Villainism: Hannibal, the Demon of Privilege

Written by: Jason M. Lucia – February 10th, 2020 7:30pm pst

In our AfterBuzz examination of stories in which we root for the villain, we must pay tribute to the cornerstones of the form. Last week we spoke of meth-cooking, mass murdering family man Walter White and I teased you with the promise of a look at Joe Goldberg in You, but it turns out there’s a Season Two of that, and to give you the You that you deserve, I must be my best me. So in lieu of You, let’s go directly to the devil.
Let’s make an appointment with Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

credit: NBC

The Doctor almost needs no introduction. Since he first appeared in the pages of Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’s pulp masterpiece about serial killers and the tormented men who hunt them, the cannibal psychiatrist has set fire to the imaginations of all who taste his demonic elegance. Michael Mann made an underrated film of the book (Manhunter, 1986), in which Bryan Cox (more recently famous as the only slightly sociopathic patriarch of HBO’s Succession) gave us the first cinematic incarnation, an angry Lecter as cold and implacable as the sleek modern surfaces he is planted in.

credit: De Laurentis Entertainment Group

He’s one of the smartest predators on the planet, with a mind so mysteriously twisted that his intelligence cannot be gauged by any sane standard of measurement. And he will spend the rest of his life in a cell no bigger than a broom closet. And Will Graham, the man who put him there, is just a few feet away, asking patronizing questions. It’s a chilling performance, but it keeps the audience at a distance.

When Anthony Hopkins took on the role (first in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, then in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal and then in prequel mode for Brett Rattner’s version of Red Dragon), a generation (at least) was dragged all the way in. This reptilian dark mentor, electric with the wisdom engendered by his will to power, is a sophisticated Hades to Clarice Starling’s Persephone. She can lay down with dragons and dissect their sweet nothings and then walk in the earthy world of daylight, but the shadows change you, and the darling buds of may will be afflicted always with her awareness of the way they go to pieces if the wind of some devil’s ugly hunger should blow through them.

Silence of the Lambs was a strangely romantic monster movie (released on Valentine’s Day in 1991) that fed us to a perfect bogey man for our times, an apex predator who studies and messes with the minds of lesser creatures for ease of corruption. He was Dracula and Satan and Jeffrey Dahmer rolled up into one irresistible package of evil.

In Hannibal, the third book in the series, Thomas Harris asked us to root for this monster on the loose like never before, and to accept the semi-consensual absolute corruption of Agent Starling, who had been the lamb we followed into the Doctor’s darkness. It was a bridge too far for some. Demme and Jodie Foster were repulsed by the turn the book took and stepped away from the adaptation. Harris, in playing to the crowd (which was clamoring always for more Lecter) stripped the world he made of its FBI procedural thriller veneer and exposed the Grand Guignol engine of pure horror that drives these books and Lecter himself. We’re in it for the monsters. Exploring their slaughterhouse headspaces is an easier vice to rationalize when it’s done under the auspices of law enforcement. Without that badge, we’re alone with him and the terrifying knowledge he embodies.

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Speak of terrifying perfection, and, chances are, Mads Mikkelsen will appear. And so he did. Mikkelsen is an incredibly compelling Danish actor who broke into the mainstream as Le Schiffre, the ruthless, blood-weeping villain opposite Daniel Craig in 2008’s brutal modernization of the James Bond franchise, Casino Royale. His look is arresting. When the light hits him one way, he has cheekbones like a glacier and he could pass for an exotic European matinee idol. The light hits him from another angle and his is the face of death itself, eyes full of nothing, his smile a papercut whose only mercy is hiding the teeth that will eat you.

credit: NBC

For three seasons on NBC (of all places), he inhabited Bryan Fuller’s decadent poetic vision of the Hannibal Lecter mythos in what I would argue is the most complex, resonant, and terrifying rendition of the gourmet cannibal supervillain to date, in an episodic cinematic sprawl that is not only better than any of the movies (though each has its stylish charms), but as good if not better than the books themselves. There. I’ve said it. I think Thomas Harris and Bryan Fuller combine to become something greater than the sum of their already impressive parts.

credit: NBC

The series (and the villain at its center) seduces us. The first season is for the most part of a fleshing out of a few stray lines in Red Dragon that suggest that Lecter worked with profiler Will Graham in a professional capacity. The show comes to us disguised as a psychologically volatile police procedural, tracking down a different highly artistic murderer with a rich inner life every week, with Hugh Dancy’s Will always writhing in a state of autistic torment, with Laurence Fishburne as the cliche G-Man supervisor who says he won’t let Will get lost in this work. But Will is lost from the get-go.

