- Hannibal/ Mads Mikkelsen
Mention Hannibal Lecter to most people and they think of the character portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. I have no problem with that – Hopkins' portrayal is terrific. However, my favorite Hannibal is the character as portrayed by Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen's Hannibal is quite different from the version appearing in SotL – he's exotic, charismatic and exceedingly polite (well, mostly). Many differences can be reconciled with other portrayals by the fact that "Hannibal" takes place largely before anyone knows about Dr. Lecter's criminality. He's free to practice as an elite psychiatrist, enjoying an aristocratic lifestyle and socializing with upper class nitwits that salivate in anticipation of the next spectacular dinner party that he hosts.
In an interview Mikkelsen described his portrayal: "To Hannibal, psychopaths are banal, as they all have a reason for killing: a f*cked-up mum, a dad that hit them, whatever. For me, he's the fallen angel: Satan on Earth, a man who sees beauty where the rest of us see horror." This kind of sums it up for me. The dapper, cultured intellectual Dr. Lecter is not merely a facade – he actually is those things while also being a remorseless, cruel, cannibalistic murderer. Satan on Earth.
- The rest of the cast
As I said, narrowing my list to a mere five favorite things is tough with Hannibal. I could easily fill out the remaining fours favorites with other cast members, but because I have so much ground to cover I'll begrudgingly lump them together here.
Starring opposite Mads Mikkelsen is Hugh Dancy as FBI special investigator Will Graham. Dancy gives us a Will Graham who is Hannibal's intellectual equal – brilliant but dysfunctional. Will immediately intrigues Hannibal because, while Will is a fundamentally good person, he also demonstrates the instincts of a killer. He can not only eerily reconstruct a psychopath's mind to aid the FBI's investigations, he can unleash his inner savage when he must. Dancy deftly treads a near perfect path through the tricky territory of his character.
Laurence Fishburne is Jack Crawford. After Hannibal I can't even remember who else has played Jack Crawford. This is probably my favorite Fishburne portrayal – his Jack Crawford is supremely pragmatic and quietly tortured by his failings. He's a great leader but, like almost everyone at the FBI, he falls under Hannibal's spell. Hannibal's dealings with Jack are some of the most harrowing of the series, as he pretends(?) friendship with Jack whilst secretly tormenting him.
Will's allies at the FBI include Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall), Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams of Blindspot) and most notably Hettiene Park as Investigator Beverly Katz. Beverly becomes Will's friend and offers him help when he is at his lowest point, and the outcome of her investigation on his behalf changes the way we, the viewers, see Hannibal Lecter.
I would be remiss in failing to mention the really funny portrayal of the infamously pretentious Frederick Chilton by Raul Esparza (Law and Order SVU). He gets some of the best lines of the series and just kills it with his animated expressions of fear and exasperation.
Gillian Anderson delivers an icy Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal's psychiatrist and sometimes-ally. Caroline Dhavernas is Alana Bloom, a psych professor that literally and figuratively hypnotizes Will. I could go on and on – the cast and characters are terrific.
- The Gorn
The bizarre and horrifying visuals in Hannibal set it apart from anything that has ever been broadcast by NBC – or any other major network. How to describe it? Well, Unk recently posted about Salem's Lot, broadcast in 1979 on CBS. Scary stuff! Remember that scene where Barlow materializes in Mark Petrie's house and bonks his parents' heads together? Well, imagine instead that Barlow slams his parents' heads together so hard that their skulls explode in slow motion and their brains erupt in a black fountain superimposed against a psychedelic, stylized portrait of Barlow's face. That's Hannibal.
Hannibal's highly stylized title sequence exemplifies some of the phantasmagoric visuals that appear in nearly every episode – usually these are depictions of Will's visions or hallucinations. Will is haunted by a dark stag-man representing the "Chesapeake Ripper", a serial killer that the FBI has hunted for years. In a memorable sequence, psychologist Alana Bloom transforms into an undulating, black seductress.
But of course what most people remember is the gore. Sure, Hannibal slashes, bashes and dismembers people in graphic detail, but that's just beans compared to the escapades of the other creative maniacs that tangle with the FBI. They carve victims into "angels", sew them into a "mural", twist them into string instruments or – good grief, the Totem Pole – you just gotta see it for yourself.
- Those other maniacs that I mentioned…
Hannibal starts out in an episodic format, featuring a new lunatic for Will and Hannibal (yes, he helps Will and the FBI) to hunt each week. Later, as the plot thickens, the need to introduce new crazies diminishes – we spend more time with recurring foes.
Some of the killers are memorable for their crimes. Hannibal is a gothic horror, so the killers don't just leave victims by the roadside – they transform them into symbols of their psychopathy. The Muralist selects victims for their interesting skin tones, The Angel Maker delivers "divine" punishment, the Bee Lady "cures" her patients by transforming them into zombie beehives. The bizarre visuals follow, of course.
Some of the killers are also memorable for the portrayals. Eddie Izzard recurs as Abel Gideon, an imprisoned killer surgeon whose mind has been so scrambled by Chilton's "treatment" that he is undoubtedly far more dangerous for it. Izzard goes a bit over the top, but he's funny and charming enough to smooth it out in the end. Jonathan Tucker, great at portraying villains, is Matthew Brown, the Chesapeake Ripper's #1 fan, who is anxious for approval. Lance Henriksen makes a brief but memorable appearance as a retired but prolific serial killer.
Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next section if you have not yet seen Hannibal and plan to.
Now that's out of the way, allow me to praise Richard Armitage as Francis Dolarhyde (The Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon). This is the third portrayal of this character that I have seen and I would put it up next to Tom Noonan's unforgettable Dolarhyde in Manhunter (1986). Like Noonan's Dolarhyde, Armitage's character is both utterly insane and simultaneously sympathetic. It's a great performance.
- The story – particularly the first half of Season 2.
The stories in Hannibal are well executed and, most importantly, carefully woven together into a narrative arc that spans all three seasons. The writers respect the audience, subverting our expectations and allowing us to make connections without exposition. For example, the first episode starts with a murder that is never mentioned again in the series, but careful watching leads to the conclusion that it ties directly into the last half of the third season.
I liked all three seasons of Hannibal, but the story in the first half (six episodes) of Season Two stands out. The opening minutes are probably the most shocking season opener ever. Will and Hannibal are kept at distance from one another and wage a deadly psychological war by proxy. Hannibal narrowly escapes death and then commits his most unforgivable crime. Will gains ground in convincing his allies that Hannibal is not what he seems, while imperilling his friends in his quest for evidence. Through it all, Hannibal maintains the upper hand through his careful manipulations, effecting Will's liberation and Jack's torment by materializing a ghost from his past. The end of episode 6 concludes with a shocking revelation and Hannibal's symbolic conclusion of his latest harpsichord composition. Great stuff.