The Beautifully Disturbed: “Hannibal”

  By Allison Morris

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is without a doubt one of cinema’s most chilling villains, and Anthony Hopkins’ performance in the 1991 classic The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels has a large influence on that title. There have been others to portray Lecter over the years, but the most recent and perhaps most highly regarded has been Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in the NBC television series Hannibal, which ran for three seasons and has become a cult classic since its cancellation in 2015.

Most people are at the very least aware of the films featuring Lecter, but less so of Thomas Harris’ novels, where the inspiration for Hannibal got its start, according to developer and executive producer Bryan Fuller. However, the elements and characters of Harris’ novels are where most similarities end between the adaptations. Hannibal is largely concerned with being a pseudo-prequel to Silence of the Lambs by telling the origin of Lecter– how and why he became the intimidating cinematic villain everybody knows today. This narrative is intertwined with the story of FBI profiler Will Graham, who possesses the uncanny ability to empathize with the criminally disturbed, setting him on a collision course with Lecter, who is still a practicing psychiatrist at the start of the show. Over three seasons, Lecter and Graham build a fascinating yet toxic bond that Lecter uses to his advantage, pushing Graham to the breaking point time and time again through manipulation and seduction. Nothing is held back in the series, forming a psychological horror-thriller that many have called one of the darkest and most disturbing shows aired on network television.

I first watched Hannibal a few years ago with my mother, ironically enough just before the initial quarantine, so it was a great time to binge-watch shows. My mother loved Silence of the Lambs and I had heard great things about Hannibal, especially as a source of queer representation and as a psychological piece. It was short enough that we watched it over about two weeks, and were simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by the series. It was certainly like no other media I had seen before, nor have I seen one that can top it since. It’s not a series for everyone, much like other serial killer media– but there’s something innately real and haunting about Hannibal that I couldn’t help but get sucked in by everything about it even while being beyond disturbed.

The presence of the Gothic is felt in nearly every frame of Hannibal– the score, directing, screenwriting, and set design all lend themselves to the overall oppressive feeling throughout the entire series. As a psychological piece, there’s no surprise that the ambiguity and darkness of humanity takes center stage with the known disturbed mental state of Hannibal settling like a fog every time he’s on-screen. His obsession with Will Graham is both cloaked in mystery but also suspense, up to the point where the characters in the show discover Hannibal’s true nature, finally in on the joke with the audience. And yet Hannibal continues to encourage Will off that edge of sanity even after physically and mentally brutalizing him in the finale of season two: “You can make it all go away. Put your head back. Close your eyes. Wade into the quiet of the stream.” This persists even into the final season, after the two have been separated for months, when Hannibal’s obsession with Will almost turns into grief– in a way not too dissimilar, in my opinion, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Widely different relationships in their stability, yet the narrator’s descent into madness caused by his grief, only exacerbated by the titular raven, is thematically reminiscent of Hannibal being without Will and letting himself fall back into a violence that lacks any sense of the reason or care that it had before Will.

While perhaps not in the most traditional sense, there are also supernaturally Gothic elements interlaced throughout the series. Will Graham’s ability to get inside a killer’s head is more often than not illustrated to the audience by placing him in the physical role of the killer– effectively stepping back into time and physically retracing their actions in scenes that are telegraphed as immeasurably harmful to his mental health. The crime scenes in the series’ more procedural episodes are anything but typical, as well– more often than not they are grotesque yet in an artfully beautiful way– and portray a supernatural gravity from the killers that does all the work necessary to understand them as something beyond human, more monster than person. This is displayed most often throughout in one of Will’s recurring ‘hallucinations,’ where a stag or stag-man appears to him, dark as night and coined by those working on the show as either the “raven-stag” or “wendigo,” depending on its form in the scene. The dark figure resembles Hannibal the closer Will gets to the truth of who he is– he being Hannibal, but also himself. No one sees the figure but Will, and its appearance in some of the most important and climatic scenes of the series only reinforce the fact that it represents Hannibal and his growing influence on Will– something Will’s subconscious seems aware of but hasn’t quite clicked yet with his conscious mind. That is, until his bloody baptism in the series finale, when he finally wades into the stream Hannibal has been goading him towards their entire relationship.

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One Response to The Beautifully Disturbed: “Hannibal”

  1. kaitlynmarlin says:

    Hi Allison!
    Your analysis of the show Hannibal is extremely insightful and has definitely made me want to watch the show now- I love this genre of film and the show seems to demonstrate a lot of gothic tropes and ideas as you’ve discussed in your post. Interestingly enough, I also used “The Raven” as a connection in my blog post as well. However I found that your connection with it demonstrates the deeper meaning and themes of “The Raven” rather than just using the raven symbolism. The toxic relationship between Will and Hannibal also seems to represent a gothic relationship, which you connect with the narrator’s mentality in Poe’s work. You mentioned that the show is interlaced with nontraditional gothic elements, and I believe this could possibly demonstrate the shift in gothic traditions and elements as time progresses in society; an evolution of the gothic genre in a sense. In addition to the connection with “The Raven” another connection to Beloved could be made between Will and Hannibal. Hannibal, in your description, seems to be extremely similar to Beloved. They both develop an “insane” obsession with another individual and both use manipulation in order to achieve their dark desires. They also both hold a lot of secret and mystery around them, Beloved never explicitly states what she is or what her past was and Hannibal hides the dark side of his personality and impulses. Overall, I really enjoyed reading your analysis of this show and I will definitely be adding it to my watch list.

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