The TV Room: Hannibal Season 3, by David Bax
As all fannibals know (“fannibals” is here defined as anyone who loves Hannibal so much that they will willingly self-apply that corny portmanteau of a moniker; I count myself among their number), season three was not intended to be the final group of Hannibal episodes. Spectacular fan devotion, near-unanimous critical adoration and the bonus of splitting production costs with European counterpart Gaumont all failed to keep NBC from pulling the plug on this gorgeous, challenging and unique series, which may be remembered as one of the best in history. Yet the show’s ending, despite being constructed as a cliffhanger, can easily be interpreted as bearing satisfactory finality. Unlike Deadwood fans (Deadheads? No.), who are forever suspended in limbo after their show was cut down in its prime, fannibals can comfort themselves with the fact that Hannibal did indeed have an ending. And it may have been the perfect one.
Season three of Hannibal is the one where they finally got to the Red Dragon storyline, the retelling of Thomas Harris’ original Hannibal Lecter novel on which the whole series was nominally based. In adapting that plot, creator Bryan Fuller and company avoided a slavish retelling, maintaining the major elements (though not always in the same order) and discarding others while replacing them with their own ideas. Yet, just like the series as a whole, it certainly felt like it came from the same place as Harris’ source material.
That’s only the second half of the season, though. The first half picked up on the characters who were shattered and scattered by season two’s gripping and (literally) gutting cliffhanger. Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) have fled to Italy. As for the rest of the cast – let’s inaccurately call them the good guys, for simplicity’s sake – Fuller took three full episodes to reveal what had happened to each of them, teasing out our anticipation of who succumbed to their arterial gashes and broken bodies and who persisted (“survived” feels like the wrong word). It’s the same tactic Lost used at the beginning of its second season but the execution bears few similarities. Hannibal probably didn’t do itself any favors in the quest to grow its audience when it started a season with three whole hours of moody, though beautiful, abstractions that showed little interest in story and much more in submerging the viewer in its psycho-aesthetic milieu.
Part of Hannibal’s approach from the beginning has been to present horrible things from the point of view of someone who finds them beautiful. Fuller deftly avoided anything so cheap as glorification but asked his audience to simply consider murder and mutilation as aesthetic concerns the way a killer like Hannibal would. One the one hand, there were so many insane characters on the show that we were always in the hands of one unreliable narrator or the next but then the definition of reliability is itself in question in a world wherever everyone’s perception varies. The grisly tableaux Hannibal staged of his victims may not have resembled reality in cold, hard fact but they looked like the way he saw things. Hannibal the show was constantly inviting its observers (or were we participants?) to relinquish their grasp on our empirical life preservers and yield to the liberation of solipsistic psychosis. Water (or other liquids, blood among them) was a heavy visual theme, especially in this third season, and was used quite cleverly. Generally, in visual arts, water is used to represent cleansing, catharsis and rebirth. Hannibal showed us liquid, in drops and in pools, as a dark portal to a blissful oblivion. It beckoned with the allure of release, of giving in to an empowering corruption of the soul. Once baptized, one would be above human and legal concerns.
In a way, that’s what made the Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde (terrifyingly embodied by Richard Armitage), such a fascinating foil. Dolarhyde’s “becoming” of the Dragon was not a letting go but a trial of grueling preparation and a struggle for control. Fuller once again navigated a tricky path, making Dolarhyde a murderous villain, a tortured and lonely outcast for whom we could feel sympathy, and a creature whose fractured nature made him pathetic compared to the elegance of Hannibal’s own lunacy; he was a wounded bird fit to be crushed, as Bedelia would have it.
Of course, that’s what finally happened because this was never the story of the Red Dragon. It wasn’t the story of Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) or Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) or anyone else, which is why the finale wisely sidelined those characters after the midpoint. This series was about Hannibal Lecter and the only person he could ever love, in his own way, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Will was always teetering on the edge of the cliff, overlooking that dark water, feeling its pull. And Hannibal was always alongside Will, wishing not to shove him over but to encourage him to make the jump on his own. That’s why this ending was so perfect. Hannibal both succeeded and didn’t. We can debate the fate of both their souls forever but it’s okay that there are no more Hannibal stories for Fuller to tell.