From the outset, you know you are watching two broken guys circle each other through the chum of life until they eat each other. And in doing so eat themselves. Which they’ll do slowly so they can continue to spiral down and down until they drill into the bedrock of the human spirit.
But Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter aren’t the only things plotting their own demise, there’s another man. And each week he laboriously carved out his name on a tombstone until it read BRYAN FULLER.
The above might be slight dramatic hyperbole, but there’s no doubt Fuller – who created the TV version of events – gave zero fucks when it came to anyone else’s thoughts or vision on this show. The fact it got cancelled after three seasons is heartbreaking but the opposite fact that it lasted such a goodly timeframe is insane. We are left with a perfect storm of longform storytelling, character dissection [sometimes literally], and a unique vision that could never last but would always burn brighter than it would exponentially.
And I’ll admit, I didn’t care about this show when it was announced, nor when it launched. Really, who the hell wanted or needed more Hannibal Lecter in their life? I’d read the books – right up until HANNIBAL when Thomas Harris somehow forgot how to write human people or dialogue – and I’d seen the movies. The RED DRAGON novel was adapted twice for the big screen so to hear it would get the small screen treatment filled me with nothing but rock solid meh.
But then I watched the first episode anyway. My daughter was born, and seemingly allergic to sleep, so I’d pace the house with her on my chest and eventually I stumbled across the show in some late night programming. I was like a slab of meat in a freezer – I was hooked and chilled. From here on, I looked forward to my daughter acting the midnight loon. I was all in on this show I never knew could touch me like this. The tone of the show, the style of the narrative, the class of the experience won me over.
Hell, with the way I was watching it, the whole performance was even improved. I was bleary-eyed, disoriented, a little emotional, and pretty unsure what was awake reality or dream fugue just due to the lack of sleep so all of that made the viewing hold more impact because it was tenderising my subconscious and staying with me for days in stomach churning and unsettling ways.
So it was with little shock to know that with something this good, it was destined to fail.
By the end of the first season, you got that uneasy feeling this couldn’t last. The show was horrific, grotesque, erudite. It was the sort of thing that would grossly turn away many while so desperately appealing to the few that they’d see it as a tome to study. But deep inside you knew this was televised suicide. There was no way ABC would ever commit to more of this sort of thing. Antlers busting out of people, blood spilling like Cronenberg was at the hose, human totem poles, and the goddamn girl who couldn’t see faces. It wasn’t just eerie, it was graphically intense on an iconic level – and it’s the ones you remember that soon you’ll never forget.
Hannibal was often shown as The Stag, a ghastly all black creature with long antlers. This figure haunts the show’s more visceral moments and it stands as a fine representation of the noir streak within Graham/Lecter as they can’t stop their descents. It’s heady stuff when you dig in, and there’s really no other way the show allows you to watch it.
This was high literature nightmare fuel on a standard station and it could not stand.
After that brilliant debut season, I was certain the team at HANNIBAL HQ could not and would not keep up this breakneck twist. If they wanted to live, they’d evolve and adapt.
Instead, Fuller came back more determined to deliver his vision of events. He wasn’t going to touch much of the Harris novel for the second season either. He was going to spearhead a campaign of horror and brutality unlike most shows would ever dare to envision, but he wouldn’t do it in a slasher manner to appeal to the gore crowd, instead he’d couch it all in delicious scenery and delicate interplay, so we would never forget this was a character study. A goddamn character study, right to the end. It’s a ballsy move and one that also failed them in the end, as was perhaps their design.
William Graham says this a lot as he inspects crime scenes through the eyes of the killer. “This is my design.” It’s a phrase that soon brings a hollow gut whenever you hear it because you know you are about to see the kind of act that lays waste to brains and innocence. And the phrase works for the ethos of the show, also. Everything, every piece of fabric worn, every intricate death tableau, every camera angle, every choice to harder knock the wind from your torso was all by the design of Fuller and his team. And they would not ever yield.
There’s something perfect about the opening sequence of Season 2 where we are dropped in media res to observe Hannibal Lecter and FBI’s Jack Crawford fighting to the death in the future and then we spend the season building up to that moment. Because a sense of impending dread and death is exactly what the show needs looming over it. You have to feel the tension, in your jaw, across your shoulders, as you wait each week to uncover more of the jigsaw that builds to two of the lead characters attempting to destroy each other.
Season 2 is one long and large noir spiral because both characters want this resolution. They need the conflict to come, no matter the personal cost physically and mentally. It appears that each gets the upper hand at times, but realistically they are both sinking. Each relying more on the other in a toxic symbiotic relationship that finally comes to a head in the third and final season. A season I didn’t expect to exist and I’m not certain how Fuller made it happen. But damned if I’m not over the moon that he did.
In Season 3, HANNIBAL doubles down on what it is. Dr Lecter goes to Europe, Will Graham all but openly pines for him. There is no jumping on point, no easy access. Even if you’ve watched every episode, you still need to pay attention. Fuller knows the show is going to die and he doesn’t care. In fact, I am certain if the show took off and got 6 seasons, it would have become rubbish. Though let’s all be real and acknowledge that Fuller never would have let that happen, he would have kept pushing the boundaries until they had to take him off the air. As it was, the baby in the pig in S3 is a moment where I paused and thanked the many lords above that I hadn’t tricked my wife into watching this show with me because I’d now be divorced.
By the final sequence, you are watching two people descend and you realise this has all been about them doing it together. Neither wants to fall alone because they plan to embrace, literally, into the very final plummet. As they hack and tear at Francis Dolarhyde, the Great Red Dragon, and his blood spills and his life flickers out, this is a noir crash of violence as a sex scene. Hell, it’s more personal and passionate than much of the fornication you see in media these days. This is the noir crescendo as orgasm, complete with post-cuddle, and then the curtain fades. In short, it’s brilliant and is so wonderfully satisfying that Fuller and co were able to wrap the show up with such a thematic and beautiful send off. Graham and Lecter choose their end and it’s satisfying for us as well as them. It’s a release of the tension of trying to be anything but their worst.
As rich as the tapestry of the story is, you’d need a separate book to do it true justice, so instead let’s celebrate the fact Bryan Fuller wanted to ensure the process of making the show itself was a noir tale. And every creative decision was a definitive stake in the ground that this was their design.
Late in the game, Hannibal says: “Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black.”
And that’s exactly what the lifeblood of the show was and for three glorious years we all stood in the moonlight and felt the energy consume us as it pulled us all down, down.
You can access every single tv script for all 3 seasons of the show at http://livingdeadguy.com/shows/hannibal/ – and it is well worth your time to investigate, imbibe, and enjoy.