I just finished season 2 of NBC’s hit psychological thriller Hannibal. Here’s an image from one episode that I think visually represents the essence of this season:
Yes, that’s right. Hannibal season 2 burst into flames and rolled uncontrollably downhill. Not in a good way.
In fact, I am fairly certain that if Hannibal season 2 was a person, Hannibal Lecter would kill and eat it. He eats the irritating.
Now, to be honest, not everything in S2 was bad. I’m not saying it had no redeeming qualities. But the mistakes they did make were very foundational mistakes of writing and storytelling. Hard to overlook.
Season 1 had so much going for it. The protagonist, Will Graham, is an emotionally disturbed but ingenious criminal profiler who works for the FBI. Little does he know his psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, is the cannibalistic serial killer responsible for the Chesapeake Ripper murders. Hannibal wants to turn Will into a serial killer, too, through manipulative therapy tactics. Will struggles to separate reality from delusion on Dr. Lecter’s couch, an unknowing victim of a sociopath’s experiment.
It was great! When S1 ended with Hannibal framing Will for murder, we thought S2 would be even better! But then…
So what were these basic mistakes in S2, and why did they ruin an otherwise awesome show?
Mistake One: I’d Like To Report A Homicide
Of all the murders committed in S2, the most unfortunate was the murder of any and all tensionin the first half of the season.
S1 held tension in several ways. First, Hannibal was a colleague of the FBI agents investigating the Chesapeake Ripper murders. He was a criminal genius hiding among law enforcement geniuses. You always wondered whose genius would win out; how would Hannibal keep one step ahead of amazing criminal profilers like Alana Bloom, Jack Crawford, and Will Graham? How will he fool the FBI’s best crime scene investigators? Who might be one puzzle piece away from discovering Dr. Lecter’s secrets?
In S2, however, Hannibal is not a genius hiding among geniuses. He’s a genius hiding among idiots.
Every character behaves in completely blind and dense ways in S2. They’re almost null and void to the story.
When Will is incarcerated for the murders and accuses Hannibal, all his friends at the FBI—agents who have been trained to profile criminals and dissect behavior—don’t even begin to consider Will’s claims, despite the fact that almost all of them have known Will longer than they’ve known Hannibal. They just accept this flimsy suggestion that Will, in his insanity, has forgotten committing the murders and convinced himself that Hannibal did it. It “technically” explains why they don’t believe him, but it’s a stretch—especially given that Alana deduces from Will’s draw-a-clock test that Dr. Lecter was wrong about Will having nothing physically wrong with his brain (for some reason, she does not consider that Dr. Lecter may have lied).
Everyone gets even dumber once Will is cleared of charges midway through the season. At that point, they know he’s not a crazy psychopath, but they continue to believe that he made a mistake about who framed him…just because the script needs them to.
The other thing I don’t understand is why none of them notice that Hannibal acts like a creeper. His emotions are a little too blank, he’s too poised and put-together, his eyes are always a bit dead. In S1 I could suspend my disbelief and accept that these FBI agents didn’t catch a whiff of Hannibal’s weirdness because they had no reason to look for it. But once suspicion has been cast on him, you’re telling me that they would believe a dead-eyed, eerily calm, overly-philosophical, verbally evasive new friend over their very best criminal profiler? A friend who tends to throw carnivorous dinner parties every time the Chesapeake Ripper kills and dissects human bodies?
See, the tension in S1 came from believing that the characters could, given the right circumstance, figure Hannibal out. You saw Hannibal working to keep himself safe. If, on the other hand, you know they can’t possibly figure him out because the script won’t let them, then you know how every episode will end: with Will’s plea falling on deaf ears, and Hannibal twirling his mustache as he disappears down a dark alley.
Mistake Two: Lazy Writing
I’m really sensitive about lazy writing. Maybe it’s because I write, and know a lot of writers, and all of us work our butts off to make our stories as good as they can be. So when I see lazy clichés in a hit television show, it makes me wonder what the rest of us are working so hard for.
