Hannibal: Why Does Bad Look So Good?

Severing up dinner.

Severing up dinner.

“I can’t make pain go away, but I can make it so that it doesn’t matter. I-I protected them. I protected these people from hopelessness. And that’s beautiful.” (Season 2, Episode 4 Hannibal)

Given I’m out of the “cool stuff on TV” loop–lack of cable TV–I missed the first two seasons of Hannibal on NBC. I saw the movies, thought Silence of Lambs was the cat’s (creepy) pajamas, and watched Hannibal and Red Dragon with the same intense want to spin into the philosophy of pure self-righteous god-mimicking.

So when Orchid told me to watch it, I found myself watching something I could barely wrap my head around: every main character was a psychiatrist, every character had a wholly developed understanding of the “human condition,” and they danced.

Oh, did they dance.

I won’t spoiler any of the TV series, which I’ve rarely said about anything I’ve read or watched. It’s on the same level as Simmons’ Drood, my favorite novel (and for me, arguably, the greatest single novel ever written). I will spoiler the movies, made in the 90’s, because you’ve had more than enough time to see them. Shame on you if you haven’t.

As a quick pick-up, I’ll run through the back story of how I walked into the series: I watched the movies, made off several novels written in the ’80’s about a brilliant psychiatrist serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, who killed and ate his victims as a way to show his disapproval. The premise is morbid. Silence of the Lambs had Hannibal, behind a plastic cage, helping a rookie FBI detective hunt down a serial killer. Since the serial killer was essentially a copycat, and Hannibal was a psychiatrist, consulting work was just a clever twist.

It introduced a narrative that twisted truth and reality around, and where Hannibal looked every bit the crazy psychopath the Observer was meant to see. Anthony Hopkins had wide-open, soul-peering eyes. He talked creepy, moved creepy, made creepy sounds. And behind the curtain, it was posed as a kind of circus sideshow act: an insane man talking deeply insightful thoughts on the extreme of the human mind. Hopkins escapes, goes on to the second movie Hannibal, where the Observer sees him as less a psychopath and more an artist, and then the prequel, Red Dragon, brings it all full-circle into how Hannibal got caught. Very cyclical.

Which, I assume, is what the series will be: three seasons. Three acts in a play.

The Hannibal of the TV series is very, very different. He is, in every way, a modern representation of Milton’s Satan: grotesque, virulent, vibrant, sexy, destructive, self-serving. He wants to pay homage to God. He wants to influence and push the pawns around him as he watches them destruct, break, see themselves without the skin of humanity (metaphorically. And in a few cases, literally).

He is still used in consulting FBI work, mostly as a man with his finger on the pulse of (in the first season) the main character, Will Graham. Mr. Graham exists with a tendency toward autism, with empathy on a level that makes him unbalanced, easily prone to destructive thoughts, and provides him with an insight into the minds of killers. Graham’s claim to fame is his ability to deconstruct a crime scene while simultaneously attributing motive without all the hubbub of busywork and research, while Hannibal’s ability is in art, and his overdeveloped sense of smell, and his meticulous nature.

Season one is Graham’s deteriorating grip on reality. Season two is Hannibal trying to stay ahead of the pack of wolves.

First off, the man is beautiful. Mads Mikkelsen, the German actor who plays the part of Hannibal, exudes a very commanding personality. He’s older, has a look of distinction, yet is also flawed in a way that makes him human. He prepares elegant food, has a very gothic art style, and spends much of his time inspiring change in characters that walk into his office. He acts like royalty, and commands it in every aspect of how he lives. His house is beautiful. His murders are artistic and satirical while simultaneously grotesque. His food always centers on ways to prepare meat.

I mean, I wrote Of Salt and Wine with demons of this caliber, but not of this distinction. It hurts, frustrates, and ultimately inspires me: my novel could use so much more work, when held up to the light of this series.

And everyone, absolutely everyone, is very intelligent. The script is written in a way that invokes philosophical thought. Characters sitting opposite each other for a whole episode doesn’t actually cultivate boredom, but intrigue.

The filming was simply phenomenal, as well. Graham’s lapses with reality, his visions of a great stag walking through his bedroom, the murder scenes were simply delicious. So much passion, and so much pain, elevated the scenery into something, well, biblical. Throwbacks to the 1300’s religious art style of the grotesque, in the eyes of the plague and so much death (“In your memory palace? My palace is vast, even by medieval standards. The foyer is of Norman Chapel in Palermo.
Severe, beautiful and timeless.With a single reminder of mortality. A skull. Graven in the floor.”).

So. I fell in love with the show because Hannibal is beautiful, the visuals are beautiful, the script is beautiful. He is handsome, and brilliant, and cunning, and historical. He is, in every manifestation, Satan himself brought to Earth. This is a modern Paradise Lost, where a fallen angel mocks God while at the same time raises his praises to the idea of beautiful chaos. He is the apex of human evolution, when all modicum of ethics is stripped from the human capacity to exist.

Show me anywhere else, in literature or otherwise, where an Observer is allowed to fall in love with a man whose sole purpose, at face value, is to murder and eat people? Show me anywhere else where the mind of a serial killer is upheld as brilliant and, in many ways, superior to our own in such a convincing way? Even knowing the man killed on the sidelines didn’t weaken his insights and arguments toward the other characters. In fact, knowing he was a killer gave the man’s words extra bite.

All Hannibal wanted to do, ultimately, was find someone else like him. Barring him finding someone, he tried to create someone like him. (Psychological Frankenstein, anyone?)

Finally, in a very meta way, this show does to us, as Observers, what Hannibal does to Mr. Graham and the others: it slowly introduces ideas without forcing them, allowing the Observer to feel he’s coming to his own conclusions about something, while the whole time, behind the scenes, he is pushed toward an ultimate conclusion.

The final scene in the final episode of season two made my jaw drop.

Now, a few side notes toward some of the lesser aspects of this series. One? All the women were ultimately very weak characters. They were fodder, they were plot devices, they were drama-creators. All the women, save one, seemed to be cast for their huge, doe-like eyes. And there were a lot of recurring women on the show.

Some of the script seemed forced, with characters changing perspective or blindly ignoring facts when they were hard-nosed fact-finders just a few episodes before. It was frustrating to see where a good story hurt the “truth” side of how the FBI works. As Orchid stated: “Nobody ever calls for backup. Ever.” Exactly.

I can’t imagine a more fruitful story than the Hannibal series. With fair warning: there’s a lot of blood. A lot of gore. A lot of violence, intoned or otherwise. And a lot of disregard of human… body parts. If you don’t want to see a modern-day demon-on-earth do what demons do best, I’d recommend watching something else instead. Like, say, CSI.


After writing this article, I found a nice little blog post that goes much more in-depth about the symbolism in the second season of Hannibal. His style wanders quite a bit, where the post begins as a step-by-step dissection of season 2, episode 5 and ultimately devolves into a whole series-type discussion. While I saw most of this while I watched, I didn’t want to spend so much time delving into the details on this blog. I guess I’m easily bored nowadays. But, definitely something to read if you’re interested. Warning: All Sorts of Spoilers.



3 thoughts on “Hannibal: Why Does Bad Look So Good?

  1. The most compelling thing about Hannibal is watching everyone fall in love with evil. At the moment I’m trying to decide if it’s a good thing or bad that regular murderers and psychopaths don’t come with equalling amounts of suave and polish. Thank you for the article, I enjoyed reading it. Hope you don’t mind this comment. 

  2. Pingback: Author-ity, Illnesses & the Stories of Experience | Wicked Cultured

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