Tuesday, September 15, 2015

After-Dinner Conversation: Thoughts on Hannibal

Two years ago, writing after the end of Hannibal's first season, I called the show a rich but ultimately unsatisfying feast.  I admired a lot about Bryan Fuller's take on Thomas Harris's novels and their sadistic, cannibalistic central character: its use of visuals and music to set an almost oppressively dreamlike tone, its willingness to flout the conventions of good storytelling, its clever reinvention and reuse of the central set-pieces of Harris's novels.  But at the end of its first season, I still didn't have a strong sense of what Hannibal wanted to be, what story it wanted to tell.  The show seemed to be having far too much fun staging gruesome tableaux of murder victims and letting its demonic title character (played with a perfect dry mischievousness by Mads Mikkelsen) pull the wool over all the other characters' eyes.  What it wanted to achieve with any of those elements, what emotion it wanted to evoke, was utterly unclear to me.

Two years later, with Hannibal having recently aired what is almost certainly its final episode (Fuller has announced his desire to continue his story through TV movies, but production on the show has ceased and the actors have moved on to other projects), that complaint feels both prescient and out-of-date.  At some point in its second season, Hannibal finally locked into the story it wanted to tell, in the moment when it realized that the conflict between its title character and the FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), whom Hannibal torments and, at the end of the first season, frames for his own crimes, was not a game of cat and mouse, but a demented courtship.  In its second and third seasons, as Will first turns the tables on Hannibal and then pursues him halfway around the world, and as Hannibal's attacks on Will become more and more nakedly an attempt to keep the two men in each other's orbit, the show becomes an obsessive, abusive, incredibly destructive love story.

That this is a love story between two men has raised a lot of questions.  What does it mean that Hannibal is so obviously abusive and bad for Will, who is otherwise attracted to women?  Is it an issue that Will and Hannibal's attraction appears to be purely emotional, with no sexual component?  What can we read into the fact that the fandom that reacted with revulsion when Clarice Starling fell into the same obsessive bond with Hannibal Lecter at the end of Hannibal the novel is now ecstatic over Will and Hannibal?  Most of these questions probably can't be addressed by a show that is, at the end of the day, more about style than substance (and anyway, as this article by Aja Romano notes, most of these issues are only a problem because male romances are so rare on TV, thus forcing Hannibal to shoulder the burden of representation all on its own).  But there's no denying that, in the queasy, codependent bond between Hannibal and Will, Hannibal found itself, far more decisively than I ever imagined it could when I wrote about it two years ago.

And yet, for all that my complaint about it has been addressed, I've come to the end of Hannibal feeling the same dissatisfaction I felt two years ago.  I admire Hannibal a great deal; I never missed an episode; I think that it was unquestionably unlike any other show on TV, and that we are the poorer for its end.  But I never really liked it, much less loved it as so much of the fandom (and the critics) now mourning it did.  If I try to put my finger on why, I think it would have to be that though I recognized what Hannibal was doing with its two main characters, I never bought into their obsession with each other, much less wanted it consummated in the slightly sickened way that a lot of the fandom seemed to.  And that, I think, has to do with the way that, in order to make the Will/Hannibal romance happen, Hannibal found it necessary to sacrifice--literally or figuratively--nearly all of its female characters.

Something that does not get said nearly often enough is that Thomas Harris is a feminist writer.

You can see the hints of this already in Red Dragon, a novel that, despite being thoroughly male-oriented, has some of the most unusual and independent-minded female characters in a genre that more often depicts women as disposable bodies and figures of motivation than as human beings.  Molly Graham, who in all of her filmed adaptations has been transformed into the standard supportive, long-suffering wife of a troubled but determined law enforcement officer, is in fact the polar opposite of that figure in her original appearance in this book.  Far from blindly supporting Will as he delves into the heart of darkness, Molly in the book pulls away from him when she realizes that he will always love his work more than her.  When that work endangers her and her son, she leaves him and doesn't look back (both of the movie versions of Red Dragon elide the fact that Molly's son is from a previous marriage; Hannibal does not, but changes his name from Will to Walter; in the book both elements are clearly meant to send the same message--that Will does not belong in this family, and that he can be ejected from it as soon as Molly chooses).  Reba McClane, the blind woman who falls in love with the killer Francis Dolarhyde, could have been a pathetic figure, but Harris quite deliberately makes her smart, resourceful, and confident.  She's a woman who is determined to be self-sufficient, unabashed about wanting and asking for sex, and forthright in all her dealings.  Both of them get heroic endings--it's Molly, not Will, who finally kills Dolarhyde, and Reba manages to escape the trap Dolarhyde lays for her.  Harris even makes sure to include a scene in which Will reassures Reba that she attracted the man in Dolarhyde, not the monster, and that there is nothing wrong with her for doing so.

Harris's feminism comes to its fullest flower, however, in The Silence of the Lambs (which aside from everything else is a brilliant, impeccably written and plotted novel in which there isn't a single extraneous word and whose every scene lands with perfect effect).  It's not just that this is a novel about a heroine, or even a novel about a woman who rescues a woman.  The Silence of the Lambs is a novel about women.  Clarice Starling and the kidnapping victim she is trying to rescue, Catherine Martin, both draw strength from the example of their mothers.  Catherine, in fact, rescues herself as much as Clarice rescues her--if it weren't for her ingenuity and courage, she would have been dead long before Clarice found her.  Clarice is supported in her work on the case by her roommate, the clever and compassionate Ardelia Mapp, and develops a strong empathy for two of the previous victims, Kimberly Emberg and Frederica Bimmel.  Silence is a story about women moving through a man's world, but not on their own--they support and sympathize and talk to each other in a way that they never could with men.

