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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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


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…

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