Spoilers for the full season of Hannibal below. You have been warned!
Well, NBC’s Hannibal has wrapped up its first season in brilliant, bleak fashion. With one final, Silence of the Lambs-esque shot, mentally traumatized, profiler-empath, Will Graham has become the psychopath behind bars, with a slightly smirking Hannibal Lecter regarding him from outside the cell. It’s a bitter end for the tortured profiler who had been attempting to cling to his sanity with every fiber of his being, and that last shot is both thrilling and horrifying. Every Thomas Harris adaptation has had that iconic shot of an F.B.I agent descending a mental hospital hallway (and it always looks like a descent into Hell) and finding Hannibal sitting there, patiently waiting.
Instead, Bryan Fuller gives us a descending Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen), coming fact-to-face with an incarcerated Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).
Hannibal’s remarkable first season has really been all about the mental deterioration of Will Graham, the profiler who hates his work so much, his brain gave itself autoimmune encephalitis as an act of rebellion.
Will has been brought almost as low as possible. He’s now behind bars in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a place he once joked he hated to visit, because he’s afraid “they won’t let [him] out.” It’s his worst nightmare come to fruition. He now understands Hannibal is responsible for the murders of which he has been accused and must stand by as Hannibal integrates himself further into both his therapy and the inner workings of the F.B.I.
Now that the season is over, I’ve been trying to figure out what made the series so effective. It featured gorgeous imagery that was horrifying yet beautifully surreal and dream-like, and the crime scenes were wonderfully, appropriately twisted, but I don’t think that’s really what drives it. I think what really elevated the series above more successful (in terms of ratings), yet shallow exercises in gratuitous violence (Looking at you, The Following!) were the character dynamics that guided every episode the series had to offer, especially the interactions between Will, Hannibal, and Abigail Hobbs.
In the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon, it is stated that Abigail Hobbs was both a traumatized innocent and currently living residing safely away from the area that caused her so much mental grief. Bryan Fuller, in contrast, presented Abigail as a definite, if unwilling, accomplice in her father’s cannibalistic homicides and currently residing in the digestive tracts of Hannibal and his chilly therapist, Dr. Du Maurier (played with blonde, Hitchcockian iciness by Gillian Anderson).
Kacey Rohl, playing the complicit victim Abigail, imbued her with a wonderful blend of pity and ambiguity. We felt sympathetic towards her, because we saw her as a victim who couldn’t escape the path upon which her father’s killing spree placed her. Eventually, we learn she had played the role of luring her father’s victims to their demises, but only out of a desire to prevent him from killing her. She became a tainted victim, but a victim nonetheless, and always had the audience’s sympathy.
Throughout the season, Abigail has found herself at the center of an unwitting battle for her soul between Hannibal and Will, who both saw themselves as her father figures. Will hopes she can escape her status as the child of a serial killer, for if she could escape her past, then perhaps Will can finally separate himself from the work that plagues his damaged psyche. Meanwhile, Hannibal, who functions as a dark, nourishing force for both Will and Abigail, encourages her to acknowledge the darker aspects of her existence. She comes to rely on both of them, but Hannibal become her primary emotional support. She was the mouse that found herself unwittingly bonding with the cat. When she flees Will in the pentultimate episode, fearing he may harm her, and retreats into Hannibal’s loving embrace, she is shocked when he reveals his true nature to her. He kills, and encourages murderous impulses in others, out of curiosity for what will transpire. When she realizes she has placed her faith in the man who cost her her mother and any chance of a happy life by warning her father that the F.B.I. was on their way (and that she is about to become his next victim), it’s a brutal, heartbreaking moment.
So much of what made Hannibal so impressive was the way it presented the harmful effects of constantly surrounding yourself with violence. It takes a massive toll on you sanity and warps every facet of your existence, whether it’s Will’s haunted dreams, Phyllis Crawford refusing to share her problems with Jack, her husband, because she feels he has enough on his plate dealing with violent crimes all day, or Abigail, haunted and destroyed by her father’s violence. Garrett Jacob Hobb’s crimes may have been the initial virus that infects and poisons both Will and Abigail from the onset, but violence haunts every character on the series. Even Hannibal, who feels no emotional trauma from violence (since he’s perpetrating so much of it) finds himself the near-victim of another psychopath, a psychopath who nearly murders Will, Hannibal’s seemingly only friend (at that point, they seemed to still be friends).
Yet, if there is a character that dynamic that remains the heart and soul of Hannibal, it is this initially friendly, eventually brutally hostile, relationship between Will and Hannibal. Throughout the season, Will has come to rely on Hannibal as a nurturing, therapeutic force, keeping him grounded when his mind threatens to overwhelm him. He’s become so dependent on Hannibal’s support, he cannot see what his subconscious, with its warning of a dark, menacing, increasingly recurrent stag, is trying to tell him: Hannibal is the murderer committing many of the violent acts he’s investigating.
Hannibal places himself safely in Will’s’ blind spot, and remains there until he pushes Will too far and everything finally becomes clear.
Much of the season presented Hannibal as someone who genuinely cared about Will, even going so far as to seem legitimately concerned that Will may have been murdered by another psychopath (as referenced above). Yet Hannibal’s ultimate goal is always self-preservation, so later episodes reveal he has been leaving subtle, damning evidence implying Will has been the copycat killer for whom the F.B.I. has been searching, when of course we know they’re looking for Hannibal. In the series finale, he grieves the loss of his seemingly only friend and the daughter he never had, and his grief for both Will and Abigail seems genuine, yet they are his victims. He may have cared for them both, but he loves himself much more.