Even more importantly, Harris is clearly cognizant of the fact that while the killer Buffalo Bill is his novel's main antagonist, he is far from the only danger that women face in the world.  Every woman who gets a point of view in Silence--Starling, Catherine, Catherine's mother Senator Martin--is shown to be constantly evaluating her behavior for the effect it will have on the men around her.  They're all aware of the need to be attractive enough to be noticed and considered human, but not so attractive that they're dismissed as nothing but a sex object.  They've all had to put up with being leered at and catcalled, and learned to put up defenses and develop coping mechanisms against that.  In a novel whose villain believes that he can become a woman by wearing women's skins, Harris makes it clear that none of the women he writes about are comfortable in their own skin, and that this is the fault of men--even well-meaning ones like Jack Crawford, who thoughtlessly throws Starling under the bus when he needs to make nice with a sexist small-town sheriff.  That discomfort, Starling realizes, is what makes women like Kimberly and Frederica--women who were not beautiful, and thus had it repeatedly hammered in that they had no value--vulnerable to the likes of Buffalo Bill, and his death does not make them any safer.

Jonathan Demme's 1991 film version of The Silence of Lambs preserves some of the book's feminist subtext: Starling's rebuke to Crawford after he sells her out to the sheriff; the moment in which she calls on the memory of women who came before her to "do" for the dead when she's faced with Buffalo Bill's latest victim; Starling's friendship with Mapp; the very fact that Silence is a story about a woman rescuing a woman; Catherine's active role in her own rescue.  But it also loses a lot, and most of what it loses is the notion that women have relationships with each other and draw strength from them.  Starling's empathy for the previous victims is gone, and her memories of her mother are replaced with those of her father.  In Demme's hands, Silence becomes a story about a single woman buffeted between good and bad men.  In her brilliant essay about the movie (which you should go and read right now if you haven't already), Genevieve Valentine writes about the problems with Demme's conception of that goodness, and how so many of the men in the movie betray Starling and use her to their own purposes.  Whether intentionally or not, Silence is a movie in which the only man--the only person--who fully respects Starling as a human being is Hannibal Lecter.

Perhaps for this reason, perhaps because of Anthony Hopkins's iconic performance as Lecter, the effect of the movie has been to warp both the popular perception of what Silence is about, and Harris's own grasp on his characters.  His next novel, Hannibal, is a bad follow-up to Silence on several levels, most blatantly the way the previous two books' admirable economy of language is replaced with a florid style and an almost fawning need to describe every meal, bottle of wine, and European landmark the characters consume or come across.  It's also a profound betrayal of Silence's central message, famously ending in a scene in which Lecter manipulates Starling into eating one of her enemies at the FBI, after which she joins forces with him and they travel the world together, enjoying the finer things in life.  Having reread Silence in preparation for this essay, it was brought home to me yet again what a violation this is.  Starling is defined in the earlier novel as someone who needs, more than anything else, to help and save people.  To have given up on that is to have given up on herself, and there is no way to defend that failure.

Having said that, there is still a feminist core in Hannibal that is clearly a deliberate choice by Harris.  Starling gives up on herself not because of an overpowering attraction to Lecter, but because the world gave up on her first.  All of the "good" men who recognized Starling's value in Silence--Jack Crawford, the Quantico weapons instructor John Brigham--are gone or powerless.  They've been replaced by the odious functionary Paul Krendler, who resents Starling for rejecting his sexual advances and has stymied her career ever since.  The women she might have relied on for support, like Senator Martin, have also lost their power to help her.  Krendler ends up allying himself with Mason Verger, a misogynistic caricature who is obsessed with killing Lecter, forcing Starling to either stand back and let evil take place, or destroy her career to save a sadistic murderer.  If Silence presented a world in which women were threatened at every turn but still had enough allies to triumph, Hannibal's world is one in which misogynists like Krendler and Verger have the upper hand.  Starling's choice to join with Lecter and eat Krendler thus becomes a feminist rebellion--if the world doesn't want her as a human being, she'll become a monster, and the novel's afterword suggests that she is a far more terrifying figure than Lecter ever was.  I don't personally buy it, but the intent feels very clear.

All of this is forgotten in Hannibal the show.

Clarice Starling and the events of The Silence of the Lambs could never have appeared in Hannibal the show, because the rights to that book do not lie with the show's creators.  Nevertheless, echoes of the character and the events of her story in Silence and Hannibal the novel recur throughout the show.

Starling appears in the guise of FBI trainee Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky) whose recruitment by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), seen in a flashback during the first season, is a direct quote of the scene in which Starling is recruited by Crawford in Silence.  Crawford sends Lass to pursue the killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper, and the scene in which she recognizes him in Hannibal Lecter is taken from Red Dragon, where it happens to Will.  Unlike Will in the novel, however, Miriam does not escape Hannibal.  She's presumed dead, but in the second season Jack finds her in one of the Ripper's hideouts, at the bottom of a dried-out well (another quote from Silence--this is where Catherine is kept by Buffalo Bill).  During her years of captivity, Miriam is manipulated and brainwashed by Hannibal.  She identifies Fredrick Chilton as the Chesapeake Ripper, and shoots him (seemingly fatally, though hardly anyone dies for good on Hannibal).  Her fate after this is unknown.

Starling also appears in the guise of Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park), an FBI forensic technician who befriends Will in the first season and is horrified when he's arrested for multiple murders at its end.  Nevertheless, Will is able to persuade her to investigate Hannibal, and the relationship they develop becomes an echo of Lecter and Starling's "quid pro quo" relationship in Silence--Will gives Beverly insights into her current serial killer cases, and in return Beverly looks into Hannibal.  When she becomes persuaded that Hannibal is a killer, Beverly goes to his house to find evidence, and is cornered by him in his basement.  That scenario--a female FBI agent pointing a gun at a serial killer in his dungeon of horrors--is the final set-piece of The Silence of the Lambs, but unlike Starling Beverly does not emerge triumphant.  When a shot rings out, it isn't her taking Hannibal out, and when we next see her he has left her body in a gruesome display for Jack and Will to find (Beverly is one of a few characters on Hannibal whose death is unquestionably real).

Starling appears in the guise of Bedelia Du Maurier, played by Gillian Anderson, whose most famous character was modeled on Jodie Foster's performance as Starling in the movie of Silence, and who was in the running to play Starling in the movie adaptation of Hannibal when Foster passed on the role.  A psychiatrist who treated Hannibal, Bedelia claims to have been manipulated by him, as he did to Miriam and tried to do to Will, into becoming a killer.  She starts the first season as Hannibal's semi-willing traveling companion, and there are multiple repetitions of the scene at the end of Hannibal the novel, in which Lecter and Starling sit down to a meal that consists of the third person at the table.  By the end of the season, however, we learn that she's easily as twisted as Hannibal, and though perhaps not as eager a killer as he is, takes pleasure in observing the suffering of others.

