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Categories: Features

Short-lived but much beloved. Matthew Wilson takes a look back at the re-imagining of a horror icon in a TV show that broke all the rules.

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Watching Hannibal you’ll either think: “How did this only get three seasons? It’s brilliant!” Or: “How did this even get three seasons? It’s so violent!”

Brilliant and violent are just two of the many words to describe Hannibal. A show which, by all means, should’ve fallen in the first season but held on for a full three before bowing out.

Created by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies), Hannibal is a re-imagining of Thomas Harris’ classic crime series. Examining the relationship between FBI profiler Will Graham and prominent psychiatrist/serial killer Hannibal Lector before the events of Red Dragon and then covering the three main storylines (Red DragonSilence of the Lambs, and Hannibal) in subsequent seasons.

The seven planned-seasons never came to fruition, due primarily to a combination of bad placement (it was shown on NBC in the US, a channel consisting primarily of talk shows and light dramas, and dumped onto the very unsuitable Sky Living in the UK) and the show’s combination of surreal imagery and unrelenting gore. Which would have seemed strong on cable, let alone network television.

Opening in the aftermath of the disappearance of several college girls, believed to be the work of the Chesapeake Ripper, the FBI call in special investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a man with the unique ability to empathize with criminals, in order to catch the killer before he strikes again. The investigation brings him into the sphere of another consultant, one Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).

This publicity image released by NBC shows Danish actor Mads Mikkelson as Dr. Hannial Lecter in a scene from the upcoming TV series, "Hannibal." The series, based on the Thomas Harris novels and starring Mikkelson, Hugh Dancy, and Laurence Fishburne, will premiere on April 4, 2013 on NBC. (AP Photo/NBC, Brooke Palmer)

The first season of Hannibal is the weakest but only in comparison to the later brilliance. Focusing mainly on “killer of the week” style cases, running parallel with the sessions between Will and Hannibal. While this thirteen-episode run offers up some inventive, and gruesome, kills – it’s only once Hannibal’s plan for Will snaps into place that you realise the show’s true purpose and what that relationship will come to mean for the rest of the series.

Season two is split into two sections. The first concerns the attempts of Will – only now beginning recover from a complete mental breakdown brought on by Viral Encephalitis, exacerbated by Hannibal – to prove his innocence from behind bars. The second, filled with half-truths and double-truths, follows Will and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and their plan to bring Hannibal to justice.

It was here that Hannibal began to deviate from its source material to create its own mythology,. Al leading to the season two finale and the show’s best episode, “Mizumono”, wherein Hannibal lays waste to the best laid plans of mice and maniacs in the season two finale. Putting the audience into a position where they honestly believe that anyone can die.

Like the second, season three is also split in two but more formally. This being their final run, the creators gave themselves two half-seasons in one to round out the story. The first half, which takes place in Italy, deals with Hannibal on the run. Touching, a little unsatisfactory, on how the killer came to be. The second half, set three years after the first, focuses on the emergence of Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), A.K.A. The Red Dragon.

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Forcing Will and Hannibal to come together in order to slay the dragon ensured that, after so much cat-and-mouse, the show was able to give the two some much-needed face time.

The Will/Hannibal relationship was the engine of Fuller’s whole show. Two men on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Both are intellectually brilliant. But, where Will is a introvert – emotionally scarred, possibly autistic – Hannibal is suave – superficially charming, a sociopath.

Both of them, however, are so far removed from the rest of society that they can only relate to each other while still being polar opposite. Dancy’s interpretation of Will as emotionally-driven,  and on-edge, is fantastic and sparks perfectly with Mikkelsen as Hannibal – so goddamn cultivated that you’re almost caught off-guard whenever he does a horrifically violent act. In a lot of ways, he plays the character like Lucifer. A higher-being walking amongst the lowly humans.

Hannibal is, arguably, a love story. Just a heterosexual love story between two deeply broken men, who have only found their equal in each other. The series finale, “The Wrath Of The Lambs”, closes off both the Francis arc and the relationship between Will and Hannibal by wrapping it up in its own little blood-drenched bow. With, arguably, the most perfect conclusion to a show since Breaking Bad.

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The show’s regular/recurring cast are just as strong. Laurence Fishburne makes Jack Crawford as arrogant as he is talented for a detective who would fight for what he believed in so long as he saw the facts to back it up.

Dr. Chilton (Raúl Esparza), meanwhile, tries to match his wits against Hannibal. But, each season, something horrific happens to him like the world’s most violent running gag.

As Margot Verger, Katherine Isabelle is given the chance to sink her teeth into a character that finds a strength to fight against her demented kin.

Finally, Richard Armitage gives it his all as Dolarhyde, even compelled, as he is, by a heavenly figure,  to perform monthly murder, sinewy and tormented, he feels disturbingly real.

 

It’s a tribute to Fuller’s vision, and NBC’s faith in the show, that Hannibal managed to remain as dark, and as shocking, as it did. It’s a violent, beautiful, world that these characters inhabit and a poetry on screen which translates horrific death into something more akin to art.

Credit where its due to NBC for not immediately pulling the plug earlier. But, in its own way, Hannibal arguably works better with just the three seasons. While it would’ve been very interesting to see a new version of Clarice, the show is so dedicated to the relationship between Hannibal and Will that to follow anything but that would’ve felt disingenuous to the show.

Hannibal might not have set the world on fire, but for those who stuck with it, it delivered something rare: a TV-set prequel which not only lives up to its namesake but surpasses a lot of it as well. At only thirty-nine episodes long, it also won’t eat up your time getting through it. Beautiful, monstrous, and utterly compelling. Hannibal more than demands your attention for delivering new life to one of fiction’s greatest villains.

All three seasons of Hannibal are available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

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Posted on Sep 5, 2016

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