In completing its second season, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal enraged some, enraptured others, and continued to push the boundaries of network television, not just in terms of graphic violence, but also in visual style and creative storytelling. Seeing the cat-and-mouse (or cat-and-cat, as Fuller puts it) chase between Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter unfold was entertaining and frightening, as you never really knew who was in charge. Was Will seducing Lecter into a false sense of security so he could be arrested, or was Lecter seducing Will into becoming a new member of his circle of killers? Perhaps a bit of both?
Unfortunately, one of the best shows on TV has many obstacles in its way if it wants to be a strong contender for the Emmys: the anti-network bias, of course, the genre bias, and the comparatively low ratings all work against it. But if Emmy voters were to actually sit down and watch it, I can’t see how they wouldn’t become as caught up in the horror as the legions of Fannibals who already prowl the internet.
Appropriately enough for a show whose protagonist uses the catch phrase “This is my design”, Hannibal is one of the most visually stunning and intricately designed shows in recent memory, and it is all the more impressive because of the show’s low budget. Game of Thrones features spic cityscapes that would give Peter Jackson pause and Mad Men recreates the 1950s in meticulous detail, but few of the locations in those shows have the same visceral impact as the ones featured in Hannibal: The spooky, harsh-lit rooms of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the Busby Berkely-inspired mural of corpses sewn into the shape of an eye, and Hannibal’s own sinister, yet elegant home are just a few of the unforgettable images the show has offered this season. Similarly, the costume design is unlike anything else on TV… beautiful and striking; many characters make a powerful initial impact simply by how they are dressed, often with colors and designs that pop out against the background. You get the feeling that not a single element in the frame is there by accident, and it all adds up to creating the nightmarish and hypnotic atmosphere that the show revels in.
I’m just going to say it right now: Hannibal is the best-directed show on TV. It’s not just the visual style… the show’s incredible balance of tone (sometimes shifting from sheer horror to black comedy and back again), perfectly modulated performances, and delightfully manipulative storytelling would make Hitchcock proud, playing the audience like the proverbial piano. I was consistently surprised by the sheer volume of content Fuller and his directors could pack into 45 minutes while keeping the show coherent and engaging. You could take a phone call while watching Game of Thrones and still mostly get what was going on, but you wouldn’t want to be distracted from Hannibal for a second. If I were to recommend specific episodes for consideration in the Direction category, they would be:
- Kaiseki (Tim Hunter)
- Takiawase (David Semel)
- Naka-Choko (Vincenzo Natali)
- Tome-Wan (Michael Rymer)
- Mizumono (David Slade)
Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen continue to bring their A-games, with Dancy’s Will Graham reinventing himself before our very eyes from the twitchy-awkward character from the first season to a more confident figure (somewhat more in line with how William Petersen played the character in Michael Mann’s Manhunter) who nonetheless still struggles with his killer instinct. Mads Mikkelsen reveals the true depth of Lecter’s depravity… that he cuts a Luciferan figure was something I mentioned in my previous article on this show, but as the second season went on, we saw that Lecter’s desire to push those around him to kill was not simply a way for him to amuse himself, but something he truly seemed to think would help them better understand who they are. He’s not manipulating his patients to kill through therapy… he thinks killing is itself therapeutic. Self-actualization through murder is a fascinating way to reconcile the doctor and killer elements of Lecter’s personality.
The guest stars in the show also deserve recognition. Gillian Anderson’s mysterious and icy performance as Bedelia Du Marier continues to fascinate, even after we learn more about her. Raul Esparza is a total blast as Dr. Chilton, and accomplishes the tricky task of starting the character out as classically arrogant and hateful, before making him funny, sympathetic, and even likeable. There are characters in entire shows who don’t get the sort of arc Chilton did in Season 2 of Hannibal. But the major story in season 2 was the introduction of the Verger siblings, Margot and Mason, as played by Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) and Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire). Isabelle plays Margot with a tightrope walk of a performance balancing fragility and resilience, while Pitt is gloriously over-the-top as Mason, creating a character so beautifully despicable that he even gives Dr. Lecter pause. All of these characters would be worthy of recognition, and that’s not even counting series regulars Laurence Fishburne and Lara Jean Chorostecki, among others.
I’d love to believe the show stands a chance at any or all of these (not to mention Best Drama Series), but given how stacked the categories are (not to mention the Emmys’ preference to nominate the same stuff year after year) it’s a long shot. But the way I look at it, the Emmys need Hannbial more than Hannibal needs the Emmys. Nominating the show would prove they’re looking for challenging and innovative programming, and not just big names and advertising budgets.