Situating Hannibal within the ‘Fullerverse’: Now More Than Ever Seems It Rich to Die

Curator's Note

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.

Agree with all of this. Certainly I read Fuller as very much within the horror tradition, which in literature, pulp fiction, and film has often been the province of queerly-identified directors and/or female writers (Frankenstein being the obvious parallel here, both book by Mary Shelley and the film directed by James Whale), for the very reason you suggest: because it makes central the monster and demystifies him/her, permitting identification, soliciting empathy (hello Will Graham!), and allowing their humanity (in all its complexity) to manifest. The monsters in horror have thus often acted as these points of entry into the culture for queer kids and adults. That's what I was getting at in my post below, as well--Fuller exploits that queer potential in horror in ways that push viewers to "see" beyond our accepted norms of behavior and identity and really empathize with those who don't fit, who have been "othered," and for that reason are considered "monstrous." I think of the fan who drew the picture of Abigail as both "killer" and "survivor"--she is complex, defined by her trauma, not a one-dimensional monster. I think that really resonates so much with young women today, especially, who are such a vocal portion of Hannibal's audience.

No wonder Garrett Jacob Hobbs hissing "See? See?!" is such a central image in this series. And Hannibal expressing his heartbreak in "Mizumono" (2.12) in the same way: "I let you know me. See me. I gave you a tremendous gift. But you didn't want it." If seeing the other lets us sympathize with him, as Fuller asks us to (gives us permission to?), then the series suggest that *not* recognizing that opportunity as a "gift," as something precious, is a terrible betrayal.

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 really do think that, as you say, his inversion of the traditional markers of taste and quality is so key to what he does in Hannibal - something that descends from a broader tradition of inverting the taboo. In Dead Like Me, his Grim Reapers go about their business within the wholly quotidian world of post-its and meter maids and file clerks, in which death becomes just another day at the office rather than the bogeyman we never speak of. In Hannibal, beauty itself is inverted in - as you say - wholly non-normative and even taboo ways, so that what's most beautiful (and most characteristic of 'cinematic' quality TV) is the very thing we (tell ourselves we) should not be looking at, much less appreciating.

Absolutely, yes--"inversion" is the perfect word (for many reasons--I think of how queer people used to be called "inverts, historically). A lot of the posts for this week will give great examples of that conflation of beauty and horror that never, as you suggest above, allows us to forget one or the other when we look. Our gaze is always compromised.

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).

In a way, I feel like - to echo what you've written - he takes death seriously throughout his work; which is to say, if we take the scene from Mockingbird Lane, which is arguably parodic and, as such, not serious, there were two ways to play it an subsequent scenes. One was the Addams Family way, in which death is talked about and inferred, but never something with actual bite or consequences. Whereas, even in Mockingbird Lane, not to mention Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal, death - real, irrevocable death - is always a possibility, which gives it a gravitas it simply doesn't have in many productions. And when people die in these shows - particularly Hannibal - we mourn, and that's what resonates most strongly with me. I cried more watching this show - scenes of Will and Abigail in Florence, Bella leaving Jack, and even the 'death' of the possibility of family and friendship - than any other I can remember, because the sting of death is palpable (and the same is true of the scene I linked to from Dead Like Me; it gets me every time, and that for all that the clip is isolated from the broader narrative). I've also been caught up for the past few years in thoughts of mortality, and as you say, there's a certain comfort in a show that takes those thoughts and the very real feelings they provoke seriously.

I'd agree here absolutely. For me, the allure of Hannibal is largely linked to its representations of death and mortality and the fact that it treats these seriously and with the weight they deserve. The theme of loss throughout all three seasons is, for me, a huge part of its appeal and the fact that I respond so emotionally to it in a way that I don't with other programmes that I enjoy very much. The only possible exception to this is the treatment of Chilton who is apparently able to survive everything, functioning as Fuller himself makes clear, as the "Kenny" of Hannibal. That said, by the end of the third season, Chilton is incredibly tragic to me and so again fits with this theme of loss and mortality.

IS AMAZING. This is tangential to the discussion, but I'm amazed by how he fully becomes a character in his own right, and by the end a terrifying force to be reckoned with - it's saying something when, in the end, it's Chilton's threat of wearing Hannibal's skin that seems the most frighteningly plausible. Where Mason Verger never really escapes caricature, Chilton's many lives seem to bring him back a bit different every time, as if he's the lens through which we see how a man is made a monster...?

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.

