Warning: contains spoilers for Hannibal season 1 and 2 and the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon.
When the credits rolled on Hannibal’s second season finale, my heart did not slow down for twenty minutes. I stared at my TV screen, mouth hanging open, unable to believe the sheer insane, vicious horror and beauty of what I had just witnessed. Not only was it the kind of carnage that could give Game of Thrones a run for its money, but it was also so full of genuine pathos and emotion. Betrayal, forgiveness, revenge; it all came together in those final minutes. It was a finale of peculiar power, full of the kind of sad inevitability that could move you to tears and get your adrenalin pumping all at the same time. Quite simply, I have never seen anything like it on television before.
So how the hell do you follow that?
Like so much of Hannibal, what made that finale work was a combination of different and equally effective elements. Respect for the source material. Genuine investment in all the characters involved. Truly gut wrenching horror. From its debut episode Hannibal has effortlessly balanced all of these things to create a magnificent operatic cocktail. So far showrunner Bryan Fuller has scarcely put a foot wrong, and consequently Fannibals everywhere are salivating at the very thought of what might happen next. So just what might we expect when Dr Lecter reappears on our screens next year?
In season two we began to get glimpses of Hannibal’s background. Any fan of the source material knows exactly what the Samurai armour glimpsed in his house means, and the mere mention of his sister brings back a rush of traumatic memories. Hannibal Rising was, after all, not a nice experience for anyone to read. A lacklustre, dull book that reeked of pressure from studio executives desperate for another film, Hannibal Rising ended the novel series on an unpleasant whimper. It’s not so much that Hannibal’s origin story was bad, more just that it would have been so much more powerful to catch only the occasional glimpse of it.
Thankfully, this is what Bryan Fuller has promised, stating that while the good Doctor’s backstory will be explored, it won’t be done through flashbacks. Rather, it will predominantly hinge on the confirmed introduction of one major new character.
In the novel, Lady Murasaki is the dignified Japanese wife of Hannibal’s uncle Robert (for whom producers are allegedly in talks with David Bowie. Fingers crossed). After Robert’s death, Hannibal is raised by Murasaki, who becomes an uncomfortable blend of mother and love interest. Their relationship is an interesting one, which ultimately results in her abandoning him after she realises just how much of a monster he really is.
Now obviously there will be some changes to Hannibal’s past; after all, in the novel he was orphaned by World War II (not quite fitting with the current timeline). But the Murasaki relationship is certainly not one beholden to a period setting, and therefore it is safe to assume that much of this will survive intact. What’s more, it seems we may get to see some sort of reunion between Hannibal and the woman who inadvertently helped shape him; no matter what your feelings toward Hannibal Rising, this is a thrilling prospect. Years away from their bitter parting, what exactly will Hannibal and Murasaki have to say to each other? Will they reconnect or will she become a threat? Bryan Fuller has suggested that much of Hannibal’s past will be explored by Will Graham; is it possible that it will be Will who tracks down Murasaki? Whatever ends up happening, it is bound to be riveting television.
Bryan Fuller has been very open about his willingness to play around with the chronology of the novels. Had he remained extremely faithful, we would not be seeing Mason Verger again until probably season six or seven. Luckily for fans of Michael Pitt’s brilliant villain, Fuller has performed the masterstroke of bringing forward the bulk of the novel Hannibal into season three.
The novel follows Hannibal seven years after his escape from the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane. His comfortable life in Florence is interrupted when Mason Verger (in this continuity disfigured and crippled for over a decade) tracks him down with the help of corrupt Italian Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (also confirmed as being a new character next season). Cue disembowelling and a narrow escape from Verger’s pigs, thanks to the last minute intervention of Clarice Starling.
All signs suggest that now it will be Will who remains on Hannibal’s tail while Mason enacts his own secret investigation. While at first glance taking the plot of the third novel and turning it into what is essentially a prequel to Red Dragon seems odd, it actually makes a lot of sense. With the Verger arc so strongly set up in season two, following it here seems natural, as does using an already established plot of Hannibal-on-the-run rather than developing a new one that would have to explain why Verger was not hell-bent on revenge.
In the novels, Hannibal is caught immediately after attacking Will; his time spent on the run is a new addition by Fuller, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t take place now instead of later in the series. With the addition of original character Bedelia DuMaurier and the added backstory with Murasaki, the only real concern is that Fuller may be burning through too much rich dramatic ground too quickly. But with such a strong track record, who would have any reason to doubt that it will be anything less than stellar?
The vengeance of Mason Verger
In the novels, Mason Verger is nothing short of an abomination. A billionaire paedophile with extremely sadistic tendencies and a serial rapist of his sister, his violent death cannot come fast enough. In the hands of Fuller and Michael Pitt, however, Verger became something strangely likeable. By removing (or at least minimising) the truly skin-crawling sexual elements of his character, he became something akin to the Joker: still reprehensible, still deserving of everything inflicted on him, but compelling and quite simply a lot of fun to watch. He was a perfect shot of manic energy into a show full of deadly serious characters, and the prospect of getting to watch the now faceless and bedridden Verger spit and snarl his way through season three is one of the most exciting things about Hannibal’s return.
