One of the primary sources of tension on Hannibal was whether or not Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham would give in to the compulsion to become a killer, and the key thing to remember about that is that the compulsion existed in Graham long before he met Doctor Lecter. Hannibal doesn’t create murderous thoughts, he simply fosters the ones that he believes already exist, and that’s what makes him such a compelling character. Why exactly Will keeps returning to him is something left largely ambiguous… I like to think he visits Hannibal to remind himself of the darkness he needs to make so much effort to avoid, but due to Will’s empathy disorder, his visits with Hannibal become a two-way street. Evil emanates from Hannibal like blood in a nightmare: you scrub and scrub, but it never really goes away.
In “The Wrath of the Lamb,” Will finds himself playing many different games at once. While Will, Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom plot a scheme to use Hannibal as bait to draw Francis Dolarhyde out of hiding, Will has (unbeknownst to them) been secretly colluding with Dolarhyde to use the same plan to dispose of Hannibal. Remember, though, that two of the three parties involved are serial killers, and the third is fully aware that he is capable of becoming one. This creates a violent climax reminiscent in tone to the shootout in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where we know at least one person has to die, but it is never clear who it is going to be. Then the acts of violence begin, and keep going and going in a ballet of bloodshed as beautiful as it is horrific (this is helped in large part by the gorgeous original song “Love Crime” performed by Siouxsie Sioux and Hannibal composer Brian Reitzell that plays over the sequence). And just when you think it is over, there is one final act, an act of violence and of love highlighting the differences between Will and Hannibal. Hannibal is capable of many things, but absolute self-sacrifice is not one of them. Will, on the other hand, has been slowly chipping away at himself throughout the entire series through his pursuit of the worst humanity has to offer. He knows nothing but self-sacrifice. This gives his final act an almost overwhelming sense of poignancy, and serves as an appropriate finale to the season (and series, should the show not be picked up by a different network).
Overall, Season 3 has been a twisty, sometimes frustrating but always fascinating ride, with the first half of the season confounding expectations by jumping back and forth through time, using emotion as the basis of its continuity rather than chronology. It took the surrealist storytelling the series was known for and pushed to limits hitherto unseen on television (too far for some viewers, who accused the show’s style of overwhelming its substance). That seemingly changed in the season’s second half, returning to the form of previous seasons by way of introducing Francis Dolarhyde, the killer from Red Dragon. The first few episodes were grounded as Will (re)reintroduced himself to the art of serial killer profiling in an attempt to stop this new psychopath. But even then the show ended up subverting expectations, changing plot lines, altering the fates of key characters, and giving the characters an entirely new epilogue that nevertheless felt entirely in line with what came before. This is the genius of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal… even though the show is adapting well-worn material (with Red Dragon being the most adapted of them all), we still have no idea how it is going to turn out.
Additional thoughts… Richard Armitage was absolutely incredible all season long as Francis Dolarhyde. From his dialogue-free introduction in “The Great Red Dragon” to the climax in “The Wrath of the Lamb”, he has given what may well be the definitive portrayal of the character. His physicality, his spot-on voice, and the way he is able to portray Dolarhyde’s inner torment created a truly intimidating figure without going too far and becoming a caricature. Similarly, when called upon to reinvent a well-known character, Joe Anderson similarly knocked it out of the park as Mason Verger in the season’s first half, playing the part as a would-be super villain who only thinks he has everything under control. In a just world, both of these actors would be contenders for Guest Actor at next year’s Emmys.
Among returning cast members, Caroline Dhavernas continued her character’s welcome change into Hannibal’s ruthless keeper, relishing in the power she held over him while still being completely aware of the danger that comes with such hubris. Gillian Anderson continues to be a fascinating and ambiguous presence as Bedelia Du Maurier, adding new dimensions to how we perceive both Will and Hannibal through her conversations with them. She has become such a tightly integrated part of this universe that it is almost shocking to remember that was created specifically for it, rather than being introduced in the writings of Thomas Harris (one wonders if fans introduced to the Lecter character through this series will be confused by her absence upon reading the novels or watching the films).
Will this be the last we see of Hannibal on television? There hasn’t been any indication from Bryan Fuller or the De Laurentiis Company that anybody has expressed interest in picking it up. But in this era of belated revivals and event series like 24: Live Another Day and NBC’s own Heroes: Reborn there’s certainly no reason to say “die” just yet. As it stands, “The Wrath of the Lamb” works as a series finale, creating a cathartic conclusion to the story while still reminding you, in its very final images, that nobody escapes the influence of Hannibal forever.