Two nights ago, I watched the series finale of Hannibal. Major spoilers follow, so if you haven’t watched the show, or if you don’t care to know how it ends, go away.
I’m surprised that I liked Hannibal so much. I’m surprised I liked it at all. I’ve never been one for crime shows, let alone cannibal ones — I’m squeamish when it comes to gore, and the first time I tried to watch Hannibal, years ago, I had to throw in the towel as soon as Hannibal slapped a pair of human lungs on a cutting board. I hate horror in almost every iteration, with very few exceptions (horror that takes place in space is usually exempt, as it will never apply to my life specifically).
What I expected going into Hannibal was a crime procedural with the added bonus of a cannibal. And, to be completely honest, fervent recommendations from several friends and Twitter mutuals aside, I started watching for what I had been led to believe would be a show rife with homoerotic subtext between two attractive male characters (Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, respectively). In that vein, I expected something like Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, a crime-solving duo prone to gazing at each other meaningfully while engaging in heterosexual relationships and reminding viewers at every opportunity that we are, in fact, watching two straight men desperately clutching at each other, not a gay couple.
That is not what Hannibal gave me.
Hannibal, as anyone who’s seen it will tell you, is a beautiful show. It’s not just beautifully shot, each frame aesthetically pleasing in its own way, but it’s often gorgeously abstract to the point of experimental. The sex scenes, which are few and far between, are so “artsy” as to render the human forms almost unrecognizable, with the focus placed on movement and color and form.
Even the crime scenes, somehow, are beautiful. And if not beautiful, then visually arresting in a compelling way — disturbing, not disgusting.
But Hannibal isn’t just a pretty show about catching murderers. It’s not even about Hannibal cleverly misleading and evading the FBI for three seasons, although that is part of it. From the show’s dark and enthralling aesthetic emerges complex characters and dynamic relationships. Foremost is the relationship between Will and Hannibal, which is hard to define at the start.
Will Graham is a man whose empathy is so strong that he can not only understand, but become the killers he seeks to capture. Hannibal, Will’s unofficial psychiatrist, is drawn to Will. He’s intrigued by Will’s ability to empathize with killers, making Will one of the only people who could truly understand Hannibal as he truly is — underneath the person suit.
It’s the manipulative, intimate, toxic, and fiercely codependent relationship between Will and Hannibal that is the emotional core of the show. By season two, we are fully aware that this isn’t a crime procedural; we don’t care about the peripheral serial killers as much as we care about Hannibal and Will’s mind games. “Mind games” is a simplistic way of putting one of the most nuanced and frankly fucked up relationships I’ve come across in fiction, but it gets the point across. What has also become abundantly clear by season two (and teased in season one) is that Hannibal is a love story.
Looking back on the series as a whole, now that I’ve finished it, I’m struck by the fact that the most powerful moments in the show — moments that are meant to cause the biggest emotional reactions in the viewer — are all defining moments in Will and Hannibal’s romance. In shows like Game of Thrones, there are certainly character moments like these, but they’re rarely the major “oh fuck!” moments, the scenes that shock viewers into reacting on a massive emotional scale.
Uninitiated, this is what I would have expected from Hannibal.
Instead, the “oh fuck” moments in Hannibal hinge entirely on the viewer’s investment in Hannibal and Will as a romantic couple.
The finale of season two stands out to me as not only one of the best season finales I’ve ever seen, but one of the most heartbreaking moments between onscreen lovers. If Hannibal were the show I’d expected it to be, and which it absolutely would have been had anyone lesser than Bryan Fuller taken the reins, the season two finale would still leave viewers in shock: “Hannibal knew the plan all along! Abigail Hobbs is alive! Everyone is bleeding and dying, and Hannibal got away! What the fuck!”
But that’s not what leaves us reeling, what reaches into our chests and presses on our hearts. It is Will’s betrayal, and Hannibal’s heartbreak. It’s the mutual acknowledgment that these men affected one another so deeply that they have both undergone a significant change: Will has become more like Hannibal, and Hannibal has taken on some part of Will. Most importantly, they have come to understand one another on a deep, intimate level.
“I let you know me. See me. I gave you a rare gift. But you didn’t want it.”
This exchange between Hannibal and Will is arguably the most emotionally impactful in the series; certainly the most pivotal moment between the two characters, until the season three finale. Hannibal has opened himself wide to Will, pulled apart his ribs and exposed his beating heart, and instead of treating that heart with care, Will crushes it. What hurts the most (for Hannibal, Will, or me — I’m not sure) is that there is a very real part of Will that wants to run away with Hannibal, wants to leave the world behind and exist in their own perfect, elevated state of being; understanding the world together as nobody else can.
There’s no ambiguity here. This isn’t a subtextual reading of the episode; I’m not relying on implied feelings that can only exist between the lines. This is overtly a scene of romantic heartbreak. If it weren’t clear enough, Hannibal later (in season three) leaves a gift for Will to find: the mutilated body of a victim, broken and folded inside out, sculpted to resemble the shape of a broken heart.
“Is Hannibal in love with me?” Will asks, near the end of season three, finally understanding. Of course Hannibal is. Does Will also ache for him? He does. Of course he does. When he and Hannibal finally kill together, Will with his hands and Hannibal with his teeth, they are both transformed — Will into a killer, and Hannibal into something akin to human.
It’s the final scene in the show. The two men hold each other, embracing, breathless and bleeding. Will has given in to Hannibal, willingly and wholeheartedly. They have reached life’s apex — together.
Hannibal doesn’t end with a cannibal in custody. It doesn’t end with Will finally escaping the influence and manipulation of a monster he once called a friend. That is the ending I expected, but it’s not what Hannibal gave me.
The story ends as it was always meant to end. In the culmination of a love story.