The lazy bits of writing in Hannibal season 2 were small details, but they made a huge difference. For instance, when agent Beverly Katz begins to suspect Hannibal after all, the script uses some “cheating” techniques to explain why she fails to catch him. First, it just so happens that her boss, Jack Crawford, isn’t in the office when she shows up to tell him she suspects Hannibal. I hate it when TV uses “oops, out of the office” coincidences to explain why people don’t communicate. In real life, you would write a note, leave a voicemail, or, I dunno, tell at least one other person that you were going to investigate the home of a possible serial killer who is a mad genius and haskilled other FBI agents.
Furthermore, if Beverly is a trained FBI agent, she wouldn’t go to investigate someone’s house without backup. She wouldn’t go deeper into the home, effectively cornering herself, after she has already found evidence. She wouldn’t fail to call 911 when she saw the human organs in the fridge.
If, in two paragraphs, I can list six different steps Beverly could easily have taken to catch Hannibal, that means the writers were being lazy. They wanted to postpone Hannibal’s discovery, but they wanted him to “almost” get caught for tension’s sake—so they cheated on the believability factor. Ironically, as we’ve just discussed, this actually deflated the tension, because it established that Hannibal can’t get caught.
Just as another example, remember the episode where Hannibal seduces and then drugs Alana? He goes out and commits another murder while she’s asleep. When Jack comes around the next day, Alana says Hannibal stayed in all night.
In real life, Alana might realize that she didn’t wake up during the night and that Hannibal thus has no alibi. In real life, someone like Jack Crawfod (the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science unit) would think to ask an alibi witness if she woke up or not at any time during the hours in which the murder occurred. But the writers didn’t know how to get around those snags, so they simply pretended that those snags would not, in fact, happen.
Look, I know it’s a television show, and not everything has to be 100% realistic. But if the number-one point of tension in your show—Hannibal remaining at large—depends on the complete stupidity of law enforcement, it’s just too much of a stretch.
Mistake Three: Deus ex Hannibal
The script-writers’ biggest mistake in S2 was, ironically, making Hannibal appear too smart.
I know. Strange thing to say, right? Every version of the character Hannibal lecter—book version Hannibal, movie version Hannibal, and TV show version Hannibal—specializes in staying ahead of everyone else. That’s what makes him Hannibal Lecter.
But there can be too much of a good thing.
In S1, Hannibal demonstrated his genius by rolling with the punches through unpredictable events—for instance, Will developing encephalitis. We watched Hannibal figure out how to turn each event to his own benefit, and that’s how we came to understand his deadly intellect.
In S2, on the other hand, Hannibal is one step removed from being God, and that make us bored.
We saw hints of this in the Beverly debacle. It seemed a bit unbelievable that Hannibal could take down a trained FBI agent who was shooting at him and walk away without a scratch. Amazing, yes, but not impossible. So we figured that Hannibal is just a really good fighter who specializes in getting lucky.
Then, the Dr. Chilton thing happened.
It turns out that for a long time—years—Hannibal has been planning to frame psychiatrist Dr. Chilton for the Chesapeake Ripper murders should Hannibal ever come close to being discovered.
This is the point where the scriptwriter’s manipulation of Hannibal’s genius felt a little unfair. This was a plan that Hannibal started even before the show’s beginning. We went along for two seasons assuming we knew most of what the characters did, only to find that Hannibal can just whip out new information any time an episode puts him in too much danger?
It bordered dangerously close to the “no rules to your magic” phenomenon. This is a fantasy writer’s rule of thumb, but it applies here. When you write a story with magic, or other amazing abilities, the magic must have rules or the plot won’t feel meaningful. If anything can happen, nothing’s at stake. The audience can’t root for your character, because it hasn’t been established what can and can’t happen to them.
Hannibal isn’t magic, but his nearly supernatural genius should operate on the same principle: it needs rules. You can’t just pull out previous plans and events that the audience has never heard of mid-season. If we don’t know what Hannibal has to work with, we are not going to be tense during an episode, because we know the script writer will just invent a Get Out of Jail Free card every time Hannibal gets in a scrape.
You might as well say, “Oh yeah, remember that pardon from the President that Hannibal got fifteen years ago to cover all future offenses? Did we forget to mention that? Well he’s using it now.”
But the nail in the coffin came with the Miriam Lass episode.
