Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) clearly having some thought for food

“This Is My Design”: How Hannibal Turned Into a Modern Television Classic

"Hannibal's not God. He wouldn't have any fun being God. Defying God, that's his idea of a good time." With Hannibal taking its final bow, a bloody good time was had by all.

“You,” sneers Dr. Chilton (Raúl Esparza) to the recently-captured Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), “with your fancy allusions, your fussy aesthetics. You’ll always have niche appeal.”

When the writers of NBC’s Hannibal penned this line late in the show’s third (and as of this writing) final season, they were not-so-subtly referencing themselves, because despite the warm praise that greeted the show’s first season (to say nothing of the rapturous response greeted by seasons two and three) and the overall consensus that there has never been a more gorgeous-looking broadcast drama this side of Breaking Bad, Hannibal never fully broke out into the mainstream. Its first season premiere debuted to just shy of five million sets of eyeballs and dropped off shortly from there. None of its seasons averaged over three million viewers in North America.

NBC has a penchant for holding on to viewership-challenged shows (30 Rock was never a ratings powerhouse, yet the network kept it on the air for a full seven seasons), but even with the love of reviewers and a feverish fanbase who dubbed themselves “Fannibals”, it simply didn’t make fiscal sense to keep the show on the air. Showrunner Bryan Fuller shopped a fourth season to networks and streaming services, but in a notably un-Lecter fashion, there were no bites.

As it turned out, however, this proved to be the most ideal fate for the program, because following the bloody, touching, and downright beautiful conclusion of its final episode, Hannibal has ascended into the realm of the certifiable television classic, a perfect example of just how far the artistry of the medium can bend. It may not be mentioned in the same breath as The Wire when it comes to Golden Age television greats, but nonetheless, Hannibal will be remembered as more than just a mere “cult classic”, instead sewing itself a legacy that will only spread and devour more interested hearts and minds as the years pass by. It’s a high watermark that likely has more blood than water in the mix.

One can be forgiven, however, for initially writing the show off, as Hannibal arrived amid glut of television adaptations of movies. It aired at a time when you could find series’ based on everything from 12 Monkeys to Minority Report to lord knows how many DreamWorks animated films. A rare handful of programs, namely Fargo and Friday Night Lights, managed to use their source material as a jumping off point to create universes all their own and, impressively, were able to do so while finding a sustainable audience.

Thus, by adapting Thomas Harris’ iconic cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter to the small screen, some pegged this show as a gimmick, as Anthony Hopkins’ interpretation of him in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (and its notably lesser sequels) seemed as close to definitive as one could imagine. Trying to find an actor to supersede that interpretation seemed a fool’s task. What’s more, given the show was based on Harris’ Red Dragon novel and not Silence of the Lambs, there would be no Clarice Starling, which may have soured the idea for many a potential viewer.

Yet some of the greatest creative work emerges amid limitations, and by emphasizing the relationship between Mikkelsen’s Lecter and the brilliant if not entirely stable new FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a much more powerful, threatening dynamic was formed. Graham had the uncanny ability to see why a murderer did what he did. He could get into their minds so readily and so frequently that it started wearing down Graham’s tenuous grasp on reality. He would end his mental recreations of crime scenes by uttering, “This is my design.”

Then again, if you too came across a family whose backs had been peeled away to make wings or a man whose throat was shredded so it could be played like an instrument, you would probably start questioning reality, too. This is why Graham was placed in Lecter’s way: Graham’s handler Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) felt that the acclaimed Dr. Lecter would help Graham find solace when cases got too extreme. Of course, he was unaware of what he set in motion…

The reason why Hannibal is such a good show is that even with the intense gothic imagery, brutal murders, and untouchable production design, the show’s ultimate purpose isn’t to present us with an art-damaged police procedural. Rather, it was meant to tell us what turns out to be a very complex love story between two men.

The way the show presents it, Hannibal Lecter is the single most devious, cunning serial killer in our modern era, frequently fostering relationships with young “talent” on the rise, advising them as to how to proceed in their careers as professional takers of lives. Meanwhile, while young Will Graham, bold and naïve in equal measure, turns out to be Lecter’s star pupil, a man whom he can manipulate but admire at the same time. Both men alternatively love and hate each other, with Graham setting up Lecter’s potential murder at numerous turns, just as how Lecter not only directed homicidal maniacs Hannibal’s away, but quite literally stabbed him in the back (among other places).

Yet even at the tail end of Season Two, when Lecter is hanging before Graham in a straight-jacket, egged on by psychotic pig magnate Mason Verger (Michael Pitt) to let out just a little bit of blood to appease the flesh-eating animals Verger loves and has trained, Graham, despite this golden opportunity dangling in front of him, simply cannot do it. He slices the jacket open instead, aware that Lecter is more valuable to him alive than dead.

