I’m generally a good sleeper, but I’ve found myself tossing and turning on Friday nights. When I close my eyes, I’ll often find myself replaying scenes of hellish beauty and power: bodies grafted into cherry trees, turned into beehives, arranged in murals in the shape of a human eye, sectioned into slices like an installation by Damien Hirst. I know, I know—I shouldn’t be watching Hannibal so close to bedtime. But I can’t stop. After a fascinating but uneven first season, Bryan Fuller’s eerie, poetic, incredibly gruesome meditation on the work of Thomas Harris has turned into the best network drama I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s the least of its accomplishments. The Silence of the Lambs stands alone as a perfect film, and there’s no doubt that much of our fascination with Lecter stems as much from Demme’s movie and Hopkins’s performance as from the original novels. But Hannibal comes close to surpassing its source material in density and imagination. In some ways, it’s a reflection of the difference between film, which only has two hours to immerse us in a story, and television, which can devote thirteen episodes per season to furnishing an entire world. I’ve spent as much time thinking about Hannibal Lecter as any other character in fiction, and it’s only now that I’m starting to realize that I never really knew him at all.
And I’m as surprised by this as anyone. When the pilot first aired, I had a lot of doubts, but with a week still remaining until the premiere of the new season of Mad Men, Hannibal currently stands unrivaled as the richest slice of narrative on television. It’s one of those rare shows in which every creative element rewards scrutiny and reflection. Visually, it’s astounding, with beautiful and baroque tableaux of death that would skirt implausibility, or even parody, if they weren’t designed to force us to see the world from Will Graham and Hannibal’s charged perspectives. The music, sound, and production design are all first rate, and the direction keeps getting better and better. Most of all, we have the writing, which encompasses psychological richness, intricate plotting, and black humor while staying to just the right side of pretentiousness; and the acting, from a quirky, lovingly assembled cast. I was initially skeptical of Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter—he just seemed too villainous to pass as one of the leading lights of Baltimore society—but he’s managed to create a nuanced, terrifying portrayal while still keeping most of his secrets. As Will Graham, Hugh Dancy squeezes surprising notes out of an almost unplayable character. And Laurence Fishburne’s work as Jack Crawford is the show’s subtlest and most rewarding performance, even if it strains credulity that he’d still be in the field after the horrors that have befallen his team. (I also can’t fail to mention Raul Esparza, who has turned Dr. Chilton, unbelievably, into a delight.)
At some point, I expect that I’ll go back to revisit the first season, which I was watching at the time with only one eye. In retrospect, though, it feels like nothing so much as a necessary prologue to what the show has finally become. The major weakness of the first season of Hannibal was the problem it faced in playing our prior knowledge of its central character against the version of him that it presented. We know going in that Lecter is a madman who kills and eats other people, and the series took this for granted, to the point where it sometimes seemed interested in developing everything else but the man with his name in the title. The Hannibal Lecter of the first season is more of a sketch than a fully formed figure, and the show leaned a little too heavily on our familiarity with its sources. Now, however, with a season’s worth of narrative in the bank, we’ve seen Hannibal commit unspeakable crimes, staged before our eyes with an unflinching panache that even Harris never dared. This is not a man, as we were once reassured, who eats only the rude: he’s killed people we care about, and he continues to weave a web of incredible cruelty around Will and Jack. As a result, he’s far scarier than the Hopkins incarnation, whose charm shifted the balance of the novels and made nonsense of Harris’s strong moral grounding. It’s impossible to root for this version of Hannibal, but we’re still tantalized by him, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.
And it has the effect of retroactively enriching a series of books that I thought I had long since internalized. I’ve been rereading Red Dragon recently—it’s a novel that I seem to pick up every year or two and can’t put down until I’m done—and it’s remarkable how much more resonant it seems when I replay it with Dancy’s haunted face in mind. It’s unclear if Fuller and his creative team will have the chance to cover all three books, as they hope to do: given its modest ratings, it’s a miracle that the series has come even this far, and there are some complicated rights issues to be resolved with MGM before they can touch The Silence of the Lambs. A year ago, I would have been nervous at the prospect of a television show tackling this material at all. Now, though, I’m intensely curious to see what Fuller and the rest will do with it, especially because the way Hannibal has unfolded testifies to this show’s ability to execute a design that requires years for its full completion. If there’s one complaint that can be lodged against the character of Lecter, it’s that he’s too omniscient, too clever, too calculating, with a preternatural ability to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. (If nothing else, it’s unclear how he finds the time to style his victims in such striking ways, both in the field and in the kitchen.) But if every monster reflects its creator, we shouldn’t be surprised to find him at the heart of this methodical, painstaking, ruthlessly clever series. Because the only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.