With his man-eating pigs memorably established in season two, and a strong investment in the plight of his tormented and likeable sister Margot, Verger is the perfect recurring villain for the show, and the use of the plot of the novel Hannibal means that we are almost guaranteed a rematch between the two compelling psychopaths.
Interestingly, Mason’s attempts to kidnap Hannibal and feed him to the pigs last year are almost beat for beat identical to events in the novel Hannibal. Does this mean that the denouement of the Verger plot next year will be something different? Can we expect Mason to meet his demise in season three, or will he remain a shadowy presence for a few years yet? Either prospect is an enticing one.
Arguably the most exciting thing about the return of Hannibal next year is Bryan Fuller’s promise that the second half of season three will essentially be a ‘Red Dragon miniseries’. For many Lecter fans (this one included), Red Dragon remains the best of the novels, a masterclass in how to craft truly compelling crime fiction in which the lines that separate the killers and those who hunt them are often blurred. It is a novel in which the villain is the most sympathetic character, with a backstory of abhorrent abuse and deep tragedy fuelling his miserable, self-loathing existence. It is undoubtedly the novel that set the template for the television series.
One of the most remarkable things about Red Dragon is that, while it is marketed as a Hannibal Lecter novel, Hannibal appears in only two brief scenes. His presence is felt all the way through, but he is scarcely seen. Expect this to change in Fuller’s adaptation though, as keeping Mads Mikkelsen on screen as often as possible is something this series must continue to do.
Yet the tormented Francis Dolarhyde is one of the most fascinating and affecting villains in the history of crime writing, and it would be a shame if any of his story was truncated in favour of more Hannibal and Will. Thankfully, Fuller has expressed in interviews just how excited he is to bring Dolarhyde to life. So, as usual with this particular adaptation, the character is almost certainly in safe hands. Add to this Fuller’s description of Will viewing Dolarhyde as a ‘Hannibal he can help’ and suddenly the pursuit of this new killer takes on a new personal significance to Will that goes beyond abstract sympathy.
Of course, the exploration of territory established in Red Dragon gives us an idea of how several other lingering season two plots may be resolved. While it is unlikely that questions of Will’s sanity will be entirely put to bed, on some level he has to have been vindicated by the exposure of Hannibal. Does this mean we will now see a Will Graham operating unencumbered by the interference of a suspicious FBI? Will his unorthodox methods still be frowned upon or, as is the case in Red Dragon, will they be prized? Will has always been a reluctant agent, but expect his resistance to be stronger than ever. He has, after all, not only been incarcerated by Hannibal, but gravely wounded as well. In Red Dragon, Will is only just coming to terms with his trauma when Jack Crawford asks him to come on to the case. This may be handled differently due to the amount of story still to come before we reach Dolarhyde, but whatever happens in the preceding episodes it is unlikely to make Will become an more enthusiastic detective.
Another character who will enjoy a degree of vindication next year is the long suffering Doctor Chilton. One of the most interesting adaptations, in the hands of Raul Esparza Chilton went from the smarmy sleazebag of the novels and films to, well, a smarmy sleazebag who somehow manages to be kind of loveable at the same time.
[Season three spoiler, albeit one widely reported on, alert] His apparent death halfway through season two felt like a huge waste of potential, but thankfully the confirmation at Comic Con that he survived means we will get to enjoy him for a while yet. In the novels, the implication was always that Chilton felt intellectually inferior to Hannibal and hated him for it; in the series the good doctor has a far more concrete reason to despise his former colleague, and it will be fascinating to see just how this informs his behaviour when Hannibal inevitably ends up in his ‘care’. The famous animosity between the two characters is not likely to be softened, which for us viewers can only be a good thing. [End of season three spoiler.]
In a world where most showrunners are deeply secretive about the future directions of their creations, Bryan Fuller has always been refreshingly open about where Hannibal will go next. In many ways this speaks to the strength of the series; having a rough idea of what to expect does not spoil this series at all. It is likely that we will see Hannibal in prison next year. It is equally likely Mason Verger will be dead by the time we get to the coverage of Red Dragon. Adapting a book series means that certain things are, if not inevitable, somewhat expected and signposted. What makes this particular series so exciting is seeing just how the creative team choose to adapt these classic novels. So far they have found ways to approach it that remain true to the spirit of the original while always maintaining the series’ own identity as well.
Hannibal is one of the best shows on television right now. Aside from any plot specifics, the thing season three is guaranteed to give us is more compelling, edge of your seat storytelling. You can’t ask for much more than that.