One night last month, I found myself crouched on the floor in my room, peeking nervously underneath my bed. I wasn't searching for a mouse, or a cockroach, or any other kind of apartment vermin. I was trying to reassure myself that a killer wasn't lurking down there, waiting for the opportune moment to grab me by the ankle.
Obviously, I'm embarrassed that I stooped so low to give myself some peace of mind, but I had a bit of an excuse: I had just watched an episode of NBC's Hannibal featuring an especially chilling bedroom scene. As an avowed hater of horror movies, gore, and even action films with too much bloodshed, this episode was pretty much everything I've spent most of my life avoiding. And yet... for the last several weeks, in every free moment, I keep finding myself back on the couch, clutching a pillow in fear while tearing through another episode of Hannibal's first season.
How did I, a card-carrying member of the Incredibly Squeamish Club, become a massive fan of a show about a murderous cannibal? In preparation for Saturday's series finale, I'm here to make one last pitch to all my fellow cowards: If you like cerebral, surreal, thrilling TV, you need to watch Hannibal — even if it makes you wade through buckets of blood to enjoy it.
I'm not going to downplay Hannibal's haunting and disturbing scenes, which often come as Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), the agent in charge of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, investigates the aftermath of some particularly peculiar crimes with the help of FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), psychiatry professor Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), and forensic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). But Hannibal is so much more than horror. Creator and showrunner Bryan Fuller has created an immersive and nightmarish universe in which his characters live, die, and kill while enjoying suspiciously decadent dinner parties. To separate any specific incident from the show's larger, deliberately plotted context would be useless — like Hannibal slicing off a victim's limb only to throw it away (we all know he uses it to make a mean osso buco).
And unlike the guts and gore that turn up in your average cop drama, the violence in Hannibal serves a purpose. After a few episodes, even the biggest scaredy cats will be mesmerized by the strange, grotesque beauty of Fuller's creation: A bird's-eye view of bodies in a carefully arranged murder tableau almost resembles a renaissance painting; a master musician-cum-murderer turns his victims' guts into strings and their bodies into cellos so he can literally find the music within them; a dead person isn't found hanging from a tree, he becomes the tree. Hannibal's murderers are deranged artists making violent poetry, and the show's cinematography mimics that perverted beauty, lingering on a sumptuous shot of a bloody steak, or even tunneling through an opera singer's pulsating vocal chords as she sings an aria.
Hannibal's meditation on brutality's warped grace stretches beyond aesthetics. Even the show's most gruesome scenes almost always serve as a counterpoint to the real meat of the show: the complex relationship between Hannibal Lecter and his friend, patient, enemy, and ally Will Graham. Through philosophical, often coded dialogue and sessions of unabashed psychoanalysis, Lecter and Graham's relationship gradually evolves from a simple (though enthralling) cat-and-mouse chase to a bond that's deepened by the unspeakable urges that fester in each character's psyche.
For anyone who's even vaguely familiar with Silence of the Lambs and the other previous Hannibal books and movies, it's hardly a spoiler to say that Will does eventually discover where Hannibal is getting such a steady supply of top-shelf meat. It's a testament to the series' quality that things only get more interesting and more repulsive from there. Though Hannibal's later episodes certainly revel in their darkness — this is a show about a sociopathic cannibal, after all — they never fall into self-caricature, and Hannibal's surreal third season takes risks where most other shows would have been content to continue replicating the same formula. A show that's so assured of its signature brand of macabre elegance, yet so unafraid of upending viewers' expectations, deserves much more attention than it's getting.
None of this praise is to say that I've moved beyond squirming, hiding behind pillows, or even yelling at the screen when Hannibal unfolds its latest horrors. But I keep coming back because I trust the brain behind the gore. It took some guts for me to start — but the occasional nightmare is a price I'm willing to pay for watching one of the most inventive, well-acted, and strangest shows on television.