Hannibal Returns: Is TV’s Favorite Serial Killer the Devil Himself?

The character of Hannibal, in literary and cinematic appearances, has always been portrayed as enjoying the finer things in life, but this version of the story is particularly obsessed with artistry. The show’s surreal, cinematic imagery and distinctive color palette impress themselves upon the viewer right away, and show creator Bryan Fuller has explicitly cited David Lynch as one of his primary inspirations.

But the interest in aesthetics goes beyond the glossy virtuosity of the show’s production to being a theme in the stories themselves. What is the meaning of beauty? Is it good in and of itself? Is it evil?

This version of Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is the ultimate aesthete. He cooks refined, beautiful meals; his dandified appearance (from the tailored suits to the aftershave) is impeccable; his house is like something out of J.K. Huysmans’ À Rebours; and he is frequently described as having a taste for the “rarefied”—though many of the people who make this comment don’t know the half of it. This is because Hannibal is, of course, also a cannibalistic murderer, and the gruesome crime scene displays he makes of his victims are rightfully described as “operatic.”

The show’s Hannibal is neither classic psychopath nor sociopath—he does have regrets, and he does show a certain kind of empathy. Instead, he is truly Other—as his own psychiatrist tells him (played mysteriously by a perfectly cast Gillian Anderson), he only reveals a version of himself to most people, and this version is nothing more than a person suit, a human veil.

Perhaps Georgia—the heartbreaking murderer-of-the-week in episode 10—who cannot see faces, ironically witnessed the blankness of Lecter’s true face most clearly, even more so than Will’s vision of Lecter as a horned shadow in the final episode. His aestheticism and his sensuous curiosity know no moral boundaries, like Dorian Gray, but he doesn’t need a portrait in the attic: his face is already empty and demonic. It lacks true substance, a privatio boni, a privation of the Good (as Augustine describes evil).

Even in a show that mostly sticks to empirical explanations for its disturbing events, the idea of the “demonic” seems to fit best. As Fuller and Mikkelson have explained, Lecter is meant to be a “literal devil,” a fallen angel whose deviltry is considered an alternative explanation for the events of the series (As Fuller explains, in “[o]ne of the very first meetings with Mads Mikkelsen about this role, he referenced that he didn’t want to play the role the way Anthony Hopkins did or the way Brian Cox did. He wanted to play him as though he were Lucifer himself”).

Indeed, the fictional character this Hannibal most reminds me of—from his alienness to his appearance—is the Lucifer of Vertigo Comics, especially in the works of Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey.

FBI profiler Will Graham, meanwhile, is described as having “a unique cocktail of personality disorders and neuroses,” especially a “perfect empathy” that allows him to put himself vividly in the role of the serial killers he and the FBI team hunt.

In most episodes of the series, we do not see the actual murderers commit their crimes; instead, we see Will reenact them, with all the gore and cruelty that entails. While watching these scenes I couldn’t help but think of them as perverse inversions of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, who led his exercitants in deep imaginative meditations on the Scriptures. Retreatants are instructed to feel the Galilean air, the dirt under their feet, as they witness Jesus’ miracles, his suffering. Here, instead, Will immerses himself in crime scenes, with the imaginative faculties and empathy that would certainly serve him well as a Christian mystic.

In fact, if Will Graham were diagnosed by a medieval theologian like St. Thomas Aquinas rather than a cannibalistic psychiatrist, he’d be considered to have a particularly severe case of delectatio morosa — morose delectation, “the habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts.” The medieval church labeled such a habit sinful, because of its tendency to corrode the moral sense and corrupt the senses. Hannibal’s portrayal of a good man slowly unraveled by a deeper and deeper absorption into his sensuous, imaginative participation in evil is perhaps a perfect illustration of the concept.

Bryan Fuller has been clear that the dreamlike, surreal nature of the killings the show depicts is an important part of its design, and just as the X-Files involved supernatural or extraterrestrial overtones in each of its cases, Hannibal’s cases involve a grandiosity that requires “art and beauty” in their execution. Fuller explains that this creates a “very confusing suggestion to put in the human mind”—on the one hand, the audience, with Will, can appreciate and even, perversely, enjoy the craft of the murders, but on the other hand, the show is very clear that proximity to such horror causes deep anguish and mental trauma.

Hannibal has “beautiful” crime scenes, but it does not really romanticize suffering. Its version of Hannibal Lecter is a great aesthete, but the beautiful tableaux he creates are polluted, just as the elaborate dinners he prepares for his friends and acquaintances secretly involve the cooked organs of his victims.

This is not simply ugliness in the guise of beauty—it is a kind of beauty, but, as those same medieval theologians would say, beauty without goodness is a fallen beauty.

Hannibal Lecter is not a mere lie. He is truly beautiful in his way, but only because—even if he is Lucifer himself, a fallen angel—he is a creature that participates in the beauty of the Good. But he takes this gift and corrupts it wherever he finds it, attempting, like some cosmic demiurge, to shape it according to his own image. This is why Hannibal’s Otherness makes him ultimately unable to shape Will the way he wants to, as Will’s goodness and empathy set him apart from Lecter’s corruption.

Will might be a hothouse of neuroses and a habitual sufferer of delectatio morosa, but there is still hope for his imagination to participate in transcendental Beauty, theologically speaking. I really wish someone would give him a copy of Ignatius’ Exercises next season.