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Can ‘Hannibal’ Ever Be More Than a Beautiful, Gruesome, Comforting Fantasy?

Brooke Palmer/NBC

Hannibal Lecter lives in Baltimore. This detail seemed odd even when Thomas Harris first introduced the character in his 1981 novel Red Dragon; three decades, four novels, five feature films, and one television series later, it is nothing short of absurd. NBC’s “Hannibal,” which premieres its third season on Thursday, June 4, has now spent two years following the continental doctor around the United States, as he both aids and hungers for FBI investigator Will Graham. As the show has progressed, it has grown far less concerned with narrative than with abstract contemplations of evil, agency, and the aesthetic uses of human flesh and blood (which, as it turns out, are many). As an epicure’s playground, “Hannibal” leaves nothing wanting. As a story taking place not just in the real world but in the real America, where questions about evil are never just abstract, it misses every opportunity it’s presented with. After two seasons, the show has graduated to the realm of pure fantasy.

At the moment, Baltimore residents know violence particularly well. In 2015, it seems deeply incongruous that a show set in a city so familiar with crime would depict violence the way “Hannibal” does: as a rarefied art form, practiced only by dedicated experts, and as far removed from most people’s daily lives as truffle hunting or calligraphy. To understand this show’s serial killers, one must turn not to Robert Hare but to Jane Austen, whose Caroline Bingley famously argued that “a woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word [accomplished]; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air…” Substitute “serial killer” for “woman,” and you’ll begin to appreciate the cloth from which “Hannibal”’s killers are cut. Yet, rare as this level of accomplishment must be, “Hannibal” would also seem to refine conservative pundits’ refutations of police brutality to an even more comforting thesis: the greatest threat this country faces is serial-killer-on-serial-killer crime.

John Douglas, a former FBI investigator, has estimated that America might be home to between 35 and 50 active serial killers at any given moment. “Hannibal,” however, bumps this number up to the hundreds, if not the thousands. In the show, serial killers seem less an anomaly than a distinct subculture, and Lecter can’t seem to go more than a week without wearily fixing his crosshairs on another murderous landsman—not that Lecter would ever think of using a firearm. In “Hannibal,” the killers Lecter toys with and Graham pursues have the resources, the wherewithal, and—perhaps most importantly—the panache to pile victims in human totem poles, sew dozens of bodies into the shape of a human eye, jam a cello’s fingerboard down a victim’s throat and try to bow his vocal cords, sow beehives in victims’ voided skulls, and build mazes for man-eating pigs.

The killers on “Hannibal” are far less interested in slaking violent urges than they are in producing beautifully destroyed corpses, and generating a kind of public art—the Baltimore of the “Hannibal” universe, one imagines, must look a little like a foggy, macabre Marfa. Lecter himself is no different, though he prefers not to store his work al fresco. In one of last season’s more memorable deaths, Lecter vivisected a victim and displayed the results in a series of clear boxes. The resulting images suggest the kind of work Damien Hirst would do if he had access to a human corpse.

The killers in “Hannibal” have apparently never heard of disposing of bodies, though this is, historically, the standard follow-up to a murder. Lecter also hosts frequent dinner parties, at which he inevitably serves beautifully constructed dishes composed of human flesh. How he manages to kill so many people and still engage in such a protracted game of chicken with the FBI’s best and brightest is a pressing enough question. One has to wonder how Lecter even gets adequate nutrition, in the midst of such a relentlessly carnivorous diet. Where does he get his vitamins? What about carbohydrates? And what—one hesitates to ask—is the state of his bowel movements?

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs
Orion Pictures

These may seem like ridiculous questions, but it’s hard to watch “Hannibal” without wanting to ask them: the show cultivates a forced gravity of the same kind that makes a person want to fart in church. Lecter, for his part, speaks almost entirely in aphorisms: “Cruelty is a gift humanity has given itself,” “Madness can be a medicine for the modern world,” and, somewhat less memorably, “Aspic is derived from bone, as a life is made from moments.” The audience never sees him experience a moment of genuine pain, or confusion, or shock. The closest we have come to seeing anything of the kind came when a patient left a crumpled jacket on Lecter’s chaise.

The rationale, I suppose, is that Lecter must be truly evil—and therefore truly fascinating—if he is clever enough to maintain such control over his surroundings, and such a chokehold on his truncated emotional spectrum. Yet “evil,” as we define it, often has little to do with control. Violence and cruelty are far more likely to issue forth from a lack of autonomy as they are from confident mastery. This has been the case even in the most fantastic of past fictions—even, in fact, in Hannibal Lecter’s past narratives.

When readers first encountered Hannibal Lecter in 1981’s Red Dragon, he was already incarcerated, and reluctantly helping Will Graham to track down a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. This sequence of events is likely to turn up in later seasons of “Hannibal,” yet one has to wonder how showrunner Bryan Fuller will shunt the Tooth Fairy into the series’ aesthetic. The Tooth Fairy is, truth be told, a bit of a kook: he lives in a flyover state, rapes chickens, and pauses in the middle of a home invasion to nibble on a block of cheese. Worst of all, he is not even wealthy.

