I’m probably going to watch the season finale of NBC’s Hannibal tonight. And I’m not looking forward to it.
I’m not looking forward to it for a number of reasons. One is that it’s the last episode of the show that likely will ever be made, and that’s sad: Hannibal was, if anything, one of television’s most visually brilliant and totally audacious shows of the modern era. How it got on one of the network majors and stayed on there for three seasons is totally beyond me.
But toward the end of the second season, I found myself falling out of love with Hannibal. And then the second season finale happened, and it never really got me back. And digesting how it lost me and didn’t reel me back in is worth looking at from a writing perspective.
Spoilers, of course.
The first season of Hannibal was bewildering. There has not, in my estimation, ever been a show like this on TV. It was a dreamy, dreary, darkly fantastical story taking place in the stark, winter wilderness of middle America, all rattling, naked branches and hills of snow, where light seemed scant – except when you were in Hannibal’s house, seated before his roaring fire, brandy in-hand.
It was insane because it shouldn’t work. TV was already overloaded with serial killer tales, and this one, in which Hannibal and Will seemed to tackle new serial killers every day, all of them living in Hannibal’s backyard – well, it was simply ridiculous.
But the show overcame this simply by playing it straight: it took these absurd twists and turns and leaps of logic (in one instance, for the plot to work, Hannibal would have to drive from Baltimore to Minnesota and back in a handful of hours; in another, a frail septuagenarian hoisted up a three story totem of corpses on a beach, alone and unnoticed) and it took them so seriously we were forced to do so as well.
When we first saw the raven-stag in Will Graham’s dreams, we knew that this show did not take place in a normal reality.
But there are problems with having a show that doesn’t take place in normal reality. And the problem is stakes. By “stakes,” I mean the tension of possible consequences with real ramifications for the characters: “If X doesn’t do Y by this time, then Z will happen, and this will matter to X because W,” and so on and so forth, but I’ll stop there before plundering the alphabet further.
Stakes came into effect for me in season two, when it became apparent that Hannibal’s ability to evade and defeat his many, many enemies was simply too much. It bordered on omnipotence, on superpowers, or on the intentional stupidity and ignorance of not just the main characters, but everyone populating this world.
Hannibal could, for example, use light therapy to adversely affect Will’s encephalitis, allowing Hannibal to insert memories into Will’s mind – let alone insert a whole human ear into Will’s stomach.
He could apparently miraculously transport not only himself, but a corpse and lots of surgical equipment, across Baltimore without being noticed, and plant it in someone’s house to frame them for his own murders.
He could somehow brainwash Miriam Lass, a woman that he held captive for years and years, into thinking that he was someone else, causing her to react lethally when she met that someone else later.
And, in the finale, he was able to conquer three different opponents coming after him, devastating all the efforts laid to catch him in season two, and walk out in the rain, and fly to Paris.
That was when I fell out of love with Hannibal: when he not only defeated his opponents, but seemingly defeated them effortlessly.
If something takes no effort, it’s not fun to watch. It doesn’t matter if it goes wrong or right. There are no consequences of note. Which makes the audience wonder: “Why am I watching, if what happens doesn’t matter?”
And increasingly, I got the impression that the dark fantasy world of Hannibal was enabling its eponymous character, granting him either superhuman powers or superhuman luck time and time again. His pockets were stuffed to bursting with Get Out of Jail Free cards. Someone could string him up, about to kill him, and they’d start monologing juuust long enough for someone else to show up and save the day. Hannibal was an omniscient, borderline omnipotent villain; but even when directly imperiled, the show intervened to save him.
This problem also extended to other characters on the show: some got shot in the face and lived. Others got shoved out of second story windows and lived. Others were initially quadriplegic, then became paraplegic, waving their arms about and shooting guns. It was all quite variable, depending on what the story needed.
If a story is willing to reverse the various states of its characters, apparently upon a whim, that also degrades a sense of stakes. I get that Hannibal is a fantasy world of dark impulses where many rules are suspended – but a story needs some rules to work, and making Hannibal himself so effortlessly powerful, and his victims so mutable – never quite totally dead or maimed – erodes the tension that stories thrive on.
I watched Silence of the Lambs the other night, and I reflected that the reason that film works so well is that much its time isn’t spent in a dark chamber with Hannibal Lecter, but out in the dingy, brown, decrepit realm of America’s Rustbelt, the boonies of Ohio and Pennsylvania and Virginia and Kentucky, very real places with very real rules.
This is one of the powers of that film: think on how many characters in that film have Southern accents, a rarity on television today, which often chooses to focus on urban areas of the North of West. Think about how many people in that film aren’t conventionally attractive, whereas nearly everyone in Hannibal is gorgeous. And think about how that film also focused on the day to day life of Clarice Starling, the small anxieties of being a short woman in an elevator full of tall men, or being looked over in an airport by a passing creep, or trying to get a roomful of sheriff’s deputies to pay attention to her.
Silence of the Lambs is a movie very much anchored in reality, with all its filthy alleys and basements, and all its dark, psychosexual urges. What makes the sense of threat in Silence work so well is the idea that such perverse creatures may exist in our own small towns or in our neighbor’s basement or along our own highways, monstrous human beings standing in shadows we’ve passed through ourselves, yet seemingly obeying our rules. And when Clarice Starling finds herself entering a dark storage unit, or knocking on a seemingly harmless front door, we know that there is a chance that something could genuinely go wrong.
Silence did a wise thing by keeping Hannibal Lecter a side dish to this world, contained and kept off in a corner. The danger of Hannibal Lecter works so much better when it’s suggested, but never seen. Think of the scene in Silence where Chilton shows Clarice the photo of the nurse Lecter maimed so horribly: we never see the photo itself, just Clarice’s reaction.
The show Hannibal was feverishly devoted to showing us the photo, in a way, in all its gory beauty; but familiarity breeds contempt. To create situations in which such gorgeous gore occurs once or twice an episode, without any serious threat of consequences, is to rob such monstrous beauties of their mystery. They became wallpaper: gorgeous wallpaper, certainly, but still wallpaper.
Hannibal was a fascinating show, but it was not a show that was interested in any part of reality. If it had built its own rules, made clear what its consequences were, and kept to these structures, it could have been a much better one.
I look forward to seeing if the finale assuages any of my concerns.