One of my favorite television shows is NBC’s Hannibal.
If I were speaking to you guys in real life, that statement would be followed by several stammering apologies.
It’s a show about cannibalism, unbelievably gruesome murders, and manipulation. So why is it worth watching?
There are a couple of points in its favor. The acting is almost universally top- notch, and the setting, arrangements, and atmosphere are pitch-perfect. Watching this show feels like walking into an exceptionally beautiful nightmare; it’s the landscape of surreal images you have upon waking from a horrible dream. Having seen several shows with impossibly generic settings, I love how tangible this dark mirror of our world feels, and how it’s used to draw us closer to the characters who are moving through it.
But what I find most compelling about the show is how well it deals with spiritual temptation.
This is a really weird virtue to pin on a show where the main villain eats people. But bear with me.
In Hannibal, what characters see and how they process what they see is crucial to determining how they act. The primary source of tension- apart from Hannibal flying under the radar as a sharp-dressed serial killer- is whether the main character, Will Graham, can hold onto his integrity in the face of some horrific manipulations of his ability to perceive. He’s afflicted with encephalitis and Hannibal decides to take full advantage of that in planting the seeds for Will to become like him.
And though I’m a full believer in the banal nature of evil, I actually think this version of Hannibal Lecter captures that facet of what evil is. He’s almost invisible. He’s charming. He’s impeccably polite and unfailingly helpful. When watching him, I think of the fantastic line in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” He’s a master of deflection and using what people perceive as a means to craft an illusion. His deadliness is not primarily in his murders, but in his ability to deceive while destroying.
Hannibal in this show also represents something that I think is familiar to anyone who believes in the Devil or has encountered belief in such a figure- the idea that license is the way to fulfillment. One of the most compelling and terrifying conflicts in the first season of the show is Hannibal’s attempt to drive Will towards a path of killing and destruction because of Will’s unique ability to get inside the heads of others. Hannibal suspects- and probably rightly- that if Will shook free from the constraints of his work and his ethics, he would become a killer of immense power. One of the most-quoted lines is one he says to Will very early in the show: “Killing must feel good to God. He does it all the time- and are we not created in His image?”
“You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Now, I don’t think Hannibal is a religious allegory by any stretch. However Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) and Bryan Fuller (showrunner) have said they’re trying to recreate Hannibal as the Devil on earth. He destroys with power but conceals it with charm and grace. And it’s no coincidence that he’s trying to corrupt Will Graham, the character in the series who has most integrity and the greatest ability to empathize with others. Whether it’s due to him seeing Will as a worthy conquest or whether it’s because he’s genuinely fascinated by a virtue that’s his polar opposite is up to debate. There’s probably elements of both in his relentless efforts to destroy Will Graham’s mind, and by extension, his integrity.
It’s Will’s response that makes those efforts worth watching. In the final episode of the first season, framed for murder and completely cut off from anyone who might believe him or help him, Will repeats over and over again: “I know who I am.”
And that is crucial to why he resists the pull of Hannibal. Will categorically rejects the notion that giving into his impulses will make him a more complete version of himself. He is not the person Lecter tried to make him. Weird as it may be, I find that comforting. There is worth in holding to your integrity, and no matter how seductive, license will make you lose yourself and go even further adrift. That’s a message I love seeing, even if it (hopefully) won’t be applied in the context of cannibalistic killers and framing for murder.
Of course it’s impossible to talk about Hannibal without talking about the elephant in the room- the fact that the titular character eats the rude. For myself, I don’t mind how the show handles it (beautiful gourmet shots and puns worthy of “A Little Priest”). Others are definitely not going to feel the same. If that’s the case, you can find other stories with the same themes that are far less disgusting- Flannery O’Connor, referenced in the show itself, is a good choice.
Thematically, however, I love the idea that this force of evil literally consumes those who give in to smaller versions of evil. After all, to pull again from the Screwtape Letters, the way to Hell doesn’t come with signposts. It comes with small slips into pettiness, anger, and pride- and before you know it, the Devil has swallowed you whole.