Editorial Note: Welcome to Hannibal theme week! Our appreciation of Hannibal highlights a variety of 'aspects of the demon' that we feel have made the program so unique and valuable to us, including its dark themes, stylistic choices, generic risks, and fandom activity and resonance. Many of our curators have prepared original videos to highlight their viewpoints (if you haven't seen the spectacular finale, you will here). To begin, Lori Morimoto contextualizes Hannibal within the larger television "Fullerverse". --Allison McCracken, Theme Week Coordinator
What binds Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller’s body of work is an acceptance of death as an inextricable part of life. If this seems to lack a certain profundity, consider Fuller’s take on the world of the Munsters in Mockingbird Lane (2012). Mockingbird Lane is imbued with darkly comical Sonnenfeldian irony; yet death here is no punch line, but a grim reality irrevocably caught up in love and nature in such a way that to feel the one is to necessarily succumb to the other. Herman Munster (Jerry O’Connell) is dying of a failing heart overtaxed with aching love for his family, and the only way for him to survive is by taking the healthy heart of another. But where the family is squeamish, as we see in this clip (a whimsically macabre inversion of one of Hannibal Lecter’s infamous dinner parties), Grandpa Munster (Eddie Izzard) is coolly matter-of-fact: kill or die – eat or be eaten. That a scoutmaster ends up dead in the basement in short order speaks both to Fuller’s inability to back down when the stakes are high, and to his unwillingness to let his viewers off the hook for their sympathy with the recently resurrected.
Death is equally intractable in Fuller’s Dead Like Me (2003-4) and Pushing Daisies (2007-9), in which it comes as a sometimes perfunctory touch, as when newly deceased George (Ellen Muth) reaches out to reap a soul as part of her workaday world, or when necromantic pie-maker Ned (Lee Pace) temporarily resurrects the dead. At other times, this lethal touch can be the fullest expression of love, coaxing its recipient into ‘easeful death’, or a constant reminder of the deadly price we pay for allowing ourselves to love another. It’s this nexus of love and desire, touch and death that sees its fullest expression in Hannibal (2013-15). Throughout Hannibal’s (Mads Mikkelsen) darkly desirous courtship of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), he touches with the same ease that he kills, the one being part and parcel of the other. Having embraced and even owned the inevitability of death, Hannibal lives and loves past the point of propriety, reveling in his senses. In contrast, Will lives a half-life of repressed want and bottled passion, apart from others and afraid of himself. Only when he embraces his own death-drenched desires does he awaken to love and the black beauty of moonlit blood.
This is the problem with thoughts-in-progress; in the two weeks since I wrote this, I've been mulling it over and think I've missed something really critical here. Death does, indeed, punctuate Fuller's body of work, and particularly in how he never flinches from it. But, having begun my Hannibal rewatch in earnest (note: it's so much better the second time around), I begin to think that what he's really trading in is monstrosity. As I go back over the works I've mentioned above, what keeps coming to mind is the lyric from the Beauty and the Beast song "Kill the Beast" (written by Howard Ashman, who was at the time he wrote it dying from AIDS): "We don't like/What we don't understand/In fact it scares us/And this monster is mysterious at least/Bring your guns/Bring your knives/Save your children and your lives/We'll save our village and our lives/We'll kill the Beast" Throughout his work, Fuller plumbs the monstrous for its humanity (and the ostensibly human for their monstrosity) - see Dr. Chilton watching the exchange between Francis Dolarhyde and Reba in the penultimate episode of Hannibal for arguably the best expression of this. And perhaps he takes us there so that we might not fear it (with all the intensity of a mob come to destroy) quite so much.
I am really happy that we're beginning Hannibal week with your very insightful piece contextualizing the show within the "Fullerverse." I haven't seen many of these programs for a long time, but you have made me definitely want to go back and re-watch them. I think it's so rewarding to see Hannibal as the "fullest expression" of themes that Fuller has been exploring for many years now. While I often find the way the auteur theory is employed by scholars and critics troubling because it validates cultural hierarchies of class, taste, gender, etc., Fuller's work generally does not do this, even while he employs the tools of art cinema and other such "quality tv" markers. As you say, he is unwilling to let viewers off the hook emotionally, to detach spectacular enjoyment from the life-or-death stakes involved in that appreciation. By identifying this sensibility, as you do so well here, it helps us to appreciate the way he is using these Quality TV tools in often non-normative in ways that undercut rather than affirm cultural hierarchies.
