PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Television

Lucifer Is Free to Roam: (In)Justice and Retribution in 'Hannibal'

Ryan Peters

Hannibal, unlike much-hyped pulp revival shows like True Detective and Fargo, refuses to give its audience neat answers on matters of right and wrong.

Note: This piece contains spoilers about Hannibal.

The details about the upcoming season of True Detective have dripped into the entertainment media grind at an excruciating pace. Can Vince Vaughn play a convincing villain? Will the show give better voice to its female characters in season two? Is Nic Pizzolatto a serial plagiarist who also strangles puppies in his backyard? In the midst of industry chatter and wild speculation, I think it’s worth reiterating a simple reality: for as good as pulp revivals like True Detective, Fargo, and Rectify have been, none have accomplished as much as the less-heralded, less-watched Hannibal.

As Darren Franich put it over at Entertainment Weekly:

The secret bummer of both True Detective and Fargo is that they asked a lot of hard questions and came up with only easy answers. […] Hannibal never settles for easy answers. Even when you know that Hannibal Lecter is evil, the show takes his perspective on existence utterly seriously. He’s not a gibbering lunatic in the woods or a wandering loner who keeps running into a symbolic wolf; he’s a likable snob fascinated by human nature.”

Hannibal is certainly the most beautiful drama on television, network or otherwise, and it is quite possibly the best because it picks up a thread of moral questioning posed by our last truly great series: Breaking Bad. Combined, I struggle to think of two shows which deal more directly with the concepts of moral transgression and existential justice, while simultaneously drawing such startlingly different conclusions. Those paths reflect two prevailing and competing perspectives on crime and punishment snaking their way through post-recession American pop culture.

TV Show: Hannibal

Network: NBC

Airtime: Fridays, 10PM

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, Caroline Dhavernas, Hettienne Park, Laurence Fishburne, Scott Thompson, Aaron Abrams

Air date: 2013-04-04

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hannibal_tvseries_poster_200.jpg

The final scene of Hannibal’s second season, with all of our heroes left decimated in Dr. Lecter’s gorgeously adorned mansion, drives home a point that series creator Bryan Fuller and star Mads Mikkelsen have been making for some time: in this Hannibal, Lecter is the devil. Not a devil in the sense that he is an evil entity in an otherwise peaceful world, or the devil, as a cipher for all evil and temptation; but rather as Lucifer, the seductive, dark mirror to humanity developed extensively through the cannon of western literature and pop culture. From the start, Mikkelsen conceived Lecter as a kind of fallen angel, and Fuller and his writers have backlit that conceptualization with an amazing constellation of references to poems, books, food and paintings since the beginning of the series.

In the second episode of Hannibal’s first season, Will Graham awakes from one of his dream-visions in a hospital room to find Alana reading to Abigail Hobbs. Alana says that she's reading Flannery O'Connor, without identifying that the specific short story as "A Good Man is Hard to Find”, a classic about a man who kills for reasons which are beyond comprehension. The characters in the story strain to figure the killer out, and to draw him into the world they see themselves as occupying: one of piety and morality, in which good behavior is rewarded with salvation. (Because this O’Connor we’re talking about, false piety abounds and the “good” characters use their moralizing to cover their own deficiencies. But still, you get the point.)

But again and again, the murderer resists being understood. He's just a force to be felt, one which cannot be ignored, but is impossible to corral. In Hannibal, Will, Jack, Alana and Freddy Lounds spend most of the latter half of season two working with excruciating care to bend Lecter to their trap, only to watch him gracefully step outside the boundaries they built for him as he steps over their sliced, broken bodies on his floor an into the ether of a rainy night.

TV Show: Breaking Bad

Network: AMC

Airtime: Sundays, 10PM

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsey Brandt, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks

Air date: 2008-01-20

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/breakingbad_season1_poster_200.jpg

Like Hannibal, Breaking Bad is a show about the seduction of transgression. It is helpful to consider Breaking Bad within the context of the great recession of 2008—not coincidentally the same year the show premiered. Walter White is, at the start, our true working class anti-hero, a man who more or less follows what he thinks are the cogently established rules of advancement, only to find himself sick, indebted, and worse, powerless. The Whites themselves are established early on as an emblem for an attenuating American Dream: basically good people struggling to actualize a fiction.

This construction is what makes Walter’s transformation into Heisenberg so deeply cathartic. Indeed, that’s what makes so many of the (too-often male) anti-heroes that have populated this Golden Era of television—Walter, Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Patty Hewes—so attractive: they bound outside the rules of law and social norms. In a world where an entire economy collapses under the weight of predatory credit lending, where people lose their homes and backslide into unemployment, and where billions of tax dollars are used to rescue a private financial world in which not a single CEO or banker went to jail, it is profoundly rewarding to watch middle class characters who step outside of the rules because they recognize a simple truth: that the game has been rigged from the start.

And yet, for appealing as it is, Breaking Bad again and again refuses to lionize Walter’s transformation. Season Five—and in particular, the series-defining episode “Ozymandias”—underscores Walter’s criminality and the slow deadening of his soul. Pit Walter against Gustavo Fring, and he seems like a hero; pit Walter against Jesse, Hank, Skylar and the rest of his family and he is laid bare as a man who ended lives, sewed havoc, and broke relationships.

This ultimately becomes the thing about Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan and his writers never really deviate from a moral code that punishes misbehavior. For as much as the show recognizes that the American Dream is often built on the backs of those who aspire to participate in its glory, Breaking Bad insists that morality is still a choice, and that the lines of right and wrong in an existential sense are never as blurry as daily life makes them seem.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking scene in the series occurs when Walter Jr. tackles his father in the living of their home, using his body to protect Skylar from the knife in Walt’s hand. This scene is tragic not only because it is the final denouement of Walt’s struggle to retain his family, but because it is a really poignant reminder that Walter was once a good father, one who loved his son, and taught him to be a good man. Walter Jr., who later hangs up the phone on Walt’s last effort at contact, informs the entire series’ view: that there is right and wrong, that we know it intuitively, that we choose it or we don’t, and that ignoring the moral imperative eventually engenders a kind of cosmic reckoning. Walter can’t escape the consequences of his actions, no matter how deeply our justified, pervasive cultural anger understands why he undertook them.

Hannibal gives us nothing of the sort—neither the justice coming to a character who has killed and maimed so many, nor the unequivocal pleasure of watching him break the restrictions put upon him. Instead, the show forces its viewers to occupy a tenuous duality in which we are enchanted by the devil’s power, his ethereal beauty, and taboo, but because of it, we are partly complicit in the violence he administers.

Remember that in Paradise Lost, Lucifer is the most sympathetic character, for he is thrust into a visible darkness to wail against injustice and point out the fickleness of God’s affection. Milton’s fallen angel, like Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, is punished though the reader might wonder whether he really should be. We know that Hannibal Lecter deserves retribution, but as Fuller’s Lucifer drifts through the blood of his dying former friends, a small cultural anxiety begins to ache: justice may never come.

Ryan Peters is working on a doctorate in English Literature at Loyola University Chicago. He lives and teaches in Chicago.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.