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'This is my design'

Review of Hannibal season one

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Will Graham says this signature phrase within the first two minutes of the series premiere, "This is my design." The sentence applies to far more than just the crime scenes of NBC’s Hannibal. Those four words are incredibly revealing about each character's nature and the webs they all are caught in.

Spoilers ahead.

The show opens with Graham at a crime scene reverse engineering the murder from the perspective of the killer. Graham’s unspecified empathy disorder allows him to enter the minds of killers and to understand them. We next see Graham teaching a lecture about catching murderers in an FBI classroom. Graham asks the class to consider why the victims were chosen to die, “Tell me your design. Tell me who you are.” Those two sentences reveal the aim of the show. Rather than the traditional whodunit murder-of-the-week, the show flips the focus to the people investigating the gruesome murders and explores the relationships between them, who each of these people are and how they exploit and manipulate one another.

Based on the Thomas Harris novels (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal), NBC’s Hannibal revolves around the relationship of the show's titular character Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and FBI special investigator Will Graham, before the events in the books — before Graham has caught Lecter. Graham suffers from a string of mental disorders and neuroses that combine to give him a unique gift for catching killers, but sometimes at the cost of his own mental health. To keep Graham’s mind in check, Lecter is brought in as his psychiatrist. The first season follows the budding friendship between Graham and Lecter, with much of the intrigue involving how Hannibal wavers between real friendship with Graham and a desire to use Graham’s mind as a science project.

Watching the premiere the first time, the pacing seems horrendous. The jumps between time, characters and settings are almost nauseating. But this is not your typical prime-time police procedural. In retrospect, everything does makes sense, though this is not a compliment to the writing. The conclusion, where Graham and Lecter confront the serial killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, and wind up shooting him, seems a little too convenient. However, this is also the first time the audience sees Lecter's own insidious intentions.

Graham’s grotesque dreams and hallucinations, the crime scenes and, of course, his adorable relationship with dogs are all highlights of the episode. But what really got me to the second episode was the imagery. Every shot is striking, equal parts beautiful and unsettling, right down to a scene in a bathroom that is highly reminiscent of The Shining. As the series unfolds, the development of the characters and the growth of their relationships becomes as compelling as the beautifully rendered gore.

Although Graham is the main character, it is Lecter’s design that drives the plot. What he is most interested in is feeding chaos, seeing how events unfold and then containing it in a way that allows him ultimate control over others’ fate. When Lecter says to Bedelia Du Maurier, his own psychiatrist, “I see [Graham’s] madness and I want to contain it like an oil spill,” he leaves out the part about wanting to release the oil and watch it pollute the environment first. Even if he isn’t the direct source of violence, he guides it in ways that lead to higher body counts. Lecter offers the serial killers various clues, setting them up for more bloodshed and eventual capture. Lecter also conceals Graham’s medical condition — his hallucinations are the result of advanced encephalitis — to push him further into what he believes is his own insanity.

If Lecter is the puppet master, his most intriguing puppet is Abigail Hobbs — the daughter of the serial killer — whom Graham and Lecter feel responsible for. She is arguably the most fascinating character I’ve ever seen on television. While her appearances are not as frequent as some of the other characters, she steals the show. She presents an interesting character study into the aftermath of the victim experience. This offers another dimension to an already complex show. She is situated in a gray area and her true emotions and motivations often shrouded in mystery. Who is Abigail now? How does she reconcile her past? The audience slowly receives morsels about her past relationship with her father and the impact that Lecter’s manipulations now have on her life. The most emotionally charged scene in the season is in the second last episode when Abigail begins to learn the truth about one of her two surrogate fathers — Graham and Lecter.

The season finale is the culmination of Lecter’s designs. Unfortunately it was clear this was the direction the finale would be heading. There were predictable moments, which brought down the tension they were trying to build up. Thankfully some of the major questions were left unanswered and issues unresolved. The most surprising and perhaps most disturbing scene in the series comes at the end when Lecter discusses the morality of eating controversial meat with his psychiatrist, Du Maurier, over dinner — subtext being Lecter’s cannibalism. This little ambiguous morsel is sure to leave fans salivating for the following season to begin.

Series developer and writer Bryan Fuller (also known for Dead Like Me) has plans for seven seasons. The plots from Thomas Harris’s novels will be the basis for seasons four, five and six, with the rest of Hannibal consisting of original material.

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