Hannibal and the Satanic Art of Murder

This is the inaugural article in a new section on Three Brothers Film dealing with Television. As the lines between TV and film become more and more blurred and TV grows ever more artistically assured, we thought it appropriate to bring discussions of TV shows into the fold. Look for them in the future in the "TV Corner."

In the Christian tradition, art is one of the ways humans reflect the image of God found within them. The believer glorifies God by creating art, by reflecting the world God created and mimicking God’s own act of creation. In the end, the art may not be successful. The painting may be indistinct or the words unruly, but the ideal intention is to create something that elevates life. For many people, art allows them to better understand the world. It’s how they explore ideas and experiences distinct from themselves. Even for the nonreligious, art is a spiritual experience. It reaches into a person’s soul and affects it, even in some small way like a smile or a remembrance of a past event. In an essence, art is meant to be good.

Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, that most unlikely of television prestige dramas, looks at art that performs the opposite of what's described above. It explores art that’s meant to degrade the world, pervert it away from an ideal state. Hannibal is fixated on murder and it posits that murder is a satanic art. Murder degrades instead of elevates. It destroys instead of creates. More sensitive viewers than myself ask me how I can handle watching a show that makes disgusting things look beautiful. I answer that unlike most other serial killer dramas, that glorify murder for a thrill or a gut-wrenching reaction, Hannibal explores the idea that evil of a supernatural kind exists in the world and that murder committed by such evil is a perverted form of art.

Based off the acclaimed and controversial novels by Thomas Harris, the show follows the cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lector (Mads Mikkelsen) and his relationship with the brilliant FBI profiler, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Season one was an unconventional case-of-the-week show, looking at various serial killers while furthering the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lector. Season two dismissed much of the case-of-the-week format of the first season and went down the rabbit hole of Hannibal Lector and Will Graham’s relationship.

It has been around two weeks since the season two finale, “Mizumono,” ended with one of the most stunning climaxes I’ve ever seen. In it, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) finally see Hannibal for the killer he is and confront him alongside Will Graham, who has been aware of Hannibal's true identity since the end of season one. But Hannibal outsmarts and outfights the three heroes and leaves them all bleeding out in his decimated home. Taking into consideration the fact that the finale was made when the future of Hannibal was up in the air (it has since been renewed for a third season), the ending is even gutsier. Had it been the last episode of the show, it surely would have been the most depressing series finale ever. Beyond the heartbreak at witnessing Hannibal outwit and leave for dead the entirety of the show’s primary cast—it is unclear whether any of the show’s heroes will survive, even though it’s unlikely they’d kill off Will Graham, its protagonist—the finale made clear the series' satanic quality.

Season two was an exploration of Hannibal Lector trying to turn Will Graham into a killer. He wanted to pervert the brilliant, but mentally frail, FBI profiler into the darkest version of himself. Early in “Mizumono” Hannibal and Will discuss the concept of the imago, the final stage an insect takes during metamorphosis. The entire show has been a discussion of metamorphosis, of Hannibal transforming Will into an imago that reflects himself. But Hannibal also transforms the bodies of the people he kills into haunting tableaus. Art is a process of metamorphosis, of transforming base elements into a final form that clarifies the intentions of the transformation. The final work of art is the imago.

For Hannibal, the imago must be a satanic form that perverts life. Satan can only take what already exists and pervert it. He cannot create things himself. Hannibal cannot create either. He latches onto creatures that are susceptible to his wiles—he is a brilliant psychiatrist, after all, with an uncanny capacity to understand his patients—and uses his understanding of them to bend them to his will. On a rare occasion this will is for them to become like him, as is the case with Will Graham. Usually, his will is merely for them to end up as his dinner. One of the many aspects that makes Hannibal so simultaneously fascinating and disgusting is that the meals look aesthetically gorgeous and delicious, even though we are fully aware what meat they consist of. The meals are just one instance of Hannibal creating satanic art on the show. The more obvious instances are the human remains Hannibal leaves for the police to find.

In Hannibal the crime scenes where the killers have left their victims’ bodies on display are art installations. They are tableaus of satanic purpose. The killers, of which Hannibal is supreme, take living humans, going about their ordinary lives unaware, and transform them into bloody art pieces, reflecting their own insecurities and evil intent. They are often striking images. In season one, one killer flays the skin of his victims and poses them as angels praying at his bedside, with the flayed skin of their backs making heavenly wings. In another episode a killer arranges his victims into a giant totem pole on a deserted beach. The images often take on religious dimensions. The angels are the killers’ perverted form of heavenly protectors. The totem pole reflects an idol or fetish. In the show, Will Graham's expertise lies in his ability to visualize and empathize with the killers he tracks. Will will walk into the crime scene, Jack Crawford will clear the room, and Will will close his eyes to visualize how the killer committed the crime. In his mind's eye, Will acts out the killer's crimes, and at the end, when the body has been arranged and Will looks on the artwork left in the room, he says, "This is my design." Will speaks for the killer, showing how the killer uses murder to take ownership of a creation that isn't theirs.

In season two the religious aspect of the tableaus is intensified. In the second episode of the season, Hannibal discovers a rival serial killer who has been collecting victims to sew into a mural in his farmyard silo. The opening at the top of the silo allows a viewer to look down and witness that the mural of humans look like a giant eyeball staring up at the killer. The killer creates a work of art that looks back on himself, admires him as he admires it. Hannibal sees it another way. After drugging the killer, he sews the man into the centre of his own mural, as the eye’s pupil. He claims that the eye is not meant to look upon the killer, but that the eye is a way to see God. It stares up into the sky and sees past the boundaries of life. For Hannibal, killing and transforming his victims into artistic works allow him a religious experience, a way to commune with God even as he perverts God's work. In the Christian tradition, Satan envies God. He seeks God’s own power over life and death even as his own powers are only a sad mockery of his creator’s. But he also aches to return to heaven and enjoy what he lost.

Hannibal seeks this power as he’s a satanic figure himself. He may be a famous serial killer based off a beloved series of novels and inspired by real figures, but the Hannibal Lector in NBC’s Hannibal reflects Satan more than any historical serial killer. One of the show’s recurring images is a horned wendigo, a demonic man-beast with deer antlers and bearing Hannibal’s face. In dream scenes or surreal sequences, the wendigo appears to remind the audience the true root of Hannibal’s evil. His evil looks human and reflects the evil committed by other humans, but his motivations are otherworldly. His powers are almost supernatural. He is evil incarnate. There is a reason Hannibal Lector is charming and handsome and has impeccable manners and taste. Satan is often portrayed as being charming or tasteful, be it as Mephistopheles in Faust or Lucifer in Paradise Lost.

Like Satan, Hannibal perverts the world. His art form is murder and his canvas is the human body. Hannibal is great for many reasons. But what makes its depiction of evil compelling is how it explores the spiritual aspects of murder. If the show weren’t beautiful, it wouldn’t be honest to its preoccupations with satanic art. Only through its beauty can we reflect upon the evil it displays, and understand its true nature as a profoundly perverted work of art.

Hannibal (NBC)

Developed by Bryan Fuller; based off characters created by Thomas Harris; starring Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, and Laurence Fishburne.