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The Problem with Hannibal

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal

Preface: I’ll warn you: This one requires a bit of ancillary reading on your part. Not books or anything (though they are always good things to read), but blog posts and articles. I hope you’re all right with that…because it’ll be worth it.

I am a huge fan of the world and mythos of Hannibal Lecter, and so I’m a bit ashamed of myself that I didn’t know, until the week of airing, that NBC was creating a new ongoing series called Hannibal, based on the events directly preceding Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. But, upon hearing of what should have been a wondrous occurrence, I was what I’ll call “Aggressively Meh” about the whole thing.

So when I first started writing this piece after the first two episodes, it took its life from something I wrote elsewhere which was, itself, a response to a fairly wrong-headed review at the The Daily Beast. My response corrected the reviewer’s factual errors regarding canonical issues, and then launched into a screed about what I initially saw as a problem with the characterization of women, in this show, and one in particular: Lara Jean Chorostecki as Ms Fredericka Lounds.

[ad#longpost]I went on to muse on things like, “But what if they’d changed Will Graham’s gender?” and “What if we’d had a Wilhelmina ‘Will’ Graham there to highlight the utter and complete difference in how Lecter treats Will Graham and Clarice Starling, and to show that it’s not just because Starling’s a girl?” And, while I still think those are extremely interesting questions, I am officially reversing position on that post and everything else I was going to say, and I’m doing it here.

I am reversing course so completely, in fact, that I fear I must insist that, if you love Hannibal Lecter’s world, story, and mythos in the forms of either the books or films, then you need to be watching this show.

What could possibly make me change my mind so fully? Well read on, gentle listener, and smell why it always pays to give shows at least three episodes before making your decision.

Before we go any further, though, I’m going to recommend that you go read through Cleolinda‘s recaps of the episodes so far. These recaps, in fact, were instrumental in turning me around on this show. They’re done with a humour and attention to detail that I’m sure you’ll agree is appreciated around these parts. Go away and do that.

So. Now that you’re back, you’ll note that everything I’d feared about the presentation of this world has been turned on its head. All tropes have been inverted, up to and including the fact that at least as many victims have been male as have been female.

Next there’s the production, starting with Bryan Fuller and Martha de Laurentiis’ Ridiculous Love For This Mythos. The amount of care and detail they take with the beats of Lecterdom show through and through, in everything from his sense of smell to his use of touch to his taste in dinner music.

Hannibal food sketches by Janice Poon

And let’s not forget the food. Janice Poon is the director of culinary art for the show, and it’s her job to make sure that everything everyone eats is appetizing, exotic, elegant, and maybe just a little disturbing.

Now, lest you think I was swayed merely by the behind-the-scenes goings on, rest assured that the cast is fantastic as well, with names such as Mads Mikkelsen in the titular role, Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, the aforementioned Lara Jean Chorostecki as Freddie Lounds, Laurence Fishburne as FBI Section Chief Dr. Jack Crawford, and Caroline Dhavernas as Dr Alana Bloom. Then we have Hettienne Park as Beverly Katz, Kacey Rohl as Abigail Hobbs, Gillian FREAKING Anderson as Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, and Gina Damn Torres as Bella Crawford. There are other special guest and co-stars, many of whom are part of Bryan Fuller’s fun and intricate project of tying all of his televisual worlds together.

Each one of these actors brings nuance and skill to the characters they portray, starting with such clear portrayals of particular character aspects that you think it’s all they are, that they’re going to be one-dimensional. But then they show you another aspect, and it’s jarring, and you maybe ask yourself, “What the hell are they doing with this character?” And then it’s another aspect, and another, and then they bring those aspects together and into conflict with one another in such spectacular ways and you suddenly have a whole person, realised, even in the otherwise “background” characters.

Now, as you well know, Comcast-NBC/Universal and I don’t have the…most cordial history, so you’ll know how truly sincere I’m being when I say what I’m about to say. Everything I whined about, everything I worried about, everything I feared they were going to screw up: I was wrong. Martha de Laurentiis and Bryan Fuller have put together something that is true to the spirit of the canon while deepening and elaborating upon it. Every beat is planned, every arc, every word, every symbol is intended, just so.

Dire Ravenstag from Hannibal

And speaking of symbols, one which recurs is the Dire Ravenstag, which begins to appear in Will Graham’s dreams, after a particularly jarring incident. Think of what things are symbolised by ravens and stags, now pair them together, and then connect those signs to the moments in time at which the Ravenstag appears to Will throughout the show. Its use and appearance are psychologically appropriate to the weight and intention it carries.

There is love in this show. Love for the characters, love for the world, love for the challenge and the joy and the game of presenting these characters which have been presented eight or nine different times already, and making them fresh, making them compelling. And because of that love they are, at present, succeeding gloriously. If you’ve not been watching up to now, you can find all of the episodes on Amazon, including the first episode for free.

“But Wolven,” you intone, perplexed, “the title of this piece is ‘The Problem With Hannibal,’ and all I see are recommendations and adulation. Where’s the problem?” Valid question, fine guest. Honestly, the major problem with Hannibal is that it is Really Freaking Good. Better, in fact, than I ever dared to hope it would be.

And I honestly couldn’t be happier.