Miriam Lass was mentioned in the first season. She was Jack Crawfod’s prize student, the woman who disappeared while investigating the Chesapeake Ripper. In S2, Hannibal allows her to be discovered, alive and well. Her discovery came at the end of an episode, but I couldn’t work up any interest. I knew it wouldn’t lead to Hannibal’s capture. It was evident the script wouldn’t allow that.
I was right. In the next episode, we learn that Hannibal brainwashed Miriam Lass using some sort of light-flash therapy, erasing her memories of the Chesapeake Ripper.
And, in a stunning moment of drama-killing buffoonery, we see that Hannibal has—womp womp!—programmed Miriam Lass to think Dr. Chilton is the Ripper!
At this point I threw my hands up and nearly screamed. It was official; Hannibal had no rules to his magic. If he could program anyone to believe anything—could capture and release anyone without detection—and could foresee any event—then he was in control of the entire world, and we might as well go ring his doorbell and ask him how he planned to make each episode run. Oh, after which we would have to kill ourselves, because he already knows that we know about him, and he already knows how to find us and kill us without detection, and probably our families too, and, well, probably everyone in the world, come to think of it…
Mistake 4: Cliffhangers, Overuse of
Starting at about episode 8 and onwards, it seems the show will get better. Will is on the offensive and plots with Jack Crawfod how to catch Hannibal, which implies Hannibal’s magic has some limits. Mason Verger catches Dr. Lecter and almost feeds him to pigs, proving Hannibal’s foreknowledge isn’t omnipotent. We know Will has a chance at stopping Hannibal, so there’s real tension again. Whew. The story pulled itself out of a nosedive. The ending will be epic!
The writers were so close. So close. SO CLOSE to giving me a truly enjoyable ending to S2. But they just couldn’t resist one more writing cliché, and unfortunately, it killed the good vibe and left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.
I’m speaking, of course, about the cliffhanger ending.
It has become almost mandatory by law that television dramas end each season with a cliffhanger. This seems to be mandatory whether the cliffhanger actually makes sense with the story arc or not.
Now, many shows have successfully pulled off cliffhangers. Take, for instance, the following examples:
|“Agent Mulder died last night of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head…”|
|“Sully’s alive…I know he’s alive…”|
|Hey all, we’re totally getting kidnapped by The Others!|
In each of those instances, a cliffhanger made sense in the context of the story. In X-Files, Scully and Mulder were in the midst of an investigation that might reveal aliens to be a hoax. In Dr. Quinn, Sully’s disappearance and possible death were part of a two-part episode that resolved in the next season. In LOST, we’d been waiting all season to meet The Others, and realized we wouldn’t get to until S3.
In Hannibal, though, they had completed a story arc by the end of S2—the story arc of Hannibal’s life as a fox in the henhouse. At the end of S2 Hannibal’s stint as a killer on the east coast has come to an end, Will has been cleared, and we’re gearing up for a whole new world of manhunts and international travel in S3.
The problem is, they wanted to force it into feeling like a cliffhanger even though the arc was closed. They somehow decided the best way to do this was LEAVE THE ENTIRE CAST BLEEDING AND ALMOST DEAD IN HANNIBAL’S WAKE, SO YOU HAVE TO WAIT TO NEXT SEASON TO SEE WHO LIVES!
Remember that scene at the end of Das Boot, when the soldiers finally get home from a grueling war, and the moment of triumph ends with a sudden air-raid slaughter? That ending was jarring. Uncomfortable. The sudden tragedy was wildly out of place. But it worked because Das Boot was about the absurd and random horrors of war.
It does not work in Hannibal. In Hannibal, it feels like a cheap trick, like they were determined to resist giving payoff or closure to the emotion they’d been building up, permanently delaying the audience’s gratification so we’ll watch again next season.
The problem is, now that I know this is how they operate, I don’t want to watch next season. Now that I know they will permanently delay gratification, what’s the point? It’s fine to drag out tension, but if you intend to never pay off what you build up, then what do we get out of it (other than blog posts that are currently six single-spaced Microsoft Word pages and counting)?
The point is, I think they tried to make a cliffhanger where there didn’t need to be one, and it made an otherwise weak-but-improving story arc finally go into the tank.
Do we need to review this again: