorostecki’s performance betrays some nerviness after escaping Dr. Gideon, or witnessing a source shot before her eyes, but this is adrenaline, not fear: the thrill of witnessing her blackened perspective confirmed. The cliche justifies its use as viewers wait for Lounds to receive some punishment. It never comes. This is not that kind of story.
Hannibal is not Breaking Bad, or any other series that argues for the banality of evil. The killers Will chases are creative, fanciful, and through Hannibal’s affluent character evil identifies itself in high culture and the arts. A surprisingly low-key conversation between Will and Dr. Gideon in the eleventh episode, “Roti”, gives the season its emotional climax before the sharp descent of the final two hours. Gideon, who in pretending to the Ripper’s throne has misjudged some universal order and lost his makeshift identity in the process, finds a brief moment of connection with Will, also questioning himself in the struggle to locate goodness between the realms of dream and reality.
Narratively, the show struggles with its procedural trappings. Fuller has a clear enthusiasm for the stuff of the investigative drama and has filled out his cast with a lively group of supporting characters within the FBI. The premise makes narrative sense, and is the cornerstone of the two great Hannibal films, Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, yet basically imposes a neat episodic structure onto a show whose goals are fundamentally opposed to resolution and the closing of cases. Here are two shows clambering to be heard over each other: one, a quirky CSI spinoff, with playful moments like the serial killer duel in “Fromage”, and the other a funeral dirge, a one-way slide into moral oblivion.
The season’s final moments are the natural culmination of its Satanic worldbuilding: Hannibal’s victory rendered as an ironic version of an iconic scene, an inverted crucifix in the church of pop culture. Accompanied by choral music, it’s fittingly sacrilegious, and leaves one wondering how redemption will be possible for Will and his partners in the coming seasons. Fuller has planned an arc to reach the events of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs in the next five seasons. The events of those narratives still keep Hannibal in a position of power, though, and the series has developed a worldview that can sustain itself over many engaging, depressing episodes to come. One can be confident that the team assembled for this series will work out the various kinks in the narrative, but for now, Hannibal’s first season is a promising, beguiling gem in the trough of network TV. Sublime and gorgeous, Hannibal is not only a treat: it’s good for you.
Among the Blu-Ray extras is perhaps the ideal Hannibal featurette, “A Symphony for the Slaughter”, which gives insight to the diversity of obscure instruments used to create the series’ uniquely unsettling score, a musical atmosphere unlike any other on television. After watching the original airings, I rewatched almost every episode online with a pair of good headphones, to catch all the expertly modulated frequencies at work in the soundtrack. All the featurettes included are relatively brief, but the creatives interviewed are enthusiastic and articulate.
Deleted scenes and gag reels are there as well, along with producers’ cuts of half the episodes restoring scenes too disturbing for NBC, as well as the lost fourth episode, “Ceuf”, pulled from air in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. The commentaries, which include insights from Dancy and director David Slade, may feel a bit repetitive for anyone who followed along with Fuller’s thoroughly comprehensive live-tweets during the original network run. The set is overall well-produced, though, and experiencing Hannibal‘s sights and sounds in the highest possible quality is an essential component of watching this distinctive series.