Finally, Starling appears in the guise of Alanna Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), who in the show's first two seasons plays the love interest, first to Will, and then to Hannibal.  In the third season, embittered by her failure to see Hannibal for what he was and by the serious injury she sustained in the bloodbath that closed out the second season, Alanna undergoes a personal transformation.  She becomes tougher, more cagey, more open to moral compromise (her wardrobe also gets a serious upgrade, soft sweaters and pencil skirts replaced by well-tailored suits in bold colors, always with a blood-red accent).  In that new persona Alanna becomes entangled with Mason Verger (Michael Pitt in the second season, Joe Anderson in the third) and his sister Margo (Katherine Isabelle).  Where Starling works against Verger, Margo helps him trap Hannibal, but like Starling she is forced to join forces with Hannibal when Verger threatens Will as well.  For her trouble, Hannibal promises her to come back and kill her some day.

Hannibal scatters Starling liberally throughout its storytelling, but always with one consistent theme.  Every moment where Starling achieved a triumph in the books is transformed into failure.  Every moral victory is transformed into complicity and compromise.  Even the moments in the books in which Starling loses her way are made lesser in the show--Bedelia runs off with Hannibal as Starling did at the end of Hannibal the book, but in this version of the story she's merely a paltry replacement for Will, who is the person Hannibal really wanted to run off with.  Alanna is marked for death for her betrayal and rudeness, but that's of secondary importance in comparison to Hannibal's obsession with Will.  If nothing else, you could always count on Thomas Harris to recognize that Clarice Starling held a special place in Hannibal Lecter's heart.  Hannibal the show treats her like a distraction.

Will Graham is introduced at the beginning of Hannibal as a troubled, wounded person.  "I'm on the spectrum," he tells Jack Crawford, and Alanna Bloom worries that he may not be able to cope with the horrors that working on serial killer cases would expose him to.  It's for this reason that he's sent to Hannibal for treatment, and he spends the first season repeatedly demonstrating an inability to cope with the world.  When he impulsively kisses Alanna, he immediately runs to Hannibal to obsess over the act.  Throughout the first season, he is nervous, unfocused, unkempt (all of these traits are exacerbated when Hannibal begins manipulating Will's grasp on reality, for example concealing the fact that he has a serious neurological condition).  It's a portrait of mental imbalance, but it is also decidedly unmasculine.

Will's realization that Hannibal has betrayed him, and murdered the young girl Abigail Hobbes (Kacey Rohl), for whom Will had conceived fatherly feelings, helps to focus him.  Beverly Katz's murder fans his rage and lust for vengeance.  Thomas Harris was never able to convincingly argue that Will had the same impulses towards violence as the murderers he hunted, but Hannibal finds a much more persuasive alternative explanation for his growing willingness to commit violence and murder--revenge.  Driven by his rage towards Hannibal, Will comes into himself, and it's impossible not to notice how much that process of becoming involves adopting traditionally masculine behavior.  When Will is exonerated and released from the mental hospital, he visits Hannibal to show off his physical transformation.  His bird's nest haircut has been replaced with a slicked-back 'do; his clothes are sharp and stylish; his fidgety demeanor has given way to a controlled, commanding presence.  The old Will was a wounded bird; this one is a man.

And a man is defined by engaging in violence on behalf of "his" women.  Will can't do anything to help Abigail or Beverly, so the show gives him another woman to protect in the form of Margo Verger.  Though she is a lesbian, Margo sleeps with Will in order to conceive the child that will help her secure her inheritance and independence from her odious brother, but when Mason finds out about this scheme he has Margo kidnapped and forcibly sterilized.  This is done mainly in order to set up the subplot in Hannibal in which Margo schemes to steal Mason's sperm so that she can conceive a Verger heir with her girlfriend and claim the inheritance (as I said, it's a pretty bad book), but it also serves the purpose of letting Will deliver some good-old-fashioned masculine vengeance, when he beats up the Verger henchman who committed the deed and tries to kill Mason.

So, from a story about women gingerly navigating a world where notions of masculinity, even supposedly benign ones, are more often a danger than a shelter, Hannibal becomes a story about a man embracing those notions, while the women in his life suffer so that he can better embody them.

In the hiatus between Hannibal's second and third seasons, Bryan Fuller made several statements about having made a conscious choice never to feature rape or sexual assault on the show.  This was around the time that the public discussion about the use of rape as a plot element in TV storytelling was at its most feverish pitch, spurred mainly by Game of Thrones, and Hannibal was frequently held up as an alternative to the perception that there was no way to "realistically" depict horror without indulging in rape.  You'll still see a lot of praise for the show for not plumping for this trope, a lot of people holding that choice up as a reason why Hannibal is a progressive, even feminist series.

I have several problems with this meme.  For one thing, just because none of the women on the show have been raped doesn't mean that sexual violence doesn't exist on it.  I don't see how you can call what happens to Margo anything but sexual assault.  Hannibal sleeping with Alanna under false pretenses (and largely to get back at Will) also verges on that territory, and might even be considered rape-by-fraud under certain legal codes.  When Alanna learns the truth about the man she's been sleeping with, her reaction is not at all unlike that of a rape victim--she speaks of losing her sense of self, of being unable to think of anything but her violation, of feeling dirty and not knowing how to make herself clean.  Bedelia, too, loses her sense of self under Hannibal's control, and it's hard not to read a sexual component to that loss.

But the most important reason why I don't feel that Hannibal deserves to be praised for not featuring rape is that it never for a moment occurred to me that it could.  Hannibal bills itself as a horror show, but that horror is not rooted in the crimes around which its story revolves.  Those murder victims are rarely anything more than props--often literally, used as components in elaborate sculptures left for the police to find.  Harris's novels, particularly Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, overflow with disgust at the cruelty that human beings can visit on one another, and with pity for the victims of that cruelty (who are sometimes, as in Red Dragon, also the killers).  Neither of those reactions exist in Hannibal.  It's a show in which violence is always beautiful and artful, not ugly and pointless (this is one of the reasons why the show's retelling of the Red Dragon story in the second half of the third season is largely unsuccessful, despite excellent performances from Richard Armitage as Dolarhyde and Rutina Wesley as Reba; Hannibal can't recreate the horrible mundanity of the Tooth Fairy killings, the sadness of Dolarhyde's belief that he is transforming, and of his desire to stop after he falls in love with Reba).  Horror, in Hannibal, is found only in the wounds that Will and Hannibal inflict on each other, in the constant question of whether Will will finally succumb to Hannibal's coercion, or whether he will finally commit the ultimate betrayal and kill his tormentor-slash-beloved.

