If Community has taught us anything, it’s that the show’s not over until the fat lady’s contract has run out and she’s confirmed it to a minimum of three separate news outlets. Still, the prognosis for Hannibal is looking grim going into this Saturday’s season finale; two months after NBC announced its cancellation, the drama has yet to find a new home, and streaming go-tos Netflix and Amazon are already out of the running. Which is a shame, because Hannibal‘s third installment has expanded the show’s nightmare world beyond its title character, bringing the series even further outside the comfort zone of the now well-worn trope of the serial killer drama.
Hannibal has always been something of a Trojan horse, and not just because it counts among its many stomach-churning images that of a live human being inside an actual horse. The show’s initial premise read as doubly familiar to the average viewer: not only did it use Thomas Harris’ now-iconic characters as protagonists, it placed them within a setup shared with scores of other network and basic-cable procedurals, most notably Criminal Minds. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) was the genius-but-troubled FBI profiler tasked with tracking down killers, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) the dedicated boss who risked pushing him too far. Hannibal himself (Mads Mikkelsen) was both the hook and the wild card, a slight deviation from the formula to separate his namesake show from the herd.
In the hands of Pushing Daisies alum Bryan Fuller, of course, Hannibal bore about as much resemblance to case-of-the-week couch fare (to which I mean no disrespect; I was raised in an “episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent a day keeps the doctor away” household) as The Sopranos did to Silvio’s favorite movie. Instead, the show revealed itself to be an exploration of the psychological bond between Will and Hannibal, his therapist/consultant/friend/arch-nemesis/tempter, communicated through philosophical dialogue, artfully shot hallucinations, and a lifetime’s worth of work for a food stylist.
Then the second season finale blew up even this tenuous status quo, allowing Hannibal to host one last elaborate dinner party before facing off with Will and Jack — and escaping to Europe with his own therapist, Bedelia DuMaurier (Gillian Anderson), at long last elevating Anderson to a series regular. At the beginning of Season 3, Hannibal discarded its previous setup entirely, relocating to Europe — Paris and Florence, to be exact — with Will and Jack in hot pursuit. And then, slightly less than halfway through this season, Hannibal reinvented itself all over again.
Which is fitting, in a way, because if the current story arc has one theme, it’s reinvention. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves: at the conclusion of “Dolce,” Hannibal Lecter is finally captured, not because Will Graham finds him, but because Lecter wants to ensure he remains on the periphery of Will’s life, giving himself up immediately after Will swears he wants nothing to do with him. It’s a gesture of loyalty, affection, and cruelty all at once, and the perfect crescendo to a singular relationship.
Then Hannibal jumps forward a few years and abruptly pivots to another villain entirely. Fuller signals the shift not just with chronology, but with episode titles, which change from the traditional culinary terms (French in the first season, Japanese in the second, Italian in the third) to William Blake allusions. That’s because Will and Jack — and Hannibal — have a new target: Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), a killer motivated by his identification with the poet’s Biblical watercolor painting, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun.
Because Hannibal is an adaptation, the decision to focus on Dolarhyde isn’t entirely Fuller’s own. Hannibal would have to enter FBI custody eventually; the show’s timeline would, at some point, intersect with that of Harris’ first novel, Red Dragon. Yet in Fuller’s hands, the Red Dragon plot has become an illustration of Hannibal‘s versatility even as it faces the possibility of never exploring that versatility beyond Saturday night’s finale.
Francis Dolarhyde is a very different sort of killer than Hannibal Lecter, though he looks up to Lecter and seeks his counsel in phone calls shot like therapy sessions. Hannibal values control and precision in all things; he sees taste and mastery as what separates him from the rest of humanity, and gives him the right to take lives and consume bodies as he sees fit. Dolarhyde sees his “becoming” as a loss of control, ceding ownership of his body to Blake’s dragon every full moon. That’s when he slaughters families and lays mirror shards over their eyes, the better to witness his transformation with.
Because Hannibal is a primarily visual show, Dolarhyde’s departures from and parallels to Hannibal Lecter are best communicated in how they’re shot. If Hannibal has a calling card, it’s the grisly, yet gorgeous tableaux of bodies Lecter and the killers he helped catch left in their wake. There was the totem pole of body parts, and the woman sliced into lab samples, and the mural made of human beings hidden in a grain silo. But Dolarhyde’s crime scenes are messy, scattered with blood and viscera. And Dolarhyde himself may be in near-perfect physical shape, but Armitage plays him with a brutality and barely repressed violence that’s miles away from Mikkelsen’s permanent mask of mild amusement. Yet just as Will has spent three seasons hallucinating Hannibal as a black stag, Dolarhyde is frequently shown as the terrifying beast he’s spent years attempting to channel.
Hannibal has never spent this amount of time and attention on a killer whose name isn’t in the title sequence. As the Red Dragon arc, and possibly the show itself, draws to a close this weekend, it ends an application of Hannibal‘s toolbox to an entirely new set of players — Dolarhyde, but also a welcome post-True Blood role for Rutina Wesley as his love interest Reba McClane — and themes. Still, some constants remain: if Hannibal is the devil, it’s only fitting that his show is ending with a character who takes his inspiration from the Book of Revelation.