Content Warnings: This post contains discussion of and therefore full spoilers for the entire two seasons of Hannibal so far. By extension, that means that it contains discussion of abuse, assault, homocide, homosexual (lesbian) erasure, misogyny, as well as mentions of child abuse, homophobia. Linked articles are not individually warned, but typically contain the same sort of fare. Please read at your own discretion, and let me know if I forgot to note anything!
Alright, I want to make one thing clear, first and foremost: I really enjoy Hannibal. I love every one of the characters (yes, even the ones that are horrible people… especially the ones that are horrible people), I love the use of color and chiaroscuro lighting, I love the fact that a highly cinematic series about unsavory content can be on a major cable network these days. I even like that it’s helped kicked off a trend of retreading old, hallowed horror ground for television adaptations.
What I do not love, however, is what happens when those old, hallowed horror tropes come back to haunt me. So to speak.
Season one of Hannibal was so incredibly promising. There was a bit of the omnipresent issue of the beautiful dead girl in horror (and crime drama, so it was probably inescapable), but for the most part it wasn’t gratuitious, and there were plenty of dead boys, too. It looked stylish, it was surprisingly good about portraying mentally ill people as something other than monsters, it had lots of lady characters that actually did things relevant to the plot, and the head writer even said that he would never be interested in a rape plot. Do you understand how rare that is in horror? The genre uses the threat of sexual assault the way a college hipster uses sriracha. Don’t get me wrong, I like a little spice with a few meals, but sometimes I just want ketchup with my french fries, alright? But then Fuller said he had no interest in the inelegance, and I figured I could let out the breath I always start holding when I watch a horror property with women in it.
And after a delicious cliffhanger and torturous hiatus, season two looked like it was going to keep improving. But a few episodes in, we lost Beverley Katz, a character who was not only Will Graham’s confidante and a brilliant forensic scientist, but a woman of color. And again, the end she met wasn’t bad at all by horror standards: she had agency, her death had an impact on the plot, and we didn’t see her murdered graphically onscreen. But in the process of defending that decision, Katz’s actress implied that Fuller was essentially pressured into the plot point by the producers in the name of time and money. And, unfortunately, given the treatment of ladies (especially ones that aren’t white) in horror and on network television, it stank of NBC feeling the need to rein in a property that had taken too many “risks”.
But fine, alright. Like I said, at least her death made a difference! For the purposes of the plot, it finally confirmed for Will Graham that the Chesapeake Ripper and his copycat killer were one and the same (which people always seem to forget he didn’t know at the beginning of the season). And this is most likely because I’ve been jaded by more typical slasher or serial killer flicks, but compared to the usual fare, a lot of the complaints sounded like the audience just weren’t used to horror series. Where is the threat if the cast can’t be picked off for real, I figured?
So it wasn’t a good twist, but I was essentially willing to let it slide. Especially when a new female character was introduced shortly afterwards, played by one of my favorite horror veterans, even. But I was still a bit trepidatious, since saying you’ll never be interested in a rape plot may not matter for much when you’re working from source material by somebody who’s consistently interested in rape plots. In the Harris novels, Margot Verger is a gay bodybuilder in a committed relationship with another woman despite being under her abusive brother’s financial thumb — and while I’ve got to disclaim that I haven’t read the ones she appears in, but from what discussion I’ve seen (see Fuller’s interview below) and knowing Harris’ approach to characterizing abuse survivors, I know that it’s at least implied that she’s gay because of her brother’s early molestation.
But at first, it seemed like everything was going to go better than expected. None of that was present, Margot’s resentment for her brother Mason was presented as totally valid, and it looked like we were just going to get a sarcastic gay sidekick to drink and commiserate with Will. It looked like it was going to be another element I could point to when people ask me to explain how adaptive material can actually improve on the source, sometimes.
Then, we got the double whammy episode. After discussing with Hannibal the legal and financial situation that her parents left which has, essentially, trapped her with her brother, Margot decides that she needs an heir. And, I suppose since Will is the only man in her life who doesn’t inspire her to vomit or look like a dead fish, she goes straight to his place with a bottle of whiskey.
Yeah, drink up, Will. Nobody wants to get through this scene sober.
The thing is, peripheral information revealed again that Fuller had been trying to make the best of being railroaded into a poor twist. And while I appreciate giving her a motive to manipulate (flimsy as it may be) instead of just having Will hypnotize her with his glorious masculinity, I can’t not picture that “faction of the writers’ room” that probably went home and got off to the thought of a lesbian seeing the error of her ways, patting themselves on the back for their influence on the plot.