There's no room for rape in this equation.  Rape is a fundamentally mundane, prosaic act.  It can't be made beautiful or poetic (or if it can, I hope I never see it).  And in a show in which the only characters who matter are two men, the rape of women wouldn't really register (and I rather doubt that anyone in the writers' room had ever considered staging a rape between Hannibal and Will).  Fuller, it seems to me, was making a virtue out of a necessity.

In Hannibal's third season, as the romance between Will and Hannibal solidifies and begins transitioning from subtext to text, it becomes more obvious just how much the women in both their lives are mere stepping stones to its fruition.  Hannibal and Will both spend part of the season in romantic or pseudo-romantic relationships with women.  In the first half of the season, Hannibal and Bedelia pose as husband and wife in Italy, and their relationship often feels like a parody of a dysfunctional marriage in which one partner can't stop obsessing about their ex and the other would really like to stop being treated as a rebound.  Will's marriage to Molly (Nina Arianda) is more functional, at least to begin with, but when Hannibal sics Dolarhyde on the family and she tells Will that she needs time before they can resume their marriage, it's hard to sense any real regret from him.  He seems as relieved as the show to be rid of the encumbrance of his wife and child.  Lingering over all this is the spirit of Abigail Hobbes, who turned out to be alive and completely under Hannibal's thrall in the second season finale, only to be killed again as yet another act of revenge against Will.  It becomes clearer and clearer that any woman who gets between Will and Hannibal is slated for a sticky end.

The exception to this rule is also the oddest female character in the third season.  Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto), an old friend of Hannibal's whom Will encounters, is a character from Hannibal Rising.  It's the only Lecter novel I haven't read, so I'm not sure how accurate her depiction is to that story, but in the show, nothing we learn about her makes any sense.  Chiyoh tells Will that she was the handmaiden of Lady Murasaki, Hannibal's mentor, and that she met him when he came to train with Murasaki as a boy.  But Okamoto is a full twenty years younger than Mikkelsen, a fact on which no one remarks.  Will finds Chiyoh in Hannibal's ancestral home, where she has lived for an unspecified number of years, guarding the man who, Hannibal has told her, killed his sister Mischa.  She is doing this in exchange for Hannibal not killing this man, but somehow it doesn't bother her that he has killed literally dozens of people while out in the world.  When Will reveals that it was actually Hannibal who killed Mischa--something that Chiyoh herself seems never to have considered despite it being quite an obvious logical leap--she leaves the estate and sets out to find Hannibal, not, as you might expect, to avenge herself on him, but to protect him from Will, whom she tries to kill several times.  Chiyoh repeatedly announces that she is saving Hannibal's life because she wants him "caged," and yet she never makes any steps towards achieving this.  It's possible that Fuller had plans to flesh out Chiyoh's story and explain her contradictory behavior in the fourth season that we will probably never see, but in the show as it stands, she is a character who literally appears to have no reason to exist except to extend the life of a vicious, sadistic murderer.  This is presumably the reason why she gets to walk away from the season with her life and sanity still intact.

As strange as Chiyoh is, she's merely the logical extension of the thinking that seems to have gone into the writing for most of the female characters on Hannibal--whether they realize it or not, they all seem to exist in order to further Hannibal's existence and promote his romance with Will.  The women who chafe against this role are cast as villains.  This is the label placed on Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki), the tabloid reporter who has been dogging Will and Hannibal throughout the show.  Freddie is one of the few characters who refuses to buy into the drama that surrounds the show's central couple, and though she isn't punished for this, the show definitely seems to want us to think that she's morally questionable.  Will chastises her for publishing lurid stories about him and Hannibal in which she calls them "murder husbands."  But while in the books Will's disgust with Lounds, who invades his privacy and invents falsehoods about him, makes sense, in the show it is mere hypocrisy.  All Freddie is doing is putting a name to what everyone around her has already seen and is refusing to acknowledge--that Will and Hannibal are in a sick, codependent relationship whose collateral damage is closing in on the double digits (and nearly included Freddie herself, at the end of the second season).

Alanna, too, gets to question the primacy of Will and Hannibal's romance and be treated like a villain for doing so.  In the second half of the third season, she has taken over Chilton's role as Hannibal's jailer, and though she approaches that task with significantly more intelligence and a sense of purpose--she believes that it is her job to protect Will from Hannibal--it's impossible for the story she's been placed in to make her seem anything but petty (she has nothing to threaten Hannibal with but the loss of his amenities) and ineffectual (he manages to communicate with Dolarhyde and endanger Will's family regardless).  When Will conceives a foolhardy, thoughtless plan to lure Dolarhyde out, first by planting insulting stories about him with Freddie Lounds, and then by dangling Hannibal in front of him (which would involve removing Hannibal from the asylum), Alanna tries to distance herself from the proceedings.  "I'm not a fool," she insists to Will when he tries to enlist her in his plan.  But fool or not, Alanna is trapped in a story in which the only people who matter are two men, so she's caught by the ricochets no matter what she does, forced to go into hiding with her family when Hannibal, inevitably, escapes.  Alanna gets all the disadvantages of being caught in Hannibal's maelstrom, but she doesn't get to be the heroine of her own story, or even to make important decisions about its progress--everything that happens to her happens because of Will and Hannibal's choices, not her own.

