# Spoilers ahead #
I’ve written quite a few articles about Hannibal now, one of my favourite TV-shows of the last years, and this may be the last one. Maybe I have to state in advance that I admittedly don’t watch a lot of TV-series, for several reasons.
I know that we are supposedly living in the “Golden Age of TV”, but there are still some annoyances that plague the format. My favourite TV-show format is that of a limited run, with a definitive ending, like True Detective, but most series are naturally created a open-ended, in hope the audience will be engaged enough to keep it going for a few seasons and ensure a steady stream of revenue. At a certain number of seasons it’s almost inevitable that the quality will decrease, because the majority of the concepts is not endlessly expandable, with a few exceptions confirming the rule. In a worst case scenario, the increasingly meandering plotline and the implausible character changes of season XY will retroactively besmirch the impression of the first great first years in the mind of the viewer.
Hannibal is thankfully not such a case, but it was slowly but steadily approaching that breaking point already. This is why I will have to play the devil’s advocate now and say that it we should not be sad about the cancellation of Hannibal and be happy that we can look back at such a great singularity in TV history. All good things have to come to an end and we were on the brink of being overfed – and being overfed with something delicious makes you still feel sick.
Before you cry “Blasphemy!”, let’s take a closer look.
The season started out great, with Hannibal and Bedelia posing as “Dr. Fell” and his missus in Florence. I always loved the parts set in Italy from Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001) and the book, because as iconic as the version of Dr. Lector as scheming asylum inmate has become, I find the Hannibal on the run a tad more interesting. The first episodes also included a neat reference to Hellraiser (1987): When Will Graham sees in a vision how the remains of one of Hannibal’s victims turning into a skinless human-deer hybrid, it reminded me a lot of the sequence of uncle Frank’s return in the horror classic by Clive Barker.
But while the slow pace was still fascinatingly hypnotic in the first two episodes, it turned from “elegiac” to “glacial” in the following ones. Episode 3 would have been a good point to pick up some steam, because the story was already thinning out a little. The tidbits we got served, about Hannibal’s childhood for example, were still intriguing, but sparsely placed between lots of filler material. At some points it seemed as if they tried to break a new record in filming water drops with high-speed cameras. In hindsight, this might have to do a lot with budgetary restrictions, I guess filming in Europe must have put quite a strain on Gaumont’s purse.
Due to said pacing problems, the hunt for the title character suddenly seemed less urgent and for the first time since I started watching the show I had a hard time feeling engaged. Nothing of that mattered anymore though when Episode 6 came around. Episode 5 already foreshadowed a change in attitude, when Crawford channeled his inner Morpheus and gave Hannibal a good beating. Then Episode 6 and Episode 7 finally symbolized an unexpected glorious return to form, equalling the best episodes of the unmatched second season, an adrenaline-filled blend of perversion, exploitation and sadism. The scene with the “surrogate mother” must be one of the most bizarre and horrific moments of the whole run, which is saying something. We got the perfectly satisfying ending for the Mason Verger- storyline and it probably should have been the ending of the season, so the series could go out with a bang. That did not happen though, as the “Red Dragon” arc, which was originally planned to be spread over a whole season, was scheduled for the remaining episodes.
Enter the Dragon
Regarding the “Red Dragon” story, I admittedly already had a few worries in advance. First, after Thomas Harris’ original book, the two film adaptations and all the other serial killer stories that were influenced by this classic, we are all over- familiar with its plot, themes and motives, that’s why Bryan Fuller faced quite a challenge when he had to put a new spin on the story.
Another concern why I was a little apprehensive about the introduction of Dolarhyde was a stylistic one. Hannibal the series rather veered towards the baroque vision of Hannibal the movie/book and while it borrowed plot elements from all of Harris’ works, it was far removed from the relative grittiness and grime that Red Dragon and Silence showed. The latter books still took a serious effort to depict the work of profilers, while the solo adventure of Dr. Lecter turned into a borderline fantastical horror fairy tale. Bryan Fuller even amped up the bizarre tone considerably for his vision and pushed the boundaries of what the audience would deem as acceptable. After killers who turned their victims into beehives, instruments and gigantic murals, a simple nutjob who wipes out whole families seems almost mundane, as macabre as that might sound.
