Friday, September 04, 2015


The three-year run of Hannibal, one of the most visually and narratively innovative series ever to air on television, broadcast or cable, came to a breathtaking conclusion Saturday night. I have already confessed to a bit of selfish melancholy that there will be no more surprises, no more opportunities to get lost in the show’s radical approach to reimagining Thomas Harris’s well-known and well-trodden scenarios, and no more sweet, agonized anticipation over what form the show, probably the most envelope-pushing of any network show ever aired, might take in its own becoming.

But I must also confess that I couldn’t be more satisfied with the way Hannibal, all three seasons now fully unveiled, was orchestrated to a beautifully modulated finish that illustrated the truly expressive and even transcendent (of the limitations of a more audience-friendly, more comfortingly linear structure and tone) achievement of Bryan Fuller’s series. (Matt Zoller Seitz, linked below, likened it to the most bountiful possible fulfillment to date of the concept of “a novel for television.”)

The feeling faithful viewers were left with Saturday night was one that wholly resonated and complemented the vision of Fuller and his collaborators, and our faithfulness – Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham joining forces in an exquisitely choreographed menage-a-trois dance of death with Frances Dolarhyde, a.k.a. the Red Dragon, and then in each other’s arms, in the bloody repose of that dance’s aftermath, making clear what was barely subtext to begin with, that Hannibal has been, from the very beginning, a love story. Hannibal’s final chapter unfolded as if it were always meant to end in exactly this place, at exactly this pace, its possible season-ender now a perfectly satisfying series finale, in which Will chooses to hurl himself and Lecter, both horribly wounded, over a cliff and into the sea rather than continue on with a life which has now, in killing Dolarhyde, allowed Will to become Hannibal’s true soul mate.

And as it was here at the end, so has it always been. Even though the show was a product of the rigors and frustrations and disappointments and occasional glories of telling stories in a medium governed by corporate influence, deliriously entangled finances and the fickle instincts that inspire the ratings chase, Hannibal’s richness, of design, of experimental narrative surety, and an unwavering refusal to underestimate its audience, has always lent it a completeness that is shared only by those shows, some great, some good, some uneven, which seem to understand that not all stories must linger and dribble and continually echo past glories in the name of longevity.

In its way, without ever addressing the strengths and/or weaknesses of other forms and stories, the way Fuller approached retelling the Lecter story exposed the vain, self-consciously transgressive, overstuffed grab-bag nature of something like American Horror Story, which season-to-season remains bereft of the sort of cohesive grandeur and purpose that Hannibal sported in glorious excess. Compared to Fuller’s daring formal structure, AHS feels even more like a vanity project that the writers are making up out of cheap cloth as they go along week to week. The staying power that Hannibal can claim has everything to do with it being a sensual, allusive, disturbing and even moving approach to a story contained within three seasons that can be returned to like a favored novel, revealing more and more layers of meaning, of humor, of resonating terror, of genuine pleasure with each new encounter.

And speaking of transcendence, perhaps Hannibal’s greatest achievement is how thoroughly it seems to have eclipsed previous cinematic incarnations of Harris’s popular tales, in its casting, of course— few who have regularly luxuriated in the monstrously smug entitlement and megalomaniacal, omnipotent ambition of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter will likely clamor to return to Anthony Hopkins’ entertaining but more conventionally realized portrayal—but also in the very way it spins the seductive details of its sinister dreamscape into a lingering and inevitable dance of death between psychological profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Lecter, turning Hannibal’s grim beauty in service of what ends up becoming one of the most revealing, unlikely and weirdly powerful love stories ever told.