Will at first seems to be the hero of the story, but through the cinematic eye of the show as he slips into trances at crimescenes, we have watched Will Graham commit every murder that we later watch him solve. When the pilot delivers its twist and reveals that Will’s primary crimefighting partner will be the esteemed Doctor Lecter himself, not yet exposed and very active in the world, we sense the plotty convolutions that might ensue. it’s evident from their first encounters that Lecter is authentically fascinated by this skittish man of sorrows.

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Through Lecter’s gaze, Will is a latent demon who is hiding on the sidelines of these horrible crimes. Hiding from the appetites he knows are his own, hungers that cling to him like a rotting perfume every time he gets possessed. Will slowly develops an understanding of Lecter’s nature, too. It turns out the Chesapeake Ripper they’ve been hunting with such intensity has been feeding him unspeakably succulent breakfasts when they punch in for a shift of crime-busting every morning.

This dance of knowing and unknowing between them runs like a heartbeat under the weekly atrocities. By the season finale (which Fuller always designed to be a finale for the series because he knew that in the spirit of Hannibal’s world he must always go too far and he therefore never expected to get renewed), the master narrative rips its false face off and we come to realize that we have been seduced (in a very Lecterish way) into one of the darkest and bloodiest love stories ever told.

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The second season unfolds their problematic, mutually aware connection into a Grand Guignol soap opera that sets up such pulpy, ridiculous narrative laws (realism yielding always to gorgeously pretentious poetic truth), that no shark is ever jumped. When the cop trappings become secondary to the lethal games between Lecter and Will and the wicked delight of getting to know Hannibal kicks in, a fairy tale logic creeps into the proceedings, and the personal reality of every character is always on the brink of disintegration into dream, fantasy, and/or psychotic hallucination. Anything can happen.

The only constant is that Hannibal is the Batman of serial killers. He thinks thirteen steps ahead of everyone else on the chessboard, he always sees you coming, and he always wins. He has no real interest in criminology, of course, except insofar as its sciences might provide a peek at the savage monster that might be hiding in the neurosis of a troubled patient, waiting for his guidance and its bloody becoming. Lecter corrupts every major character on the show, not as deeply as he twists Will (like a man in love), but in a way that changes them.

credit: NBC

The cooking montages are beautiful in and of themselves, but the recurring ritual has this grisly edge because we so often have an emotional connection to the characters whose meat he’s seasoning, and he’s so often feeding the evidence to the very forces for good that we are allegedly rooting for. They’re all cannibals now, except for the vegans. And yes, despite the perversion and the ambiguity of it all, throughout this elegant rampage, we want Hannibal to WIN.

All the mere mortals on the series are wracked by so many inner torments and ethical conflicts that we pine for the Bach-enriched memory palace of Lecter’s tranquility, if only to escape all the angst. Hannibal is immune to anxiety, He couldn’t be bothered. He seems tickled when the flies get twitchy in his web. He’s a dandy, a sensualist, and a consummate artiste. In almost every situation, he seems to be enjoying himself. Is that the key to his appeal?

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In the season two finale (again,designed to end the show and haunt us forever), Hannibal realizes that his feelings for Will have dulled his instinct for self-preservation. A Hannibal betrayed and cornered is not someone anyone wants to mess with, and nothing could prepare us for the dark feast of gory desecrations and unfortunate miracles that goes down in that house of horrors when he knows he’s exposed and it’s time to rip off another person suit, time to stop pretending to be human.

Every major character he’s been toying with for two years of TV is utterly broken and bleeding to death as the Doctor pops his collar in the chill evening air, clearly confident that he has reminded the inhabitants of his world that the show is called HANNIBAL and he’s a MONSTER. Their attempts to judge him, understand him, restrain him, or disable him have come to nothing.

The apex predator drops the bloody mic and he’s done with y’all (except for his own psychiatrist, who seems to be his ambiguously masochistic accomplice and love-slave). Hannibal is done with sad boys (sort of). This old money EuroSatan and his girlfriend are running away to Europe. Death behind them and before them. Death above and below.

How can we go on rooting for Lucifer with no Jesus to offer gloomy counterpoint and provide us with an ethical escape route?   The deeply immersed viewer must at this point ask (knowing that a thoroughly corrupted NBC agreed to a season three) “what kind of monster is this monster turning me into”?

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Believe it or not, I have some theories. To know what Lecter can teach us about self-reliance, cannibal etiquette, and how to be alone, tune in next Monday for the shocking finale… VILLAINISM: HANNIBAL LECTER, THE DEMON OF PRIVILEGE part 2.

In the meantime, HANNIBAL Seasons 1-3 are streaming on Amazon Prime.  Catch up with Hannibal…before he catches up with YOU.

About The Author:

Jason M. Lucia is a media critic, columnist, and professional ghostwriter whose work has been published under several pseudonyms.  He was raised in Medford, MA.  He went to school in NY.  He lives to rhapsodize the stories he loves on the page and in the flesh.

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