And… They shouldn’t. This is not a good character arc. For anyone involved. Fuller can talk about wanting to show us “Will’s darker side”, but pretending that the first brunette to come along is Alana is so jarringly out of character that it’s distracting. More distracting than the antlered phantom wendigo hovering around in the sex scene. And having the knowledge that Fuller himself is gay and intentionally writing Will and Hannibal’s relationship as a sort of twisted romance, it also feels like someone behind the scenes needed to remind the viewers that Will is ostensibly straight. And that makes him and Margot’s dalliance feel like some sort of double beard mobius mirrored dance.
Look! Look at how heterosexual these people are, having sex with each other under false pretenses for their own gain!
The thing is, Hannibal didn’t need to be safer. Not in the sense of its content’s acceptability, at least. That’s not the audience it was originally aimed at or ended up attracting; trust me, most of the people watching are totally okay with homosexual subtext. Or supertext.
And to rub salt in the wound, that same episode gave us a cliffhanger that made it look like sassy intrepid reporter Freddie Lounds had met her end, also at Will’s hands. Following episodes revealed that this was a ploy to gain Hannibal’s trust, but that information came rather too late. This one was the last straw for a lot of people, and there was plenty of feedback on social media during and after the airing, which… Fuller didn’t really response very well to. While on the one hand I don’t want to be too harsh because I could understand being annoyed at taking flak for creative decisions that weren’t yours, that’s… Kind of part of the responsibility of being head writer. He may not have agreed with them and he may have done his best to work them in organically, but he still made that decision to work them in. And this kind of behavior sure doesn’t win you any points. Plus, it’s not fair to your audience (or, frankly, your material) to pace events so as to maximize emotional impact and then get snippy when people react emotionally to it. Part of keeping a serial property going is making sure that your audience still wants to come back next week, or month, or whatever. Not just hold them hostage with the promise of possible explanations.
And the thing is, these creative decisions don’t really… Improve the show. Like I said, it’s pretty hard to concentrate on what’s going on onscreen if I’m trying to figure out why a character is acting so unlike themselves. One of the reasons I usually like Hannibal is that it’s so rich in details to analyze, but that means that when something comes out of nowhere it is really incongruous.
It feels like the entire season has suffered from the pitfalls I’d usually associate with… Well, with trashy horror. All the ladies except for Margot were relegated to pawns early on, and while I’m aware of the argument that the show was always going to be about Will and Hannibal’s rivalry, the fact is that that’s boring. Beverly Katz’s death wasn’t completely gratuitous, but ultimately it was unnecessary, and deprived us of the potential of more interesting interaction in the name of furthering the plot. Alana sleeping with Hannibal wasn’t grossly out of character, but it did feel like some committee along the way had demanded that the show prove that their titular character is definitely, undeniably into girls. Bella Crawford’s arc has been heartbreaking, but it’s been at the cost of all of her agency. And Freddie may not have been dead for real, but the timing of the fakeout still felt like insult to injury: did every female character have to get screwed, literally or metaphorically, in the span of one week? And finally, I might still be smug about having predicted Abigail’s return, but I’d be a lot more pleased if she had been woven into the background and gotten more than five minutes of screentime before having her throat slit in front of Will’s eyes. Again. He’s talked about how much he missed her, sure, but it would have been even more poignant if we’d seen him actually get some time with her. You know, apart from a few scenes where he imagined talking to her.
Treating the women as disposable isn’t new in horror, so it must seem like the easy answer a lot of the time. But since it isn’t new, it’s never going to be anything we haven’t seen before. Like I said, it limits the potential for more interesting interactions, and leaves the dudes of the cast with only each other to talk to. Which, again, we’ve seen already. A lot.
All in all, I’m glad I finished watching the season, but I’m disappointed that halfway through it started feeling like a chore. His attitude aside, I have faith in Bryan Fuller as a storyteller, but it’s starting to feel like he’s bailing out a sinking boat while half of his crew stands around saying things like “But salt water tested so well in focus groups!”. I might feel bad for him, but that doesn’t mean the ship isn’t going down.
I hope that season three, when it arrives, doesn’t feel the need to be safer. Being safe isn’t how it garnered the audience it already has, and it’s not going to make it more widely appealing. Besides, we’re already watching a show about a guy who regularly murders and eats people. Not to create a false equivalence, but the social taboos around being gay are kind of small potatoes after that, y’know? I think the audience can probably handle major characters that don’t kiss the opposite sex.