In every showrunner’s career, there comes the time to ask the question: What do you do when you know the end is coming?
Most shows peter out, some shows use the knowledge that the end has come as an opportunity to deliver on old promises, but for a select few, the cancellation bells trigger a kind of creative inferno, less a last kiss before dying than a last spit-in-the-face fuck you. In a feat of almost anti-irony, given the show’s fixation on the link between death and creativity, Hannibal has turned out to have taken the latter approach.
The post-cancellation fuck you season has a long and storied history on television, but it’s not every show that can pull it off. This kind of coup de grâce requires a show that delivers greatness regularly, but still seems like it’s being cut off before reaching its full potential. Before Hannibal, maybe the best example was the third season of Arrested Development, its final season on Fox, which escalated the show’s already meta sense of style and humor into a hyper meta commentary on the relationship between networks, artists, and fans, going so far as to include references in the show to the fan movement Save Our Bluths and their website saveourbluths.com.
The criticism of Hannibal, and really of Brian Fuller’s work in general, has always been that it’s more style than substance, too highbrow in its tastes to appeal to mainstream audiences. But despite its reputation for artiness, Hannibal has always had a sense of humor about itself, and there has been a taste of the Arrested Development spirit this season, with characters commenting on their own “niche appeal” and overreliance on aesthetics.
But meta humor was the heart of Arrested Development, not Hannibal, and what is making this season of Hannibal so thrilling is in watching a show with such a strong sense of identity embrace that identity fully. Fuller and his writers have responded to Hannibal’s impending cancellation with a feverish escalation in abstraction and aestheticism, and what was always the most stylish show on television has slipped into the realm of the surreal.
Since its first season, Hannibal has built its episodes in a structure that fluctuates between plot and fantasy, dipping into the minds of its two pathologically murder-obsessed lead characters, and then dipping out when it became time to watch the traditional plot unfold. But crucially, in the first two seasons the distinction between what was happening in the minds of the characters and what was happening in the world around them seemed clear. We always knew in advance when we were watching Will’s visions of murder or when we were moving forward or backward in the show’s timeline. The show still featured surreal elements, but those elements existed within a linear world.
The third season has made the choice to erode the distinction between reality and fantasy, past and present. It’s not just that I don’t know where this season is going, it’s that I don’t know where any given scene is going. Hannibal is breaking its own rules. I watch every scene on the edge of my seat, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Hannibal can be a gruesome show, focused as much on the material flesh-and-blood nature of murder as it is on the intellectual reasoning behind murder. In Hannibal we are privy to the textures of death—to its sounds, its smells, its tastes. It’s explicit in a way few shows dare, and the promise of such intimate and up close violence combined with a genuine inability as an audience member to build expectations makes for a thrilling watch. Every scene could be a murder scene, and the murder scenes aren’t obligatory, they are genuinely frightening, genuinely shocking.
Of course, it helps that amid this escalation of its artistic principles, Hannibal has managed to retain the assets that made it worth watching in the first place. If you’re going to push your network TV show into art house territory, it helps to have a team of actors like Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, and the once recurring, now regular Gillian Anderson on your team. And as much as critics have said Hannibal would’ve been better off on cable, it’s the pockets of the network that made it possible for Fuller to recruit artists able to realize his vision at every level of production. Be it craftsmen, cinematographers, visual effects artists, everyone on the Hannibal team is firing at full cylinders, and never more so than in this season.
Faced with cancellation, with no Netflix or Hulu savior in sight, Hannibal is done trying to please the masses. Instead, for the faithful few who tune in—Saturdays at 10 on NBC!—Hannibal offers the rare sight of a team of highly skilled artists working to please no one but themselves.