In the couple of days since the finale, I’ve had a chance to read a couple of really fine essays encompassing personal reaction, analysis, interpretation and emotional reckoning with the fact that Hannibal, as we have now come to know and appreciate it, will spin no more. Both Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeff Jensen articulate their responses with passion, alongside the moments that inspired those responses, and very early on in reading them I realized any attempt on my part to do the same would fall far short and wanting. It is well enough for me to point you in their direction and allow them to amplify your experience of Hannibal in the way they did for me. Here is Seitz in Vulture on one of the many elements that makes Hannibal great, a likely candidate for posterity in the annals of television:

 The sophisticated aesthetic developed by Fuller and his many collaborators… is the reason why, despite being the most gruesome drama ever aired on network TV, Hannibal never felt unacceptably brutal to me. It is, no question about it, ultraviolent, but not in the manner of a cheap slasher film. It is ultraviolent in the manner of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and The Fury, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange (which Hannibal quotes by scoring Jack's beating of the doctor to Gioachino Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie") and touchstones of religious painting, such as Tintoretto’s 1565 painting of Christ’s crucifixion. It is ‘studied’ in the best way, i.e., thoughtful, considered. It is concerned mainly with exploring what violent actions mean (to us, and to the story) rather than simply attempting to replicate the physical experience of suffering (although it does that, too; every wounding and death on the show is viscerally jolting and also often carries an emotional charge). And it pays equal attention, sometimes greater attention, to emotional violence, showing how characters (usually Hannibal, but not always) coolly scrutinize their targets, then push certain buttons to ensure a particular outcome that’s often destructive for all involved. The physical violence represents a continuation of emotional violence.”

The entirety of Seitz’s commentary can be read here, and if you are a “fannibal” you really must read it while the images and sounds of the series finale are still glowing white-hot in the memory, or again after encountering it on Blu-ray in the coming months.

However, the first piece I read after actually seeing and absorbing the show for myself was Jensen’s, and I especially appreciated it for being what is possibly the most observant piece to ever bear the Entertainment Weekly banner. Jensen reckons with sharpness the way Hannibal seems to comment not only on its own mythology, but on its own precarious status as network product, and even on the people who made up its small but loyal audience. In doing so, he describes the brief epilogue that tags the final episode:

“We saw long-suffering Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), the bride and beard of Hannibal, sitting at a table set for three, waiting for her groom and his true love to join her. She had prepared quite the meal for them: Her own leg. She represented us, the fan hoping for more helpings of a dish we’ve grown to love. But she also represented to the worst possible scenario for Hannibal and its devoted fans. Do we really want to see the show sacrifice valuable bits just to get more of it? No. To borrow from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem and a line from Moriarty: `It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure.’”

(Read the entire piece here .)

But despite Jensen’s convincing analysis re the satisfaction of Fuller’s conception of the climax to which he and his collaborators have managed to bring the show, there are still rumors, this time of a cinematic continuation which would in part recast the Clarice Starling/Silence of the Lambs portion of the Lecter saga in the mold of the radical reimaginings Fuller has already forged from Harris’s vast source material. It’s a tantalizing possibility, but the reassuring thought remains that we have already enjoyed a self-contained, fully realized masterpiece of television, and when the third season Blu-ray release arrives we really will be able to return to it like a novel, or a 39-hour feature film, and appreciate anew the ways in which Fuller and company have reshuffled the deck, raised the bar on the ways stories can be told on television, and their artistic possibilities. Farewell, Hannibal, and thanks for the often seemingly inescapable nightmares which held their own very rich and perverse pleasures. We’ll be seeing you again very soon.



Ron said...

Other than Brian Cox's short-lived but brilliant portrayal of Lecter in "Manhunter," I didn't care much for Mann's take on the story, nor Demme's on the subsequent "Silence of the Lambs." But upon reading this article I felt compelled to see what the hub-bub was about, downloaded the last episode, and was shocked at how atmospheric, how deep and subtle the vision of this story was. So I immediately downloaded the rest of the episodes and will watch with new eyes. Thanks for this.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Ron. I hope you'll agree with me that it was well worth the effort. Yeah, I've never been a big fan of MANHUNTER outside of Cox's contribution. I liked SILENCE OF THE LAMBS just fine but have never felt much of an urge to revisit it, and the less said about Ridley Scott and Brett Ratner's forays into Lecter the better, as far as I'm concerned. I consider Fuller and company's take pretty much definitive.

Ron said...

Dennis, how can dead eyes look so deep? I blew off Mads Mikkelsen as just another Bond villain, but his portrayal here is just so nuanced and layered that -- and I agree with you -- it paints a portrait of Lecter that's transcendent.

But poor Dr. Du Maurier: I guess to get a proper meal you just have to make it yourself.