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
Airtime: Fridays, 10PM
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, Caroline Dhavernas, Hettienne Park, Laurence Fishburne, Scott Thompson, Aaron Abrams
Air date: 2013-04-04
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
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
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.