Coming back to Red Dragon this week in preparation for writing this piece, I discovered a much stronger book than I had remembered, a smart, engaging thriller with an undertone of melancholy that only seems to make its moments of tension and excitement more effective. It's also a more conventional work than I was expecting, or perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be that what was unconventional about Red Dragon when it was first published in 1981 is now commonplace. Harris focuses, in great detail, on the investigative and forensic procedures which enable the FBI to catch serial killers, and clearly takes a great deal of pleasure in showing off his research in these areas (he also seems to enjoy wowing readers with the space-age technology and resources at the FBI's fingertips: "Wired to a Gateway telephone, in minutes the Datafax was transmitting the employment roll simultaneously to the FBI identification section in Washington and the Missouri Department of Motor Vehicles." In minutes!). Nowadays, that's the stuff of every cut-rate procedural, so it's probably not surprising that, when given the reins of a franchise that has never quite managed to live up to the iconic status of its most famous character (some might say, that has been dragged down by that character's popularity) Bryan Fuller, TV's most idiosyncratic creator, has taken another path. His Hannibal draws its power less from the taut storytelling that makes Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs (and the films based on them) such a thrill, and more from visuals, and an atmosphere of dread and looming disaster. The result is one of the most intriguing and unusual television series of the last few years, but also one of its most frustrating. It's a series whose moments are frequently brilliant, but whose whole often feels empty.
Like a lot of prequels (the series begins some time before the events of Red Dragon), Hannibal draws its power from the irony of the audience knowing things that the characters don't, and like shows such as Smallville, or films such as X-Men: First Class, it roots that irony in a friendship between people who will one day become enemies--FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the protagonist of Red Dragon, and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, in a performance whose reserve and undertone of dry bemusement put it in stark, clearly deliberate contrast to Anthony Hopkins's famously hammy turn in the role). The crucial difference here is that unlike Lex Luthor or Magneto, Hannibal has no illusions about who he is and what role he plays in the story. At the time the series starts, he has for several years been an active serial killer, dubbed the Chesapeake Ripper by the FBI. His friendship with Will, for whom he functions as a therapist and a sounding board while growing more involved with FBI investigations over the course of the season, is thus both a means to track and obfuscate the investigation of his own crimes, and an opportunity to indulge his psycopathic impulses. As they grow closer, Hannibal manipulates Will--who is described as suffering from an "empathy disorder" which allows him to get into anyone's head, including killers--undermining his sense of reality and of self, concealing the fact that he is suffering from a neurological illness, convincing him and his colleagues at the FBI that he's losing his mind, and framing him for several murders.
Despite telling a very different story, Hannibal draws heavily from Red Dragon (and, to a lesser extent, from The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal the book; for all I know the show also cribs elements from the fourth Lecter novel, Hannibal Rising, but I haven't read it), borrowing lines of dialogue, images, and even whole scenes, so that one wonders what the show will be left with when it does the Red Dragon story (Fuller has laid out a multi-season plan for the show in which Red Dragon will be covered in season 3). This can sometimes be awkward, as when Will, quoting directly from the book, says that he sees the Chesapeake Ripper as "one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time. They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don't put it on the machines and it dies." It's an uncomfortable turn of phrase in the book, which is clearly of its time, but it's almost impossible to imagine someone in 2013 expressing themselves that way.
For the most part, however, Fuller's extensive drawing on his source material is playful, often deliberately contravening the expectations of viewers who are familiar with it. He recreates several iconic scenes from the books, but in a way that reverses their meaning. In one scene, a patient at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Lecter will eventually be incarcerated, fakes a heart attack and attacks the nurse who tries to treat him. In the books, this is Lecter, as described by Dr. Chilton to Will Graham in Red Dragon the book, and to Clarice Starling in the film of The Silence of the Lambs, as a way of illustrating the danger posed by Lecter. In Hannibal, the patient is a murderer played by Eddie Izzard who has been manipulated by Chilton into believing that he is the Chesapeake Ripper--so the danger becomes, as it will be for Will, not the psychotic murderer but the seemingly benign psychiatrist offering to help. Another episode opens with Laurence Fishburne's Jack Crawford flashing back to a time when he recruited an FBI trainee, played by Anna Chlumsky, to help him pursue a killer, but the trainee isn't Starling but a new character called Miriam Lass, who preceded her. Her existence makes Crawford, and the quasi-paternal relationship he forges with Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, seem seedy, as if Starling were just the latest in a string of trainees that Crawford uses and discards--or has discarded for him, as Miriam stumbles onto Lecter (in exactly the way that Will describes in Red Dragon) and is killed by him.
