The TV series Hannibal (2013) may be the finest dramatic program of its type since Chris Carter’s Millennium (1996 – 1999).
This is so because Hannibal is much more than a mere or routine police procedural. For example, the episodes don’t end neatly and tidily at the end of each hour when the serial killer is caught or killed.
Instead, the series builds remarkable tension -- installment-to-installment -- because many characters carry the “wounds” of the violence they witness (or cause…). This torment builds and builds, like a critical mass, threatening to explode at any moment.
In short, Hannibal isn’t afraid to peer inside man’s heart of darkness. Or perhaps more aptly, to weigh the impact of darkness on man’s heart.
Buttressed by Grand Guignol-styled visuals of macabre beauty, this TV series is as dark, cerebral, and icy a descent into madness as we have seen in quite some time. I was a big fan of Dexter (2006 – 2013), but that was a different kind of series in some crucial ways. Dexter Morgan was as much a superhero as a serial killer, and his violence was always directed at the guilty.
Hannibal’s “code” -- if he has one -- is much different, and not as easily “read” or understood, at least thus far.
But I admire Hannibal for another reason.
In some sense, the series is actually a clever commentary -- implicitly -- on art, and how art impacts the “imagination” of the person who experiences and interprets it.
As someone who experiences and interprets film and television for a living, the dynamic is not lost on me.
Specifically, Hannibal Lecter (Madds Mikkelson) -- clandestinely a serial killer called “The Chesapeake Ripper” at this point -- is a genuine artist, one who kills as beautifully and elegantly as he paints, or cooks.
Hannibal is a creative genius in everything does, but is also, alas, quite insane.
By contrast Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is the man who must gaze at Hannibal’s gruesome works and attempt to compartmentalize the imagery so that what he sees doesn’t overwhelm him or change his identity.
Will’s extreme imagination -- often noted as his greatest personal gift -- is the very thing that makes this act of putting the “horror” into a box so difficult.
In his case (and quite unlike my job, thankfully…), Will interprets Hannibal’s mad art so to save lives; to understand the mind of the “artist” and catch him before he paints again…in shades of scarlet and crimson.
But Will and art critics share another trait in common: they must interpret symbols left behind by artists. They must think in terms of "the visuals."
Hannibal thus thinks symbolically, and I love that about the series. The visuals are stunning to look at on their own terms, but more than that, canny in terms of representation.
For instance, throughout the first season Will often encounters the symbol of the stag in his dreams, and that stag connects to a sculpture in Hannibal’s office.
Clearly, Will's subconscious mind keeps telling him of the connection between the murders and Hannibal, but his conscious mind takes too long to read the imagery.
Many of the death scenes can likewise be interpreted symbolically, and Will is our guide so we can do it too.
For the first time on television since we saw “flashes” of Frank Blacks insight on Millennium, Hannibal also provides a visualization of what it means to “empathize” with a criminal, a killer specifically.
In this case, when Will Graham enters a crime scene the image turns to a blank screen that is sort of copper-ish in color. Then, two lines -- which resemble wind-shield wipers -- progressively erase the present, and the crime itself, from his mind.
As the wipers take us back to the past, Will goes backwards too, and the scene returns to its pristine, pre-crime state.
Then,Will lives the moment of the crime…as the murderer.
This expressive visualization does a remarkably good job of expressing both Will’s aforementioned imagination, and as his incredible sense of focus. Will must first erase the present before becoming part of the past, and we actually see that act of "erasure" happen.
Hugh Dancy is particularly effective -- and sometimes heart-breaking -- in the role of Graham, and he completely erases any memories you may have of Ed Norton or William Peterson in the same role. Dancy is extremely interesting to watch, so much so that for the first several episodes it seems that Hannibal isn’t even necessary.
It took me about five or so hour-long episodes to warm up to Mikkelsen as Lecter, perhaps because it’s far more difficult to erase the image of Anthony Hopkins in the famous role.
But after a few hours, I began to detect Mikkelsen’s subtle power in the role. There’s something sort of “other” or "uber" human about this guy. This version of Lecter walks around in an almost preternatural state of perfection or isolation.
He may appear to inhabit our world, but Hannibal is actually living in another realm all together, a realm which recognizes, perhaps, art as the highest aspiration of all. It's one thing to live life normally. It's another to live as an accomplished artist, making and recognizing beauty wherever you travel.
Lecter is multi-lingual, and boasts an expertise in music, art and cuisine, but also, importantly, psychology. He thus sees beauty everywhere, including in the strange, dark alleyways of the human mind. And Hannibal seems determined to make that beauty -- even the beauty of madness -- come to flower...no matter what.
Perhaps Hannibal recognizes the flower and coaxes it to bloom because he also sees the opposite side of the coin. He has great heights because he also has terrifying lows.
Mikkelsen is less friendly -- more glacier-like -- than Hopkins was as Lecter, but he makes the character his own, and projects this sort of remote...coolness. His Lecter never acts out of desperation because he is always seven or eight chess moves ahead of everyone else in his social circle. This is a rewarding approach because when Mikkelson does let the mask of composure slip, it is gasp-provoking.
The remaining roles in the series are just as strongly cast. Laurence Fishburne brings Jack Crawford to life in a vivid, emotional way, and serves as a good “hot” to Mikkelsen’s frigid “cold.”
Essentially, Will Graham is trapped between those two extremes, and suffering because of it.
Even the guest roles in the series are well-cast. Gillian Anderson is strong here as Hannibal’s psychiatrist, playing her cards so close to the vest that we can’t guess as to her true allegiance.
Another episode features Lance Henriksen -- Frank Black himself -- as a bitter, monstrous husk of a man.
Somehow, Henriksen projects a pure, sinister power without even moving out of a chair. All his power is centered there, in that chair, and he uses his expressive face to utterly terrorize Will. Henriksen’s character practically fountains hatred -- an erupting volcano -- and again, Henriksen does so without really getting to use most of his body.
As a long-time admirer of the Thomas Harris Hannibal Lecter books, it’s rewarding too that Hannibal attempts to interface often with the literary history of the character and his world.
We not only meet Hannibal, Will, and Crawford here, but also get a great new interpretation of tabloid gossip-monger Freddy Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostacki), and slick Dr. Chilton.
In terms of literary history, the series similarly resurrects “The Minnesota Shrike” (Garrett Jacob Hobbs), and the aforementioned "Chesapeake Ripper."
Some liberties have been taken, indeed, to serialize Will and Hannibal's story over several seasons, but the overall tone is one that remains simultaneously faithful to the mythos and creative in its own right.
A key aspect of that creativity is seen in the murders featured on the series, which are as gory as anything you'd find in the latest torture porn movie. Only in this case, the deaths are created with an eye towards color, depth, space, and -- last but not least -- audacity.
This is not a show for you if you have a weak stomach. I consider myself a hardcore horror guy, but there have been several moments in Hannibal when I had to look away from the TV.
In ways impressive and nuanced, Hannibal makes madness look like an art form, but it also takes responsibility for that point of view.
It says that to catch the artist responsible for such madness, we all have to be come students of that madness...even if the price is high.
I'm thirteen episodes in (the first season), and already Hannibal is in the franchise's top ranks, along with Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Manhunter (1986).
Give this show seven seasons, and Hannibal Lecter could reach artistic -- and murderous -- heights undreamed of...