NBC’s Hannibal: The Devil in the Details

Three days ago, I discovered NBC’s TV series Hannibal and, thanks to iTunes and a love of binge watching episodes, I am now all caught up on the series. I have some nitpicks with the writing and the first season’s use of quasi-amnesia tropes feels like the narrative equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of the hat (“but, I saw the killer do it… but, did you? Dun Dun Dun!). Still, I really enjoy the show and I’m tapping my foot waiting for the next episode to be released. The series has really captured the one part monster, one part super hero, one part cultural ninja, one part dandy mix that makes Hannibal Lecter America’s favorite cannibal (sorry Texas Chainsaw Massacre family, maybe if you knew more about wine selection).

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I often find myself rooting for Hannibal to elude and/or munch on his would-be captors. If I am alone, just kidding everybody. No need to forward this to the FBI.

The series does a great job of balancing the charm and almost cartoonish nature of Hannibal’s murderous disdain for the rude and banal with his more unsettling brand of cruel indifference and outright horrifying brutality. That attraction/repulsion balance is the hallmark of all my favorite villains –really all my favorite characters.

Hannibal Lecter

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

I feel relieved when Hannibal dodges accusations and stays a step ahead of the FBI. After that relief, I usually find myself thinking, “wait, why do I want the mass murder to get away?” The push/pull attraction and repulsion with the character becomes a push/pull within my own self-reflection. That internal uncertainty really seems to give me a stake in the narrative tension of the show. I feel something similar when I read comics featuring the Joker, but if I’m going to pull a comparison for Hannibal, I think I’ll go a little more old school than the Joker (Hannibal would approve).

In Paradise Lost, it’s hard not to root for Satan. Milton writes God’s speeches as kinda stuffy and utterly bland. Meanwhile, Satan is (seemingly) cast in the role of the brave underdog, fighting against incalculable odds to win freedom from tyranny and achieve personal sovereignty. Satan wants to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants and Milton arms him with the best speeches and most stirring rhetoric in the poem. Even though Milton gives the reader a poke now and then to remind us whom we’re dealing with here, Satan remains the most compelling character. He, like our pal Hannibal, seems to be ready willing and able to stick it to authority and take his personal freedoms by force. His wine is the fanciest and his suits are the snazziest. The tension comes when we begin to look past the carefully constructed personae of these characters and glimpse the substance beneath. Moreover, that tension becomes a tension with ourselves, it raises the question, “wait, what did I just fall for?”

Stanley Fish explores this tension as a teaching tool in his book Surprised by Sin. Fish argues that this push/pull relationship is an intentional construct used by Milton to lure us into siding with Satan and then, once our mistake is realized/analyzed, we can learn a moral lesson from our own rhetorical fall. In understanding why you fall for Satan’s pitch, we might be more ready to resist that pitch in the future. Of course, the poem doesn’t just tell you this lesson. It involves you in creating the understanding on your own. As Fish writes, “Paradise Lost is a dialectical experience which has the advantage traditionally claimed for dialectic of involving the respondent in his own edification” (49). You don’t just watch Satan fall. In siding with Satan, you experience your own fall. You, in a sense, become Satan and learn from the experience.

Am I saying that the creators of NBC’s Hannibal are trying to teach us a moral lesson founded on tricking us into uncomfortable self-reflection? Yeah, maybe not. But, I do think Paradise Lost is one of the best and most enduring poems in the English language for a reason and if I feel inspired to draw parallels between Hannibal’s lowercase “d” devil and Paradise Lost’s uppercase “D” Devil, then I think the show has a pretty solid antagonist.

I may not be overly concerned with the teaching of moral lessons, but I am concerned with stories that engage, that inspire me to ask questions of myself and wander around my own brain flipping over rocks and peering into cupboards. I think Hannibal is that kind of story. The show may not win any awards for originality. It may be a little (or a lot) self-indulgent with its sensationalist flourishes. Hell, it may be a string of cheap thrills and more than a few plot holes, but I can’t wait to see how season two ends! If you have a problem with the level of cheesiness in Hannibal, then allow me to quote a famous philosopher (I believe it was Immanuel Kant) who asked, “why so serious?”

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