Perhaps the most intriguing play on the Lecter canon in the series is the character of Hannibal's psychiatrist, the improbably named Bedelia du Maurier. Played by Gillian Anderson, whose most famous character was modeled on Jodie Foster's turn as Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, and who was widely discussed as a frontrunner for the role when Foster declined to reprise it in the film version of Hannibal, du Maurier is semi-retired after having been attacked by a patient referred to her by Hannibal. We don't learn the exact details of the attack in the first season, but du Maurier does tell Jack that the patient died during the attack when he swallowed his tongue, and later implies to Hannibal that there is more to how he died than she has told--swallowing his tongue being the way that Lecter persuaded a fellow prisoner who had insulted Starling to kill himself in The Silence of the Lambs. In one of the season's final scenes, Hannibal visits du Maurier in her home with a prepared dinner, which may or may not be the flesh of his most recent victim (one of the show's more interesting choices is that it rarely confirms whether Hannibal is feeding his guests human flesh or not). du Maurier's hesitation before she takes a bite--as well as the oblique hints she drops that she's aware of Hannibal's nocturnal activities--are a reminder that eating a cannibalistic meal prepared by Lecter is how Hannibal the book signals that Lecter has succeeded in breaking Starling down, stripping her of her pesky conscience, and making her the companion he desires. With that in mind, it's hard not to wonder if the season's end, in which Will is committed to the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane and visited by Hannibal, is less a Homeland-style downfall for the sake of a triumphant resurgence in the second season, and more an indication that in Fuller's upside down version of the story, the role of Dr. Lecter, psychopathic consultant to the FBI, will be played by Will Graham.
As fun as these riffs on the canon are, I can't help but wonder if Hannibal wouldn't have been better off without them, because veering into recreations of Harris's tight, purposeful plotting only throws into sharper relief the fact that Hannibal's own original plotting is nothing of the sort, often driven by a combination of coincidence and the characters' stupidity. The entire premise of the series is rooted in the coincidence that the psychiatrist referred to treat the FBI's top profiler (Hannibal gets the job because his former student Alana Bloom, a gender-swapped character from the books played by Caroline Dhavernas, refers Will to him) just happens to be the FBI's most wanted serial killer, and the first season only shakes out the way it does because Will just happens to develop a rare, virtually undetectable form of auto-immune encephalitis at precisely the same time (Will's health issues are quite obviously drawn from the experiences of New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, whose article on her experiences is terrifyingly informative but also drives home just what an unlikely confluence of events this is). As if that were not enough, Hannibal needs to throw random sociopaths into its characters' path just to make its season-long plot work--when Will insists that his symptoms could have a neurological origin, Hannibal, who has been trying to convince him that he is mentally ill, takes him to a neurologist friend who diagnoses Will's illness, and is then persuaded by Hannibal to conceal it so that they can "observe" Will's deterioration. And then there is the simple fact that Hannibal spends the entire season surrounded by FBI agents who have made it their life's mission to catch him, and never arouses even a hint of suspicion in any of them--even Will, who is defined by his intuitive powers of observation, only sees Hannibal for what he is when the plot needs him to, and no sooner.
Writing in The Vulture, reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz acknowledges the ridiculousness of the show's plotting, but suggests that to get hung up on it is to miss the point. Hannibal, he argues, proceeds with the logic of a dream, or rather a nightmare. The excesses of its one-off killers (almost all of whom arrange the bodies of their victims into grisly environmental art, and frequently consume parts of them in a seeming homage to the series's title character), the apparent indifference of the FBI to anything resembling proper investigative procedure, the failure of any of the characters to acknowledge just how absurdly and improbably weird their lives have become, these are all, Seitz argues, in service of the show's project to put its viewers in a certain, deranged headspace.
I can't think of a better example on TV of Roger Ebert's famous dictum that what matters isn't what a movie's about, but how it's about it. Simply by showing us things in a particular way, Hannibal communicates (subtly, almost imperceptibly at times) that it's dealing in metaphor, and that the only thing we're meant to take at face value are the feelings expressed by the show's characters, in much the same way that the only thing we take at face value when dreaming are the emotions we experience as we toss and turn in our sleep. That doorway, that pit, that castle, that naked body writhing beneath us: none are real. But the fear, lust, and curiosity we experience as we encounter them is as real as the air you're breathing now.To a certain degree, Seitz is obviously right, especially when he stresses Hannibal's execution of this effect. The show's plotting may be lackluster, but its visuals and atmospherics are some of the most stunning and effective that I have ever seen. They suggest, as I wrote about a very different show earlier this year, that television may be moving away from the primacy of plot, or even psychological realism, and dipping its toes into more experimental, less linear storytelling. Hannibal draws its visual power from carefully composed interiors--Hannibal's cavernous, book-lined office, Will's homey, slightly rustic house, full of DIY and fishing paraphernalia, Jack's neat office with its ugly institutional furniture--and by situating characters within them in what almost seem like tableaux--when Hannibal has sessions with his patients, or with Dr. du Maurier, the camera frequently catches them sitting opposite one another, perfectly still while they converse. It's a show that demands (and rewards) attention to detail, as the camera is focused on such seemingly impossibly wrought creations as Hannibal's dishes, or the grotesquely arranged bodies left behind by Hannibal and his fellow killers. (That demand for attention is auditory as much as it is visual; unlike most network shows, where characters repeat themselves and spell out their conclusions and motivations to keep the viewers up to speed, Hannibal's dialogue is opaque. Characters frequently make leaps in conversation that are rooted in professional knowledge or their own personal experience, leaving viewers who weren't listening carefully scrambling to catch up.)
