Bedelia Du Maurier: What were you like as a young man?
Hannibal Lecter: I was rooting for Mephistopheles and contemptuous of Faust.
Bryan Fuller’s shows always have a way of turning the world on its head. Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon was the first of the Hannibal Lecter novels, but elements of its plot form the final chapter of NBC’s extraordinary show Hannibal. Every season finale of Hannibal can also double as a series finale, but this was truly the last episode on NBC, maybe ever, and it delivered in spades. I’m still reeling. Be warned: There are spoilers ahead.
I’ve concluded that Hannibal is a retelling of Goethe’s Faust in which FBI profiler Will Graham/Faust and Dr. Hannibal Lecter/Mephistopheles fall in love. Mephistopheles bets God that he can seduce God’s favorite human away from righteousness. Faust longs for transcendent understanding of the world but despairs at his vain efforts. The devil offers Faust a lifetime of service if Faust will serve him in Hell after death. Faust agrees only if Mephistopheles provides something so pleasing that Faust forgets his mission and wishes the pleasure would go on forever. In that moment, Faust will die and join Mephistopheles in Hell.
An unholy alliance
This bargain is struck in the series premiere. Will Graham suffers from an empathy disorder that allows him to see the world from the perspective of others, including psychopaths, which makes him very useful to the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Hannibal (the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen), the unit’s consulting psychiatrist, maneuvers Will (Hugh Dancy) into shooting a serial killer who cannibalizes young girls to avoid killing his own daughter Abigail (Kacey Rohl), with whom the killer is obsessed. Will shoots Abigail’s father, and Hannibal saves her life. The three forge a bond.
The rest of the series chronicles Will and Hannibal’s love/hate relationship. Hannibal, who is incapable of emotion, finds the idea of turning an empath into a psychopath irresistible, while Will only wants to understand the unfathomable Dr. Lecter. It turns out that Hannibal’s desire is quite human — he wants to share his true self. Over the years he has had many protégés and companions, all of whom ultimately fail to provide the companionship he craves. No one can be Hannibal’s intellectual match, and there’s nothing novel for him in being feared, admired, or emulated. He wants an equal, someone to be with him in all his diabolical glory and not only live to tell the tale, but also participate joyfully and love him for it.
Will wants the opposite — to rid the world of monsters, to make it a safe place for innocents like Abigail. The irony is that Abigail helped her father lure young girls for the kill and herself aspires to be a hunter. Still, Will can’t help but love her like a daughter.
Maintaining a sense of self
At first, Hannibal attempts to convince Will, through brainwashing and psychotherapy, that he is the Chesapeake Ripper, a serial killer who is actually Hannibal himself. Will’s sanity wavers, but he proves too strong to lose his identity as so many of Hannibal’s protégés, including Hannibal’s own psychiatrist, Bedelia Du Maurier (played by the gorgeous Gillian Anderson), have. Will sets a trap for Hannibal using himself as bait. Hannibal, enraptured by the idea of becoming Will’s (as we Fannibals say) murder husband, with Abigail as their child, plans for them to run away together.
But Hannibal’s fantasy isn’t Will’s moment of pure, Faustian ecstasy — not with Will and Hannibal’s sometime love Alana Bloom and boss Jack Crawford dying around them. Will begs Hannibal to flee before the trap springs shut, but the spurned Hannibal, Medea-like, kills Abigail and literally guts Will. “I forgive you, Will,” are Hannibal’s final words before jetting off to Italy with Bedelia.
In the first half of season 3, Will chases after Hannibal to forgive him and receives a human body twisted into the shape of a heart pierced by three swords: the tarot card for heartbreak. “It’s only cannibalism if we’re equals,” Hannibal tells a victim. That Will could seduce, then betray him, inflames Hannibal — he’s finally met his match. When Will again refuses to run away with him, Hannibal surrenders himself in case Will ever needs him again.