I agree, Lori, although I’m
I agree, Lori, although I'm not so familiar with all of Fuller's work, but both Hannibal and Pushing Daisies are very dear to me. I find Fuller's use of death in these really interesting, particularly in the way he often includes it in the heightened and stylish normalcy of his texts. What fascinates me is how in doing so he manages to imbue it with seemingly unusual significance; I remember very clearly how strongly I felt the human cost of the losses in the first two seasons of Hannibal particularly; all of the deaths, not just the ones of characters we had chance to get to know. It's as if Fuller was somehow able to present death with an appropriate cosmic weight, the kind of weight that death is largely bereft of when looking at more conventional and successful examples of the horror and crime genres. Death is horrific in Hannibal, but it is not without its lure, as I explore in my piece. It is distressing and distasteful but it is simultaneously spectacular and at least visually delicious. There seems to me to be a similar, but perhaps inverted interplay present in Pushing Daisies, where the kitsch-y aesthetics and storyteller narration encourage the audience to find the text a comforting and familiar feast (like Ned's pies) but the presentation of the reanimated corpses is often gruesome and at odds with the overall tone of the show. Using death in a way that both repels and attracts the spectator is Vertigo-esque to me. The result for some might be stasis; the inability to look away from scenes where death has been present, even though we might want to. On a personal note, as someone who struggles regularly with the idea of mortality, I find something comforting in these texts. Death is often horrific and cruel and always inescapable, but in mixing in beauty and humour so that these facets are somehow inextricable makes the idea of death, at least for me, a little bit more palatable (pun intended).
Hannibal as Inverted text
I very much agree with all your points here about how Fuller has used his fascination with the monstrosity and death to "queer" or invert expectations for viewers of his series. While it is true that Fuller relies on elements of "quality TV" such as his penchant for European art film aesthetic and play with labels of quality what I think is more fascinating is how he has taken the medium of television itself and in many ways queered, inverted, and made it disconcerting for the viewer. A strategy I believe has more to do with his interest in forcing viewers to see the medium of television as an affective one rather than a simple storytelling device. Indeed, as Lori notes in much of Fuller's work there is a focus on love-either in the form of friendship, family, or romantic but not in the hetereonormative fashion that is expected of American audiences in particular. Thus I believe that by challenging the conventions of the medium of television that Fuller forces viewers to grapple with complex and indeed controversial ideas in a manner that is deeply emotionally gripping and satisfying. For Fuller has explored death, violence, gender, class and now with his work on Starz American Gods it seems he is more than prepared to challenge audience expectations about the connection between religion and mythology. In effect, for me what Fuller captures in his focus on death is a real sense of humanity and the mundane aspects that comprise being human even as most humans seek some form of escape.
And we do not include Wonderfalls???
I am happy you revised a bit, I think it is not just in thought but brevity of this venue that renders it problematic to address a body of work appropriately. I have issues beyond belief, as Brian can attest to, with celebrity culture and attest status... except for Fuller's work. And I agree that there is more to this than acceptance of death. It is the uncanny he taps into, the fear of the unknown and unbelievable human ability to adapt, change and become an active agent to change. Ultimately, Fullers work turns the prior victim into the force of nature. I have not seen Hannibal in full - for me Fuller is NOT a Horror traditionalist, obviously, as I see his other works as non-Horror, but yes, within the gothic (which I do not equate) and am not sure Hannibal fits either, btw - but to pick up Lori's notion of the Beast... with his prior work its about becoming the best version of the beast, while guided by circumstance... Anyways... some sunny week I will watch Hannibal, because of my intense love for his work... not because I am looking forward to the torture elements...
This is really interesting stuff and I wonder how much of this is linked to Fuller's role as the percieved author of the TV Hannibal especially given that it is an adaptation. Fuller as a self-proclaimed fanfiction writer has been talked about (quite rightly) and it's interesting to see how this functions when we discuss his other works. I'll confess that Hannibal is the only show I've watched of his so this is more a question than a comment. How does his position as the "author" of the Fullerverse operate given Hannibal as an adaptation. And how might this work further with American Gods which is again, adapted from an existing "text"?
Thank you for placing
Thank you for placing Hannibal in the context of Fuller's other works, of which I've only seen Pushing Daisies. I appreciate that you picked a clip from Mockingbird Lane because it, as you point out, is so reminiscent of (or, I guess, foreshadows) the opulent dinner scenes in Hannibal. As you mention in a comment, it's the emotional fall-out of death that leaves the greatest impact on the characters in Hannibal (and perhaps also on us as viewers). I really appreciated that many of the early episodes of season three circle back to the end of 2x12, and that the death(s) of Abigail is one of the over-arching themes of the show. I think TV doesn't often go into such depth when it comes to the aftermath of death (the only other moments that are memorable to me are Buffy season six and the most recent season of The Good Wife).
Add new comment