Ed. note– Go watch Hannibal now. Hey, I said now! Read this review later. The show’s that great.– P.F.
Probably the reasons I got interested in her in the first place, my first ex-wife was a big reader and a horror fan as well. We got together about a year after THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS came out to all sorts of Oscar buzz. The film became a frequent topic of conversation for us: she went with the common feeling at the time, that Hannibal Lecter was the most interesting character in Thomas Harris’ two linked novels at the time; but I was of a different mind, and found special FBI agent Will Graham to be far more fascinating. Harris had created an insane cannibal psychiatrist and a devastated criminal profiler, and linked them in such an intriguing matter that there was room for a second novel that broadened Lecter’s history and influence far beyond Will Graham. Though later novels and movies would dilute Lecter’s potency, Red Dragon delivered its Ground Zero, forever tying him at his best to Will Graham. Bryan Fuller’s new vision of this in the TV series Hannibal expands on the Lecter-Graham mythos, brilliantly creating a back story with nods to Harris’ canon. In the process, he’s created a series that is so unrelentingly dark, it’s hard for me to watch at times, yet impossible not to.
Season 1 starts off with a vision of Graham entering the mind of a killer as he solves a case. This establishes his technique right from the get-go: through empathy, he places himself in the mind of the killer. But each time he does, it takes him further into the abyss, and creates a greater stronghold on his mind and soul. When head of the FBI’s behavioral sciences division Jack Crawford asks him to help find the Minnesota Shrike, who’s captured eight women and presumably killed them, it takes Graham down a dark road that may eventually lead to his destruction. Seeking help to guide Graham around the pitfalls, Crawford elicits Dr. Hannibal Lecter to save Graham from going too far.
What results is a three-way of mutual respect, friendship and manipulation. Crawford promises not to send Will over the edge, but shuns the signs because Graham is saving lives. Lecter provides therapy to Graham’s wife, a cancer victim who’s lost touch with her husband. Seeking footing in the real world, Graham leans on Lecter as a friend, and Crawford to keep him employed in an unbalanced world where profiling killers provides him his only connections with reality. As for Graham and Lecter, there’s a genuine love and friendship between two like minds who are so far outside the realm of “normal,” that they embrace one another immediately.
But for those who know what Graham and Crawford don’t, embracing Lecter can only bring destruction, and death in its wake. Deep into the first season, as it becomes apparent that Lecter fears he’ll be found out as the cannibalistic copycat killer and the Chesapeake Ripper, he starts to turn the screws on Graham. This provides some of the most fascinating dramatic irony I’ve seen since Shakespeare: we all know Hannibal Lecter as Hannibal the Cannibal. But for the rest of the characters, he’s just an eccentric psychiatrist who’s also a gourmet caliber chef. And we understand just what he’s cooking, and serving to our favorite characters.
Yet still, I find Graham the more interesting of the two. Will Graham puts himself in the shoes of the killers, fantasizes about the killings, and sometimes enjoys “committing” them. His fragile psyche underpins the series, as he suffers from blackouts, wakes up in strange places, and goes further down the rabbit hole, he’s a danger to himself. But is he a danger to society? The first season will ask the viewer that over and over again. Only in the finale does it give an answer, and it’s a stunner.
As Graham, Hugh Dancy is revelatory. He starts seemingly normal enough, and Dancy makes him sympathetic. As the rigors of the season progress, Dancy takes the character to those dark places, plunging him every downward to the point where he’s broken. He’s so immersed in the character and his plight through this psychotic world that I find Graham the most fascinating he’s ever been. That’s the highest praise I can give, and I want his Graham to end up all right, though I know that’s not his inevitable outcome.
As for fan favorite Lecter? Mads Mikkelsen impresses. Knowing the icon that Anthony Hopkins created in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Mikkelsen plays the dread doctor as understated, reserved, a refined gentleman who entertains his friends with five-star restaurant quality meals. But all that belies the seamy, reptilian underbelly of a psychotic cannibal. Mikkelsen elicits my sympathy, portraying Hannibal as a man just as disconnected from the world as Graham. Even after a rift late in the game that would seem to shatter their friendship, Lecter still says many times, “Will Graham is my friend.” It’s sad at times watching these two men so far from the rest of humanity.
Solid actors round out the cast. Especially Laurence Fishburne as Crawford, who manipulates things, sometimes with terrible consequences, for what he sees is the better good. Fishburne is an old pro, and brings gravity to the series. Guest stars such as Eddie Izzard, Lance Henriksen and recurring actress Gillian Anderson as Lecter’s own psychiatrist with a dark past add power to the show.
Seeing characters from Harris’ novels and the resultant movies is fun, and there are some twists here: Dr. Alan Bloom and Freddie Lounds are both women now, and Alana Bloom now acts as love interest for Graham. The latter works, and makes the relationship more profound. The altered Lounds, however, fails for me. Lara Jean Chorostecki isn’t slimy enough to play Lounds, and comes across as annoying rather than unctuous. But Hettiene Park, as crime scene investigator Beverly Katz, is incredibly hot, and reminds me just how beautiful Asian woman can be every time she’s on my screen.
The show itself is beautiful. The gorgeous cinematography is lush with a broad color pallet that plays soft against the harsh forensic labs and sometimes brutal weather conditions. In the directorial hands of David Slade (who’s impressed me with HARD CANDY and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT) and other daring talents, it’s a bold concoction of camera choices that drive the action even when it’s just a scene of two people talking. The music keeps each episode moving, as it knows when to be quite and when to go for a stirring string section. Sight and sound greatly enhance Fuller’s writing, which keeps the characters and the show itself always on edge. There’s no safety in Hannibal’s world, for the characters or the viewer.
Which leads me to the murders. These crimes and the subsequent crime scenes would provide ample material for a full Slayer album. The show is unrepentant in its grotesque displays of slaughter. It astounds me that we’ve come so far in 30 years that stuff on TV is on parallel with the grue that relegated George Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD to go out unrated. This series is not for the squeamish, and even with my almost immunity to gore in fiction film, it turned my stomach multiple times throughout the 13 episodes.
The first and last episodes of Hannibal’s inaugural season turn on a shooting in the same kitchen, and they’re devastatingly powerful. I just watched Season 2’s premiere today, and the first 13 episodes have set the characters and audience up for a reckoning. It’s bound to be engaging, and I’m locked in. Let me make this clear: Hannibal is the most compelling television I’ve seen in years. If you have any love for the characters and Harris’ novels, this is must watch TV. I’ll even forgive if you fall on the Hannibal side of the great Lecter-Graham debate. I promise I won’t divorce you.
Hannibal the first season is also available on Amazon Instant.