A woman lovingly plucks a dead pheasant. A man places a human arm on a cutting board with care, readying his chef’s knife. A woman sinks into a bathtub, seemingly dropping into an abyss. A corpse is lifted on high, framed by wings made of broken glass.
All these images (horrific, gorgeous, sometimes both at once) occur in the third episode of Hannibal’s third season. Despite critical acclaim, the show has had low ratings for all three seasons, and has now been cancelled by NBC (At this point, it seems unlikely another network or streaming service will be picking it up). I think it is a shame the third season is likely to be the show’s last, and not merely because of its literal cliffhanger of an ending. The two story arcs of season three reinforced what makes the show unlike anything else on television: its imagery, of cookery and cathedrals and corpses, all shot with loving craft. But they also reminded me why I hesitated to return to the world of Hannibal after its sophomore season: the show comes worryingly close to endorsing the titular cannibal’s belief that there are no ethics, only aesthetics.
If the third season really is the end, than Hannibal, like a number of its characters, ultimately eats itself.
Bryan Fuller created Hannibal based on characters from the novels by Thomas Harris. Fuller’s previous work on television has always blended the whimsical and the macabre, but in his shows Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls there is a sense of Providence: the supernatural elements invading the main characters’ lives lead in mysterious ways toward redemption. Jaye Tyler of Wonderfalls (Caroline Dhavernas, who also plays a key character in Hannibal) hears voices from stuffed animals that instruct her to entangle herself in strangers’ lives, ultimately for their betterment: she’s an agent of God, or at least karma. In Hannibal, by contrast, the title character time and again evades any kind of fated justice—for example, he leaves the rest of the cast bleeding in his wake as he escapes to Europe in the second season finale.
From the beginning, we’ve been lead to believe this show, like its cinematic forerunner The Silence of Lambs, is about good and evil. We’re told repeatedly by characters we trust that the true battle of the show is the battle over protagonist Will Graham’s soul. In the first episode we see Will, the awkward, gentle, dog-loving profiler, recruited by the FBI to track down criminals like those profiled in the Bureau’s “Museum of Evil Minds.” Hugh Dancy plays Will’s “empathy disorder” like an open wound: his handlers point his fragile psyche at serial killer after serial killer, having him divine their methods so they can be caught. Fuller portrays this empathy as an almost miraculous ability, but it’s initially not quite acute enough for Will to spot the devil in plain sight, his psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal pulls his signature trick of trying to impress his own warped soul on another, so that Will eventually says, “Every crime of yours feels like one I’m guilty of […] every murder, stretching backwards and forwards in time,” as if Hannibal has become Will’s personal vector of Original Sin.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Hannibal as a Lucifer figure. The show rejects any rationalization of his evil as stemming from childhood trauma. “Nothing happened to me,” he says, “I happened.” He bears no stigma or shame like some tragic figure—season three drives this point home by introducing the Gothic wreck of Hannibal’s sort-of protégée, socially-stunted Francis Dolarhyde, who wrestles his homicidal alter-ego, the “Great Red Dragon.” Hannibal doesn’t wrestle. He has merely embraced evil as his good, like Milton’s Satan. Meanwhile, he encourages other characters to see darkness within themselves, like the Biblical portrayal of Satan as Adversary:
Will: Are you accusing me of something?
Hannibal: Does the enemy inside you agree with the accusation?
But on some level it seems wrong to identify the character with the Great Rebel. Hannibal inhabits a rigidly hierarchical world—the camera lovingly shows off his tastes for expensively tailored suits and classical, if macabre, paintings. But his hierarchy is perverse. At the bottom are the “rude,” his human victims, whom he considers lower than animals, and, therefore, fair game: “It’s only cannibalism if we are equals,” he confides to one captive. These uncouth souls he elevates to the state of civilization by cooking them into elaborate meals. (“A word of warning,” he tells his unsuspecting, wealthy guests as he lays out a lavish feast, “Nothing here is vegetarian.”) Here is Satan, then, not as the original anarchist, but as the Prince of this World. The only order that matters is the order his tastes impose.
