Hannibal Roundtable: The History, The Ending, The Future, and More

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One of the most well-respected television shows among critics and fans alike over the past three years has been NBC’s Hannibal, a re-imagining of the incredibly popular Hannibal Lecter mythos that have become increasingly popular in our culture after a successful string of novels and films. The third (and final) season of Hannibal on NBC capped off three years of character and story development while also adapting Red Dragon, the first novel to feature the cannibalistic doctor.  TVOvermind has its own share of Fannibals, and we’ve decided to have a discussion on the series as it ends its life on NBC.

1) We live in an age where chances are good that you can turn to any given channel and see some sort of adaptation of another form of media. What is it about Hannibal that stood out to you, and why do you think that it worked so well on television?

Jasef WisenerI’ve always been a really big horror/thriller fan, but, other than the film adaptation The Silence of the Lambs, I wasn’t at all familiar with the story of Hannibal at all. I probably would have checked the show out eventually anyway because of that small familiarity, but I saw that Bryan Fuller, my absolute favorite showrunner, was in charge of the adaptation, so I couldn’t pass it up, and I dove head-first into the stories, binge-watching all five of the movies and reading the first two novels in the span of just a couple of weeks. Without even expecting to, I completely fell in love with the world, with Red Dragon being the big standout to me. Between the established mythology and the direction of Fuller, I knew that Hannibal would end up being exactly what I wanted. As for why it worked so well, and trying not to sound like a fanboy, I really think it was because of Bryan Fuller. Everything that he’s done in the past has shown a mastery of storytelling, art, and thematic presentation (particularly with the criminally underrated Pushing Daisies), and the small audiences that his shows have attracted have morphed into some of the most passionate fanbases around. While a fanbase can’t sustain a show, it can manage to bring in a devoted audience, and I think that devotion fed into the general assumption that television viewers were ready for a higher class of show. All in all, I think that Hannibal worked so well because all of the right pieces of the puzzle came together at the right time.

Randy Dankievitch: Hannibal was neither a direct adaptation of its literal or cinematic adaptations – and beyond that, Hannibal refused to follow the rules of television, be it network or cable. To call the show unique is an understatement: Hannibal might be the most unique show to air on the Big 4 since the first season of Twin Peaks, and that’s not faint praise.

Sean Colleti: I was actually really reluctant to watch Hannibal in the first place. The last two film adaptations, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, were almost completely unwatchable and had sucked out all my interest in the franchise that The Silence of the Lambs had originally instilled. Those feelings of hesitation were heightened by the fact that TV is constantly saturated with violent crime series, so with something like The Following dragging down the overall quality of original programming on the networks with thoughtless, pointless serial killings, of what use was a neutered Hannibal Lecter story going to be? I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be wrong. The reason Hannibal worked so well on TV is because Bryan Fuller was at the helm. That’s not to say that another showrunner couldn’t have done a solid, watchable adaptation of Thomas Harris, but certain creative minds are attuned to certain themes. When I watch Darren Aronofsky’s films (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, etc.), I see someone totally fascinated with the idea of obsession. I would trust Aronofsky to do justice to any character who wanted a single thing passionately. In the same sense, Fuller’s body of work shows us how enamored he is with death.Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daises all approached death from different, interesting angles, and so Hannibal was meant for Fuller. The series doesn’t just include death. It talks about death. It examines death. It interprets death. It transmutes death into art. It is very comfortable with approaching death as a necessary part of life, and Fuller and co-writer Steve Lightfoot give the Lecter property a surprising injection of vitality by focusing less on shoving death in our faces (which is what a lot of other series settle for) and, instead, focusing more on how death affects Will Graham, the characters he interacts with and, by extension, us as an audience who must also confront death in our own lives.

2) Hannibal frequently featured content, specifically in the form of gore, that it’s hard to imagine being shown on network television. In spite of this, the show is frequently viewed from an artistic point-of-view. What do you think it is about the show’s presentation that has allowed audiences to overlook this violence in favor of respecting the art?

Jasef: I think that the biggest reason Hannibal is so often viewed as art by audiences is because of how deeply the cast and crew themselves viewed the show as art. The gore was definitely more than I would have ever expected on network television, but the actual presentation of it was always done in a way that emphasized the production and art of the death much more so than the gore itself. Feeding into this mindset is the recent-ish release of The Art of Hannibal, an official book that covers the production of the first two seasons. The entire concept of the “death tableau” alone tells you that the final result of violence is more important to the show than the violence itself. It’s also important to keep in mind that much of the more extreme violence on Hannibal was done off-screen. There are definitely examples in which the violence is shown (a specific episode that comes to mind is “Entrée” from season 1), but, in my opinion, the violence is never glorified. The gore? Yes. The violence? No.

