“Before we begin eating, I must warn you: nothing here is vegetarian.” So says Mads Mikkelsen’s perfectly chilling version of Hannibal Lecter as he serves a room full of guests the internal organs of his latest victims.
The first season of NBC’s Hannibal is, in my opinion, perfect. Its thirteen episodes could have easily served as a complete, wholly realized miniseries. Thankfully, due to an enormous amount of support from the fan community, Hannibal is returning for a second season at the end of February. I’m very happy that the show has been able to continue, especially considering show runner Bryan Fuller’s historically short-lived back-catalogue, which includes the popular Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies. Hannibal, like Fuller’s other shows, takes place in an exaggerated version of our reality. Hannibal’s version of Baltimore, Maryland is a dark mirror of its real-world counterpart, populated by a ludicrous number of psychopaths, sociopaths, and killers. Though the violence is gruesome and bloody, the show’s deeply disturbing content is made even more so by its detached, almost clinical presentation. Its color palette is filled with the muted, cool colors of a hospital morgue. The set design – which is often evocative of (and sometimes directly referential to) Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – is stark and realistic. Perhaps most impressive is the cinematography, which succeeds in making the grotesque look artful in a way that will often make you forget that you’re looking at the mutilated remains of a serial killer’s victim.
However, though the production values of Hannibal are among the best on television today, this show’s greatest strength is its cast. Mads Mikkelsen’s titular Hannibal is a fascinating character. Hannibal’s brilliance is tangible within every clipped word of his refined speech and his knowledge and understanding of psychiatric methods and human behavior is encyclopedic. Overall, he is a man of frightening stillness and Mads Mikkelsen’s taut, surgical performance accentuates his unpredictable nature. This is aided by Mikkelsen’s naturally stoic and memorable face; one that is capable of portraying both muted pleasure and detached cruelty with the slightest twinge of his mouth or a narrowing of his eyes. Though Hannibal is capable of empathy, he is selective with his emotions; in contrast his apathy to the pain and suffering of his victims (whom he vivisects) is what makes him so terrifying. Which Hannibal a character encounters in any particular scene provides a constant source of tension and dread and is one of the most fun parts of the show. Yet his deep apathy is also one of the reasons that makes Hannibal such a compelling character. He murders without pleasure, motivated more by compulsion than deriving any true joy from his abhorrent actions. Though this does not make us empathetic towards him, it is a characteristic that is seldom seen in the generic fictional serial killer and makes him all the more interesting.
Though Mikkelsen is terrific, Hannibal is not a one-man show. Hugh Dancy proves just as impressive in the opposing role of Will Graham: a criminal profiler who works with the FBI. Early on we learn that Will was unable to become an FBI agent because he failed his psychiatric evaluation. This is a harbinger of things to come as Hannibal spends a lot of time focusing on Will’s precarious mental state which is caused by his endless ability to empathize with killers. He’s able to understand them and make leaps in logic that others could not, able to reconstruct the progression of a murder in his mind. Perhaps the most disturbing scenes of the entire show take place when Will goes into a trance-like state where he sees himself committing the murders as he’s piecing them together. As the season progresses – and the bodies pile up – Will’s already tenuous grasp on reality loosens, leading to some of the most creative sequences I’ve seen on television in a long time. Dancy deftly portrays Will’s social awkwardness and neuroticism without seeming forced or hokey, making you truly care for this man who is haunted by his astounding ability.
Mikkelsen and Dancy are ably supported by the always reliable Lawrence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, the Agent in charge of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, and Caroline Dhavernas as Dr. Alana Bloom, Will’s brilliant colleague and only friend (besides Hannibal). There are a number of small guest appearances as well, the most notable of which being a particularly impressive Eddie Izzard, who gives a darkly comedic turn as a man who may or may not be the Chesapeake Ripper (SPOLIERS: He’s not, it’s Hannibal).
Overall, Hannibal is a brilliant new show and I can’t wait to see the further (horrific) turns that this story will take.