The third season, and thus the show, ends with Will and Hannibal killing Dolarhyde together and collapsing into an embrace.  Then Will, who has seemingly accepted the inevitability of his and Hannibal's bond, pushes them both over a convenient nearby cliff.  It's hard not to feel that this is for the best.  At this point, Will and Hannibal deserve each other.  Their utter indifference to anyone but each other seems to strongly suggest that a lot of lives could have been spared if only Will had done the deed--by which I mean either killing Hannibal or succumbing to him--a lot sooner.  Whether or not Fuller planned for this to be the end of Will and Hannibal's relationship (if not, obviously, of Hannibal's life), it is probably the best ending that either of them could have hoped for, and certainly the best ending that anyone in their lives--that the women in their lives, in particular--could have achieved.

I go back and forth on whether any of this matters.

Hannibal's treatment of its female characters makes me very, very angry.  It's largely the reason why I've never been able to love the show.  But I also don't think it's fair to class it with so many other entertainments that forget that women are people in their own right.  Unlike Demme's film version of Silence, Hannibal is not a story that finds it impossible to believe that women might have relationships and find friendship and solace and inspiration in one another.  Its women, for all the frustrations of their roles, often feel more real, more rounded, than women in supposedly "empowering," female-oriented stories.  When Jack Crawford's wife Bella (Gina Torres) holds off on telling him that she has terminal cancer because she wants to prioritize her own feelings about her condition, it's not a sympathetic choice.  It goes against everything we've been told about how a loving wife should behave towards her husband, and Jack is horribly hurt by it.  But it's a thoroughly human decision by a woman who is her own person first, and a wife only second.  There are many moments like this in Hannibal, in which women refuse the nurturing, wise, strong roles that pop culture, whether progressive or regressive, confines them to, and get to be weird and twisted and self-absorbed.  For all that women on Hannibal exist only to promote the show's central couple, they still exist, far more powerfully and memorably than on many other shows.  (To put it another way, Hannibal is not Mr. Robot, another stylish, laddish show, whose female characters lack any interiority, and rarely behave like recognizable human beings.)

And then there's the fact that Hannibal is not queerbaiting.  It's not dismissing women in order to glorify a friendship between two men that no woman could ever come between or understand, but don't worry, no homo.  This is a show that has the courage of its convictions, a show that comes out and identifies itself as a love story between two men.  I'd like to believe that it's possible to do this without treating women like means to an end, but once again, it shouldn't be Hannibal's responsibility to be all things to all people.  It's already doing something incredibly rare and not a little bit brave, so does it really matter that it fails so badly on another front?

What it comes down to, for me, is this: I was twelve or thirteen when I first read The Silence of the Lambs.  And then I went back and read it a second time because I was so wowed by it.  And then I read it several more times over the next few years, because this perfectly written little book about a brave woman who rescues another brave woman, and is friends with other brave, smart women, and feels sympathy for women who weren't brave or smart but still didn't deserve what happened to them, and draws inspiration from the memory of a woman who was strong but still got pounded down by life, was like nothing else I'd ever read.  I can't remember when I realized that most people don't see this book that way.  That most people were more impressed by the clever, urbane murderer who makes jokes about eating census takers' livers with a nice Chianti than by the woman who constantly judges whether she's being too friendly or too aloof, who worries about not being taken seriously enough, who hoards her anger at a world that doesn't want to make space for her.  But for as long as I've been aware of this fact, I've held the book a little bit closer, and treasured those people who realize what it's actually about.  It breaks my heart that Bryan Fuller--an artist whom I greatly admire, and who in Hannibal has created something truly special--doesn't seem to be one of them.

Maybe there are people out there for whom Hannibal is special in the same way that Silence was special to me.  I would never want to deprive them of that.  But I have to believe that there's a way to do both: to tell a story that expands our notions of what a love story is, that imagines men in an obsessive yet oddly tender romance, without trampling the story about women trying to navigate a world built by and for men. 


Abigail Nussbaum said...

As an addendum to the above (because obviously there isn't enough verbiage here), I discussed on twitter the issues with how The Silence of the Lambs, the novel, tries to address the fact that its villain could be read as a scary caricature of a trans person. The storify of those tweets is here.

temmere said...

Clarice and Lecter discussed the possibility that Bill was transsexual in the movie. I distinctly remember Hopkins saying "Billy is not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is; he tries to be."

calicowrites.com said...

Thank you for this very thorough commentary and critique. I'm one of those who absolutely loves the show and loves what the show has done with Will and Hannibal's relationship, but who also has chewed on the question of the Bechdel-Wallace test and whether it even mattered. I don't have a good answer, and the paragraph below really encapsulates for me where I'm landing on it:

And then there's the fact that Hannibal is not queerbaiting. It's not dismissing women in order to glorify a friendship between two men that no woman could ever come between or understand, but don't worry, no homo. This is a show that has the courage of its convictions, a show that comes out and identifies itself as a love story between two men. I'd like to believe that it's possible to do this without treating women like means to an end, but once again, it shouldn't be Hannibal's responsibility to be all things to all people. It's already doing something incredibly rare and not a little bit brave, so does it really matter that it fails so badly on another front?

What I hope Hannibal can do is pave the way for stories to be able to be all things to all people. I also, however, hope for the ideal world where the Bechdel-Wallace test isn't even necessary, that we can have shows like Hannibal that exist but don't have to be criticized any more or less than their treatment of female characters than anything else. Right now, it's a super-important conversation to have, because so many shows fail spectacularly (I'm looking at you, The Following and True Detective), but yeah. One day, it'll be nice for this type of conversation to be a non-issue. One day. :)

I've never read the books. I've only seen the Hopkins movies. I don't have any particular allegiance to them, but I want to say I really love your commentary and interpretation of The Silence of the Lambs. I've seen the film twice and hadn't remotely considered the interpretation you've taken from the book, but since I plan to read the books now that the show is over, I fully intend to keep your commentary in the back of my head.

Your post reminds me a LOT of this article I read yesterday, and trust me, it's a compliment. :) http://www.avclub.com/article/if-you-return-jedi-hate-ewoks-you-understand-femin-224765

calicowrites.com said...

I also wanted to add: what you say here about the women in Hannibal, about being fully-realized characters but unfortunately function in service to the two male leads, reminds me a lot of Judi Dench's M in Skyfall. I had a disagreement with a guy friend of mine who kept insisting that M fit the "strong female character" role and was complaining why no one pointed to her when discussing the trope, and I told him that while M was a fully realized character and a strong one in her own right, she wasn't the lead, and her story was in service to Bond's story, not the other way around. That was the difference.

