Note: I wrote this before I finished watching the first season, so these aren’t exactly my current opinions.
I knew NBC’s Hannibal had finally won me over when the titular character was preparing dinner and, even as I squirmed and reached for a pillow to hide behind, I felt a sudden urge to raid the refrigerator. It’s those contradictory feelings that make this the most delightful television program I’ve watched in a long time. It’s disturbing and enticing, and disturbing because it’s enticing. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre usually, but Hannibal appeals to my specific tastes for atmospheric, psychological horror, the kind that relies more on what it doesn’t show and uses gore and violence in a restrained way.
It could easily be a police procedural of sorts, and I would still enjoy it. It has all the trappings: law enforcement officials solving crimes, quirky forensics specialists, progressively more shocking crimes to solve, that weird genius agent that no one understands. It could be a perfectly formulaic prime time drama, the sort of thing I expect from NBC and other networks, and I’d be fine with that because my standards for network television are through the floor. Instead, this show asks us to walk down a darker path with it. I don’t know if it’s necessarily innovative, but it’s damn interesting to watch. I’m still not over my sense of “how the fuck did this end up on network TV?” wonder.
Hannibal Lecter as played by Mads Mikkelsen isn’t a sympathetic character, but he is intriguing and magnetic; there’s something about him that draws in the audience, convincing us to view him as the other characters do, even though unlike them we know the ugly truth about him. The first time Hannibal is shown attacking someone it’s genuinely shocking. It should be predictable — and still is on some levels — because we know what his deal is. We’ve squirmed through his dinner parties and giggled nervously at his little in-jokes, but it still manages to be shocking. Hannibal is able to lull us into a sort of complacent denial where we have to consciously remind ourselves that, yes, he does kill and eat people. Something in us is so desperate to reject that reality, because Hannibal Lecter is by all evidence a lucid, intelligent, cultured, and, yes, attractive man. This is not supposed to be the face of evil.
The show doesn’t let us off the hook, so to speak. There is no justification for what Hannibal or any of the other killers do, no “he only kills those who deserve it” bullshit, no presenting him as mentally ill. The other characters may use that sort of reasoning, but the show never allows the audience the luxury of wrapping up evil in mental illness terminology. Hannibal at one point states to a patient that psychopaths are not crazy, but rather fully lucid and aware of the consequences of their actions. This very notion is more stomach-turning than any lingering shot of Hannibal preparing human organs in his kitchen. We don’t like to accept that evil can be perfectly sane, but this show forces us to. Like Will Graham, we have to look.