Here is one of the troubling questions Hannibal raises: does culture dehumanize? Hannibal unites the heights of sophistication with the depths of cruelty. Every artist on the show is a killer (and, for the most part, vice versa). Many accounts of man see his creation of cuisine, his ascent from the raw to the cooked, as the sign of civilization, a decisive break from mere animal existence. The cultured cannibal violently subverts this picture: it is his excellence at hunting, cooking, speaking, and other humane arts that allows Hannibal to be so much worse than any beast. It’s a new version of the myth of the vampire: aristocratic refinement merely masks a more savage form of predation. Perhaps there was something perverse in high culture to begin with—though this is a strange thing for a show with such polished cinematography, sound mixing, and food design to be hinting at. Could it really be that beauty leads invariably away from goodness?
But faith in culture is not the only thing Fuller destabilizes. The show takes place in a heightened world of operatic excess. Characters persist in pseudo-religious pronouncements—the de-faced, decadent Mason Verger intones references to the Sabbath and transubstantiation as he prepares to eat Hannibal in revenge for his lost face. But amidst all the god-talk, we hear Hannibal’s corrupt theology infecting other characters. “Killing must feel good to God too,” says Hannibal. “He does it all the time, and are we not created in God’s image?” Hannibal doesn’t see the image of God in his prey: they aren’t fearfully and wonderfully made until he plies them into hors-d'oeuvres with his butcher’s knife. He projects the image of his dark god into people like Will, whom he hopes to corrupt. Will speaks of God similarly in season three, saying, “God can't save any of us because it's...inelegant. Elegance is more important than suffering. That's his design.” We’re left with the question: Is God, like Hannibal, an artist with little regard for his raw materials?
Bryan Fuller, at least, is a god not shy about putting his characters through hell in the service of his story. Hannibal explains to Will the metaphor of the imago, the final stage of an insect’s metamorphosis. In his chrysalis of suffering and doubt, Will is transforming: but into what? The monstrous, raven-feathered stag he dreams about? Or an imago more in line with the Imago Dei, a righteous man who emerges purer after the storm?
The question comes down to teleology: Hannibal sees no intrinsic purpose to the world, and so treats his artistic vision as an overriding end—there’s no dignity he’s violating by turning Baltimore citizens into delicious sausages, or his friends into vicious killers. God, in a classic theodicy, works instead by drawing out the intrinsic ends he already wove into his creatures. Will’s suffering might be intended to make his compassion more luminous, not overwrite it with monstrosity. So which account of ends is borne out by the end of the series?
By its final half season, the show reached the beginning of Harris’ first novel, Red Dragon, with Hannibal locked away in prison—though along the way, Fuller cannibalized as much of the later, lesser novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising as he could stomach. Despite Will’s attempt to exorcise Hannibal from his life (“I don’t have your appetite”), he succumbs to the temptation of consulting Hannibal in prison, spelling disaster for the new family he has tried to shield from the horrors of his past. Moral victory is nowhere in sight, because no matter what good Will tries to do he is haunted by a continual attraction to the darkest parts of humanity, ably represented by Hannibal. Even in what should be a heroic moment, Will's defeat of the crazed Francis Dolarhyde, Will echoes Hannibal's aesthetic language. He's slain the “Great Red Dragon,” which we'd expect to be an important moral victory. But all Will says is, “It’s beautiful,” as he gazes at the blood that looks black in the moonlight. The show has eaten itself, the moral conflict we were told to care about swallowed by aestethics.
Will suggests to Hannibal, “When it comes to you and me, there can be no decisive victory.” And indeed, the last we see of these two is them locked in a Holmes-and-Moriarty embrace, hurtling off a cliffside. Until Hannibal is continued in some form, we must imagine them still falling, an endless Schrodinger’s descent where they both have and haven’t survived until Fuller once more points a camera at them. But with that decisive victory deferred (or denied), the show risks conceding its ethical universe to Hannibal’s dark aesthetic vision, where there is no moral law higher than an aristocrat’s killer taste. And that leaves Hannibal as just another blasphemous feast: beautiful to the eye, deadly to the soul.
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.