Meat, Prey, Love: A Farewell to NBC’s ‘Hannibal’

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September 18, 2015 by Jason Seligson

“This is all I’ve ever wanted for you, for us.” –Hannibal Lecter

By Jason Seligson

SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses plot details from the final episode of Hannibal. 

Brilliant. Beautiful. Grotesque. Hannibal was all of these things, and then some. It was a work of horror, but it was also a work of art. It pushed the envelope without abandoning its deeper themes. And it was genius storytelling, raising the bar not only for network shows, but all of television. It accomplished things no other show had ever done before. In honor of it’s ending, let’s take a look back at the past three seasons.

When Hannibal premiered in the spring of 2013, it started off like a typical procedural drama—there’s a murder, the FBI investigates, Hannibal is behind it, but manages to evade suspicion. You know the deal. It’s clear that NBC must have had an easier time marketing those first thirteen hours as stand-alone episodes than Seasons 2 and 3, both of which were far more serialized. And it wasn’t a big ask of the audience, either: the show had a hook in its recognizable name; plus, Hannibal looked like nothing on television and featured extraordinary performances from lead actors Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen. An audience—albeit a small one—latched on. From the start, Hannibal wasn’t a ratings success, but it was objectively excellent TV. Subjectively, mileage would certainly vary depending on one’s threshold for gore.

Thus began the hardships of being a “Fannibal”—which were really the same woes that come with being a devout fan of anything that has a small following. Except…this was a particularly difficult show to spread the word about. Personally, I wanted to shout its brilliance from the rooftops, but I found it really hard to articulate that kind of praise in the form of an actual recommendation. Should I breeze over the cannibal part when telling friends and family? Should I emphasize that the scenes where Hannibal eats people have some of the most gorgeous cinematography and that the food actually looks kind of…good? No, I guess that’s an especially hard leap for a skeptic to make. Needless to say, over the next three seasons, Hannibal’s fan-base would remain small, but feverishly loyal (like cannibalistic Hufflepuffs).

It wasn’t that Hannibal lacked critical acclaim. It concludes its third season currently standing as the longest-running show creator Bryan Fuller has had on the air. So as much as I want to be angry at NBC for prematurely ending the series, I’m grateful for the three seasons we got. Hannibal was Bryan Fuller at his finest. A true creative genius, Fuller brought the larger-than-life aesthetic and fascination with death found in his other short-lived gems like Pushing Daisies to Hannibal, only with far less whimsy. Aside from Mason Verger’s accent, and the occasional humorless quip from Will, I hardly remember much laughing. Okay, I suppose, once he got locked up, Hannibal cracked a few jokes, too. Still, and I can’t emphasize this enough: Hannibal—not a comedy.

The show knew when to wink at the die-hard fans, but it also had a strong instinct on when to subvert expectations. The end of Season 1 famously reversed the beginning of Silence of the Lambs, with Will Graham being behind bars instead of Dr. Lecter. The show also worked for novices like me as well, someone who had no knowledge of the previous source material before Hannibal. Fuller and his team were making enough changes in their adaptation that prior knowledge didn’t really matter. Every season of their macabre masterpiece, they managed to top themselves. Season 2’s finale was bigger and bolder, featuring one of the most daring scenes on any drama in recent memory: Hannibal massacring all of the main characters on the show.

Season 3 was the most fractured chapter of Hannibal’s story. Split into two halves, showing a darker side to all its characters, and blurring the line between fantasy and reality more than ever, the story was often dizzying to try to piece together, but never boring. The Italy arc gave us our biggest shift away from the procedural storytelling and felt in many ways, like the show had hit the reset button. If I had to pick a favorite moment, it would be when Jack Crawford finally tracks down Hannibal and beats the ever-loving crap out of him, only to watch Hannibal escape—by grabbing the corpse of the man he had just brutally murdered.

This in a nutshell, is why the show is not for everyone. One minute, two characters could be having a fascinating discussion about the nature of evil in man.The next, someone’s tongue is getting ripped out. I didn’t always love that kind of violence, and yet, the show had a way of making me understand it. The show was known for really going there, and sometimes it might have got carried away, but as much as the show loved to shock us, things were rarely done merely for shock value, or without service to the larger story.

The second half of Season 3 gave us the story of the Red Dragon, played by Richard Armitage. Ultimately, I was a little mixed on the character, but I think his scenes with Rutina Wesley’s Reba were surprisingly affecting, and his role in the climax of the final episode definitely made his arc worthwhile.

And what a finale it was. After the bloodiest fight the show has ever done, with Will taking multiple stab wounds to his face and body, he manages (somehow) to get up, and approach Hannibal. They embrace. “This is all I’ve ever wanted for you, for us.” Hannibal says. “It’s beautiful,” Will responds, and the two hold each other there for a few moments. It’s peaceful, chaotic, and romantic all at the same time, which pretty much sums up their relationship. They stay there like that until Will sends the two plunging over the bluff (which Hannibal notes, has eroded in the times he was previously there with Abigail and Miriam Lass).

Will and Hannibal’s fates are unknown, and what’s especially interesting is that in recent interviews, Fuller has said that he always intended this to be the cliffhanger, regardless of whether or not they got a fourth season. As a series farewell, Fuller says that the episode “has a great sense of finality for obvious reasons,” and he’s right. It feels like a perfect place to leave the two characters. How strange to say that viewers were left in a show as dark as this one feeling anything close to satisfied.

Part of me is surprised that I feel such closure because of how complex everything on this show was. I mean, has there ever been a more twisted relationship on television than Hannibal and Will Graham? I don’t think so. The more I think about the show, the clearer it seems that this was never a story about a hero and a villain. Sure,  there was an antagonist; it was largely about a sociopath ruining people’s lives and scarring them forever, especially Will. But particularly in the last two seasons, it also became about the capacity for darkness we all have; whether evil can be created or if it is always there, lying dormant. Hannibal may in fact be the devil, but the tragic thing is that Will has become a demon, too. He recognizes that, and I think that’s why he chooses to end his life, along with Hannibal. In their final moments together, Will seems to find some resolve. He no longer wants to fight his darkness, nor can he ignore the connection he has to Hannibal, whether it’s love, hate, or something else entirely. He gives into that feeling; that’s what the “it’s beautiful” line means, but the rest is left ambiguous. Is it a double suicide? A murder/suicide? There are so many questions left unanswered, and while I would love a Season 4 or even a movie, I’m not sure I need one.

The series may be over, but it will stay in my head and my heart for some time (and not just through nightmares). Watching the twisted love story of Will and Hannibal has been unlike any relationship I’ve ever seen before—in any medium of storytelling. Dancy and Mikkelsen are two truly remarkable actors; I will miss their scenes together, their perfectly played back-and-forths. I will miss this show dearly. After 39 hours of artistic shots of blood droplets, of beautifully-lit therapy scenes, of wondering out-loud while watching, “is this real?” and yes, all those montages of food, Hannibal has taken its final bow. And it was beautiful.

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