Developed by Bryan Fuller.
Starring Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, Hettienne Park, Scott Thompson, Aaron Abrams, Gillian Anderson and Laurence Fishburne.
Gifted FBI profiler Will Graham is introduced to psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter to aid in the hunting serial killers, unaware that the doctor is destined to become his most cunning foe.
If you’ve followed my October Horror series since it began way back in 2016 (God, it’s been so long), then you’ll have noticed that year after year, I’ve been gradually working my way through the Hannibal Lecter franchise. We’ve had the highs of Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, the middling Hannibal and Red Dragon and the disappointment of Hannibal Rising. Now, after five years, we’ve sadly come to the end of the line. Today, we finally look at the TV series simply entitled Hannibal, a show that, against all the odds, managed to take this seemingly dead franchise and breathed spectacular new life into it.
Told over 3 seasons, Hannibal avoids strictly adapting the novels or remaking the films. Instead, it uses what has gone before as a blueprint for its own approach that gradually changes as the show progresses season to season.
The first season acts as a semi-serialised police procedural as we follow Will Graham and co as they hunt various “killers of the week”. While perhaps a little derivative of other police shows, Hannibal places a heavier focus on character development. Several episodes feature no killer at all, often resulting in some of the shows best moments as they allow the characters relationships to deepen and process their experiences. The second season continues with the procedural elements but gradually discards them along the way, particularly as suspicions increasingly begin to fall on Lecter himself. The third and final season is the only one that follows the plots of the novels, albeit loosely. The first half adapts elements of the novel Hannibal with Lecter hiding out in Florence, while the second offers a modified retelling of Red Dragon as Graham is drafted in to hunt the Tooth Fairy killer, returning to Lecter once more for help. The changes over the seasons help keep things varied and interesting. The procedural elements of the first season helping to ease viewers into the show’s world. The second gradually deepens the character development while adding more twists to the formula. And finally, the third tells a familiar story that, while left somewhat open, brings the show to a fitting and gory close.
At the show’s heart is the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, taking what was shown in the cinematic and literary forbearers and expanding upon it greatly in surprising ways, especially as the relationship takes on an increasingly and deliberately homoerotic dimension. Their increasingly complicated dynamic becomes akin to a twisted courtship, the two growing ever more emotionally intimate with one another until all pretences are dropped by the final episodes. It’s a novel addition to the series canon, but it works brilliantly. The slow burn and gradual reveal of their growing “love” for each other, handled in a surprisingly delicate fashion that feels natural. Well, as natural as a show about cannibals can be.
Cementing himself as the definitive Will Graham, Hugh Dancy gives a masterful performance, portraying the troubled profiler with layers of complexity and depth that would be impossible in a feature film. Dancy’s portrayal is one of many sides, showing Graham as not a particularly likeable person, but one you can’t help but sympathise with, given the enormous stress placed upon his mind. Although some of his best moments are when Dancy imbues the role with surprising moments of menace, hinting that Graham is merely one small step away from becoming one of the psychopaths he hunts.
The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, a commanding figure whose tough exterior hides a vulnerable man wracked with guilt and fear over his past actions. Praise also has to be given to Caroline Dhavernas as Alana Bloom, the actress taking a character that (as Alan Bloom) barely featured in the films and making her feel essential to the ensemble, particular as she changes from a concerned colleague in the first two seasons into a skilled manipulator in her own right in the third.
The array of recurring guest actors are also brilliant, bringing to life a variety of strange, sinister characters, too numerous to spotlight without stretching this review to grotesque lengths. Raul Esparza nearly steals the show with his delightfully loathsome portrayal of incompetent psychiatrist Dr Fredrick Chilton. The actor playing the role with an appropriate sliminess and arrogance that he never shakes even as he finds himself on the receiving end of almost comical levels of punishment. Perhaps my favourite recurring star is Kacey Rohl as Abigail Hobbs, the daughter of a serial killer killed by Graham. The actress navigating this complicated role of someone coming to terms with her father’s crimes and her part in them, playing the role with sympathetic vulnerability with just enough of a hint of darkness to keep you suspicious.
Taking on the daunting task of bringing to life one of horrors most famous monsters is Mads Mikkelsen. The acclaimed Danish actor pumping fresh new blood into this well-worn character and proving himself more than a match for Anthony Hopkins iconic portrayal. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter is a wolf among the sheep. Respectable and charming in public, while showing just a hint at the murderous monster underneath via a sinister glint in the eyes or a knowing smile, only revealing his true self to his victims and later to Graham. Perhaps the most surprising quality is that Mikkelsen brings a level of emotional vulnerability not seen in past depictions, showing the cannibal teary-eyed in several scenes, such as he feels he’s been betrayed by Graham in a particularly blood-soaked sequence. It’s an inspired addition to the character that shows that, while a monster, Lecter is still human. Mikkelsen is simply masterful in the role, playing it with such charm, sophistication and range that, although he is pure evil, I found myself growing to genuinely like Lecter.
One part of the Hannibal films that I often appreciated is that, for the most part, thanks to the various directors that helm them, every film has its own particular style that makes it stand out. The Hannibal series continues this trend and then some, adopting a visual style that is unlike anything you’d find on a mainstream network TV show. Full of surreal imagery that is at times confusing, kaleidoscopic, but always intoxicating, with every episode bringing some kind of fresh new fever dream to lose yourself in. It might all be pretentious and self-indulgent, but when things look this gorgeous, who cares?
Crucial to the show’s identity is how it approaches violence. Almost presenting murder as a twisted kind of art form, with the variety of killers featured possessing their own unique and horrifying techniques, far too many to go into detail in one review alone. Perhaps the most creative and fascinating killer, in my view, is one who views people’s skin as a colour palette, killing them and sewing dozens of victims together to create a nightmarish mural composed to mimic the shape and colour of the human eye. It’s a nightmarish concept, but damn if the image doesn’t linger. The coolest visual trickery the show employs is in visualising how Graham puts himself inside the mind of a killer. A bright golden pendulum swings across the screen, almost sounding like a blade scything through Graham’s mind as he “becomes” the killer, re-enacting scenes of brutal violence while commenting aloud about their “design”.
The scenes of Lecter cooking his victims are perhaps the ones that disturbed me the most. Not because of their gruesomeness, because they made me feel hungry. Taking the various organs harvested from his victims and preparing them with skill and precision into immaculately prepared dishes, complete with a delicious sounding description (and a knowing dark joke). It almost makes it feel like I’m watching a particularly dark edition of Masterchef.
It’s a show that really shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, but Hannibal somehow managed it. Visually stunning in a way that makes murder seem beautiful. Brilliantly acted, particularly by Dancy and Mikkelsen, who take these well worn familiar characters and make them uniquely their own. And masterfully breathing new life into a dead franchise in a way that honours the past while forging its own path. There is a lot to love about this show, and there is a lot I had to leave out (my original draft was, no joke, nearly 4,000 words). So I’ll end by saying this; Hannibal is one of the best horror TV series ever created and arguably the best this franchise has ever been and ever will be. I just wish it had lasted one more season.