I don't think he got it. :)

Adam Roberts said...

Fuller is going for an aesthetic of perversity, and more specifically an aesthetic of perversity as beauty. As we were discussing on Twitter, this strikes me as a particular Queer tactic; I mean, a textual strategy with a particular resonance in the present-day situation of Gay life. The thumbnail argument would go like this: for a long time gay men and women were stigmatised by straight society as 'perverts', and were forced to live closeted, secretive lives with the threat of shame and social sanction hanging over their heads. Over the last few decades that has shifted about, at least in the West: now, for most people, gay life is as acceptable as straight life. Now gay people can live openly, can even get married. And whilst that's clearly a massive social good, it's possible that some gay people feel a twinge of strange nostalgia to the old days, when instead of being dull and respectable and ordinary gayness had the glamour of danger and secrecy and perversity about it. That's what Singer is exploring in this show: that slightly twisted nostalgia. To make it more immediate, and not just a period piece, he sets his drama in the present day in which these beautiful men (mostly, as you note) and their impeccable dress sense and exquisite taste live these immensely perverse lives.

Jacqie said...

I also enjoyed the show, although it began to lose its way in the third season. I feel differently than you about the Red Dragon storyline; I think it brought back the show from a dreamlike, senseless winding to something resembling a plot.

One thing I noticed when I was thinking about the women on Hannibal: I'm not sure that any of them affected the main plot line in any way. I suppose you could argue that no one really did except for Will and Hannibal, but I think even Jack's obtuseness during the first season helped to set up what followed. I think that any of the female characters could have been removed without affecting the main story. Abigail and Beverly did function as victims to anger Will, but they didn't have to be Abigail and Beverly in order to do that- one of Will's dogs would have worked just as well, and perhaps have been even more unforgivable to Will.

Ruzz said...

I didn't make it through season 2 so it may be that I'm not qualified to comment - particularly in the face of such comprehensive and thoughtful analysis - but when I ask myself why I watched in the first place, it began with the sense of such a strange but beautifully and idiosyncratically presented world - not our world, but probably parallel to it. Boring normal reactions to events - whether emotional reactions or organisational investigative reactions - were displaced by characters acting out strange emotional imperatives. The attractiveness of the presentation and the interest in seeing how this might play out kept me watching for a first season. But then ... but then ... Somehow as we lurched into season 2 it felt both repetitive and, by then, familiar. The plotting became increasingly labyrinthine and (forgive me) pointless, as if meandering from one startling set piece to another, without too much consideration as to whether there was a more convincing route available. I gave up half way through season 2 and despite my continuing high regard for parts of what I saw, have no interest in going back. I never saw Lost - but by all accounts it started with strangeness and mystery which was compelling up to the point that it became clear that the mystery could never be sensibly resolved. For me it feels as if Hannibal fell into that same category.

Foxessa said...

" . . . its willingness to flaunt the conventions of good storytelling . . . "

Did you intend to write, "flout?" Because that is the word here. :)


Abigail Nussbaum said...


Yes, I rewatched the movie after making those tweets, and that line is still there, as is Starling's claim that "transexuals are very passive people." It's not something the film is very interested in, though, and you could certainly argue that some of the depiction of Buffalo Bill (the infamous "penis between legs" scene, obviously) works against those claims. It definitely feels as if the movie is a lot less well-intentioned, and a lot less interested in avoiding misapprehension, than the book (for all the book's problems on this front).


There's definitely a longer discussion to be had about the whole "strong female character" question and what it means. I'm falling more and more on the side that says that I want my female characters to be real, human, and complicated, and that this matters to me a lot more than whether they can kick ass or even have the all-important "agency" we keep talking about. My favorite show from the last few months is UnREAL, whose heroines are not only awful people but clearly directed towards that awful behavior by a system that is consciously, deliberately misogynistic, and yet I find them more real and more human than so many supposedly admirable heroines from other stories. I think Hannibal does the same with many of its female characters (though it also has its ciphers, like Chiyoh, and by the third season it felt like the characterization of Abigail Hobbes and Bedelia Du Maurier was happening at random) which is definitely a point in its favor, but the way it then sacrifices those women - and particularly the way it erases a story that was originally about female connection and triumph - is hard for me to accept.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I definitely see your "aesthetic of perversity" in some of the show - most notably, Hannibal's seduction of Will is all about abandoning traditional notions of goodness and morality. Becoming a killer is a metaphor for rejecting middle class conformity, the wife and 2.4 kids, and running off with a hot guy.

But I also see some profound failures of nerve where the show's embrace of perversity is concerned. In a lot of ways its depiction of the supposedly perverse lifestyle is pathetically conventional. It takes Hannibal the novel's fawning embrace of upper-class trappings to absurd extremes - everyone in this show lives in an opulently furnished apartment or a quaint house in the middle of the woods (even the asylum where Hannibal is confined appears to have once been the kind of stately house they don't build in the US), everyone dresses like they have their own tailor on call, everyone eats the right foods and drinks the right wines. You can try to spin this as a rejection of middlebrow, middle class tastes, but to me it just seems like desperate snobbishness. And like the novel, it's a startling counterpoint to the first two books, which were utterly unflinching in describing working- and lower-middle-class characters and lifestyles. As much as The Silence of the Lambs is about gender, it's also about class, and Starling's desperate striving to be taken seriously among people who did not grow up in poverty and have not had to carefully construct a persona (and a wardrobe) that obscures their origins.

