Hannibal: A Serial Killer You Can Believe In

I’ve been thinking a lot about serial killers recently, although they have always been very popular in films it seems they are everywhere at the moment, especially on TV. Maybe they are being pushed as the next ‘big thing’ – after the excess of zombies and vampires perhaps we are in the mood for a less supernatural monster. And much like with zombies and vampires, new shows are looking for different spins they can put on the old serial killer trope. But among all these shows I think Hannibal stands out. For one thing, it’s believable. This post contains some spoilers for Hannibal season one.

Perhaps the only distinction between serial killers and vampires is that vampires are supernatural, after all Hannibal is basically a vampire in the sense that he treats people as livestock. Although we are yet to see any sparkly serial killers (which is a flippant way of saying a serial killer teen heartthrob/sex symbol), it is possible that The Following and Dexter have paved the way for this. Dexter by creating the concept of a ‘good guy’ serial killer, and The Following by creating a sexy serial killer. This human desire to idolise monsters is pretty weird if you think about it, and I think Hannibal plays with this quite expertly. Hannibal is a successful guy, an excellent cook, well dressed, a charming host and incredibly intelligent. There is a lot to admire about him, and series one of Hannibal – described by creator Bryan Fuller as a weird bromance – can often make you forget what a monster he is. The facade is convincing, and the human impulse to be drawn to charismatic villains can override your common sense on occasion. I found myself hoping that Will and Hannibal would be good friends, or that they would look after Abigail and become some sort of happy serial killer family. When Hannibal goes to his therapy and talks about having a friend I found myself empathising with him, in that way that humans do. Throughout the series we are given constant reminders that Hannibal is not a real human, that he doesn’t have empathy and that there is no possible way this can end well, and yet I still found myself drawn in. The final betrayal was all the more potent for this, I’ll admit that the smirk at the end was pretty devastating as that was the only thing that really put the final nail in my little coffin of hope.

As I mentioned before, I am not really a fan of the Anthony Hopkins Hannibal. I just can’t quite take him all that seriously when he seems to be bordering on pantomime villainy so frequently. In contrast I would be frankly quite surprised if Mads Mikkelson isn’t really a serial killer just pretending to be an actor, and in a terrifying example of serial killer Inception he goes on to eat all his co-stars. Hopefully not until the programme is finished though. Actually, hopefully not at all because that would be a bit weird. I have a seen a couple of reviews of Hannibal that criticise Mad’s acting – the way he barely emotes or expresses any emotion, the way he slightly mumbles his lines but I think this is just one of the many ways in which Hannibal creates a deliberately understated atmosphere. An over-the-top serial killer can seem ridiculous (I am not a fan of The Following) while an emotionless performance can seem dull and is increasingly cliche (I am not a fan of Dexter either).

Hannibal manages to convey an awful amount in the smallest twitches of his mouth or an apparently casual glance. As David Slade, the show’s director has said of Mads Mikkelson: ‘[he has] an incredible sense of what his face can do with micro-movements. He has the ability to do practically nothing and still scare the shit out of you‘. I’ve seen him in (among others) memorable roles as a suspected paedophile, a psychotic Viking, and a villain that cries blood. Hannibal seems like he could have all of these aspects hidden just below the skin: after all, as is occasionally pointed out, Hannibal is wearing a mask (or possibly a ‘human suit’).


This years other big new serial killer show The Following was a hit despite being pretty much terrible. James Purefoy’s serial killer Joe Carroll is more like a third rate Batman villain, he has a Poe obsession and a whole bunch of insane, complicated, risky and Poe themed plans that only come together due to the atrociously poor FBI. I quite like James Purefoy, and I love Poe (and Batman), but this character is just appalling. He would be better if he went all out with a gothic bird costume and a super villain name like ‘The Raven’. Kevin Bacon (who is definitely no Batman) is a bit like a poor man’s Jack Bauer, rushing around on his own because the rest of the FBI is busy being moronic, or is off on holiday or something. I say this just to make it clear that Hannibal should really not be compared with The Following in any serious way. Hannibal is much more like (the excellent) Carnivale in my opinion, they both have a similar visual style and elements of the surreal – David Lynch-esque segues between dreams and reality with no clear boundaries and a sense that there is some crazy shit going on and you are not tuned in to the right wavelength to understand it yet. The visual transmogrification of Hannibal into a full fledged Wendigo (a demon that posses cannibals) is very reminiscent of Brother Justin’s metamorphosis (Clancy Brown) in Carnivale, as are some of Hannibal’s dialogue clues, although perhaps none are quite as satisfying as Brother Justin’s line ‘I am reminded of the phrase, making a deal with the Devil’.


Watching the start of Luther (played by Idris Elba) I was struck by some of the similarities with Hannibal – the weird relationship between a cop and a serial killer and the ongoing narrative of this friendship/rivalry in the background while each episode features a different set piece. As much as I’ve enjoyed Luther so far (although I can’t help but think everyone is being just a bit too English, guv) I think it could really do with taking some lessons from Hannibal (and maybe it will later, I am only up to episode 4 I think). For a start, one thing that Hannibal does very well is it doesn’t explain everyone’s motivations. In Luther everyone’s motivations are explained whenever they become confusing. Luther will say bluntly ‘I was scared of you’ to the serial killer lady, or she will point out that he is flattering her to appeal to her narcissism. In Hannibal motivations are rarely discussed so bluntly and while Hannibal himself is also a narcissist this is revealed through inferring hidden meaning in his dialogue, for example when he says ‘Killing must feel good to God, too… He does it all the time, and are we not created in His image?’. One of my favourite bits of dialogue, the way he reveals something of his motivations and compares himself to God, taunts Will by revealing this and also subtly downplays the act of killing as something that God does and Will might like to try more often… genius! I imagine saying things like this amuses Hannibal no end.

NBC have renewed Hannibal for a second season and seem to be supporting it quite strongly – turning down the opportunity to get The Following because they already had Hannibal in the works for example. This is promising because Bryan Fuller has plans for many more series to come including remaking the various films: Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. In fact, apparently the murders that Will recreates in his lecture in the very first episode are ones committed by Francis Dolarhyde (the eponymous killer from Red Dragon). I personally can’t wait to see how they proceed, and the possibility that David Bowie will be in the second series just makes it even more enticing. I do wonder what Mads will be like when he is in some of the same situations as Anthony Hopkins though, I can’t imagine him ever doing the same sort of crazy.

One Comment on “Hannibal: A Serial Killer You Can Believe In

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