Things are no better in 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs, the story that made the good doctor a box office smash. In its film adaptation, Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, takes the backseat to yet another investigation of yet another rather gauche serial killer—one who is known to investigators as “Buffalo Bill,” makes his home in the Rust Belt, frets over a toy poodle called Precious, and wears a satin baseball jacket while out cruising for victims. In other words, the story took place in the real world, where a murderer can be as pathetic as he is petrifying, and where these two attributes often as not draw strength from each other.

In The Silence of the Lambs, audiences saw violence flourishing in places of economic disenfranchisement and anomie, and society at large reckoning with its complicity in crime. Even Buffalo Bill, in Lecter’s own estimation, was not “born a criminal,” but “made one, through years of systematic abuse”—and who would ever quibble with Dr. Lecter? Of course, Lecter himself is, in the words of former-colleague-turned-warden Dr. Chilton, “a pure psychopath. So rare,” he muses proudly, “to capture one alive”—as if Lecter is a white lion, a beautiful freak, or perhaps one of the last members of a dying warrior race.

The concept of inborn psychopathy is one the public has grown deeply familiar with in the years since Hannibal Lecter became a household name. It populates not just our fictions, but our discussions of all manner of crime: dismissing someone as a “psychopath” or a “sociopath,” essentially removing the weight of their actions from society’s shoulders, is as convenient as it is comforting—and seems so much more scientific, and so much less cruel, than calling someone a “monster.” It is a conclusion so easy to draw, and a privilege so easy to abuse, that one almost has to assume we have abused it. If we know that psychopaths exist, little restrains us from assuming they commit every crime that troubles us. Yet “the concept of the psychopath,” Janet Malcolm memorably argued, “is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil—it is merely a restatement of the mystery—and only offers an escape valve for the frustration felt by psychiatrists, social workers, and police officers, who daily encounter its force.” Now, surrounded as we are by so many facets of media, the general public also encounters the force of violence, cruelty, and destruction with a new degree of immediacy, and requires the same fictions as professionals.

Believing in psychopaths, like believing in fairies, is a paradoxically comforting fantasy. It means trusting that the psychopath is a creature apart from humanity, and that whatever harm he can wreak on society cannot, by its nature, come from within society. Society, instead, can define itself against him: we are good where he is bad, empathetic where he is empty, passionate where he is cold. If we believe in psychopaths, we may feel less pressure to believe that a “normal” person may also, under certain circumstances, commit atrocities. We can, in fact, attribute whole swaths of shameful history—genocide, state-sanctioned torture, massacres, war—to a supposedly “rare” demographic. And perhaps this is why we harbor enough fondness for psychopaths to stuff them into every orifice of our entertainment: their cruelty saves us from contemplating ourselves.

In this regard, “Hannibal”’s Hannibal is the savior of saviors, the king of kings. Every cruelty he commits is intrinsic to his nature. He controls his actions. He savors them. He is the ultimate consenting adult, and the series, however gruesome it gets, exists in a universe where no killer, however brutal, would think of killing unless their instincts told them to. They certainly cannot blame society at large—and so we, blameless, can happily tune in.

In The Silence of the Lambs, much of the narrative tension comes from Lecter’s frenetic desire to prove that the protagonist, FBI trainee Clarice Starling, is less altruistic than she believes. Throughout their meetings, he pokes and prods her, searching for some hint of bloodthirsty career ambition or originating trauma that will explain to him her baffling desire to do good. Instead he finds a subject as rare as he is touted to be: a born heroine. Clarice does good not because society compels her to but because it is her nature, just as it is Hannibal’s nature, apparently, to kill. The grudging respect Hannibal and Clarice share by the story’s end amounts to as profound a degree of intimacy as one would imagine a “pure psychopath” to be capable of, even after he has escaped his cage.

Today, “Hannibal” would seem to mimic that dynamic, but with a crucial difference. If Lecter sometimes verges on experiencing a moment of genuine emotion or vulnerability, it comes courtesy of Will Graham, an investigator who sees through the eyes of killers. Graham’s problems arise from his belief that he cannot make these journeys without taking something back with him, and that he is, perhaps, more like Hannibal Lecter than he is like the other people around him. Lecter recognizes a potential kindred spirit as well, and reacts, naturally, by plunging Graham into ever-varied torments, then acting betrayed when he fights back. “I let you know me, see me,” he tells Graham. “I gave you a rare gift, but you didn’t want it.”

It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that season two didn’t end well for Will Graham, since nothing ever does. Nor does it spoil much to say that the start of season three finds Hannibal traipsing around Europe, since that has long been his favorite respite. One wonders how he soldiered on in America for so long.

Yet if “Hannibal” ever becomes more than a beautiful, gruesome, comforting fantasy, it will have to bring Lecter back to America. Right now, the show is most itself when it lets its viewers nurse their transgressive fantasies about psychopathy: how easy life would be, it seems to suggest, if one had no feeling for other people, no empathy, no vulnerability, no weakness. This is the fantasy Will Graham himself seems drawn to, and it’s hard not to follow. But just by revisiting The Silence of the Lambs, we can see how much more compelling a narrative is when it forces someone seemingly devoid of emotion to cultivate some degree of connection with another human being, and to question their dim view of humanity. It’s easy to remain stoic in the face of gore-as-art, far harder to manage such a feat in the face of the real violence that dogs the real America. Making Hannibal Lecter attempt as much would make the character far more interesting. Even more meaningfully, however, it will take away the chill sense of blamelessness and invulnerability we feel as we stand in his expensive shoes.