Randy: Hannibal treated murder like art – that is, it treated the cinematic representation of violence as a baroque post-modern piece, turning a serial killer’s tableaux into some of the most haunting imagery you can imagine (I still think about those angel wings…). It also understood that in order for us to empathize with Will’s dissolving humanity throughout the series, we had to appreciate the violence in the way he did: as an avenue into the soul. Every single death on Hannibal is symbolically and thematically significant: how many other shows can say that?

Sean: Violence on TV can be portrayed in many ways, and I think different audiences react differently depending on which method is being used. Critics, for instance, appropriately jump on series that use violence for shock value or do so without following through on the trauma that violence causes. Passive viewers of a series might be more forgiving of that. With Hannibal, going out of its way to portray violence as art gave the series a lot of leeway for later episodes. Most of season one features murder tableaux that are horrific on paper but gain layers of depth by how they’re treated in the episodes. Will will often be presented with a nightmarish image, but we see, importantly, him tackle with those images, which find ways into his subconscious and unconscious states. Because Hannibal doesn’t gloss over violence or give a tableau without filtering the killer’s logic and methodology through Will (and because we see each tableau affect Will in a different way), it’s both easier to stomach those images as acts of extreme violence and acts of extreme violence on TV, since they’re not mindless. If you go back and watch the first season of Hannibal, most of the killings happen off-screen or else are re-enacted by someone we care deeply about. This allowed later episodes to tackle violence differently. “Tome-wan,” for example, allowed Mason Verger’s self-mutilation to be somewhat funny and, in a weird and twisted sense, somewhat justified. Similarly, this most recent season included more shocking violence (notably Chilton’s lips being bitten off) so, in a way, say “Hey, we know we usually do some artistic things, but we really want you to see how horrible some of these things are.” By laying the artistic groundwork early and getting us comfortable with its kind of violence, Hannibal was able to run the gamut of portrayals of violence by its end.

3) Before watching Hannibal, how familiar were you with the source material? Based on your own familiarity, how well do you think the cast and crew did with telling their own reimagining of the events, and do you think that they succeeded in defining the story for a new generation?

Jasef: As I mentioned before, the only part of the source material that I was familiar with before the show’s announcement was The Silence of the Lambs, but I watched the rest of the movies and read both the Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs between then and the show’s premiere. I’ve since also read the final two novels that Thomas Harris wrote about the character. I really think that the cast and crew did a fantastic job with re-imagining the events, and I loved the way that Fuller and co. took bits and pieces from all throughout the established continuity (except for Silence, however, since MGM never let them use anything from that story) in order to tell their own form of the events. While you could go on and on and on about good examples of this practice, one of my favorites would be the use of Freddie Lounds and Frederick Chilton in the final season. I don’t want to go into details in case anyone hasn’t finished the season, but I absolutely love Fuller’s take on that particular sequence of events. I also definitely think that the show succeeded in defining the story for a new generation. As much as I still enjoy all (and I actually do mean all) of the films, Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins are no longer the voices in my head for Hannibal Lecter. Edward Norton is no longer my Will Graham. Gary Oldman is no longer my Mason Verger. For me, established continuity be damned, Hannibal will forever be the definitive interpretation for me.

Randy: I’ve read all the Thomas Harris novels (multiple times, save for the godawful contrivance of Hannibal Rising) and seen all the films (Manhunter remains the best of the lot), so I was more than familiar with the material heading in. And I don’t think Hannibal defined the story for a new generation: I think it redefined the story of Hannibal as a whole, embracing the oddly-placed touches of romanticism in Harris’s novels and creating modern television’s first honest to God “bromance”. More impressive, however, is how Fuller and company piecemealed material from all the novels (save for Silence of the Lambs, which they didn’t have the rights to use), and repurposed it to their liking. I think the imagery and performances in Hannibal have already become the definitive images of the material, even in the short span of three years it’s been in existence – and for anyone who still associates Hannibal Lecter with Anthony Hopkins’ hammy-ass performance, they’re missing out.

