Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hannibal is the Dexter we really want

The Hannibal Lecter we all know and love on the big screen in Michael Mann's Miami Vice-ish Manhunter, the iconic Silence of the Lambs, the less-iconic Hannibal, the where-is-Anthony-Hopkins Hannibal Rising, and the we-swear-it's-not-Manhunter Red Dragon has come to the living room on NBC's Hannibal.

(Some #spoilers for Dexter below, but all very general.)

That might make it seem like the Lecterverse is getting a little overwrought. At this point the serial killer genre starting to feel a little crowded, too, with Hannibal, AMC's bizarro-awesome Bates Motel, the wasn't-this-an-Ashley-Judd-movie-in-the-1990s-styled the Following and of course Showtime's Dexter. Dexter is the eldest of the lot and has the most in common with Hannibal.

In many ways Will Graham (the familiar hero of Manhunter/Red Dragon) and Hannibal are two sides of Dexter's character: Will is the socially maladjusted and forensically gifted half, while Hannibal is Dexter's dark passenger with Harry's controls. If anything, they're even more exaggerated. Will is more socially awkward than Dexter ever was, so much so that he can only befriend animals; Hannibal's control of his urge to kill is absolute but his willingness to repress it nonexistent.

Where the two shows diverge is their approach to who has the upper hand. Dexter made a narratively interesting choice by making the serial killer a sympathetic underdog. Hannibal lets Hannibal run the show - there's cat and mouse, but Hannibal is certainly the cat.

In many ways Dexter's evolution seems to have been a de-evoltution, the gradual decline of a serial killer from the peak of his abilities to his downfall. Every season finds Dexter discarding more and more of Harry's rules, making more and stupider mistakes, and getting ever closer to being caught. Maybe that's the end of the series - and that would give the show an interesting angle on the genre. In the meantime, though, there's much less of a sense of danger to Dexter himself. In the first season, we could believe that Dexter could kill any one of the characters if it weren't for his rules, and his dark passenger monologues were sometimes frightening. These days we wonder if he can pull off a kill without getting hurt or caught.

Hannibal on the other hand is at the beginning of the peak of his power. The events of Hannibal take place before and in between stories we're familiar with, so it's uncharted territory. We're used to Hannibal in a cage or on the run. The iconic image is Hannibal behind glass or behind a protective mask (see title image). Now, he's free, walking around, analyzing some people and dining on others.

The best trick Hannibal plays is convincing you of how smart Hannibal feels. Mads Mikkelsen is a far better actor than I would have guessed from his villainy in Casino Royale, and he's given excellent material to work with. He's smart in a way that the viewer can see without the visual aids that Benedict Cumerbatch gets on Sherlock. He's smart in a way that lets you watch him think and manipulate, rather than a "gotcha" at the end. Watching Hannibal, we believe he's a genius.

Mads Mikkelsen may not have Anthony Hopkins' stare, but he's a worthy successor. He certainly outdoes Gaspard Ulliel and Brian Cox in the role. And he brings the scary back to the killer TV show.

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