Nonetheless, by the ending of the second season I trusted Fuller -who had miraculously made a few things work before that should not work- so much, that I was sure he would find a way to make the Red Dragon interesting again. Sadly he only partly succeeded.
And really, although the Red Dragon arc really started out quite decent, it soon felt a bit like a tedious exercise to go through. My major point of criticism is that the dynamic between the original players Crawford, Bloom, Graham, Du Maurier and Chilton suddenly felt played out. When you have a wonderful OTT ending to a story arc like that to the Mason Verger plotline, what is there left to say? Due to Hannibal’s scheming, all of the aforementioned characters had suffered through as well as committed horrible things at his behest. All threads had culminated in the Verger mansion and in some wicked sense, everyone of them had learned something in the end and grown as a human, like in a very dark morality play. I think it would have made more sense if those characters had taken a backseat or even a timeout during the second half of the season, but somehow the writers decided they were obligated to follow their fates in unorganized side plots, although the spark wasn’t quite there anymore.
Sticking with the always same character constellation past its dramatical expiration date and perpetually throwing them into new dramatic situations gets tiresome after a while and also reeks a little of soap opera. After the third scene of a character returning from the dead it’s just a matter of time till one day Dr. Chilton steps out of the shower unscathed and the preceding seasons are revealed as a dream.
Similarly forced was the main thread of the half-season, the Red Dragon, and for the very first time, the show was lacking one of its major strengths, namely the ability to integrate wild plot twists and outlandish artistic decisions in an organical and bafflingly plausible way. Hannibal had always been teetering closely on the brink of both pretentiousness and ridiculousness, but consciously so, to the amusement of the audience and with a subtle sense of irony and almost dizzying effortlessness. As soon as the Red Dragon entered the stage though, this virtuosity faded a little and at its worst moments it really felt just plain pretentious and/or ridiculous, as if the responsible artists lost interest and tried to imitate and spoof their own oeuvre. What had once been playful and magical, had now become clunky and heavy- handed, layers were stripped down and the show was more literal than ever (“Is Hannibal in love with me?”).
The well-worn concept of the Red Dragon story did not become Hannibal, a series whose dramaturgy relies heavily on its unpredictability and should not be squeezed into the corset of a conventional straightforward plot. Playing with the expectations of the part of the audience who is familiar with the source material is another trick Hannibal pulled off regularly, yet when they tried to do this in the case of Red Dragon, it came over like a change for the sake of change and was often devoid of meaning. For example, the changed circumstances and the motivation that lead Dolarhyde to eat the painting are far less comprehensible than in the novel and the films.
Dance Away the Heartache
Speaking of Dolarhyde, this new version of his character became never graspable to me. To be honest, I found him to be kind of silly. While Hannibal’s psyche does not apply to realistic psychology either, his characterization had a kind of poetic logic to it, but there is no rhyme or reason to that of Dolarhyde. One moment he is meant to be a tortured soul, which is only signified by his erratic behaviour but never really emotionally palpable, the next moment he is portrayed as a more stylized serial killer type like John Ryder from The Hitcher (1987) and while contradictory characterization can be quite effective, this Dolarhyde was more like a crude cartoon. Inexplicably, someone thought it was a good idea to let Richard Armitage prance around like a Modern Dance artist. “Ooh, ahh, my inner struggle is getting stronger again, I better flex my muscles like a cat waking up, then make some wicked noises with my mouth and then I suddenly burst in some twitchy movements.” Also, Armitage and Gillian Anderson apparently had a bet going who could spout their dialogue in the more portentous manner. Oscillating between the exploits of the Red Dragon and the various happenings involving the main cast, including Will’s somewhat pointless therapy session with Du Maurier, the second half of the season was slightly unfocused and not as sharp as preceding seasons.