Sean: Before watching Hannibal, I had seen all the film adaptations and read Red Dragon. This is a tricky and, for me, touchy subject, though. Much of why I enjoy Hannibal as much as I do is because of its powerfully unique identity. If you read Harris or watch some of those films, you’re getting the crime-thriller experience most of the time. In literature, that is the over-arching genre that includes sub-genres like psychological thriller or noir crime or the kind of hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal rarely relies on those conventions. He does exactly what I love seeing when it comes to adaptations: He treated the source material as inspiration for his own interpretation rather than something to follow too-faithfully. With the exceptions of some stray, lifted lines of dialog in the most recent Red Dragon arc that felt out-of-character for the style of dialog in the series, Fuller’s version was completely its own thing in tone and atmosphere. Little changes like turning Alan Bloom and Freddy Lounds into female characters are certainly interesting and effective on the surface level, but Fuller’s greatest triumphs involved moving away from the somewhat campy demeanor of the Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter and finding his own groove that fit his design. I would have been quite disappointed if I had seen an event-for-event re-enactment of Red Dragon in these last six episodes, and I’m annoyed and frustrated by viewers whose complaints about this season had to do with issues of adaptation. Like spoilers, simple facts about adaptation really don’t matter in the slightest. How the story is presented and what it accomplishes in its own right ultimately gives it lasting appeal. In that sense, I won’t be at all surprised to find Hannibal the TV series more memorable than any of the other adaptations and even the source material, because it had more to say about its themes and concerns.

4) By nature, Hannibal the show allowed for audiences to connect on a psychological level with villains, antiheroes, and generally terrible people. Do you think that this is a good thing? Why do you think audiences today gravitate toward characters such as Hannibal Lecter?

Jasef: Empathy. From the very first episode of Hannibal, it is established that Will Graham is able to do the things that he does because he is able to feel pure empathy, and I think that the use of Will Graham and his ability is why audiences are able to gravitate toward Hannibal Lecter. While we see events take place away from Will, our primary surrogate as the audience is Will Graham, and, for better or worse, we see Hannibal Lecter through his eyes and from his point-of-view. As for the first question, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a good or bad thing. Glorification is terrible and definitely not a good thing, but understanding on a psychological level can lead to a better understanding of oneself, which is something that is very hard for a media presentation to accomplish.

Randy: I think Hannibal‘s ability to make us empathize and understand the mind of a villain was important for one reason: Will Graham. Without that morbid appreciation of what cinematic serial killers do, Will’s character makes no sense – and without the presence of the Devil, Will’s moral corruption has nothing to anchor itself to, except his own increasingly unstable acts. The psychology of Hannibal is something I could write thousands of words about, but how the show uses him to draw a strong emotional attachment to Will is as powerful as anything you’ll see on TV.

Sean: The answer to that first question–is it a good thing that audiences connect with terrible people–really should be a resounding no. On the surface, it’s dangerous to glorify anyone like Hannibal Lecter for the same reasons that children need to understand how violence works in video games and why that’s different from real life. However, it’s always good to try to achieve empathy with someone. The kind of pure empathy that Will is capable of is not possible, but the more we can get out of our own skins and connect with another human being who doesn’t think of us as the center of the world, the better we are at being human beings (or, at least, what I perceive as the goals of being a human being). Will’s relationship with Hannibal illuminated a lot of those ideas, and even though it’s necessary to remember that both characters are capable of being utter monsters, there are entries into understanding just about everyone. Of course, Hannibal goes an extra few miles to make Lecter more attractive to us. He’s got style for days, he cooks meals we dream of eating (without the human component) and he’s powerful on the intellectual and emotional levels. Moments like therapy sessions with Bella Crawford show that he’s genuinely capable of helping people as someone with unusual worldviews. He also loves, and deeply at that. No one else in the series cares more about Will Graham, and even though his motivations and actions are mostly horribly misguided, there are parts of Hannibal Lecter that are Shakespeare-level universal. This is contrasted with a host of characters who don’t get the benefit of the depth the series gives Lecter, and I think we identify less with some of the other serial killers in the show than we do with him. At the end of the day, part of us wants to be the smartest person in the room, and so Hannibal is a wonderful case study of the viewer-character relationship.

5) The final NBC season of Hannibal successfully wrapped up most storylines at the conclusion of the first arc, and the second part of the season was, essentially, a sequel to all that we had seen before. What do you think of this style of storytelling, and why do you think it worked so well on Hannibal? Would you like to see more television shows split their seasons into multiple arcs?

Jasef: I absolutely loved the split season, because it really did “feel” to me that we were getting two seasons in one. I love the fact that it allowed two complete stories to be told with no filler, and I think that simple fact (complete lack of filler) is why it worked so well on Hannibal. It’s true that a few certain things were underdeveloped (the most blatant to me would be the Chiyoh character during the Italy arc), but I really feel that it worked perfectly for what they were trying to do and allowed for a more artsy presentation when desired and for a more energetic presentation at other times. I would like to see this done in other shows, but only if the producers know that they can do it successfully (a good example, for me, would be the second season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was split into two distinct arcs with varying success).