It's also telling, I think, that the one character in the show who is unquestionably perverted, Mason Verger, is the one the show most wants us to recoil from. Meanwhile, Margo, who in the book has rejected conformity and traditional gender roles - she's a bodybuilder whose sterility comes from having taken steroids for years - is transformed into an impeccably feminine, lipstick lesbian, whose hair and clothes are never anything less than completely alluring. I was also struck by the show's complete failure to address the implied perversity in Margo and Alanna's relationship. In the time gap between the third season's two halves, Alanna impregnates herself with the sperm of a man she found utterly disgusting so that her girlfriend can get her hands on a huge pile of money (and since Alanna marries that girlfriend, that financial stake is hers as well). She even calls the product of that pregnancy "a Verger baby," not "my baby" or by his name. That to me implies some pretty dark and, yes, perverse things, but the show never acknowledges this - in fact Fuller has tweeted that Margo and Alanna have exactly the kind of traditional, happy marriage that the show supposedly rejects. So while I agree with you that there's some embrace of perversity on Hannibal, it has very narrow limits, and I think that the show rarely displays the nerve it aspires to.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


My main problem with how the show did Red Dragon is that it wasn't capable of capturing the horrible ordinariness of the original story. In the book, Dolarhyde's belief that he is transforming is pathetic. His attempt to stop the process and save Reba by eating the painting is as sad as it is ridiculous, a sick man's attempt to cure himself with potions and talismans. Hannibal isn't capable of hitting that mundane tone, so it took Dolarhyde's transformation seriously. The image of Armitage as the Red Dragon feels like the central element of its version of the story (it certainly is in the final scene in which Hannibal and Will kill Dolarhyde together), and to me it is entirely beside the point.

I think you could argue that Alanna moves the story in the third season, but that's precisely at the point where she becomes morally questionable, so what message are we sending there? In the second season, in particular, I really felt as if the movers and shakers were exclusively men - Will, Jack, freaking Chilton (let's take a moment to reflect on the fact that Hannibal is a version of this story in which Fredrick Chilton has more smarts and insight than Clarice Starling) - while the women were being manipulated and used. Even Freddie Lounds, who plays a part in the plot to trap Hannibal, does so passively, by allowing Jack and Will to fake her death.


The sense of strangeness you describe definitely intensifies in S3, and it does often create the feeling that the show is self-indulgent and pointless. I think Fuller even tweeted at some point that his instruction to episode directors was to approach the show like an obscure European art film. As I said in this essay, I admired the hutzpah of doing this, how different the show was from everything around it. But I definitely agree that it eventually became alienating. If you weren't invested in the central romance, it was easy to lose interest.


Yes! Thanks for the catch. Fixed now.

Ian. Ras. said...

>> You can try to spin this as a rejection of middlebrow, middle class tastes, but to me it just seems like desperate snobbishness.

Were I to describe Hannibal's third season in a word, it would be 'bourgie'. Its cultural touchstones always had the whiff of being the product of a quick search on Bartleby's.

Adam Roberts said...

I wanted to add that this ...

"this perfectly written little book [is] about a brave woman who rescues another brave woman, and is friends with other brave, smart women, and feels sympathy for women who weren't brave or smart but still didn't deserve what happened to them, and draws inspiration from the memory of a woman who was strong but still got pounded down by life ... I can't remember when I realized that most people don't see this book that way. That most people were more impressed by the clever, urbane murderer who makes jokes about eating census takers' livers with a nice Chianti than by the woman who constantly judges whether she's being too friendly or too aloof, who worries about not being taken seriously enough, who hoards her anger at a world that doesn't want to make space for her."

... is spot on. Fuller's show is the consequence of this reading of the original text, but the rot (as it were) set in early. When the sequel to Silence of the Lambs was green-lit the only non-negotiable was that Anthony Hopkins return to play Lecter. Nobody batted an eyelid about replacing Foster with Julianne Moore, which speaks, rather, to the relative importance of the characters. Then again I watched the Demme Lambs movie this week, and you have to acknowledge that Hopkins' perfornance is simply magnificent: magnetic and powerful. Jodie Foster's performance struck me as a series of unconvincing tics and mannerisms, over-busy. So the kernel of the problem you identify in this post is sort-of there, in the Demme movie: Lecter just is a more compellingly realised character than Starling on the screen.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Hopkins' perfornance is simply magnificent: magnetic and powerful. Jodie Foster's performance struck me as a series of unconvincing tics and mannerisms, over-busy.

Hmmm. I think I would say that Hopkins has by far the easier job. Not just because his character is larger-than-life and, by definition, lacks nuance, but because Hannibal Lecter knows himself so completely, and holds no part of himself back. Foster, on the other hand, has to play a character who is, as I wrote, uncomfortable in her own skin, who is constantly figuring out how to present herself and changing her self-presentation to suit the occasion. And she has to do it without the advantage the book gives you of getting a glipse into Starling's head. I think she does a good job, but even if you disagree, the difference between how her and Hopkins's perfromances were received is not unconnected to the difference in difficulty.

Adam Roberts said...

Not sure I agree with this. Hopkins perhaps makes it look easy, but I'd challenge the notion that he had the easier job. The part, as such, is pure ham, melodrama all the way down, and most actors would have played it that way. Hopkins managed not only a strange kind of savage restraint, but almost humanises the beast too. Foster (who in other roles has shown herself an actress of some skill) has the easier job in that she's playing a human being.

Tiferet said...

Chiyoh in the show bears almost no resemblance to the character in the book. In the book, she is a young girl about Hannibal's age who is taken into the household of Murasaki and her husband, Hannibal's uncle. Murasaki is training her to assume the role of a diplomat's wife in a marriage that was arranged when she was a child. She finishes her training and eventually goes on to live her life; Hannibal doesn't have that kind of ongoing relationship with her. I think that Fuller tried to create a character who was a fusion of Murasaki and Chiyoh.

Incidentally, one of the biggest problems I have with Hannibal Rising is the way that Chiyoh and Murasaki are written. First of all, Murasaki Shikibu was a tenth-century Japanese novelist and poet, but "Murasaki Shikibu" was a pen name, not a proper Japanese name at all. Secondly, she's called "the Lady Murasaki" over and over, which is actually the name of one of the main characters in Murasaki Shikibu's novel, The Tale of Genji.

The character is depicted in such an exoticised, orientalised way that it's hard to see who she really is; she writes haiku, keeps crickets, does tea ceremonies, wears kimono (even though she's living in France) and generally acts like a stereotypical Japanese court lady (if Thomas Harris had known a little more about Japan, he might well have named her "Yamato Nadeshiko" which would have been slightly less terrible than naming her after a tenth-century novelist, but not by much--a Yamato Nadeshiko is the traditional Japanese lady). Furthermore her attempt to rehumanise the young Hannibal gets really, REALLY weird and semi-incestuous to the point where she offers to sleep with him if it can stop him from killing people. Spoiler alert, his response is "no thank you," more or less. Then there's all this business about Chiyoh (which is a really weird romanisation) and her arranged marriage and her training in tea ceremonies and whatnot and basically, you just get the impression that Murasaki and Chiyoh live in a bubble of 18th century Japan space in France...because this is all happening after WWII, when Japanese women were working very hard to rebuild the country and Westernisation was a huge thing. The characters make no sense. (Also Thomas Harris is apparently unaware that the era of the REAL Lady Murasaki and her poetry rounds was separated from the samurai era and Western stereotypes of "mediaeval Japan" by about 600 years.)

