This week’s Hannibal has topped off a truly stellar season of arthouse cinematography and their usual fine tradition of lovingly shot “S&P was drinking and crying the day this passed through” gore effects with a revelation that surprised nobody but Will Graham: that fancy cannibal Hannibal Lector is in love with our tortured FBI profiler protagonist. How Will feels in return has been deferred for the series finale (because this series was too good for human eyes anyway, and if you excuse me I’ll be crying into this glass of chianti), but the final verbalization of a long history of astonishingly unsubtle subtext does seem like a good time to hash out a certain long discussion: is the relationship between Hannibal and Will unhealthy.
Ah ha, no. I’m kidding of course. Despite feints attempting to establish the contrary, the vast majority of Hannibal’s viewership, including those who found themselves in the romantic undertones, overtones, and tones between Hannibal Lector and Will Graham, were never under any kind of delusion that that bond was a healthy and ideal one. The question before us, instead, is where the progression of and response to that relationship belongs in the current framework of fictional relationships. More specifically, what sets it apart from the poster child for romanticized abuse, 50 Shades of Grey.
No no, he’s just smelling Will’s brain starting to cook in his skull. Not creepy at all
I’ve seen more than a few discussions attempting to draw parallels between Grey and Hannigram (for those few not in the know, that’s the somewhat fudged portmanteau of the relationship in question), something which I suspect is as much a grab for easy name recognition as anything. Certainly we can dismiss the comparison in terms of writing talent, as well as the fact that Bryan Fuller got permission and acknowledgement before making money from his fanfiction.
Alright, you may have guessed that my professional and personal respect for E.L. James wouldn’t fill a Lilliputian thimble, but we can admit a few surface similarities in this argument: both are based on existing properties (50 Shades being a names-changed AU of Twilight) which add on a new layer that ties up a lot in intimate relationships (poorly researched BDSM and an expansion of the Red Dragon protagonist’s relationship with Hannibal Lector respectively). And while Hannibal has a strong ensemble cast to back it up, the heart of the thing has always been in Will and Hannibal’s relationship.
Which, let us not mince words, is disturbing beyond measure. Hannibal’s grasp of empathy is tenuous and occasional at the best of times, and using his would-be beloved’s undiagnosed encephalitis to frame him for murder was only the start of a long series of pretty horrific mind games (which go on to include, just because it’s fun listing them, psychological manipulation, isolation to encourage codependency, trying to mold Will into a fellow serial killer, setting a scene to force Will into murdering another human, pretend murdering and then spite-murdering their surrogate daughter, disemboweling, attempted cranial surgery with a band saw, and encouraging attempted murder of Will’s new family via a different serial killer).
And thus the tender murder caress, copyright Cleolinda, was born
…Huh, when you put it all together like that it sounds pretty bad. Eh, no sounds. It’s pretty bad. But there’s the tricky matter of that distinction. Season 3 of Hannibal begins with the phrase “then let it be a fairytale” – the sort where parents eat their children, and retribution is bloody and cruel, and happily ever after is little more than a reassurance that you survived the telling. In other words, it’s taken conscious steps to remove itself from reality. The show has always functioned on dream logic, and in these final few episodes it’s pushed its biblical metaphors right to the center of things. When the character perpetuating the abusive behavior has been discussed by creator and actor alike as Lucifer, it’s hard to say much beyond “well yeah, obviously.”
It helps as well that the show takes care to point out the toxicity of the central relationship at every turn: just about everyone (sympathetic characters, people we’re meant to root for in the moment) has tried to save Will Graham from Hannibal, always at least a little too late and often just in time for somebody else to send him back in the name of the supposed Greater Good; and Will himself, this time around, is often teetering back and forth between the role of “good man haunted by darkness” and “monster clinging to his last vestiges of humanity.”
The latter, of course, being what allows him to eventually stand as something even remotely resembling an equal to the famed killer. Will is able to “infect” Hannibal with humanity as much as Hannibal seems to poison Will’s mind with murderous intent (more than once turned against Hannibal himself).
See, they’re being reflected in the glass and in one another and
this show is the most delightful shade of just slightly pretentious
Much of this ties back to the original novels, and how heavily Will’s character in the show has begun to blend with Clarice Starling’s – the original bearer of Lecter’s fascination and horrific courtship, though with her levelheaded core it always seemed more a stretch of credibility that she’d run away with him, even with all that psychic driving. Beyond Clarice, this fascination is arguably built into the character of Hannibal Lector himself.
The juxtaposition of his unpredictable nature and his high regard for manners, his veneer of civility and his curiosity for intrepid individuals like Clarice (and now Will), is an intriguing combination. The kind that encourages the reader or viewer to wonder if they, too, could worm their way into those fickle good graces, and what secrets of themselves they’d be forced to confront under the eye of that calculating mind. In effect, Hannibal is a challenge to face ourselves by imaging a completely alien perspective.
Thus do we have Will Graham – both the indulgence of that desire and a well-drawn character in his own right, watching his life crumble to pieces even as he “proves” himself. And key to all of this is how far removed from reality things are. This is the series wherein everyone in the service industry is a serial killer lying in wait, where there is both time and physical ability to build a totem pole of corpses on a public beach with no one noticing, where sex is almost always sublimated through violence both verbal and physical, and where leaving a valentine means twisting a flayed corpse into an image of a beating heart.
And I would argue that there is a place for all of it. Fiction exists to explore ideas that the structure of our society, that basic human morals, prevent us from acting on. We marvel from a safe distance at things that would destroy us: the heroic Satan in Paradise Lost, the increasing eroticization of the vampire mythos, the glut of increasingly gruesome police procedurals on every major network, and Hannibal himself.
But most importantly of all, the media would not look at Hannibal and Will, presuming this was not a show in constant danger of sinking into the seas of anonymity, and ask if fans harbor a deep seated desire to become serial killers on whirlwind European vacations. Major media outlets are not debating whether women are looking for their own Hannibal Lector, the way several insipid talk show segments have earnestly asked whether women all secretly want to be dominated by men. Hannibal hasn’t painted an inaccurate, offensive, and patronizing view of an entire subculture in the eyes of popular culture (complete with toy line, just to drive that indignity home a little further). It’s fairly, nay, highly unlikely that a person will meet and find themselves wooed by a cannibalistic sociopath.
Certainly not as likely as meeting a controlling, emotionally abusive partner who, in claiming to uphold a fantasy a la Christian Grey, checks off every box of domestic abuse warnings available. Christian Grey is the kind of person that happens to real human beings, that fiction tells us we can change if we just love them hard enough even as we make ourselves miserable. So yes, perhaps Hannigram is a dark, unsettling romance between two people who bring out the darkest in each other.
And I fully support being conscience of and pointing out relationships in fiction that contain problematic elements, the better to keep ourselves aware of the boundaries between fiction and reality. But perhaps I would put slightly more emphasis on the stories that are tonally, willfully ignorant of their harmful implications, and that are grounded enough in reality to potentially harm real people and the future relationship structures they might seek for themselves. As opposed to cannibal Satan and the almost supernaturally gifted empath. Just for a bit of perspective.