Warning: contains spoilers for the Hannibal season 3 finale.
By now it’s widely accepted that we are living through a Golden Age of television, where arguably the biggest problem for any enthusiast of quality entertainment is that there is just too much good stuff to keep up with. Even strange shows with small cult audiences are finding second life thanks to streaming services that are remarkably savvy at marketing to fervent fandoms. But every now and then a stark reminder comes along that even the highest quality is no guarantee of longevity in the cutthroat world of television.
Hannibal, frankly, deserved better. It’s hard to think of another recent show that was as daring, original, and left of center as this reboot of a horror franchise long considered past its prime. And maybe had it started out on cable its low viewership would not have been such a big problem, but even the show’s most fervent fans have to admit that it’s not for everyone. I love Hannibal with all my heart, but plenty of people I know with similar taste in television find it too strange, too inaccessible, too disturbing. And hey, if that’s how you feel, I can hardly argue.
Maybe everything that made Hannibal special was what eventually doomed it, what eventually meant that not even the white knight of online streaming services would swoop in at the eleventh hour and save it. Hope might still be high for a revival, but even Bryan Fuller is now admitting that it’s looking unlikely. And while I will never argue against more Hannibal and in a perfect world we would get to see Fuller’s vision play out in full, somehow I’m less upset than I thought I would be. The season three finale was full of surprises, but the biggest one for me was just how satisfied I felt after the credits rolled. This was not the cliffhanger ending of the previous two years that left me desperate to see the next chapter. This is a conclusion that, as someone who has adored this franchise from an inappropriately young age, I could happily accept as the ultimate end of Hannibal Lecter.
Don’t get me wrong; I would commit probably some Lecter-esque acts myself in order to ensure a season four. The implicit set up is for Will and Hannibal to go on the run in a similar manner to how Clarice and Hannibal are left at the end of the final novel, a sort of ‘murder husbands’ story that most fans have probably been hoping for since the start. And the notion of Fuller’s take on The Silence Of The Lambs is probably the Holy Grail for Lecter fans. Just thinking about Clarice Starling and Will Graham interacting is enough to get my heart racing. And yet, I no longer feel the need for more.
Taken as they are, the three seasons of Hannibal to date tell a mostly complete, satisfying tale. At its heart this has always been a heterosexual love story, the tale of two men with opposing moralities, two men who have every reason to kill each other but are tragically doomed to be the only people who will ever understand each other. It’s a story that is genius in its simplicity and how that simplicity breeds complexity. It takes a couple of brief scenes from a thriller novel written in 1982 and expands them into an epic saga of tragic and broken characters drawn into the chess game between two destructive people who are fixated on each other, to the detriment of everyone else in their lives. The entire story is depicted in a visual style that reflects the way the protagonists see the world, showing us the beauty that Hannibal Lecter sees in death, the beauty he spends three seasons trying to show Will Graham. And in the final line of the final episode, Will finally recognises it. Covered in the blood of each other and their shared victim, Hannibal and Will embrace as Will simply says ‘It’s beautiful.’ Then he pulls them both over a cliff.
It’s an enormous moment. Earth shattering for the series. From the very first episode Hannibal wanted Will to embrace his own darkness, and while he came very close, those flirtations were always in service of bringing Hannibal down. They could always be excused to himself and to others as part of his long con, essential deviations in the service of the greater good.
Killing Dolarhyde was first and foremost an act of self-defence. But what is so crucial is that Will has no reason to lie to Hannibal at the end. There are no more games being played. Will knows who Hannibal is and Hannibal knows who Will is. As Hannibal says, “the bluff is eroding,” and by the time they fall, it has gone altogether. Will’s acknowledgement of the beauty he sees in murder is crossing a crucial line, a line that leaves him with one option; if he can’t be a good person, he simply can’t be. And if Will dies, Hannibal goes with him.
Obviously the intention here is that they survive. Fuller has been open about wanting a fourth season and there is no story without these two characters. If the show continues I would suggest that Will’s greatest torment will be the fact that he survived. He survived and now he has to live with the fact that he knows what he is and has crossed a line he can’t return from. And I won’t deny that that is a tantalising story that is begging to be told.
But if the series doesn’t continue and we decide to believe that neither Hannibal nor Will survived their fall, then what could be a more beautiful or fitting ending for these two? Exposed to each other at last, having shared something utterly intimate in their dual murder of Dolarhyde, something that has satisfied the desire that Will ran from and Hannibal embraced, they die in each other’s arms. Will can never truly accept himself as a killer and Hannibal can never change him the way he wants to. As Bedelia says, “can’t live with him, can’t live without him.” So as far as Will is concerned, they can’t live. And while there is huge potential in the story of that plan failing and what happens next, there is elegance in this being their end.
At this point nobody who has stuck with the show has any reason to doubt that Bryan Fuller is a genius who will always find new ways to stun and delight us, and nobody will doubt for a second that whatever is in store for a fourth season or a movie or whatever dream continuation he has will be just as good. But honestly, what ending could be better than this one? What farewell to these characters could top that emotional, heart wrenching and strangely victorious moment of television? It’s the kind of conclusion that many, many shows would be jealous of. It’s one that is not only satisfying, but is also keeping with the story as it has been from the first episode.
Now none of this is to say that there is no story left to tell or that the finale was a flawless ending to the season. Obviously, with no knowledge of whether there would be more at the time of writing Fuller couldn’t wrap up everything, and so things like the Sword of Damocles that was Hannibal’s promise to Alana were left unresolved. Additionally hugely important characters such as Jack Crawford were left a little underserved, arguably by the entirety of this season as well as the finale itself. But no series has a truly perfect ending, and considering that the other characters were always peripheral to the central two, their anticlimactic fates aren’t enormously detrimental.
Additionally, aside from one or two hiccups (Inspector Pazzi, one of the best characters from the book series, deserved better), Fuller’s adaptation has been so sublime and such a definitive take on the legendary source material that it’s hard not to feel a little cheated that we may never get to see his take on Clarice or Buffalo Bill. But then, both characters were so perfectly realised in The Silence Of The Lambs that complaining about not seeing more of them feels a little greedy. There’s actually something marvellous about the fact that Fuller’s series was comprised mostly of the less iconic or celebrated parts of this series, turning characters like Will Graham, Francis Dolarhyde, Mason Verger and Frederick Chilton into fan favourites that potentially have more adoration now in certain circles than Clarice ever did. Creating a version of this story that comfortably rivals an all-time classic film using barely any of its material is one of Hannibal’s greatest achievements, and that is saying something.
I wish we knew one way or another if this is really going to be the end. It would be easier to know how to feel about this finale if we had a definitive answer. But, once again, Fuller has managed to pull off a trick that seemed impossible; giving us an ending so perfect that even the most obsessed fans among us can accept it as a goodbye, even if we all hope for more. There is no feeling of being cheated with this series. Fuller and his team always gave us their best, and if three seasons are all we get then at least they are three seasons of the most thrilling, audacious, heartbreaking, thought provoking and moving television ever made. It’s hard to ask for much more than that.
Whether this is the end or not, we’ve been treated to something very special in this show. So thank you to everyone involved. We owe you awe.