From the season's first episodes, the show trades in dream imagery as well as its nightmarish reality. As Will's grasp on sanity deteriorates, these interludes--they quickly come to comprise hallucinations and waking dreams as well as sleeping ones--become more elaborate, and more difficult to distinguish from the show's reality. Recurring elements start to appear, and are left to the viewers to decode--who, for example, is the stag that Will keeps following in his dreams and hallucinations? By the season's end the show has, as Seitz argues, taken on the tone of a nightmare, with viewers never entirely certain about the narrative's solidity, always ready for yet another scene to devolve into horror and be revealed as a dream.
Where Seitz and I disagree is on the effectiveness of this approach. To me it eventually collapses under its own weight, and is undermined, rather than bolstered, by "the feelings expressed by the show's characters," whom I find less well-constructed than Seitz obviously does. Seitz classes Hannibal as a horror show (which is to say, a slightly different genre than Harris's books or the films based on them, which were mostly horror-tinged thrillers) whose power is in its affect. But unlike, say, American Horror Story, Hannibal doesn't reach for feelings of disgust or outrage at the grand guignol that its characters witness (and, sometimes, perform). Nor is the series's sense of horror achieved through the murders that Will investigates--which though initially grotesque quickly become too absurd to have any meaningful effect (by the end of the season, a killer of the week is digging decades' worth of murder victims up, chopping them up, and arranging their body parts on a totem pole)--or through our fear that Hannibal will kill the main characters--between the timeline laid out by the books and the series's relatively simple plotting, it's easy to guess which characters are safe for the time being and which are likely to be killed sooner rather than later (there are, incidentally, more women in the second group than the first).
The horror effect in Hannibal is achieved through tension--the tension of knowing what Hannibal is while the rest of the cast remains oblivious, the tension of watching our heroes wander trustingly into Hannibal's orbit like sheep playing with a wolf, the tension of watching Hannibal tighten the screw on Will's sanity one more notch as we wait to see whether Will will snap or finally realize what's being done to him, the tension we feel every time Hannibal serves a meal as we wonder what the characters are putting in their mouths. But humor is the mortal enemy of horror, and whenever Hannibal makes itself ridiculous--when Hannibal's ability to hide in plain sight is rooted not in his own cleverness but in the other characters' stupidity, or in a nonsensical turn of plot--that tension is dispelled, and the show's affect is nullified. Hannibal may not care about plot, but it needs plot to justify the emotions it asks us to feel on behalf of its endangered, clueless characters. Otherwise, the fact that these characters are endangered and clueless seems like nothing more than a consequence of their own stupidity, or worse, writerly fiat, and being asked to feel tension under those circumstances is like being asked to do the writers' work for them.
One of the surprises of Red Dragon is how little Lecter actually appears in it--only two scenes, and a few letters to Will--but nevertheless his one shared scene with Will has struck me, since I first read it more than fifteen years ago, as getting at the heart of the character in a way that none of the subsequent books or movies have managed to do, precisely because they're too enamored with him. Trying to goad Lecter into helping him with his current case, Will tells him that "I thought you might be curious to find out if you're smarter than the person I'm looking for."
"Then, by implication, you think you are smarter than I am, since you caught me."It is precisely that insanity, or indeed any sense of interiority, that is missing from Hannibal's depiction of the character, and that makes it impossible for me to accept Seitz's argument that the shortcomings of the show's plotting are acceptable because the characters remain real. Hannibal's Hannibal is not real. He's a collection of amusing, slightly exotic affectations, mannerisms and hobbies that amount to, as Dr. du Maurier puts it in her first appearance "a very well-tailored person suit." This would not be a problem given what Hannibal is, but what is a problem is the fact that throughout the show's first season the audience is never given a glimpse of what lies under that person suit (or, indeed, if there is anything under it). Even when we're privy to Hannibal's crimes, we never understand why he's committing them (or, for that matter, their purpose--at various points over the course of the season Hannibal appears to be trying to kill Will, kill Jack, drive one or the other of them crazy, frame them for murders, help them, or become their friend; it's finally most useful to conclude that he just does whatever seems most interesting at the moment). Unlike Dexter, Hannibal doesn't give us an inside track on what's going on its title character's head, a view on his humanity or his monstrousness. Given that almost every other character on the show is clueless and, in the case of Will, completely reactive--he doesn't work out what's being done to him until the season's final twenty minutes, at which point he quite accurately pronounces himself "self-aware"--the result is a little like what I imagine Dexter would be if its focus were solely on Deb and the other secondary characters as they wander around obliviously, unsure why their lives have become so weird and full of horror.
