Quantcast
subscriber help

artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Hannibal: the thrill is the terror, and the terror is the thrill

hannibal

Everyone is talking about the season finale — which may well be the series finale — of Hannibal, and fair enough: it was shocking in a lot of different directions. But I’m still trying to parse the very existence of this series. Nothing to me is as shocking as the fact that it is a thing at all.

I’ve only seen Season 3, and I confess: the only reason I watched is because it features Richard Armitage. I think he’s amazing, and I worry that he is not being offered the sorts of roles that take advantage of his presence, which is considerable and rather ominous but not something there’s a lot of room for in our hidebound pop culture. I needn’t have worried in this case, because his Francis Dolarhyde — the serial killer who fancies himself a Great Red Dragon — is a weirdly delicate and very chilling combination of pathos and rage, of vulnerability and power (scary, terrible power), of (on our part) fascination and repugnance. I renew my contention that Armitage is amazing, and I hope to see him in more roles like this.

Except… are there other roles like this? It is astonishing to me that Hannibal is a product of American network television. It would be astonishing if it were the product of HBO or Showtime, or the BBC. But NBC? Never. I’ve never seen anything like this; it is so far outside the bounds of our hidebound pop culture that it defies categorization. Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Is it drama? It’s all of those, in whole new ways, and more. I cannot even decide if I like it… and that’s a very rare reaction for me to have to any television or film. (I may not always know why, at least at first, but I am usually pretty confident in saying, “This is good and I like it” or “This is bad and I don’t like it.”) Hannibal is beautiful about the ugliest of things; I do not know how to react to cannibalism being rendered as luscious food porn; is it okay that my mouth waters while my stomach turns? It is the goriest, bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen on TV, and even that’s beautiful too, but never in a pornographic way, or at least not like cheap exploitative horror movies are. It’s like the Blake painting that obsesses Dolarhyde: riveting and horrifying, riveting because it’s horrifying.

But even that’s nothing. TV has never been surreal like this before; probably Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller’s own Pushing Daisies (which I adored) comes closest, but it’s still nowhere near how Hannibal depicted characters living so wholly in their own heads and brought us so totally into their perspective, without ever having to explain what it was doing. The first time we saw Hannibal dressed in a fine suit and sitting in a beautiful Italianate chapel listening to choral music, I thought, Wait, wasn’t he just arrested at the end of the last episode? And then FBI consultant and criminal profiler Will Graham walks in, and I instantly got it: this is where Hannibal is in his head. Not in a glass cage, but somewhere far away and very peaceful. Hannibal isn’t one world but many worlds, one for each of its major characters, and lures us in with a power that is so groundbreaking that it’s like Fuller has invented a new way to tell stories visually. I feel like Fuller has pushed television into a new paradigm… but I also don’t see how it will be easy to anyone to imitate him (though I suspect some will try) in the same way that, say, the invention of the sitcom was easily copied.

And then there’s the fact that this entire story is basically a romance between Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal and Hugh Dancy’s Will. Not a romance of the body — it’s not sexual, except there is a frisson of that there, too, which is made even more palpable by the fact that they hardly ever, can hardly ever actually touch and often aren’t even physically in the same place — but of the mind and the soul. And it’s perverse. Completely perverse. Because Hannibal is a monster, a machine, a predator out of the deepest, most atavistic dark, and Will is not, even though he has a sort of empathy with killers that allows him to understand them and so catch them. It’s perverse — completely perverse — listening to Will and Hannibal’s “wife,” former therapist Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), discussing, in tones mostly of rapture though with a thrill of terror underneath, whether they are both in love with Hannibal and how he will certainly one day kill and eat them.

But this is the most perverse thing of all: Hannibal makes none of this feel perverse. The thrill is the terror, and the terror is the thrill. As I watched, half my brain was telling me that this is repulsive and this is disgusting, and the other half was being seduced by it, wondering at its romance and its passion.

This is rather upsetting to me, and mostly why I can’t decide if I love Hannibal, or if it’s evil. Is it a wrong thing if it’s both?

I will go back and watch Seasons 1 and 2 to help me decide…


posted in:
tv buzz
  • Danielm80

    And now I have to go back and watch Wonderfalls again.

    I’m also looking forward to American Gods, adapted from the Neil Gaiman stories, just to see what sort of visual template Fuller comes up with.

  • Aaron Jones

    I’ve been following this show since it’s Season 1 premiere. I find it fascinating for all the reasons you’ve elucidated. I am someone who finds it very difficult to attempt to watch the voluminous amount of television offered these days, but this show has always been appointment viewing. Glad to know how it has affected you.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Everyone is talking about the season finale…

    I must be talking to the wrong people then. Almost no one else on my blogroll has mentioned it and even my middle brother — who’s normally into shows like this — has shown far more enthusiasm about Gotham.

