May 24, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Hannibal”


Considering how defiantly unlike the rest of broadcast television HANNIBAL is, not to mention its love of metaphor, it made sense for the show’s Season 2 finale to air entirely on its own, separate from the last episodes of just about every other network series, and 2 days after the end of the regular season.  The series has become a favorite of critics (although certainly not of mainstream audiences),and it’s unquestionably unique.  Its characteristic style is to intersperse measured, deliberate, lengthy dialogue scenes, mostly muted in tone, with painstakingly aestheticized sequences of gourmet cooking, and violence at a level previously unheard-of on network TV–even gory enough to give HBO and The Walking Dead a run for their money–which presumably passes muster with Standards & Practices because much of it is presented with a dreamlike or hallucinatory stylization. (The prize this season may have gone to the corpse stitched into a dead horse’s uterus, although the “canvas” of corpses arranged by the shades of their skin tone came close.)

Not so much a “thriller” as a deconstruction of the genre, Hannibal is less reminiscent of the earlier movies based on Thomas Harris’s novels than it is of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 experimental re-filming of Hitchcock’s Psycho, an exercise in replicating horror techniques while draining them of their dramatic logic and emotional force.  (Harris has no involvement with the series.)  The second season of Hannibal was easier to take than the first, because it didn’t require Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) to be quite so much of a blind moron, face to face with the least subtle serial killer in horror history this side of Leatherface, Mads Mikkelsen’s Dracula-like Hannibal Lecter, and yet completely unsuspecting of him.  By Season 2, Will hadn’t just been framed for murder by Hannibal, but realized that Hannibal had been manipulating and making use of his condition of encephalitis, and the season was structured more as an extended cat-and-mouse game between Will and Hannibal, although of course who was the feline and who was the rodent was left in the air (not that there was ever any doubt).  For all its high-toned elegance, Hannibal constantly undercuts itself as drama by leaning heavily on the stupidity of law enforcement officials, with Will’s boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), his colleague and friend Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and FBI agent Kade Prunell (Cynthia Nixon) all at various times ignoring evidence waved in their faces.

Although technically a prequel to Red Dragon, in Season 2 Hannibal delved deeply into the novel “Hannibal,” the most controversial installment of the Thomas Harris canon–not just in telling the story of Mason Verger (Michael Pitt), his sister Margot (Katharine Isabelle), and Mason’s killer pigs, but by toying with the notion of Will being influenced by and possibly even joining with the killer.  (The only part of the Harris material Hannibal can’t use is the character of Clarice Starling, which the series rights-holders don’t own, although there have been quite a few sidelong references to Silence of the Lambs in dialogue, visual cues, and even the character of a young female FBI agent.)  The storyline actually makes more sense in the context of TV’s very shaky Will Graham than it did with the novel’s Clarice Starling, although it’s still extremely dark even for Harris.

The season finale, written by series creator Bryan Fuller and fellow Executive Producer Steve Lightfoot, offered something quite unusual for Hannibal:  a full-on action sequence (originally glimpsed as a flash-forward in the season premiere), superbly directed (by David Slade) and edited (by Stephen Philipson) with some genuine tension, as Hannibal and Jack Crawford faced off, and then various other characters joined in the fun.  What followed was impressively bloodsoaked even for Hannibal, as the title character directly or indirectly proceeded to potentially slaughter just about every other member of the regular cast, although the actual body count was left ambiguous–even Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl) was brought back from seeming death so that she could throw Alana out a window and then have her own throat slit moments later by Hannibal.  (Laurence Fishburne’s responsibilities as a producer and recurring cast member of the new Black-ish would seem to put his condition most in doubt; it’s safe to assume Dancy survived.)  After Will received the wound that set the events of Red Dragon into motion, the season ended–very unusually for network TV, with full-screen end credits and a coda scene–with a variation of the ending of the “Hannibal” novel and film, this time with Hannibal making his luxurious escape on a jet with his own former psychiatrist Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), who had previously seemed to be done with him, but then “normal” motivations have little to do with the world of Hannibal.

All of this was exquisitely photographed by James Hawkinson (just the shots of Alana falling to the ground, shards of glass blending with the heavy rain that was coming down around her, were ones that filmmakers would gladly give their loved ones to a serial killer in order to achieve), and scored by Brian Reitzell in the show’s distinctively atonal, disharmonically droning way.  Hannibal is much more a show to be admired than liked, or even to be scared by, and its incessant look-at-me! mannerisms can get tedious and precious.  The actors, all compelled to act in the same hushed, intense style, have almost nothing in the way of humanity (it sometimes seems like Fuller and his colleagues see the characters much as Hannibal does).  Fuller has compared the show’s style to Stanley Kubrick’s, and particularly to The Shining, but Hannibal lacks The Shining‘s darkly sardonic humor and its heightened, horrific view of family life and marriage.  Hannibal is unique, all right–but that often seems to be its only ambition.

Thanks to its status as an international coproduction, and thus the extremely low license fee NBC pays to show it in the US, Hannibal has survived its very low ratings to receive a 3d season renewal to air sometime in 2015.  With much of Harris’s non-Silence of the Lambs material having been used, and the story now at the end-point of “Hannibal,” which is as far as Harris took it (the only book after that was the prequel “Hannibal Rising,” set decades earlier), it’ll be interesting to see where Fuller and his partners go with it next.  The result will, without doubt, require a strong stomach to watch.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."