Sight is the key to appreciating the design behind Bryan Fuller’s three seasons of Hannibal. Television is first and foremost a visual medium, and no show makes better use of it.
The first two seasons of Hannibal take place before the events described in the famous novels by Thomas Harris, with the third season leading into an incredible adaption of his first Hannibal novel, Red Dragon. What starts off as a killer-of-the-week cop drama slowly becomes a bloody, insane, near supernaturally charged love story between its two lead characters. Hugh Dancy stars as Will Graham, a man who can empathize perfectly with anybody and whose sense of self and reality is shaky at the best of times. Opposite Will is his psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who enjoys philosophizing about God, eroding Will’s conception of the world, and elaborately cooking, serving, and eating people (in meals that always make guilty viewers a bit hungry).
Hannibal sees in Will the potential for a companion. He believes that Will can understand him and can share his fun of elaborately killing people. Hannibal thinks there is nobody else in the world who can see him like Will can. In effect, he falls in love. (The internet’s couple name for them, “murder husbands”, even finds its way into a line in the third season.)
The horror is apparent, but how does Hannibal fall into the realm of speculative fiction? Well, in several ways. First of all, the show itself exists in a heightened reality, one where Hannibal Lecter is an almost ineffable devil-like figure, capable of performing horrifying feats or tricks while wearing a three-piece suit. He can dash across fields, disappear without a trace, and kill countless people in increasingly elaborate ways, all in time for dinner. The show often has little time for real world logic, sacrificing what’s possible off screen for what’s beautiful on screen.
But within the logic of Hannibal, there is Will. And within Will blossoms the magical realism that places Hannibal into the realm of speculative fiction.
“See?” is a code word in Hannibal. What Will sees is more important than the real world. Through the eyes of killers and lunatics, as well as through his own subconscious, Will sees a world far more magical (and horrifying) than our own.
What Will sees is often more important to the plot than what is real. His hallucinations (or “Willucinations” as I stubbornly call them) make up a huge part of the show. They manifest as a way to show the viewers Will’s mental or emotional states, but often Will’s visions cut to the truth of what is going on around him, like haunting specters revealing the secrets of the plot.
Throughout the first season, Will isn’t aware that Hannibal is the ultimate monster he is chasing, thinking that the man is only his tall friend who likes to cook. But Will’s subconscious knows better.
With increasing alarm, Will is haunted by visions of a stag covered in raven feathers, a replica of a small statue in Hannibal’s office. The Raven Stag follows Will, nudging him closer towards the truth, pushing him along.
Once Will discovers what Hannibal is, we are given glimpses of how Will now sees him. Will sees a Wendigo, a great, antlered black creature that eats human flesh. But still the Raven Stag haunts him, becoming a symbol not only of Hannibal but also of Will’s relationship with him. The Raven Stag bursts into flames in times of transformation, forcing Will to continue on with his question of whether to catch, kill, or embrace the cannibal.
Behind Will’s eyes, scenes of murder spring to life, time reverses, objects transform, and corpses revive. In his visions, the Wendigo becomes the Hindu god Shiva and warns Will of bloody rebirth, the Raven Stag dies to signal to Will that something bad is coming his way, and water wells up around him in bed to warn him that he is drowning in Hannibal’s influence. Whatever design Will’s madness takes, it always points Will towards the truth, to help to him understand.
Apart from Will, the only character who is explained with magic is season three’s Red Dragon himself, Francis Dolarhyde (played to terrifying effect by The Hobbit alum Richard Armitage). In Dolarhyde, we see the battle between the man and the monster within him by the shadow of wings on his back and the slither of a tail moving behind him. We know in one particular scene that Dolarhyde is beating himself up, but what we are shown, and what we understand, is that Dolarhyde is fighting the dragon. We know what is real, but we see what is true.
That is the point of magical realism in Hannibal: to help us to understand. Why tell us what’s happening or how characters feel when it’s possible to show us? Why tell us that Hannibal is the devil of Dante’s hell, when you can show his face blend with that of a painting depicting Satan in The Inferno? Why tell us that Hannibal and Will are becoming more alike when you can show us their faces and bodies melding and mirroring one another through the glass of Hannibal’s cell? We are not told; we are shown. We accept what we see, and we understand it. “Who among us doesn’t want understanding and acceptance?” Hannibal asks. And that is what the show asks of its audience: to be seen and understood.
The magic of Hannibal distorts reality so that we are forced to see these horrible acts of violence and murder as Hannibal sees them and as he wants Will to see them. Some of the displays of blood on Hannibal are uncomfortably, and undeniably, like art.
As Will admits in the very last line of the series, what we see on Hannibal is “Beautiful”.
It’s not real, but what’s real is not important. What’s important is that we see art and beauty and magic in the dark and the horrifying. We see, and we understand.
-Contributed by Ben Ghan