Hannibal’s third, and ultimately final, season carried with it the problem of reverence. In the first two seasons, the series carved out its own territory apart from Thomas Harris’ novels, staking its claim to the heretofore unexplored era prior to Red Dragon, when Will Graham worked as an FBI profiler and Hannibal Lecter was a psychiatrist and advisor. In these seasons, the show operated as a wackadoo procedural, a CSI where killers operate as avant-garde artists who will sew you into a tapestry with a hundred other bodies, fashion your corpse into a biological tree or rip you apart while wearing animal adornments and operating as a self-appointed werewolf. It was completely, gloriously insane, and it felt fresh and new. But with the third season, series creator Bryan Fuller made the understandable decision to finally tackle Harris’ source material, taking on adaptations of both the Hannibal and Red Dragon novels, with a pinch of Hannibal Rising for good measure. The Hannibal portion, taking up the season’s first half, was frequently much too faithful, but it did show a tendency to go off-book at several turns, even if doing so left it feeling wildly uneven. The Red Dragon half, however, while more cohesive than the first half, was faithful to an absolute fault. Red Dragon had already previously been adapted, largely to the letter, by two films, and Hannibal’s take on the material didn’t put nearly as much of a new spin on the old chestnut as one might have expected. The most wickedly unpredictable show on television had become something you could sing along with at home.
“The Wrath of the Lamb,” Hannibal’s impromptu swan song, finally decides to divest itself from its roots in thrilling fashion, reclaiming its bold, original voice. While the episode sticks to the script in the early goings, with killer Francis Dolarhyde faking his death before his blind girlfriend Reba after setting his house ablaze, the episode then opts to throw Harris’ story into the flames as well. Dolarhyde pursues Will Graham with vengefulness, as he did in the book, but rather than that instigating a bloody final encounter, Will flips the script by selling Dolarhyde on the notion that the person whom he really should settle up with is Dr. Lecter himself, whose betrayal, in Dolarhyde’s mind, was the most egregious of all due to the hero worship in play. Hannibal, of course, is still locked up in his spacious, immaculate cell, but Will sells Jack Crawford on the idea of faking a prison transfer with Hannibal to use him as bait to lure Dolarhyde right to them. Though Will leaves out the detail of his bargain with Dolarhyde, he and Jack are on the same page: neither killer is to survive this plan.
The plan goes horribly wrong, as it must, when Dolarhyde attacks the convoy prematurely, killing all of the guards and allowing Hannibal to be freed. Dolarhyde then vanishes as Hannibal takes agency over the situation, commandeering a police car and offering a shell-shocked Will the shotgun seat. Hannibal takes them to his old cliffside home, with the full knowledge that Dolarhyde will follow them there. When the Great Red Dragon shows up, he’s armed for bear, shooting Hannibal through the torso and stabbing Will mercilessly several times. Ultimately, Will and Hannibal have to double up (with shades of Riggs and Murtaugh tag-teaming Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4) to take Dolarhyde down, in a bravura fight sequence with Will swinging an axe while Hannibal hungrily tears out Dolarhyde’s throat with his teeth (possibly the only instance in the entire series where Mads Mikkelsen gets to embrace the animalistic viciousness inherent to the character), leaving the killer vanquished in a blood-gushing spectacle. Then Will and Hannibal, those star-crossed lovers, enjoy a warm embrace before Will guides them both off the edge of the cliff, onto the rocks below.
For all the talk of Hannibal possibly continuing on in some form, be it a fourth season elsewhere or a film, “The Wrath of the Lamb” appears to close the door on the characters quite definitively (a coda, with Gillian Anderson’s frigid Bedelia du Maurier sitting down to an ornately prepared meal of her own leg, stands as a puzzling non-sequitur). It’s quite possible that Fuller shot more than one ending to provide options for the future, and then went with the nuclear option after all of the other avenues dried up. But the finality of Will’s and Hannibal’s fate actually feels like the perfect culmination of the series. Will’s unending mental torture over his work (which had broken him even before he ever met Hannibal Lecter) had finally gotten him to a place where a normal existence was simply no longer viable. He had tried to start a family (with a wife and stepson that the series treated as a fuzzy afterthought), but it had become impossible for him to argue against Hannibal’s ceaseless taunts that the darkness has always been where Will belongs. When Will takes action to rid himself of torment and the world of Hannibal Lecter, there’s a hint of The Monster’s final decision at the climax of Bride of Frankenstein, particularly in the acknowledgement to his bride that “We belong dead.” The series has really run with the idea of Hannibal and Will as locked in a perverse, yet mutually felt romance, and there’s something intimate and oddly touching about their final moments together.
“The Wrath of the Lamb” does its best to tie a bow around the remainder of the series as well, For starters, it brings back the forensic comedy duo of Price and Zeller (Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams), whose levity has been sorely missed during this often oppressively dour final season. Alana Bloom and Margot Verger take their burgeoning family into hiding after Hannibal states his intentions to come after them once free. We even get a final check-in with what’s left of Frederick Chilton, who was horrifically burned and disfigured after his encounter with Dolarhyde the previous week (though he’s already receiving skin grafts, bolstering the notion that no injury, however grievous, will ever topple this shockingly resilient man). Jack Crawford doesn’t get much of a send-off, but at least all of these nutjobs will no longer occupy his every waking thought.
Hannibal was a show that cleared every barrier in its path seemingly destined to stifle it. It was an NBC primetime show that somehow managed to be exponentially gorier and more violent than any of the R-rated theatrical films about Hannibal Lecter. It was weird, arty and horribly rated, yet hung on for three full years. It arguably did more justice to Thomas Harris’ world than any of the cinematic adaptations, save for The Silence of the Lambs. And though its small-but-vocal fan base bemoans its cancellation (which is almost certain to be permanent now that Mikkelsen has large roles in Star Wars: Rogue One and Doctor Strange in his future), “The Wrath of the Lamb” feels like a logical ending point. It’s satisfying on an emotional level and thrilling on a visceral one. Besides, where else could the series have gone from here? Another achingly familiar retelling of a Harris novel (this time of the beyond-iconic Silence of the Lambs)? Another manhunt for an in-the-wind Hannibal Lecter? A brand-new serial killer case for a captive Hannibal to again assist with? We’ve been there. We’ve done that. While it’s sad to no longer have these versions of the characters in our lives anymore, this actually feels like the ideal place for the series to call it a wrap. Hannibal now concludes its run as a perfectly portioned meal. Anything more than this would be overeating.
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