"No. I know I'm not smarter than you are.
"Then how did you catch me, Will?"
"You had disadvantages."
"Passion. And you're insane."
While this is obviously something the show could address in later seasons, I can't help but believe that the reason Hannibal doesn't let us see inside its title character's head is that it can't find a way to make what's going on in there look cool. This is, after all, a man who likes to kill people, chop them up, make meals out of their flesh and organs and serve them to his guests. You don't do something like that unless you really get off on it, and the image that Harris, the movies, and now the TV show have created of Lecter, as someone urbane and sophisticated who likes good food and just happens to murder people he finds rude, can't accommodate something so ugly and perverse. Like a lot of fans, I didn't care for Hannibal the novel, but looking back I can at least respect its attempt to give Lecter an origin story that stresses that something very bad had to have happened to him, and twisted him up in a truly horrible way, for him to do the things he does (though even then, it feels as if Harris wants us to feel sorry for Lecter--and thus to desire the ending in which Starling is destroyed so that she can become his keeper as well as his accomplice). Hannibal does not even hint at this sort of damage, and treats Lecter as an inhuman devil--which, again, given that he is the only character in the first season with agency, leaves the show emotionally hollow.
If Hannibal works despite the problems with its handling of its characters--despite suffering from the same problem as too many other Lecter adaptations, and eventually the books themselves, of not being quite sure who its main character is--it is because of its actors. Dancy and Mikkelsen's jobs are seemingly impossible, asked to portray, respectively, a man who loses himself in other people for a living and spends the season losing what little sense of self that occupation leaves him, and a monster hiding behind good manners and better suits. If Mikkelsen can't quite find the humanity (or the true, ugly monstrosity) in Hannibal, he at least leaves us perpetually guessing about where it lies--is Hannibal crying crocodile tears over Will at the end of the season, or does he feel genuine affection for him? Is his facade of detachment a true expression of his sociopathic nature, or does he feel genuine hate for Jack Crawford, and joy at his suffering?--in a way that promises that, if the series ever raises its game where the character is concerned, Mikkelsen will be able to take it there. Dancy, meanwhile, cuts a more heroic, more compelling figure that is perhaps less complicated than the show needs him to be (unlike Claire Danes's turn in a very similar story in Homeland, he doesn't manage to make Will offputting as well as heroic, though the writing isn't really there to support that--much like Red Dragon, Hannibal tries to but can't convincingly argue that Will carries a similar darkness to the murderers he hunts). But the vulnerability he brings to the role is heartbreaking, especially when Hannibal begins to take advantage of it, and makes it all the more heartening when Will finally discovers his core of self at the end of the season and manages to resist Hannibal's manipulation. (Fishburne, meanwhile, is excellent in a role that is arguably the most successfully constructed and morally complex in the season, while Dhavernas is sadly wasted as a character who should have been the show's moral center but ends up being shunted into Will's romantic orbit too often.)
If there's a conclusion that I come to after watching the first season of Hannibal, it's that perhaps creators (and I include Thomas Harris in this group) shouldn't take a crack at Hannibal Lecter until they understand what he is and what kind of story they want to tell about him. Is he a monster? Then make him your villain, or commit to the fact that you are telling a story about a monster (something that could have been very interesting, especially in light of Dexter's increasing unwillingness to face up to that fact in its most recent seasons). Is he a damaged man? Then show that damage, and be willing to acknowledge how ugly and unappealing it should be. Going by the first season they've produced, Bryan Fuller and his writers don't know the answer to this question, which is why Hannibal often feels as if it has no center, and as if it amounts to little more than its horrific, nightmarish affect. That doesn't mean that there isn't anything here to watch for--the visuals are stunning, the actors breathe life into the characters no matter how flawed their construction, and that affect is impeccably achieved even if, to my mind, it often falters. But the result is that I enjoy Hannibal while I'm watching it and then feel as if there was no substance to it when the episode or season have wrapped up. It's a rich meal, but it leaves you feeling curiously unsated.