“‘Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening's amusement.'”—Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights, Ch. 27
Two completely unexpected things happened by the end of NBC’s Hannibal’s second season. First, there’s now an eyeshadow line inspired by the color scheme and plot elements of the show. Second, Bryan Fuller has managed to pull off the near-impossible by making a romantic figure out of the titular character. Before you start edging away nervously, let me clarify. That’s Romantic with a capital R, as in the literary movement, and Dr. Lecter is now a very specific sort of character: a Byronic hero.
For those of you still backing away or furiously typing up a comment to the effect that everyone’s favorite cannibal is in no way heroic, keep in mind that the term is something of a misnomer. Characters like these drive plots more as antagonists than protagonists. They aren’t properly villains, though, because they’re appealing to audiences and protagonists alike. A more accurate term is “antihero,” though that leaves poor Lord Byron all sad and un-name-checked. He defined the essential characteristics checklist that makes these characters and the conflict that they create so fascinating, so he deserves at least a little credit, confusing though it may be.
And Hannibal has a near-perfect score. Arrogant? Yep. Sophisticated and educated? Intelligent and perceptive? Cunning and able to adapt? Yes indeedy. Cynical? With that coin toss to decide Bella’s life, more so than any character on TV since Rustin Cohle, which is saying something. Mysterious, magnetic, and charismatic? He makes plaid suits look good. And sexually dominant? Well, this is network TV, so there’s only so much information we’re going to get in this category. Self-critical and introspective? So long as Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier is listening—and granted, there has been some laxity in this regard since he showed up at her house all plastic-clad. Having a troubled past or suffering from an unnamed crime? Oh, listmaker, you have no idea.
About the only category with a possible deduction is “having a distaste for social institutions and norms.” Let’s take off 50 points for eating people, but credit back 20 for knowing how to plate them properly.
More important, we would be doing him a disservice not to recognize that a core part of his character remains his disdain for rudeness; his behavior indicates an exquisite awareness of social norms relating to proper manners. (Side note: one wonders how he would treat another exemplar of the genre, Emily Bronte’s infamously rude Heathcliff. I suspect the net result would be a particularly refined variant on Irish stew. Does anyone else play Literary Deathmatch with Byronic heroes? Don’t answer that question.)
This most recent incarnation of Hannibal shows an unexpected awareness of certain other social norms, which check the “seductive and sexually attractive” box most emphatically. Part of this change goes along with casting Mads Mikkelsen, but we should also give the writing credit where it’s due. Not even Thomas Harris could give Dr. Lecter plausible sexuality; the passages near the end of his third novel, in which the doc gets it on with Clarice Starling, were greeted by approximately a hundred thousand readers flinging the book against the wall in frustration and annoyance. It says something when the original creator’s attempt to alter the character in such a dramatic fashion reads like fan fiction and a reimagining rings true.
But that dreamy, elegant sex scene in “Naka-Choko,” the season's tenth episode, didn’t come out of nowhere; the estimable Cleolinda Jones called the potential romantic elements in Hannibal’s character way back in 2008. They just needed to be developed properly, which is to say, in a consistent and logical fashion within the novel, movie, or television show. Anthony Hopkins’ Creepiest Uncle impersonation in the basement of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane was memorable, but it emphasized how little sex was involved in that iteration of Hannibal’s design. Insofar as there was any erotic element to Hopkins’ portrayal, it was as a weapon, not seduction. In contrast, Mikkelson’s version is all about sexuality with the threat underneath.
As Cleolinda points out, that threat is paradoxically what drives the romantic appeal. If our favorite “appalling psychopath” is reduced to a goony-eyed older man sincerely hankering after Agent Starling, any frisson transforms from a creepy death’s-head moth into a splat on a windshield and thus are books thrown. Up until the season finale, the show managed to avoid this conundrum with a clever and simple twist not unlike a certain icepick: we know that Hannibal is a scary motherfucker, but Alana thought that he was just a super-suave colleague with a seriously covetable kitchen. Consequently, we remained at full moth.
Fuller, thank the almighty Wusthof, knows exactly what he’s doing in this regard. Every instance of Hannibal’s refined appeal this season was followed by a swift reminder that HELLO THIS GUY EATS PEOPLE, and he would happily eat you, too, no matter how smart or gorgeous or talented you might be. For instance, we didn’t get two minutes of afterglow without a pointed reference to census takers. David Slade may be involved, but this ain’t Twilight.
Moreover, he may have a reproduction of François Boucher‘s Leda and the Swan hanging insouciantly on his wall, but the subject matter is revealing, especially given recent developments on the show. A woman being seduced by a dishonest lover lying about his essential nature? Check. The net result causing untold suffering and misery? Double check. (Over here behind the fourth wall: A sneaky way to get outré material around censors? Triple check.) And lest we forget which of his appetites is preeminent, it’s in the dining room, not the bedroom.
But now that dining room is a crime scene, splattered with most of our protagonists’ blood and soon to be strewn with yellow tape. (At least it will contrast beautifully with those cobalt walls.) And Fuller has done something both disturbing and unexpected: he’s blurred those reminders of Hannibal’s essential cruelty with his characteristic politeness in a romantic context. Was he lying when he told Alana to walk away and forget everything? Mikkelson’s micro-expressions say no, but the scene potentially edges us back into Hannibal novel territory nevertheless.
Fortunately for the structural integrity of my laptop, Fuller promptly gave us yet another reminder of just who Hannibal is. His fight with Jack may have involved fancy kitchen implements, but the actual (killing?) wounds came from broken glass and a workman’s linoleum knife. We may find his refinement seductive, but we would do well to remember the eventual fate of another Byronic devourer of people. Hannibal may be escaping with Dr. Du Maurier (BEDELIA SERIOUSLY WHAT THE FUCK), but he has left his one true soulmate behind, and he is likely to end up as alone as Heathcliff at the end.
“His hair and clothes were whitened with snow, and his sharp cannibal teeth, revealed by cold and wrath, gleamed through the dark.”—Wuthering Heights, Ch. 17
[Writer's Note—Credit should be given where it’s due, in part to avoid dreadful rudeness: Matthew Beaumont’s “Heathcliff’s Great Hunger: The Cannibal Other in Wuthering Heights” explores Emily Bronte’s references to cannibalism in much greater detail. In other words, it ain’t just me.]
La Donna Pietra (@ladonnapietra) is a Duke City denizen with opinions about pop culture, gender, and ice cream.
[Gif via Dork Shelf]