Chasing the dragon
And need him Will does, three years later, to solve the series’ final case of the Great Red Dragon. Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) murders whole families, shatters mirrors and puts them in his victims’ eyes, then videotapes himself violating the corpse of the mother. Consumed by self-loathing, he believes that he’s discarding his ugliness and becoming William Blake’s Red Dragon. By killing, he transforms his victims into fuel for his Becoming. He’s also a Hannibal Lecter fanboy who contacts Hannibal for psychotherapy and mentorship. He’s wavering in his mission because of his love for a blind woman who embraces the sweet man in him. What to do?
Meanwhile, Will has married Molly and adopted her son. His life is quiet until Jack Crawford guilt-trips him out of retirement to catch the Dragon. When reunited, Hannibal’s jealousy over Will’s new life is palpable. But, like Mephistopheles, his Faust still needs him to gain understanding of the bizarre inner life of the Dragon. Hannibal quotes Faust to describe Dolarhyde/the Dragon: “Two souls, alas, a-dwell in my breast and one is striving to forsake its brother.” Will wants to foster the man, while Hannibal wants to foster the Dragon.
Hannibal still has agency in the world, even as he is locked in the pit à la Milton’s Satan. He counsels Dolarhyde to spare his lover and instead kill Will’s wife and stepson. Though the attempt fails, Will can’t stop picturing himself as Dolarhyde murdering Molly, and Molly can’t forgive him for putting her family in jeopardy. Afterward, Will asks Bedelia, “Is Hannibal in love with me?” She says, “Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for you and find nourishment at the very sight of you? Yes. But do you ache for him?”
Nothing to lose
Clearly the answer is yes. His family alienated, Will has nothing to lose, so he hatches a plan to use Hannibal as bait to lure Dolarhyde into a trap. The FBI engineers Hannibal’s fake escape, hoping to kill both of them. But Hannibal is no one’s pawn, and Will has been schooled in the ways of manipulation by Mephistopheles himself.
Dolarhyde eludes Jack’s dragnet and lets Hannibal and Will escape to Hannibal’s secret home on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Dolarhyde shoots Hannibal, then stabs Will in front of him, just as Hannibal stabbed Abigail in the season 2 finale. But Will is no sacrificial lamb. He’s topping from the bottom now and won’t allow Dolarhyde to transform Hannibal — that’s his job.
Together, Will and Hannibal kill the Dragon, in a scene that epitomizes the Sedgwickian love triangle heavily foreshadowed throughout the series, substituting murder for sex. Hannibal kills the Dragon for his gauche attempts to displace Hannibal as both the public’s and Will’s obsession. Will kills him because it’s the only way to stop Dolarhyde’s murder of innocents. But they both wish to punish Dolarhyde’s presumptuous attempt to come between them. Their mutual penetration of the Dragon with axe and knife is consummation, an interlude so erotic that the viewer is shocked to find murder so damn sexy.
Mephistopheles/Hannibal has won the bargain. Through the slaying of the Dragon, Faust/Will has reached the pinnacle of understanding and self-realization. Panting, covered in blood, Hannibal says, “See? This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For both of us.”
“It’s beautiful,” Will replies, embracing Hannibal. Expressions of pure post-coital bliss are on both men’s faces when Will pulls Hannibal over the cliff with him to Siouxsie Sioux’s song “Love Crime.” This is the only way that Will can give himself to Hannibal and maintain his integrity, a redemptive self-sacrifice in his moment of damnation by taking Hannibal out of the world with him.
The intervention of the Goddess of the Eternal Feminine and a woman’s love saved Faust. But Bryan Fuller’s world turns Goethe upside down. The final apotheosis of Hannibal comes from the union of two opposite men, an angel and a devil. The quintessential emotionless sadist learns compassion and love. The pure empath learns cruelty and calculation. Together, they merge into the Platonic ideal of a man, too godlike to live.
Or is he? Fuller had conclude with a twist. In the post-credits stinger, Bedelia, chest heaving, sits at a dinner table set for three. The main course is her own amputated leg, served in classic Hannibal style — by whom? Without a season 4, we will never know if this is Bedelia’s version of Hell or Will and Hannibal’s vision of Heaven.
For Paula Berman’s earlier review of Hannibal, click here.