Randy: I think it worked well for two reasons: the trip to Italy allowed Hannibal to indulge the visual auteurs behind the madness of seasons one and two, further extending the show’s reptuation to be cinematic to become a four-hour long art film that danced around the world. Grounded in the reality of Baltimore brings a different energy to the back half of season three, returning to its roots as a ‘killer chaser’ drama – but this was no simple killer, and the Red Dragon story line sent Hannibal out on a dramatic high, with a finale that came as close as one possibly could to “Mizumono”, which is in my short list of Best TV Episodes of All-Time.

Sean: The split season, for me, was evidence that the material could have been better as two seasons. Aspects of the Italy arc, especially Chiyoh’s character and how Bedelia’s thought process justified her actions, felt underdeveloped. Similarly, there were times when Will would shift between personalities, sometimes appearing to be a wannabe Hannibal Lecter and sometimes being recognizable as the Will of the previous seasons (I loved his interactions with Abigail’s ghost in “Primavera”). Much of these issues, which weren’t so problematic that it tainted the season, could have been alleviated through more screen time to expand on certain ideas. The Red Dragon arc felt more complete, but even with that story, there was more left unsaid than said. Of course, many people could argue for the benefits of that, but even just the presence of newcomers Richard Armitage, Nina Arianda and Rutina Wesley almost demanded a full season. All three turned in fantastic, memorable performances, and more episodes with them would have been worth the risk of stretching out the material a little bit (which, honestly, probably wouldn’t have happened anyway, because Fuller proved himself capable of extracting tons out of throwaway lines in Harris). All this said, I like the idea of the split season on paper. And, actually, the first two seasons kind of did the same thing, though less distinctly. There was pre-encephalitis Will and encephalitis Will in season one, and there was Will in custody and Will out of custody in season two. With Hannibal constantly juxtaposing Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, that duality makes a lot of sense. So, if other series feature similar circumstances in which dualities feature heavily, I would love to see more production teams mess around with the format of their seasons.

6) Who was your “favorite” character throughout Hannibal‘s run, and why?

Jasef: Each of the main credited cast members holds a special place in my heart, so I’m going to leave all of them out of my answer. Out of the characters on Hannibal that were never credited in the opening titles, my two favorites are a dead-tie between Dr. Frederick Chilton and Mason Verger. Anthony Heald was one of my favorite parts of the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs (and I’m so thrilled that Brett Ratner brought him back for his version of Red Dragon), and it is obvious how much Raul Esparza looked to Heald’s performances for inspiration on his own. Esparza perfectly captured the smugness of the character while avoiding falling into what could have been a parody performance, and his evolution of the performance throughout the show’s run was, possibly, the most delightful thing about the episodes that he was in. Mason, on the other hand, was one of the most intriguing characters from the canon to me, and I felt that both the novel and the film in which he was featured didn’t explore the character to the extent that I think he should have been. Mason Verger (and, particularly, his past history with Hannibal) had so much potential for depth, and it wasn’t until Michael Pitt joined the show in season 2 that this character finally got his due diligence. I absolutely loved Pitt’s portrayal of the character, and I think that Joe Anderson did an admirable job following up such a memorable performance.

Randy: I love Alana Bloom, and the place I hold Will Graham in my heart is a special one – but my favorite character throughout the run of Hannibal was Dr. Chilton, because that man just would not give up and die. More importantly, he’d never give up being an ass, even in the face of death. He was always going to be a self-serving jerk who reveled in pushing too many buttons on too many people – and despite that, he remains alive, to be pulled apart and reformed by Hannibal as he sees fit later in the future.

Sean: This is a near-impossible question to answer. There were one-season wonders like Francis Dolarhyde. There were supporting roles who left huge impressions, like Bella Crawford, Abigail Hobbes, Abel Gideon, Mason Verger and especially Frederick Chilton, whose Raul Esparza deserves countless awards that he’s not going to get. There’s continuous, anchoring personalities, like Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom. But the series comes down to Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, so it’s hard not to pick one of them. Of the two, I’m more tempted to call Hannibal my “favorite,” because he’s left the biggest impression on me. Because of Hannibal, I want to learn how to cook gourmet food. I want to dress better. I want to have a deeper appreciation of visual art and classical music. There’s so much style to this version of Hannibal Lecter, and Mads Mikkelsen pulls it off without ever being loud in his performance. Hannibal is an elitist, to be sure, but he doesn’t make you feel bad for being culturally inferior. I have a hard time guessing how well I would get along with him in real life, but Hannibal’s the only character in this series who captured my attention so fully that I paused to consider nearly all of the thoughts he verbalized. He is the definition of intriguing.

