In the Name of Love: HANNIBAL’S Greatest Success is its Devotion to Relationships

hannibal update

I can say with great confidence that I learned more about love and relationships from a show about a serial killer with a taste for the finer things in life than I have from any personal experience. The admittedly depressing nature of that statement aside, NBC’s HANNIBAL, a prequel/adaptation of the Thomas Harris novels (who are themselves subjects of multiple film adaptations) is not only one of the most visually impressive television shows currently airing, but also one of the most thoughtful, providing a thorough examination of human relationships (romantic or otherwise) along with its elaborate death tableauxs and surreal events. The series, currently in in its third and (for the time being) final season charts the tumultuous relationship between Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), an FBI criminal profiler with extreme empathy for the people he hunts and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), a therapist/serial killer/foodie. They first meet when Hannibal is called on to consult on a case and their relationship deepens as Will becomes Hannibal’s patient, confidante, and much to the surprise of the audience and Will, a sort of protegé. This of course does not last, as Hannibal is ultimately the very serial killer that Will has been looking for all along, but the show takes many interesting turns to reach that realization; adapting the procedural structure, becoming a courtroom drama for several episodes, setting an episode from the perspective of Hannibal (the antagonist) and even completely dropping the procedural structure for its third season. Regardless of what stylistic avenue it embarks upon, the show, through writing and performance that crafts a believable and very real relationship between these two disparate characters, is at times frightening to witness (as Will finds some of Hannibal in himself) and awe-inspiring (when Hannibal’s twisted plans an philosophies are in alignment).

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Mads Mikkelsen (left) plays Hannibal, while Hugh Dancy (right) brings Will Graham to life

The compelling notion that the show proposes is that, maybe, the people who will do the best for you, who will draw you out into the world and onto the path of life, are the very people who will be the most destructive and the most dangerous. It is the theme of the 2010 documentary CATFISH taken to the extreme. And while the friendship-come-bromance of Will and Hannibal is dangerous, destructive and through the excellent execution of the show, even horrific, it is just that, a means for the quiet, interior-focused hero to experience life in all its painful glory. Will starts the show afraid of who he is and what he is capable of, sequestered off into a classroom where he never has to face the outside world. His hunt for Hannibal and his journey to the edge of insanity because of Hannibal’s influence bring him into the world and force him to face himself. The show has examined this idea throughout its three season run, but perhaps the most beautiful crystallization of these themes comes in the mid-season finale of its current season, “Digestivo”.

The show proposes that perhaps the people who will do the best for you are the very people who will be the most destructive and the most dangerous.

Arguments have been made that in the age of streaming television the most important thing a show can deliver on are “moments”, basically perfect little nuggets of story or action that can easily be broken out and shared in clip form. This has worked remarkably well for shows like AMERICAN HORROR STORY, whose general plot coherence tends to be lacking, but who is, time after time, able to create scenes and even lines of dialogue that transcend the trappings of the show and stick with the viewer (The Name Game scene from season two is a prime example).

“Digestivo”‘s “moment” comes at the very end of the episode after Hannibal saves Will from certain death at the Verger farm and they have a conversation that is the culmination, and it seems at the time, the true end of their relationship. They recount their past and present and apply the motif of the broken teacup (one of the show’s favorite recurring visuals throughout the first and second seasons) to their broken relationship. Will tells Hannibal that their teacup will never come back together, that together they can have no decisive victory. “We are a zero sum game”, Hannibal intones. Will follows with a refusal to continue searching, hunting, thinking about Hannibal.

You delight, I tolerate…I don’t have your appetite.Will Graham
Credit should be given to Mads Mikkelsen for the amount of emotion he is able to display in this scene even through Hannibal’s prescribed “person suit”. It pains Hannibal to see Will swear him off. They had already “broken up” at the dramatic end of the second season (in this author’s opinion, one of the most beautiful sequences ever broadcast on television), but like any relationship, you’re never really out when you say you’re out. You still have feelings for the person, maybe even hopes that they will still join your elaborately constructed murder family, but it just cannot be, and in Will’s case, most likely should not be. “You delight, I tolerate…I don’t have your appetite” is Will’s summation of why he went so far with Hannibal but can go no farther. It is all the more tragic when Hannibal turns himself into the FBI, essentially securing the fact that Will will have to see him and think about him for the indefinite future. This moment captured in the clip below is the pinnacle of the shows power, turning what should be a moment of triumph for the hero into a tragedy. We never truly escape our past and the people we shared it with. The darkness is always with us, threatening to become something much more tangible.

HANNIBAL airs on NBC on Saturdays at 10PM Pacific

Ian Campbell is a guest contributor here at Crossfader. He wants you to like him just as much as he wants you to like the things he likes. He recommends you give Damon Lindelof a break.

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