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"Nothing here is vegetarian."

Season 1 of NBC's Hannibal was structured around the Sophoclean disparity between what the characters believe to be true and what we viewers know to be true. We knew who Hannibal is and found ourselves in uncomfortable, ironic collusion with him as he slyly insinuated himself into Will Graham's life and head. And it's an irony Hannibal cultivated. He takes great pleasure in not only cannibalizing his victims but feeding them to others, even as he tells them the truth, however obliquely, about their meal. The glib proclamation at last season's banquet—"Before we begin, you must all be warned. Nothing here is vegetarian." (Episode 1.7, "Sorbet")—is only the most prominent of many. In abrupt juxtaposition to their savage, flash-forward kitchen brawl, Jack Crawford shares a meal of sushi with Hannibal in "Kaiseki" (Episode 2.1):
"I almost feel guilty eating it."
"I never feel guilty eating anything."
"Mmmm. I can't quite place the fish."
"He was a flounder."

Hannibal derives pleasure not only in knowing the truth, but speaking it openly with the full expectation of being misunderstood. He relies on others to make excuses for him, and encourages their misperceptions. He never, at least in my recollection, denies his responsibility for the crimes with which Will Graham is charged. Instead, he circumvents the accusations and deflects suspicion. During his dinner conversation with Dr. Chilton, also in "Kaiseki":
"He tells everyone that you are a monster."
"Well, in that case, you are dining with a psychopathic murderer, Frederick."
Chilton cooperatively laughs it off. Hannibal courts investigation, confident that it will fail to incriminate him. He espouses faith in the empirical evidence even as he knows it tells a false story.

"I am doing my best to avoid working through my issues with Hannibal Lecter."

But Season 2 has invited other characters into the fold. Though his grasp of the details of Hannibal's deception is incomplete, Will now sees Hannibal clearly. And he has now become complicit in this pattern of deceitful truth-telling. He and Hannibal are locked in a game of competitive irony.

His hysterics may be performance, but there is truth in Will's pleading to Hannibal: "I need your help." From within the confines of the Baltimore State Hospital, he needs Hannibal to believe, at least, that Will might not see him clearly, that Will remains confused about his culpability. But, like Hannibal, Will builds his ruse out of truths. When Hannibal comes to see him in "Hassun" (Episode 2.3), Will is able to redirect their relationship, to assuage—if only with a little doubt—Hannibal's vigilance, without recanting his accusations.
"I know there is no evidence against you."
"There never was."
"Accusing you makes me look insane. I'm not insane. Not anymore."
The implications of his statements are not logically necessitated by them, drawing careful lines between public perception and self-definition.


Dr. Du Maurier is similarly adept at this manner of double-speak, allowing what is unsaid or grammatically ambiguous to (at least temporarily) misdirect Hannibal and Jack. As Hannibal invites her into his office near the opening of "Sakizuke" (Episode 2.2), she furtively announces her own intentions:
"What a pleasant surprise. Please sit down."
"I won't be staying long."
By the end of the episode, she has disappeared, a surprise to Hannibal as much as anyone. Indeed, staying not long at all. Her reply to Jack's suggestion that she work through her problems with Hannibal is rich, playing the grammatical polysemy of the final prepositional phrase: "I am doing my best to avoid working through my issues with Hannibal Lecter." Her skill at disguising her meaning makes her unmitigated candidness with Will Graham all the more satisfying, even if it must be whispered.

Even the pompous—and routinely clueless—Dr. Chilton participates in the ironic conversation, however inadvertently. His diagnosis of Will Graham given in his courtroom testimony is laughably misguided, a differently ironic and preposterously unself-aware expression of his own ego. But, though he has confused the mark, it's an unexpectedly shrewd description of Hannibal.
"He has carefully constructed a persona to hide his real nature. He wears it so well even Jack Crawford could not see past it.... I have objectively examined him and the crimes of which he is accused. These murders were measured and controlled. The confused man Will Graham presents to the world could not commit those crimes.... There is not yet a name for whatever Will Graham is. He kills methodically, and I believe would kill again if given the opportunity.... Will Graham is driven by vanity and his own whims. He has a very high opinion of his intelligence. Ergo, he caught the other killers simply to prove he was smarter than all of them too. Saving lives is just as arousing as ending them. He likes to play God."
Chilton sees the murderer clearly even as he sees nothing at all.

"You may not believe me now. You will."

Most of this rhetoric relies on little more than the cultural reputation of Hannibal Lecter, likely the most famous fictional serial killer ever, but occasionally Hannibal draws on more nuanced or detailed knowledge of Harris's characters and his novels' film adaptations. It is popular knowledge—though a minor *SPOILER* warning is probably in order for those TV-only fans—that Jack Crawford survives his attack. Certainly, Bryan Fuller and his writing team have the freedom to take liberties with the source material, but so far with few exceptions Hannibal has been more characterized by their fidelity to it. The show is rife with familiar details and turns of phrase, visual allusions, and pregnant echoes of the characters' futures, all hanging in suggestive juxtaposition to the action on the screen.


Hannibal even constructs its own ironic tandems. Their opening confrontation in the season premiere confirms that at some point Jack Crawford recognizes the truth of Will's claims against Hannibal. We know, of course, that Hannibal is eventually caught and Will exonerated, the real psychopath left to fester in the psychiatric "care" of Dr. Chilton. Will's final warning to Jack at the end of "Kaiseki," then—"You may not believe me now. You will."—carries that ominous knowledge with it. Belief will be painful for Jack, but it will come with acute clarity.

It's a game the show plays with more widely as well, beyond even the cognizance of Hannibal Lecter. Buffalo Bill, for instance, the other serial killer made popular by The Silence of the Lambs, reverberates as an ironic echo around Hannibal himself. Beverly's suggestions that Hannibal should "consider supplementing his wardrobe" and Dr. Du Maurier's description of his "person-suit," even perhaps the lingering camera over the stitched bodies from the eye-mural, make casual and figurative use of the grotesque correlation.


As a parting question, I offer for discussion a scene which is particularly intriguing if, as he is wont, Hannibal is not exactly lying. It is taken, once again, from Episode 1.7 ("Sorbet"). While Hannibal makes his final preparations for his elaborate cannibalistic dinner party, Will brings a bottle of wine as a thank-you gift, but takes his leave of the invitation to continue work on the murder cases.
"Why'd you stop being a surgeon?"
"I killed someone. Or, more accurately, I couldn't save someone, but it felt like killing them."
"You were an emergency room surgeon. It has to happen from time to time."
"It happened one time too many. I transferred my passion for anatomy into the culinary arts. I fix minds instead of bodies, and no one has died as a result of my therapy."
"I have to go. I have a date with the Chesapeake Ripper."

1. What do you make of Hannibal's own account of his "origin," so to speak?

2. Can you recall Hannibal telling an unequivocal lie, a statement that is factually untrue not just meant to deceive?

3. What are your favorite instances of ironic or deceptive truth-telling in Hannibal? Which characters have the finest grasp of this skill?

4. What are your favorite ironic allusions from the series that depend on knowledge of the Thomas Harris books or previous adaptations?


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