Hannibal is set in the kind of horror realm we might imagine when we indulge our worst fears of the hideous forms the civilized world could be capable of assuming. The cityscapes are richly foreboding shades of night blue and blood red, and the clouds rush by the screen in accelerated speed to affirm a general sense of relentless dislocating unease. The show’s characters are of two stripes: flamboyantly deranged serial killers who often communicate among one another in a perverted sort of Morse code via the fashions with which they mutilate their victims, and the law enforcers who’re wearing down their own mental faculties in their ongoing war against those killers. Presiding over this mayhem is the titular Prince of Darkness, psychiatrist and cannibal gourmand extraordinaire Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).
That’s right: Creator Bryan Fuller has made Hannibal scary again, and he’s also addressed one of the issues that’s always nagged screen interpretations of author Thomas Harris’s character. As played most prominently by Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins, respectively, Hannibal was a kitschy demonic figure, a James Bond-style villain dressed up with pat explanations out of Pop Psych 101. The mad doctor was initially unnerving, especially as played by Cox, but he was never charming or convincingly human. You never understood why anyone would be taken in by Hannibal’s parlor games to begin with, however disturbed they might be.
Fuller and Mikkelsen address that problem by envisioning Hannibal as basically a vampire of haute culture, who gradually wrestles control of the primary narrative arc away from the heroes as the season progresses. He’s good looking, brilliant, stylish, possesses an advanced awareness of art, food, and wine, all while remaining unapologetically somewhat alien. Like many deeply self-involved men, Hannibal has a gift for confessing to a fault at the time you least suspect him to, in a conscious manipulation to engender sympathy and subtly orchestrate any given social transaction. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal isn’t a scold like Cox or Hopkins’s, but more of a Tom Ripley who’s updated himself to contemporary moors by embracing the newish idea that everyone’s now somewhat obsessed with improving themselves culturally. Hannibal seduces people by inviting them into his fold, and by implying they can achieve his level of sophistication, all while he feeds them to each other. The notion of Hannibal’s cannibalism as a form of social protest isn’t new, as it’s always been present in the novels and films as easily spotted text, but now his schemes are elegant, decadent, and imbued with a greater and more satisfying satiric charge.
And yet Hannibal is disturbingly more quasi-human than ever before; we almost believe him when he says that he’s come to regard F.B.I. profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) as a friend, even when he elaborately goes about driving him insane out of what’s basically intellectual curiosity. Will, who, like Hannibal, first appeared in the Harris novel Red Dragon, consults with the doctor while pursuing a variety of killers with elaborate Grand Guignol memes that allow the writers to go surprisingly wild for network television. “The Gardner,” in particular, has a method of killing victims that’s icky even for this veteran critic of horror films and crime fiction.
This is the first Harris adaptation to capture the weird complexity of Will’s mentally taxing ability to place himself in the mind of a killer (it usually scans as a plot convenience). We see Will, in an ingeniously simple gimmick, entering a killer’s mind gradually with a golden swipe across a black screen that resembles the movement of a supernatural windshield wiper, and as Hannibal progresses, we’re allowed to glimpse the interior of the addled profiler’s mind with greater depth and frequency. In a series of beautiful and visceral sequences, Will begins to disengage from proper society to operate by a new nightmare logic that abounds in symbolism of previous killers and victims.
This unexpectedly extensive emphasis on the burden of Will’s talent, and guilt, allows Fuller to transcend the serial-killer story’s often distastefully voyeuristic qualities. We never enjoy the killing sprees as closeted audience-surrogate revenge fantasies (not even Hannibal’s murders, which were often, disgustingly, implicitly cheered by Harris and other filmmakers), and the victims are never denied their vulnerability and humanity. Hannibal is richer and more ambiguous than prior Harris adaptations; it’s an exploration of social decay that’s rife with literal and figurative cancers eating everyone alive from the ground up. Yet the series, remarkably, isn’t hopeless, as Will and his co-workers keep fighting and actively grappling with their suffering, until one day it’s all, inevitably, over.