Indeed, Graham cannot bring himself to kill Lecter, no matter what. Lecter, at first, doesn’t appear to feel the same. We see him at one point in Season Three starting to slice Graham’s skull open (and there are large spurts of blood) before he is coldly interrupted. Ultimately, Lecter turns out to be the very worst kind of scorned lover, petty and vindictive, but at turns forgiving.

While the violence in the show is decadent, its sexual politics prove just as fascinating. There’s not one but multiple psychedelic sex scenes throughout the course of the series, and while some may be quick to describe them as indulgent, Hannibal made great efforts to show the emotion that lays beneath experiences like orgasms and, yes, even murder. However, Fuller has stated in multiple interviews that he never once wanted to feature an act of sexual violence, and true to his word, Hannibal never makes sex an act of aggression nor does a character ever engage in it without consent. Sex is certainly an aspect of the show, but not the focus.

Feelings and connections lord over Hannibal‘s dark landscape, but even when Mason Verger’s sister Margot (Katharine Isabelle) and the insightful Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) discover the fate of their infant child on the Verger farm, we are horrified but more for the context than anything else, as the baby, we learn (and expect), remains unharmed. The show often explored the darkest aspects of human morality, but never once forced the audience to hand over their dignity in order to go along for the ride.

All of this loops back to the two men at the show’s center, locked in a perpetual battle with one another. Graham and Lecter are both heterosexual, but during a Season Three therapy session where Graham is being asked questions by Lecter’s former paramour and reluctant captive Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (an icy Gillian Anderson), Graham arcs his eyebrows into a question and wonders “Is Hannibal… in love with me?” Du Maurier responds slyly, “Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for you and find nourishment in the very sight of you? Yes. But do you… ache for him?”

Although Season One of Hannibal struggled to break out of the tired-and-true “monster of the week” format, with Graham and Crawford trying to solve a new case every time we checked in with them, the overarching narrative of Lecter’s scheming remained an ever-evolving constant, often serving as a puppetmaster for the madness that surrounds the FBI’s endless workload. By the time Season One concluded with Graham being framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Lecter took on Graham’s advisory role in Season Two, and even then, a stronger narrative through-line was established. This led to the globe-trotting, three-act structure that greets the nearly-flawless Season Three. Despite ratings going down, Fuller and his writer’s room grew more and more confident with their creation, took more risks and explored deeper aspects of the show’s fascinating personality.

Yet “taking risks” is one thing, “awe” is another. In Francis Dolarhyde, the murderer known as the Great Red Dragon, we have one of Harris’ greatest quotations: “Fear is not what you owe me. You owe me awe!” Three great actors have uttered this, from Tom Noonan in the original 1986 feature Maneater to Ralph Fiennes in the 2002 adaptation, Red Dragon. Yet in Richard Armitage, Harris’ second most well-known creation is perhaps given its ultimate form, terrifying but ultimately tortured by the dragon he feels lurks inside him.

We have multiple visuals of Armitage pacing around as the dragon, with the image of demonic wings that help connect us with his fractured mental state. Yet perhaps even more awe-inspiring is when we first meet him, pouring over reels of candid film that Dolarhyde has made of the families he inevitably slaughtered, and suffering a breakdown while doing so. The celluloid wraps around his head, light shooting from his eyes and mouth, himself turning into the projector in an act of Croenenberg-esque body horror.

Indeed, Hannibal frequently tested the limits of what could be shown on network television, as Fuller told every new onboarded director that “You are making a pretentious art film“, shrouding each episode in so many slow-motion set-pieces and eye-popping visuals that he managed to use his artistic license to skirt most common censorship. The show proved all the better for it, as the writers were unafraid to deck the show out in downright nightmarish imagery, ranging from Graham’s frequent visions of Lecter as a dead-eyed, antler-headed creature to an early Season Three sequence that has come to be known as “Stag Man”, wherein a severed corpse propped up by three swords and bound in the shape of a heart seems to unfurl, become a headless hooved creature in its own right, slowly walks towards Graham — and into the recesses of your mind.

One could spend all day pouring over Hannibal‘s small-scale victories, ranging to the incredible degree of food porn it gave us, to the time it gender-flipped the role of notorious reporter Freddie Lounds to great effect, to guest spots from stars like Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, and Eddie Izzard and having none of these appearances feel like stunts or pandering, each new role felt fleshed out and fully informed. Yet what we will remember most about Hannibal is not it’s deft storytelling, its haunting visuals, its great performances, or its ever-present layer of tension. We will remember it for its great romance, of two men so similar and so different, fighting to change the world around them, when all they needed to do was change each other.

“Hannibal’s not God,” Graham says at one point. “He wouldn’t have any fun being God. Defying God, that’s his idea of a good time.” And with Hannibal taking its final bow, a bloody good time was had by all.