Mads Mikkelsen has been brilliant as the titular sociopath, making him appear both remarkably unassuming and incredibly unsettling, often in the same scene. The true extent of how far he has gone to set up Will for his crimes is shocking, because he’s been charming and manipulating us as an audience just as much as he has the fictional characters around him. His cool, calm exterior that seems phased by nothing is the perfect contrast to the emotional, edgy, increasingly desperate Will. Mikkelsen made both Hannibal’s affection towards Will and Abigail and his ruthless sense of self-preservation seem equally believable and are true aspects of the Hannibal character. He may be wearing, as his therapist once stated, “a well-tailored person suit,” but he makes emotional connections that remind him what he could have if he shed his well-tailored person suit and actually existed as a normal human being.
It’s interesting to ponder what it is about Will that drew Hannibal so completely. Will is certainly clever enough to interact with Hannibal on his level, but I think the connection relates to empathy. Will, with his near Dead Zone-like ability to understand and profile killers, exists as a man overwhelmed by his ability to empathize. It both torments and drives him, because it allows him to save others’ lives but forces him to ponder and understand the human mind’s darkest inner workings.
In contrast, Hannibal functions as a man who remains entirely empathy-free. When he confesses to Abigail that he called to warn her father and murdered her best friend because he was “curious” about what would happen, he seems a particularly sociopathic sociologist. Will is flip side of the Hannibal coin. The novel, Red Dragon features an incarcerated Hannibal reminding Will that Will caught him, because they are the same. For Will, it’s an unnerving thought, but in fact, at least on Hannibal, it’s not that they’re the same, it’s that they balance each other. Will can place himself into anyone’s point of view, whereas Hannibal participates in human interaction with a detached, dispassionate style. He sees and understands human empathy but does not feel it.
It is this ability, exploited by the F.B.I. for their own purposes, that places his sanity on a precarious precipice, making him vulnerable to Hannibal’s influences. Before, he may have thought like a psychopath and imagined himself as the committer of violent acts, but he always found his way back to himself. Throughout the season, Will, due to both the mental trauma that accompanies his work because he cannot shut off the darkness that pervades his job when he’s at home and the physical illness that is destroying his mental processes, finds his sense of self altered and the lines between reality and delusion blurred.
Will’s a character that wouldn’t work were it not for an extremely capable actor taking the role, and Bryan Fuller lucked out with the casting of Hugh Dancy. Will is a character with whom it could be difficult for the audience to relate, but Dancy is able to make Will’s descent feel tragic and heartbreaking. Early in the season, he seemd socially akward and quick to emotional outbursts, but there was an endearing side to him as well. He was a good man (He even adopted stray dogs.), a bit prone to difficulties, but that was only because the horror surrounding him bothered him as much as it did. Dancy, with his slight frame and large, vulnerable eyes, made Hannibal’s audience feel protective of Will Graham. His mental breakdown felt difficult to watch, because Dancy made it seem so believable and brutal. Will’s our emotional “in” to the show, and Dancy played the role flawlessly.
I originally assumed the series would be about Will shedding his defenses and letting people like Hannibal, potential romantic partner Alana Bloom, and driven investigator Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne) into his life. Instead, it became about the way in which Hannibal insinuates himself into Will’s life (and everyone else’s), shutting him off further from the rest of the world until he seems so isolated and unstable that everyone has no choice but assume he’s the monster in the dark, lurking around the edges of crime scenes. I assumed the revelation regarding Hannibal’s true nature would be played for tragedy. Instead, the tragedy is what a poisonous influence Hannibal has become. He is Will’s most trusted confidant, because Will thinks he’s crumbling and believes Hannibal has his best interest at heart. He doesn’t realize he suffers from a physical disorder, chillingly realized by a misdrawn clock, and that Hannibal has been concealing this knowledge from him.
Everyone who has wanted into Will’s intimate circle is denied access as a result of Will’s belief that he has a secret that must be kept from everyone but Hannibal. He also fails to realize Hannibal has been poisoning others’ perceptions of him and littering his home with evidence– an upchucked ear, human trophies in Will’s fishing lures, a taped therapy session in which Will states he feels like he killed one of the copycat’s victims–so that when Will finally begins to understand what’s really been going on with Hannibal, his assertions only make him appear more deranged. Will may have discovered Hannibal’s secrets, but it’s a revelation that is currently meaningless, because Hannibal seems so sane and Will so unstable. He is finally seeing events clearly, but he has never looked more off-balance. After all, there was a time in which Jack Crawford was practically Hannibal’s weekly dinner guest. That’s not the kind of rapport you just toss to the wayside.
It’s difficult to say where Hannibal’s next season will go, but even if you didn’t know what eventually becomes of both Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, Bryan Fuller’s final shot of the season lets us know Will and Hannibal aren’t finished with each other yet. Will’s encephalitis is being treated, and he may be currently incarcerated, but he’s seeing things clearly now and he knows the truth. When Hannibal approaches him, ensconced in his cell, Will rises, stares, and mutters, “Hello, Dr. Lecter.” His look is not one of despair or the lost, vulnerable look that has dominated Will’s appearance for so many past episodes. Instead, it’s the look of a man for whom the veil has fallen from his eyes. He finally understands everything.
He may have been brought to rock-bottom, but that may make him Hannibal’s biggest threat. When Hannibal sees that look, all he can do is smirk that slight smirk. He’s won for now, but he relishes the future interactions between them.
As someone who has loved this series more than any other new series this season, I cannot help but feel the same way.
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