Keep in mind though that the origins text here has a different relationship to textuality and especially the televisual. Many gothic and genre series have since adapted much of the rhetoric and more from Gaiman's work. Even if in a parody style at times, such as "Hammer of Gods". Which is to say that Starz, Fuller's Hannibal audience, and those interested in Gaiman's work or pre-existing references... may not apply the term challenged... I think that Hannibal is a real turning point for Fuller's career. In the years I have been following him this is certainly the most attention he has gotten (and the most seasons), and I believe that inevitably the reading of his newer projects will be in part affected by this. I'll have to wait and see what that does...

I agree completely with what you say about how Fuller deals in affect; where so much of 'quality TV' is predicated on either critical or ironic (arguably masculinist) distance, Fuller's worlds are first and foremost about emotional investment. Particularly in the case of Hannibal, it's the emotional violence that you remember, more than the grotesque set pieces or actual violence. The gore is a means to an end, rather than climactic, so that where, in a horror text such as, say, Halloween (forgive me; my familiarity with horror films doesn't go much past Nightmare on Elm Street...), the gory set pieces are what's climactic, each one upping the ante in order to build tension, in Hannibal they are more a means to an emotional end. At least for me, I find I care about who did what to whom, and why, more than I'm ever interested in the minutiae of the various crimes. The scenes I have such a difficult time rewatching aren't the ones that are gory, but the ones grounded in betrayal. It reads to me as unapologetic melodrama and, as others will be talking about this week, the entire production is so visually and emotionally lush - the very antithesis of the distanced production - that to love it, to my mind, is to allow for the possibility that there can be art in passion and quality in romance where we've grown so used to dismissing it as just so much (feminized) excess.

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...

In all honesty, I haven't yet watched it. And I agree, he's very much working in a gothic frame. As Allison says, Frankenstein is one of its clearest antecedents, but so too are things like The Phantom of the Opera and all those stories where we are asked to sympathize with the beast/creature/monster even as our hopes for him are thwarted in the end. So many previous texts have taken us to the edge, asked us to long for the girl to understand and remain with the monster, only to succumb to propriety and the reestablishment of a normative moral order in the end. Fuller is playing in this sandbox, and his own take is singularly satisfying for the gothic-loving girl in me.

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"?

In truth, for me, Fuller-as-showrunner-auteur is something I kind of struggle with (in an early draft of this, I think I went so far to say that he defied typical auteurist understandings). On the one hand, these themes that recur throughout the works of his that I've seen do play into a clear sense of that underlying preoccupation so critical to auteurism. But at the same time, paratextual discussions of what the actors themselves bring to their roles (nowhere more important? or maybe just poignant than in the end, where the decision to embrace and fall seems to have been arrived at wholly independently of what's scripted - and all the talk of the other way that scene was imagined by Mikkelsen and Dancy), as well as Fuller's own penchant for surrounding himself with familiar faces (Caroline Dhavernas, Lee Pace, Ellen Muth, Ellen Greene, Raul Esparza, Eddie Izzard, etc., among the actors, and Guillermo Navarro, as well) and his participation in collaborative script writing suggests something more than just the brainchild of one man. And when considered against the backdrop of just how much Hannibal - of all his shows - seems to openly reject the high/low distinctions that tend to characterize contemporary stabs at auteurism, it doesn't quite seem to fit... Perhaps, if he's inverting Quality TV with Hannibal, so too might he be considered to be inverting auteurism - embodying certain of the characteristics of an auteur, but within a firmly collaborative context?

I think the discussion around the final scenes of season three is really interesting here, Lori, as you point out. The difference between the fall scene in the script and as it appears on-screen is staggering in terms of how much the performance adds to and changes that scene. I'm not a fan of auteur readings personally especially in TV which is so hugely collaborative but I'd never really considered before how much Fuller and Hannibal reject this. Having not seen any of his other shows, I think I've probably not realised the extent to which the same actors have appeared across them - another reason why I'm really keen to seek out his other work now.

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).

I haven't seen The Good Wife, but I agree about Buffy - they share a sense that death has fallout, that people grieve and don't move on so easily, and yes, yes, Abigail is so poignant in this sense. I half feel like they were trying to see what they might get away with on NBC through Mockingbird Lane... kind of a dry run, if you will. ;)

I highly recommend The Good Wife (I'm sure you've heard that before!). Yes, I can see that. I cannot at all remember this show being on NBC--was it a midseason replacement or a summer show? I'm usually pretty on top of network premieres, yet this one is completely absent in my mind.

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