It was somewhere around the time that Hannibal Lecter was thin-slicing a dogged and likable FBI agent into his own gory-artful re-imagination of Bodies: The Exhibition that it sank in: He's the bad guy.
NBC's uniformly excellent Hannibal, which wraps up its second season tonight, has been rightfully praised for any number of attributes, from the ever evolving stag-and-mouse duel between lead actors Mads Mikkelsen (as Lecter) and Hugh Dancy (as criminal-profiler Will Graham) to its striking visual palate to its always shocking ability to push the limits of what can be shown on network television. (It damn near ruined mushrooms for me, and I know more about the musical versatility of vocal cords than I ever wanted to know.)
This is a stomach-churning nightmare-juice concoction unlike any ever brewed, let alone one designed for network TV. But showrunner Bryan Fuller's greatest trick is portraying Lecter as the pitiless monster he's always been, the one we've never fully confronted.
Yes, he's an ALL-TIME GREAT VILLAIN—AFI, Total Film, and even your grandma all tell you so—but that's in name only, almost never in deed. The reality is that the Hannibal Lecter we've spent hundreds of millions of dollars canonizing into the pop-culture pantheon over the past decades has never been that bad. He's an overrated monster whose most heinous actions are discussed in hushed tones, but never fully, unflinchingly presented to the public that allegedly fears him. Whether onscreen or on the page, when he goes into action, we're rooting for him, not against him.
Sure, in 1991's Oscar-feted Silence of the Lambs, he murders some guards and wears one of their faces, but those guys were uncultured dicks, right? They sneered at his craving for rare lamb chops. And then there's that smarmy, double-dealing douche Dr. Frederick Chilton: We all had a good laugh at that last scene in Silence, didn't we? "I'm having an old friend for dinner." The takeaway was that Lecter deserved his revenge, after helping Clarice Starling catch an even worse villain, the fashion-forward flayer Jame Gumb. We didn't fear Lecter. We loved him.
The sequel, Hannibal (a 1999 book that begat a 2001 movie), gives us a double-dose of evil: the deformed and demented arch-villain Mason Verger, and (yet again) a weasel-y bureaucrat in Paul Krendler. Verger is a most vile and repugnant creation, and although Lecter is responsible for his face-slashing deformities, that earns Verger little sympathy from reader and viewer alike, as he wants to give our favorite erudite connoisseur of long pig an ironic end by feeding him to a pack of wild boars. Krendler, meanwhile, is a starch-shirt jerk who backstabs Starling; he meets an unsightly end, but a few herbs and a sizzling sauté pan make his passing easier to swallow. The less said about Hannibal Rising (2006 book, 2007 movie), the better, but in brief, it's Lecter versus sister-killing Nazis, for fuck's sake. Who you got?
Lecter wasn't always such a charmer. In his first appearance on film, 1986's Manhunter, he's the jailed puppeteer pulling the evil Tooth Fairy's strings and terrorizing his nemesis, Will Graham: Total dick move, but those nefarious machinations are mostly off-screen. (Red Dragon, the 2002 film based on the 1981 book that first introduced Lecter, retreads this ground, but it feels more like obligation than character exploration.)
NBC's Hannibal, on the other hand, leaves zero doubt about its eponymous killer; the show certainly isn't squeamish about watching Lecter manipulate, kill, and cook. Some of these victims are fellow monsters, of course—perhaps none as nasty as the aforementioned Verger. If any character here was begging for a brutal end, it was Michael Pitt's gleefully gauche pork-empire scion: Not only did his fear of any possible male family heirs drive him to take his own sister's uterus (unauthorized), he was also quite rude to Lecter, which last week earned him some super drugs and the gentle encouragement to cut off and eat his own face. (Again, on network TV!) Human nose tastes like chicken gizzard, it seems. (OK, I admit I cheered a little.)
Lecter, however, has had no problem noshing on the innocent as well: characters we actually like. That sets the table for tonight's finale, and the seating chart is clear: Lecter on one side, Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) on the other. The only question is, who is serving whom? A bloody kitchen clash between Lecter and Crawford was teased in this season's opening scene, but which side is Graham really on?
If any character has inspired muddied audience sympathies this year, it's Graham, who found himself wrongfully accused and fitted with that famous Lecter mask at the season's start, but is now dabbling in dead-man dioramas of his own in a bid to bait Lecter. He's working for good, but he's becoming awfully bad to do so—a time-honored thriller trope—and that no doubt will come at a cost, mental or physical, to him or to someone he cares for. Someone we care for.
This level of intensity and ambiguity is not for everyone. NBC has ordered a third course of Hannibal, but it doesn't seem like loyal fans were what saved it. The show does have more critical plaudits than a higher-rated casualty like Revolution, but it lacks the rabid following of a doomed media darling like Community; despite (or maybe because of) all the face-slashing theatrics, a rerun of CBS' Blue Bloods in the same time slot last Friday more than doubled Hannibal's rating. DVR helps, of course, but most television experts agree that the key to the show's extended lifespan is a deal with independent studio Gaumont International, which makes the show cheaper to produce than many other options.
So why are fans who voraciously consumed the written and celluloid Lecter so averse to this version of the famed character? Is it possible they just prefer the older, more heroic model? They've elevated him to "iconic villain" status—do they not want to see how that sausage was made? If so, that's too bad. What makes Hannibal so effective is that for all the witty ripostes on repasts, for all the lovely and lavish-looking meals, for all the helpful insights that serve to cut short the reigns of all those other psychopaths, Hannibal Lecter is THE bad guy now. It only took a couple of decades to finally prove it.
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