Hannibal has the distinction of being the least-likely network television show of all time to receive orders for a second and third season. With only five episodes left in its now-doomed run, the show has finally reached the plot of Thomas Harris’s first Lector novel, a storyline which many believed would serve as the TV show’s starting point. The familiar tale of Francis Dolarhyde’s killing spree is going to serve as the conclusion for the show, which is just the last in the series of strange reversals that have taken place across Hannibal’s run.
For a character based around a semi-clever rhyming name, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector has become something of a screen darling. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs made the character into a household name; Anthony Hopkins’ was the most memorable movie villain since Darth Vader. Subsequent adaptations have faired less well, although I have a soft spot for the Brett Ratner adaptation of Red Dragon, in which Edward Norton, Ralphes Fiennes, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all give performances that live up to the high standard set by Demme’s film. Others, like the awful Hannibal Rising, are wholly indefensible entries in the series.
Bryan Fuller decided to mix and match the efforts of his predecessors with Hannibal. He took the basic concept behind Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs (the psychologist/cannibalistic serial killer advising an FBI profiler on how to catch another maniac) and turned it into a standard television series, complete with Killers of the Week, essentially eschewing all of the plots from Harris’s novels for the entire first season of the show. Season one ends with the first of many twists on the previous adaptations: Will Graham, FBI profiler and Hannibal Lector patient, is rolled into court in the classic Hannibal face mask and dolly. (Note: Fuller also gender-swapped muckraking journalist Freddie Lounds to great effect). Season two introduced characters and situations from the third Lector novel (the one titled Hannibal, which is technically the second in the chronology) in the form of Mason Verger, in essence reversing the timeline from the novels. Whereas the events of Hannibal the Book occur after the titular doctor’s escape from prison in The Silence of the Lambs, in the TV show they occur before his imprisonment at the hands of Will Graham, which happens BEFORE the events of Red Dragon. Confused yet?
Luckily, Hannibal the Show tells a self-contained story that is only made better with knowledge of the books and previous filmic adaptations. While individual plots and shots make direct reference to these other efforts, the show exists in its own creative continuum, complete with a slew of new serial killers for Will and Hannibal to track. And Mad Mikkelsen’s work in the role of Lector rivals that of Anthony Hopkins for sheer intensity; his portrayal of a pre-prison Hannibal as a man on top of the world, who eats what and who he pleases and kills with reckless abandon, is gleefully terrifying. It is the role of his career and he milks every second of it.
The production values on Hannibal are also top-notch. The show holds the honor of being, simultaneously, the best-looking network show as well as the most graphically violent and sexual one. Hannibal is a cinematic tour de force, with each episode featuring multiple hallucinatory sequences full of mind-bending visuals. Similarly, the dialogue is spare and pointed, eschewing the tendency of procedural shows to rely on constant wordplay. Crime scenes are explained not by monologues but instead through horrific tableaus and action-packed recreations. Some of the most horrific acts to be televised in recent memory are presented tastefully (pun intended) clothed censor-friendly shadows, allowing for truly grotesque scenes to be played out more or less straight. Where Demme chose to depict the horrific acts of Buffalo Bill and Hopkins/Lector in an almost documentary style, Fuller wraps his depictions in arthouse trappings in order to slip things under the censors’ noses.
This is not to suggest that Hannibal has been perfect. The show’s arthouse style was accompanied by an arthouse pacing, which is to say that the story, especially following the rapid-fire weekly killer hunt of season one, unfolded glacially beginning in season two. Similarly, for every perfectly-placed fantasy sequence there is another that seems to exist only to fill out the show’s hour runtime. And while Hugh Dancy is a serviceable Will Graham, he has an annoying habit of snarling through lines that need a subtler touch.
The opening of season three was rife with these flaws. The first three episodes of the season were spent paying off the previous season’s massive cliffhanger in a drawn-out and repetitive manner, advancing the action at a painfully slow rate. The scene in which Will and Jack crawford chase Hannibal through the catacombs is the perfect example of these problems: a beautifully shot scene in which characters act out predictable patterns of behavior that lead nowhere. Likewise, Chiyo's storyline was entirely unnecessary to the characters and plot. But things picked up with the return of Mason Verger (whose new face came courtesy of a surgeon and a casting agent), Alana Bloom, and Margot Verger, who carried the storyline a good ways up the field in a short span of episodes.
The show’s final six episode arc began equally as well. Ironically, Hannibal is ending where the books began, with the story of Graham and Lector’s investigation of Francis “Tooth Fairy” Dolarhyde. And, at least in the first episode of the arc, Fuller adapts the novels with a precision heretofore unseen in the show; the Tooth Fairy murders and Will getting involved are presented in almost identical fashion as the events of the novel. Whether the show writers take it off the rails or not, the Tooth Fairy story is inherently compelling and will serve as a nice point of closure for the show. Also, with only five episodes left to cover a novel’s worth of territory, Hannibal seems destined to leave many of its pacing problems behind as it closes out its run.
Still, even if it had ended with Saturday’s episode, Hannibal would be an achievement in television. It is a uniquely twenty first century show: an hour long network drama featuring inventive cinematography, graphic violence, arthouse pacing, and strong lead performances. It’s a crossbreed between old-school police procedurals and modern prestige dramas which keeps the best aspects of both while mostly eschewing the structural flaws that plague those models. I hope that Hannibal cements itself in the pantheon of modern television by closing with five more strong episodes.