Some of the suspense potential was also sabotaged by lazy writing. Hannibal’s phone calls and letters are not screened? That might have been realistic in the 1980s when the original books came out, but nowadays it’s just risible, hell I am sure they even screen my phone calls. The schemes of Dr. Lecter were quite elaborate so far, but since he is incarcerated, he paradoxically does have to put so less effort into fooling his opponents than more. A simple phone call suffices- where is the fun in that?
Knowing when to move on
In the end, plot holes or other inconsistencies are not that important. But the fact that the mind wanders while watching and suddenly these minor mistakes stick out like a sore thumb, can rather be evaluated as a symptom. A symptom for an undeniable feeling of exhaustion and lack of direction that pervaded the last episodes and led to less engagement by the audience.
Could a potential Season 4 get the series on track again? Maybe, who knows, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say: Rather not. Silence of the Lambs is fine as it is and as I stated above, I think that the character arcs for the main protagonists are completed. I don’t believe there is such a thing as “loyalty” to a TV-show: I tune in as long as it entertains me and I am not willing to plough through five consecutive mediocre seasons for a few nuggets of goodness and to see a long-promised ending the producers have been teasing the audience with for years.
Everybody who ever dabbled in any kind of narrative art form, from filming to writing short stories or comics, be it as a professional or as a bloody amateur, knows how creativity works. When a great story idea strikes you, you instantly lay out plans for seven sequels and several spin-offs. Once the first instalments are realized, the wave of initial enthusiasm subsides though and the mind is turning to new projects. Then it’s time to move on.
Season 3 may have went on for a few episodes too many, but it still ended on a relative high note and with dignity, with the last shot making up for a few shortcomings. The ending is actually so definitive that I wonder if Fuller knew Hannibal would be cancelled- it would be tough to follow up that shot without killing any credibility left.
Let’s be grateful that we can look back on so many hours of TV-greatness, whose legacy has not yet been diluted by- pun intended- cannibalizing itself with unneeded perpetual season renewals. Look at it that way: Hannibal did some pioneering work on TV and hopefully paved the way for other great shows to come.
Thank you Bryan Fuller and team, thank you for this outstanding show!
And here is a summary of the Good, the Bad and the Moderately attractive of this season:
The Good (in no particular order):
- Crawford gives Hannibal a good beating
- Hannibal stalks the real Dr. Fell on a motorbike
- Glenn Fleshler as Cordell: Genuinely creepy
- Mason Verger’s sick plans for Will and Hannibal: Sometimes it’s not good to get exactly what you want
- Florence: Beautiful
- The ice pick scene: And they talked about the “Titanic” just before that, oh irony
- “Surrogate Mother”
- Verger’s Death
- The prisoner in Lithuania: His captivity was an intriguing mystery, that was sadly never fully solved
- The skinless antler-human hybrid
- Will exploring the house of the murdered family
- Mikkelsen giving a Hopkins impersonation on the phone: “I will dance at your wedding”
The So-so (in no particular order):
- Chiyoh: Initially intriguing, then increasingly irritating character. Her exit was botched.
- The fate of Du Maurier’s patient (Zachary Quinto): A letdown after all the build-up surrounding his story.
- Hannibal’s luxury cell
- The Red Dragon trying to murder Will’s family: Was meant as a chilling suspense moment, did not really work as such.
- Dr. Chilton becoming Will E. Coyote
- The love story between Dolarhyde and Reba: Half-assed.
- Water drops in slo-mo: Nuff said
The Not-so (in no particular order):
- Francis Dolarhyde, Modern Dance artist (see above)
- Will’s therapy sessions with Du Maurier: Particularly: “Does Hannibal love me?” was quite clunky
- Francis Dolarhyde turns into The Hitcher in the last episode
- Food porn continues: Despite Lecter being an asylum patient already.
- Low security: None of Hannibal’s phone calls or letters being screened, Bloom is handing him a major corpus delicti (Chilton’s lips).