I would not recommend spending a day or two gorging on the first season of "Hannibal," and not just because the very idea of a gluttonous binge would offend the refined sensibilities of the show's title character.
And yet I very much hope people catch up on this fascinating NBC drama -- in a measured fashion -- over the summer.
The show's first season could be hard to watch at times -- so much so that I understand why some people had to give up on it or couldn't get on board. And yet the very things that made it challenging also made it one of the most compelling broadcast-network shows of the past few years. As the capstone of a fine season that explored the outer limits of identity, manipulation and connection, Thursday's finale was transfixing.
All season long, "Hannibal" showed its title character serving a variety of gourmet meals (we still don't know exactly what was in them, and that question added a frisson of horror to each bite the characters took). But Hannibal's ultimate creation was Will Graham himself: The doctor used the FBI investigator's capacity for extraordinary empathy and his psychological and physical distress -- the rarest of rare ingredients -- to bring about a transformation. Will went to Hannibal for treatment, but he could not have anticipated what that would involve.
Was Hannibal's transformation of Will successful -- did his signature dish turn out the way the doctor wanted it to? And what, exactly, has Will figured out about his elusive therapist? Hannibal's addiction is to control, but does he have true mastery over Will? We won't know until the drama returns and Hannibal's ongoing seduction of Will continues.
And it is a seduction, at least on Hannibal's side. The doctor offered Will elaborate meals, deep conversation and honest concern about his unusual patient, whom he also regarded as a friend. You could see the time they spent together as therapeutic sessions, or as a series of dates. Platonic ones, of course, but as intense as the most vivid budding romance.
Yet Hannibal's pursuit of Will revealed the doctor's essential narcissism: Hannibal couldn't consider his conquest a success until Will was just like him. Hannibal didn't want a partner to end his palpable loneliness, he wanted a mirror to reflect what he regarded as his finest accomplishment: His ability to take lives for what he no doubt thinks are noble and aesthetically justifiable reasons. Hannibal wants Will to be a willing accomplice, someone to help justify and glorify what he does. For all his intelligence and erudition, the sociopathic Hannibal doesn't understand that a prop can't be a partner.
Will has a moral center that should protect him from Hannibal's manipulations -- doesn't he? That's not entirely clear. As Will lost touch with reality over the course of Season 1, Hannibal was one of his only tethers to what remained of his life (Hannibal made sure of that). Yet in the gripping final hour of the season, Will made several deductions that could be dangerous for Hannibal, who prides himself on wrapping up every loose end. At this point, Will's not just a loose end, he's a loose cannon.
The show's greatest accomplishment was making us see Hannibal's side of things clearly without making us run screaming from the entire scenario. It helped that we rarely saw Hannibal himself commit acts of violence. More importantly, Mads Mikkelsen did stellar, subtle work all season as the lead character. He made Hannibal's pursuit of beauty -- in his surroundings, in his clothing, in his companions, in his food -- sensual rather than fussy. Even though we knew how much he was manipulating Will, we could understand why Will gravitated to this man, whose reserve implied strength, dignity and a steady, trustworthy relationship to truth.
Hannibal is a monster, of course, but Mikkelsen's performance and the show's great writing for the character limned a portrait of a very human monster, one whose terrible actions begin in a somewhat understandable place. Hannibal wants to end the loneliness that he and Will both feel as psychological outliers. The doctor's desire for connection doesn't mitigate his crimes, but the understandable aspects of his motivations -- and, let's face it, the less savory aspects of his desire for absolute control -- make for very watchable television.
Watchable, if draining at times. Toward the end of the season, Will's breakdown became relentless, and it made one wonder if the man had ever gotten a good night's sleep or woken up in dry clothes, rather than a sweat-soaked T-shirt. The show's commitment to its core ideas is admirable, but I hope in the second season it gives itself a break from time to time. Some of the lab crew around Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne) occasionally functioned as mild comic relief, and the show could use more of that kind of thing. Nobody wants "Hannibal" to start relying on "CSI: Miami"-style puns, but a little more tonal variety would be most welcome. A show that is going to take violence this seriously needs to also let its audience exhale once in a while.
Over the course of the season, there were some logic problems and plot holes that I was willing to wave away, given how good the rest of the show was. Would a post-arrest Will really be processed by his own FBI team? Would crime journalist Freddie Lounds -- my least favorite character -- really not know enough to avoid being trapped alone with a serial killer? Isn't the FBI team a little too calm and even blasé about all of the horrific crimes it encounters on a daily basis?
Normally, those would be the kinds of things that would make me begin to disinvest in a show, but the lead characters in "Hannibal," its gorgeous grimness and its thoughtfulness not only kept me on board but made me invest more deeply in the world each week. As the fascinating first season progressed, I even began to come to terms with my biggest problem with the show, which, oddly enough, wasn't the gruesome displays that Will and Jack's team often encountered.
I find the sound design of the show oppressive and distracting at times, especially if you listen with headphones, as I often do. I found myself often wondering why certain conversation scenes had to have any kind of noise behind them; why not just let the people talk? The performers, set designers and directors were all very capable of establishing moods and vibes, and there were times that the percolating, off-kilter noises didn't reinforce the mood but rather threatened to overwhelm it.
I'm fully willing to admit that this might be a glitch with me, rather than the show (and it's less of a problem if I watch the show on a TV rather than on a laptop). I should add that the soundtrack contained many moments of subtle beauty and, at times (in the finale, for example), it greatly added to the show's atmosphere of classy claustrophobia. But the sound-design issue is in line with the show's occasional problems with tonal relentlessness.
This is a show that works very hard to accomplish serious goals that clearly matter a great deal to everyone involved. "Hannibal" wants us to understand the effects of violence on Will (something that Hugh Dancy portrayed with heartbreaking vulnerability and intensity). It wants us to see that the impulses behind awful, unforgivable acts can begin in understandable desires for emotional intimacy and connection. It intelligently explores the question of whether sensitive, brilliant people get to operate by different rules, or if the framework of morality should be the same for everyone.
All of those goals are laudable, and cheers to "Hannibal" for doing such an evocative job of exploring them. As was the case with the similar "American Horror Story: Asylum," the directors of "Hannibal" found ways to convey terror, horror and tenderness through visual poetry; you won't find a better directed show on network television. If the show is guilty of one crime, it's that it sometimes fails to see that there can be too much of a good thing (or a creepy thing). But that one flaw is certainly outweighed by the show's many accomplishments.
It's a testament to the show's substance and style that I will remember not just the cool yet charged conversations between Will and Hannibal, between Will and his therapist (Gillian Anderson) and between Hannibal and Jack, but also their meals, the rooms they moved in and the horrific yet memorable images they encountered. I'll remember the deliciousness of the cat-and-mouse game Will and Hannibal played toward the end of the season. I'll remember the wide blue eyes of Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), as she realized her mentor had fewer limits on his behavior than her despicable father did.
I wish I could get that human totem pole out of my mind.
Or do I?