    Then again, it’s not like the movie Hannibal left a good impression on people.

    But I’m still trying to parse the very existence of this series. Nothing
    to me is as shocking as the fact that it is a thing at all.

    After watching Dexter and the first two seasons of Bates Motel, almost nothing on TV surprises me anymore — at least as far as this subject is concerned.

    The first time we saw Hannibal dressed in a fine suit and sitting in a beautiful Italianate chapel listening to choral music, I thought, Wait, wasn’t he just arrested at the end of the last episode? And then FBI consultant and criminal profiler Will Graham walks in, and I instantly got it: this is where Hannibal is in his head. Not in a glass cage, but somewhere far away and very peaceful.

    Wow! Pretty images combined with images of gore and brutality. Where have I seen that before?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ej8-Rqo-VT4

  • Tonio Kruger

    Wonderfalls was a good series — almost as good as Pushing Daisies IMHO.

    I’m not sure anyone but the artists who worked on Sandman can do visual justice to a Gaiman story but I would like to be proved wrong in this regard. Plus he did write one of the better Doctor Who episodes of the last few seasons so it’s not like all his writing is incapable of being translated to the small screen.

  • I haven’t seen *Wonderfalls,* but I’m now very much looking forward to *American Gods.*

  • Nope. *Hannibal* is nothing like that clip. And the tone is totally different.

  • This is the next show to watch on my agenda. I’ve read so many great things about it. Not a single person I know watches it, though. Weird.
    It’s really hard nowadays to pick from all the (supposed) great tv series to watch. I don’t watch much tv, and allow myself maybe two shows at a time. And even then, It will take me a few weeks to get through a typical 10-13 episodes. It’s a time investment, so I take my choices very seriously.

  • Christine

    Great to hear your thoughts on Hannibal, MaryAnn. I gave it a try because I loved Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, and it’s been one of my favorite shows since (and my favorite of Fuller’s work so far). I felt the same way you did, with the surreal nature of the show sucking me in, and I normally don’t even like horror. No idea how they got NBC to air this. Even if people are talking about the finale on the internet, I’ve never met another person who watches it, and most people don’t even seem aware it exists. I wonder if it would have been better off on a cable channel, but it was probably destined for a niche audience either way (as Dr Chilton meta-commented on in Season 3)

    I’d be interested to hear what you think after you watch all the seasons. I think it’s a testament to the storytelling that you were able to jump in at Season 3 and it still made sense – the style of the show has become increasingly surreal over its run, and I thought Season 3 was the most ambitious.

    it’s not sexual, except there is a frisson of that there, too, which is made even more palpable by the fact that they hardly ever, can hardly ever actually touch

    I just realized – that’s another thing that Hannibal has in common with Pushing Daisies (the other things being, of course, food and death).

    Any recommendations for shows/movies that are similar in style to Hannibal? I’ve never watched Twin Peaks, sounds like I need to start there.

    (Also – a female gazing post for Hugh Dancy? I see you already have one for Mads Mikkelsen :) )

  • Not a single person I know watches it, though.

    Yeah, well, the low ratings is allegedly why it was cancelled.

  • that’s another thing that Hannibal has in common with Pushing Daisies

    Oh, of course! That hadn’t occurred to me either.

    You should watch *Twin Peaks.* That was groundbreaking in its day, too. But there really is nothing similar to *Hannibal.*

    a female gazing post for Hugh Dancy

    Good idea!

  • Danielm80

    Oddly enough, I might suggest watching a Wes Anderson movie. The tone is completely different, but he gives the same level of attention to the imagery and visual design.

  • Granted, no one I know talks about TV shows(or even movies) much at all. It sucks when you watch something compelling/exhilarating/disturbing, etc. and have no one(REAL) to talk to about it.

  • bronxbee

    i hear ya…

  • Danielm80

    That was one of the few good things about having only three networks.

  • Christine

    Oh, I’m already a Wes Anderson fan! I see what you mean – both Anderson and Fuller use very stylized imagery and mannered (though not in a bad way) acting. Pushing Daisies is more Anderson-y, with the bright colors and quirkiness.

  • MarkyD, you’ve inspired me. Please see this post about how you can request an open thread to talk about movies and TV I haven’t posted about.

  • Ok, so I’ve watched the first 8 episodes of season 1 now. I totally get your assessment. It’s repugnant and fascinating at the same time. Beautifully crafted, acted, written, etc. Definitely over the top violence-wise, but not in a torture porn kind of way. The show disturbs me, but I’m totally hooked.
    Hugh and Mads are amazing.

  • Isobel_A

    I loved Dexter, and Bates Motel. Hannibal is completely and utterly different from Dexter. It shares some similarities with Bates Motel, but aside from the subject matter, plot, and truly excellent acting – everyone is at the very top of their game – it’s beautiful. Just art on film, sometimes.

Pin It on Pinterest