Why You Should Watch… Hannibal

The end of term is looming, and for many of us the prospect of the big bad world after graduation. So what should you do this summer? Watch some quality TV, of course! Ben Johnson explains why Sky Living’s addictive twist on the Hannibal legend is a must-watch over the long break.

Mads Mikelssen as Hannibal. ©NBC
Mads Mikelssen as Hannibal. ©NBC

Now approaching its third season, Hannibal follows the story of FBI consultant Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikelssen) as he assists profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in solving violent crimes. As a prolific serial killer, however, the murders under scrutiny are oftentimes Hannibal’s own. The real drama emerges in the cat-and-mouse games between Will and Hannibal, as Hannibal attempts to manipulate and convert Will into his ideal companion whilst eluding the FBI, and Will attempts to realise- and resist- his darker temptations. The show offers a fresh perspective on the Hannibal saga, since nearly all other Lecter-centric works feature the character either incarcerated or on the run. Giving Hannibal his freedom allows unmitigated insight into his private life, making this a uniquely compelling portrayal of the world’s most famous cannibal.

As the titular character, Mads Mikkelsen is breath-taking. He brings a sleek charm and gravitas to the role, with his Scandinavian accent emphasising the character’s obscure origins. Hugh Dancy is equally stunning as Will, and his attempts to deal with his gift of ‘pure empathy’ and Hannibal’s mind games make this a career defining performance for him. The supporting cast are also fantastic; Matrix alumnus Laurence Fishburne appears as Jack Crawford, an FBI boss brilliantly caught in the crossfire between Hannibal and Will. There are multiple strong female characters in the series, for example Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorosteck), a sensationalist tabloid reporter unafraid of Hannibal as she moves closer to the truth.  For those excited about the return of The X Files, Gillian Anderson’s role as Hannibal’s psychiatrist will make you fall in love all over again. Eddie Izzard (Abel Gideon) and Michael Pitt (Mason Verger) also star, and are similarly sensational.

This is creator Bryan Fuller’s darkest show yet, but is in many ways a logical progression in his career: his preoccupation with mortality can be tracked through both the fantastic Pushing Daisies (2007-2009), and Dead Like Me (2003-2004), with Hannibal pushing the theme even further. Unsurprisingly, the show’s graphic violence has provoked controversy from some quarters.  However, it is rarely gratuitous without purpose and crucially does not sexualise violence against women, a trope shows of a more procedural ilk are often want to do. The real horror arises from the chilling dialogue, with intermittent silences piercing the narrative to build up even more tension for the viewer.

The show can best be described as visual feast, especially in the extended, grisly ‘cooking’ scenes. The cinematography is unforgettable, particularly the lighting: it grows progressively brighter before becoming much darker in the last three episodes of each season, emphasising how Hannibal’s allure impresses itself upon the characters. My favourite element of the show, however, is probably the wardrobe. Crucially, the characters’ outfits are lavish but never superfluous. Freddie Lounds, for example, wears vibrant leathers and furs showcasing her predatory instinct, while multiple male characters begin to sartorially mirror Hannibal as they are seduced by his tasteful allure. Hannibal’s plaid suits and paisley ties are also surprisingly tasteful, despite the rather bold choice of pairing.

In this show no morsel is wasted: every scene matters. One particularly memorable moment occurs in the second season, when Hannibal claims he’s “always found the idea of death comforting. The thought that my life could end at any moment frees me to fully appreciate the beauty and art and horror of everything this world has to offer”. This quote encapsulates many of the show’s main themes: friendship, beauty, art, morality and- most of all- mortality.  The show grapples with living in a world of constant uncertainty, where it can be difficult to look and even harder to truly see.



Hannibal’s leanings towards the death drive are unexplained, but they can certainly be traced to a moment in the show’s first season. Having won a life-or-death tussle, Hannibal calmly approaches his harpsichord and begins to play the Goldberg Variations, a piece inextricably linked to the Hannibal mythos. While at first this simply appears to be a playful homage to the series’ source material, the scene is actually far more significant. Hannibal walks away from a close brush with his own mortality, and is momentarily arrested by a sense of the fleeting preciousness of life: his hand on the instrument, the well-known music played once again afresh. Sharply juxtaposed with the graphic violence of the earlier death match, the viewer receives a side-by-side glimpse at Hannibal’s relationship with art and death.

These subtle parallels and touches throughout the series make it easy to fall in love with Hannibal. Rare is the show which grapples so unflinchingly with uncomfortable issues in a cogent, intelligent way. Despite its borderline-nihilistic perspective, the show ultimately reaffirms the importance of friendship and the inherent good in most people. Surprising, yes, but incredibly effective.

The show begins its third season in June on Sky Living, and there’s only 26 episodes to catch up on. You won’t regret it. Mikelssen is a fine young cannibal, and he drives me crazy.