THE BEAUTY IN VIOLENCE
or, 'Why NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ is one of the most underrated shows of the last decade'
by Cas Raab
The character of Doctor Hannibal Lecter – a sophisticated socialite, surgeon, and psychiatrist, who has hobbies like murder and cannibalism – is well known in modern media and has been explored many times, including a series of novels and movies, the most notable being the Oscar-winning movie ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991). Never mind which adaptation though, characters like Hannibal Lecter, Clarice Sterling, and Will Graham have been absorbed into pop culture. So, when a new TV adaptation premiered in 2013, many fans were skeptical. Was this going to be another sad attempt to make money of a well-known and loved Character? Was Brian Fuller the right person to direct a horror show? How could Mads Mikkelsen, then a relatively unknown Danish actor, ever compare to the icon that is Anthony Hopkins? However, from the very first episode, one thing was very clear: this wasn’t just a typical money grab. The beautiful cinematography, macabre violence, and wonderful juxtaposing artistry makes the show unique, and also allows for self-reflection and social commentary. How can we like, or even relate to, a character we would resent in real life? How can gruesome crime scenes be “elevated to art”? How is it that a show about cannibalism has better queer representation than most attempts we have seen in Hollywood?
Our protagonist is Will Graham, an FBI consultant who has the rare gift of being able to empathize with anyone, including murderers and psychopaths, but this gift comes with the price of his rather bad mental health. To help Graham, the FBI hires Hannibal Lecter, but with every murderer Will feels empathy for, the lines between them and himself begin to blur.
The show opens with Graham at a crime scene, where the audience can first witness Will’s gift and is allowed to see the difference between these two planes of existence. First, the colors are dull and faded, and Graham seems isolated even in a room full of agents. Then we can see how, in his own mind, Graham doesn’t only reconstruct how the murder happened, he himself becomes the killer. In this headspace, the colors are not muted and cold anymore, they become warm and ironically lifelike. This is not only to show the audience the difference between the crime scene and the reconstruction, but it also shows Will’s empathy. He becomes the killers. He now sees the beauty the killers see and feels the comfort and power they feel, which as a result means the audience has the same experience. This element continues through the series, though as Will’s mental health begins to deteriorate, and the lines between what is perceived to be ‘good’ and ‘evil’ begin to blur, so does what is real and what isn’t. As his mind unravels, so does the narrative. We begin to explore Will’s darker side, we can see his fear, but also the sense of thrill he feels from each kill. Though however terrifying the violence is, it is also undeniably beautiful: the camera lingers on horrible images with fascination and the artistry of the slow motion juxtaposes the visceral terror of the kill. As an audience, we should stare in horror, but just like Will, we see the hypnotic beauty in the violence. Hannibal presents his food in a similar way to the bodies he leaves behind. Even though we know that he is serving people, it is indisputable that it looks delicious. The presentation of the food and the violence warps the viewer's perception of what is terrifying and what is akin to art.
Director Brian Fuller said that “every moment of the series consciously plays with the juxtaposition of gorgeousness and visceral terror with the effect, at times, of slowly luring the audience into a sense of being in collusion with Hannibal.” We, as audience members are presented with two sides of Hannibal and we can’t help to feel drawn in by him. Through his interactions with the other character, Hannibal is being presented as an honorable and even gentle person, we see his association with high society and his old-world charm. He acts calm, polite and restrained, but underneath the calm exterior, he is a cold-blooded killer. By sharing his secret, we become complicit in his crimes and these juxtaposing sides of Hannibal create a tension between our impression of him as a monster and his inviting qualities. These aspects of humanity leave a strange feeling when we are reminded of his true nature. As the show goes on, we learn more about Hannibal’s past, and as we do, hating him for his crimes becomes harder. We find out that in his childhood, his parents got killed, and after being able to escape with his sister Mischa, who was the only family member he truly loved, the same people who killed his parents, came back for her. She was eaten by the group of killers, some of her remains being fed to Hannibal. This event was the catalyst into Hannibal’s descent into murder and cannibalism. His traumatic past, suave exterior, and brutal interior, conflict but also fascinate the audience, which, in turn just leads to us being lured in by him even more. We want to find out more about him, about his deep understanding of himself and his lack of restrain to live out his darkest fantasies. This is a contrast to Will, who finds that he too has a darker side, but tries his best to push it back. We also most strongly feel the lure of Hannibal through Will, since he is the main target of Hannibal’s seduction. Will, just like the audience, is being drawn to something that could kill him.
Hannibal and Will have a deep and complicated connection, in which the lines of where one ends and the other begins have faded into nothingness. Through the seasons their relationship goes through friendship, trust, betrayal, forgiveness, admiration, and eventually love. But the love that Hannibal and Will very clearly feel for each other is in no way conventional or even clearly comprehensible. They have betrayed and tried to kill each other, but in the end, they always find their way back to one another. Will describes their relationship as a “Can’t live with you, can’t live without you” situation, which is probably the most fitting picture of their connection. Hannibal leaves Will dying in his kitchen after being betrayed by him, and still, as soon as Will wakes up, his first action is to sail around the world to find Hannibal, who has left him a trail of bodies all metaphorically representing his broken heart, with one, quite literally being presented in the shape of a human heart. Hannibal’s attraction to Will is very obvious. He sees the darkness inside of him as something beautiful and wants to unite it with his own. He compares their relationship to that of Achilles and Patroclus and tells Will: “If I saw you every day, forever, Will, I would remember this time”. When Will asks Hannibal’s former therapist if Hannibal was in love with him she answers: “Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for you, and find nourishment at the very sight of you? Yes. But do you ache for him?” That is a more complicated matter, since, while Hannibal has no intention of hiding his pure adoration for Will, Will himself doesn’t yet know the answer to that question. He feels such a pull towards Hannibal, and he hates himself for falling for the devil. While Hannibal is incarcerated, Will builds a life, with a wife and a stepson, but the second he is reunited with Hannibal that family has already faded to the back of his mind. Their connection is deeply rooted within them, so that for both, life without the other would not be worth living and that the only outcome for them is the inevitable death in each other’s arms. And even though they have this connection and they clearly feel love towards each other, they are allowed to exist in the show without their queerness being either ignored or being made into the only plotline. Most queer representation in Hollywood is about coming out, or homophobia, and there are very rarely queer characters who have personality traits other than being queer. The other side of the coin is shows like CW’s ‘Supernatural’ or BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ writing queer elements into the subtext to attract viewers, and then never again acknowledging these elements. ‘Hannibal’ however, doesn’t have either one of these situations. Two men are allowed to love each other, without being forced to have a sexual relationship, but also without the built-up elements being ignored.
NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ is an amazing show, with well written and performed characters, that, while being very entertaining, also allows for self-reflection as to why these violent elements and characters are so likable, and how it is that we come to see the brutality presented as something beautiful. It allows the viewers to ask themselves how they can be lured in by Hannibal’s person, even when knowing who, or what, he really is. It allows surprisingly good queer representation to exist without needing to make it the focal element of the show for diversity points.