Due to a technical malfunction and my back up plan failing, we ended up watching the Episode 1, Series 1 of Hannibal. It is my new dark/ Gothic series du jour as I wait for the return of Penny Dreadful.
It is a challenging watch: dark, scintillating, slick and incredibly visceral. I usually find that I can’t eat meat for a good 24 hours after watching an episode. It is also problematic which becomes abundantly clear during this episode. The storyline follows a man who kills young women who look like his daughter as a way of coping with the fact that she is leaving to go to university. The murderer is a hunter and ‘respects’ his victims by using all of them. (Hint: he and his unknowing family eat them). In a key scene, he states about killing a deer: ‘It isn’t murder if you use all of them’. Given the viewers knowledge of the crimes of Hannibal Lecter, this episode immediately engages with concepts of consuming meat, how we kill, and who we think it is acceptable to kill. The murderer in this episode is no sadist – he does not torture the girls and gives them the painless death that most people hope for their chosen meat.
The key interplay in finding the murderer is between Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne), a behavioural psychologist in the FBI; Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a lecturer in the psychology of serial killers who was rejected by the FBI due to failing a personality test; and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who is the psychiatrist Jack asks to protect/ work with Will. Mikkelsen is excellent as Lecter – seductive but still keeping the viewer uncomfortably aware of the danger inherent in his presence. It is suggested from the outset that Will failed the personality test due to being on the autistic spectrum. Will’s awkward social interactions – his closest companions are stray dogs who takes into his home – are contrasted with the cultured and charming Lecter.
However, whilst it is positive to see a character on the autistic spectrum presented on our screen, there are a few issue with the presentation of Will. Firstly, Will’s ability to get into the mind of a killer is directly associated with autism. This gives the impression that all forms of behavioural issues and mental illness are linked. Secondly, secondary characters regularly treat Will as though he is a potential threat. Yet these secondary characters are FBI agents who specialise in abnormal psychology and would in all likelihood be aware that Will’s autism does not make him any more dangerous that other characters. Thirdly, the two women who show interest in Will do so in a way that suggests he is a lost puppy (made more explicit by his connection to dogs) that they want to ‘look after’ or ‘fix’ as opposed to a functional person in his own right. This trope of presenting Will as adorably damaged is insulting to both the character of Will as someone on the autistic spectrum and the female characters who show romantic interest in him.
Just as worrying is that the first episode centres around dead young women. It should be noted that later episodes feature a vast array of dead people but the lingering shots of dead young women in this episode almost made me stop watching. During the show we were in agreement that frankly the trope of the young, female victim was overdone and tired. We also took the time to research if it was even realistic – and it isn’t. Most figures suggest that you are more likely to be murdered if you are male and female murder victims tend to be killed by their partners and not a serial killer who carves his victims into disturbing tableaux. The image of the dead female can be seen in everything from fashion shoots to the anatomical Venus. There is a prurience in the desire to see dead women, which is played on in this episode of Hannibal, that moves wanting to see under the clothes and sexual penetration to wanting to see under the skin and violent incision. Elizabeth Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body was the text that I read as an undergraduate that helped elucidate the uncanny sexualisation of the female corpse that recurs in many texts – especially Gothic ones.
Of course, the obsession with the female corpse, moved us to the next question in regards to Hannibal. Why are we so interested in psychopaths? Silence of the Lambs is often held up as the archetype of the seductive villain. Yet Iago was more engaging than Othello long before Hannibal. And is the very act of watching programmes like Hannibal betraying our own prurient nature and perverse desire to see the horrific acts laid bare for us? Not only do we want our killers to murder repeatedly we also want them to do so in increasingly bizarre and theatrical ways. We want a theme and, more importantly, a pattern. It is this pattern that can then allow us to get under the serial killer’s skin in order to understand why they are killing and thus discover their identity.
Hannibal fulfils this desire in an effective way – it mixes hyper-real caricatures of serial killers with a muted visual palate, crisp acting, and understated tone. What it fails to do, and this is its biggest downfall, is that it does not critique why we find such a morbid subject matter so entertaining. Perhaps there is no single answer to why this is the case but I would be interested in watching a drama about serial killers that at least tried to engage with the question.