OK, rant over. More to come next comment, I wrote too much for the form.

Tiferet said...


I see what you are saying. I'm not sure whether I agree with it 100% but I can definitely see how the show was not necessarily as feminist as Red Dragon and Silence were. (Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, not so much. Especially with all the damn racism.) On the other hand, I can't tell you how much I loved that Alan Bloom and Freddie (Frederick) Lounds became Alana Bloom and Freddie (Frederica) Lounds, not to mention the number of characters who were described in the books as white people but were cast as POC. That was super awesome.

Essentially (and I had this issue with some criticisms of early Supernatural, before the writers dedicated themselves to killing every female character in the storyline) I don't think there is anything wrong with telling a story about a relationship between two men, even two white men, given that homoerotic relationships don't get a lot of screen time either. I was very upset that Beverly died (I believe the thing that happened to Margot happened in the books as well so I was kind of expecting it, though it's been ages since I read Hannibal because I do not like it, I do not like what happened to Clarice and I do not believe Clarice could not have found a way to make other connections and succeed and stay true to herself!)

But honestly? Some corners of the fandom were just FINE with the way that relationship played out in Hannibal--not your corner, not my corner, but other corners. I have at least one friend who was really into Hannibal/Clarice stuff.

By and large, I personally am more okay with the Hannibal/Will abusive relationship because (while I would never argue that this is a "good representation" of a same-sex relationship!) because seeing a man gaslight, abuse and manipulate another man the way Hannibal does Will does not affect me emotionally the way seeing a man gaslight, abuse, manipulate and coerce a woman, which, as you know, in many relationships and many places is business as usual and dreary and sad and particularly hard for me to watch as I've had an abusive relationship. Seeing it happen to another man...well, you know, it's much the same as when slash fiction writers write relationships between two men in which the two men play out traditional gender roles. It's depressing and boring and annoying watching a man treat a woman that way. Watching a man treat another man that way...well, perhaps it's not healthy, but it is a way to vicariously deal with the feelings many women have about these issues, with the sexiness of two sexy men to sweeten the bitterness, and a hint of schadenfreude for spice, as for once it's NOT happening to a woman.

It may not be feminist (IDK), but it's fun of a kind that might hit you in one of those sore dark places everybody has and feel good--whether or not it's good for you.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


The question of whether the abusiveness of Will and Hannibal's relationship impacts the show's progressiveness isn't really central to my issues with the show. The abusive aspect made it hard for me to buy into the relationship the way a lot of fandom did, but by the end of the third season I was so put off by how the show was treating its female characters that this was a secondary concern. As the Aja Romano essay I link to points out, it's important, when criticizing Hannibal for featuring such a negative relationship between men to remember that there are so few relationships between men on TV in general. In theory, there's nothing wrong with telling a story about an abusive relationship so long as it's not the only relationship type on offer, but the fact that it currently is isn't really Bryan Fuller's problem to fix.

I agree that there are issues of context that affect how you read an abusive relationship between men as opposed to one between a man and a woman (another example of this effect is Person of Interest; it features a romance between women that would be blatantly a case of sexual harassment and abuse of power if they were an opposite-sex couple, but which is treated as sexy and cute by the show and fandom because of the characters' genders). I'm not immune to this effect either, and I don't think that it's entirely irrational. But I also think that it's worth examining and interrogating. Just because the narratives we know don't acknowledge it, doesn't mean that abuse within same-sex couples doesn't exist, and isn't a horrible thing. I think some resistance to the romanticizing of that dynamic is in order. Hannibal, with its hyper-real tone, might not be the best place to start, but I also wouldn't like its attitude to be normalized.

S Johnson said...

Couldn't watch Hannibal on broadcast, Bella's cancer and having Abel Gideon do Lecter were a bit much. Works much better on binge, where the perverse love affair can shine more quickly.

Can't agree that Alana Bloom is Clarice Starling. Alana's central motivation is her love for Will Graham. Refusing to get out of his way so that he can kill Will is why he promises to kill her but it's neither a betrayal nor rudeness. And I think this sacrificial love is something Clarice Starling doesn't need, or even want.

On the other hand, perhaps so many male characters from the novels were re-cast as women, to justify turning Will Graham into the male version of Clarice Starling. Hannibal is merely playing the same game in the novel Hannibal, wanting to go off on a happy career of killing the free range rude with the one he loves. Clarice Starling in the novel Hannibal (but not the movie version with Julianne Moore,) Will Graham in the TV series. Anyone who wanted to see the feminist aspects of the novel I think would be justified in viscerally rejecting this.

There are only two other male characters in the series, Jack Crawford and Frederick Chilton. The abuse of the Chilton character is so extreme it verges on the unintentionally comic. Jack Crawford is not physically abused by the narrative, but it seems to me that we cannot make any sense of what Crawford does in the second or third season. But it's not at all clear that he isn't as committed to manipulating Will as Lecter...he's just not as good at it. If you want to count Garrett Jacob Hobbs (the three name rule for serial killers is punctiliously followed!) Hobbs more or less gets swallowed up in the symbolic stag. Possibly the show is simply as ruthless toward its female characters as it is its male characters not named Hannibal or Will.

And it seems one of the weirdest aspects of the will he/won't he tension supposedly underlying Will's reception of Hannibal's courtship is that, well, according to the narrative, he did. Hannibal/Will is consummated with murders, not sex. And when I count the number of people Will has tried to kill, or actually killed, or gotten killed by letting Hannibal go, my guess is that Will does reciprocate Hannibal's passion. The only question is whether Will will kill the thing he loves, in the name of "justice," or will he get all suicidal with guilt.

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