7) The “death tableaus” were always a huge part of Hannibal, particularly in the first season. Do you have a favorite “Hannibal death?”

Jasef: The cello strings from season 1 is, hands-down, my favorite tableau. Whenever I suggest Hannibal to friends, I always make sure to mention that one as something to look forward to. Aside from the cello, I absolutely loved the angel wings and the wounded man (both from season 1), and the death of the Red Dragon at the conclusion of the series was one of the most beautiful sequences that has ever been filmed for any medium.

Randy: It’s really a tie: the angel wings remain the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on television – but in terms of pure cool factor, the man whose neck muscles were turned into bass strings would be my favorite.

Sean: This is also a near-impossible question, and I’m glad that I’m trying to pick a “favorite” rather than the one I considered “most memorable” or “most artistic,” because those are two very different questions. At the end of the day, my “favorite” Hannibal death has to be the death of Francis Dolarhyde (or, to channel the late Ronnie James Dio, Killing the Dragon). This wasn’t a presentation of a body in the way that we were given in the first and second seasons. But the presentation of the killing was absolutely spectacular. There were a couple of moments in the Red Dragon arc that made me raise my eyebrow at the use of their dragon imagery. It wasn’t so much that it strictly didn’t work, but it felt unjustified or lacking in power, especially coming off two seasons that used stag imagery so well. But seeing the wings of the Red Dragon twice in that fight, once when Dolarhyde is walking menacingly towards Hannibal at the edge of the bluff and once before his body collapses on the ground, gave the sequence so much beauty for me. On top of that, this death was the one that finally brought Will and Hannibal together as the heroes Hannibal imagined them to be. To see them come together to take down a common enemy (all set the beautiful original song, “Love Crime”) was a spectacle beyond my expectation. Many viewers justifiably have issues with the season three finale, but I challenge any of them to present a good argument as to why that death sequence didn’t work on the artistic and thematic levels. It’s not an image as ridiculous as the tree man or as physically upsetting as the human cello. But it’s the death that had the largest impact on me as a fan of the series.

8) Finally, now that Hannibal has ended its run on NBC, would you like to see a continuation at some point in time somewhere else, or are you satisfied with the ending that we got? What would you like to see happen?

Jasef: I really don’t think it’s possible for any fan of the show to not be satisfied with the ending. Both season 1 and season 2 ended in a way that would be somewhat satisfying while still not giving you the feeling that things were really complete. Season 3, however, successfully closed out every open thread (post-credits scene notwithstanding). That said, almost all of those threads could be easily re-opened, and I am so incredibly hopeful that Bryan Fuller is able to tell more of his story at some point in the future.

Randy: It would be impossible to say I’m not satisfied with Hannibal‘s three-season run: I fully expected it to get pulled before the end of the first season, so having 36 hours of Hannibal I can watch over and over is a unforseen treasure. And while I normally hate seeing stories revisited, rebooted, revamped, or sequeled (especially when they have such a PERFECT ending), I’d watch anything Bryan Fuller made in the Hannibal universe, no matter what, where, or how it was released.

Sean: If you had asked me this question before watching the finale, I would have said 100 times out of 100 that I wanted more Hannibal after season three. I dedicated more time than I care to admit watching and re-watching episodes, writing reviews and recording podcasts about each entry. But I was satisfied with my interpretation of the ending–that Will and Hannibal are dead–that I would rather leave it at that than have to swim my way through any kind of reasoning that would allow the main characters to be alive so that the series could continue chronologically. I think Fuller and his team could do an excellent version of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and I especially think they could come up with their own conclusion to the entire story that would be satisfying. But by ending season three this way and finally bringing Will and Hannibal together in the way that Hannibal always wanted–as partners on the hunt–I see a relationship that has achieved its potential. Will and Hannibal set an unbelievably high standard for me for stories tackling human relationships. Whether that means love or friendship is of no concern, because Will and Hannibal encompass just about every aspect of the emotional spectrum with one another. Weirdly enough, it falls in line with the will-they-won’t-they issue that a lot of rom-coms struggle with. Now that Will and Hannibal have come together at the end of season three, the beautiful tragedy of their deaths is more satisfying to me than seeing who they could be together over an extended period of time. “Can’t live with him, can’t live without him,” Bedelia says in the finale. “Can’t live at all” is the solution, and I couldn’t imagine a more poignant ending to their story than this one.

Now that you’ve read our thoughts, what are your thoughts on Hannibal? Let us know in the comments down below!

[Photo via NBC]

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