I don’t think that it’s going out on a limb to claim that Hannibal is the one of the very best broadcast network series in a decade or more. While it struggles in the ratings (the 10pm Friday night slot would be tough for any show), the series itself is a near masterpiece of intricate plotting, complicated relationships, psychological perversions, grotesque imagery, rich cinematography, and spot-on performances. It enjoys both critical accolades and fannish devotion and makes for animated and elevated discussions the next day around the water cooler. It succeeds on so many levels.
But not all of them. Hannibal has one significant flaw: the way it depicts and uses women to tell its story.
Yes, this is a series that primarily focuses on three male characters: Jack Crawford, Will Graham, and, of course, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal sets out to explore how these three powerful forces, each with his own distinct morality and agenda act upon one another and the world around them. What makes the show so intriguing to watch is how Bryan Fuller uses every device — every moment, every word, every look — to first obfuscate and then reveal layer after layer of these men and how their interactions with each other and others changes them.
However, the fact that these three form the focal point of the story does not mean that the other characters don’t matter. In fact, one of the real pleasures of Hannibal is just how much characters who would be kept fairly one-note in another show are instead developed into people who hold almost as much fascination for us as the primary characters. They fulfill a function in relation to the main storyline, yes. But they are given their own stories as well, which makes their voices that much more powerful.
Dr. Frederick Chilton is an excellent case in point. In Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, for example, this character was pivotal to the plot, but largely undeveloped. We were given just enough information and just enough characterization for the story to work: the writer, Ted Tally, made it clear we were meant to see him as a sleazy, vaguely unethical, completely inferior mental health professional with a hate on for Hannibal. This was all we needed to know for him to work as a foil for both Hannibal and Clarice Starling.
But Fuller has chosen to give us a markedly different Chilton. Like Demme’s version, the chief administrator at the Baltimore Home for the Criminally Insane is still being used primarily as a foil for Lecter, Gideon, and Graham; this week we see him in the position Graham was in for the last few weeks — imprisoned on suspicion of being the Chesapeake Ripper — and revealing just how controlled Graham was in comparison.
And yes, he’s still a bit sleazy and we’re not supposed to identify with him. But in a hundred little ways, the writers, directors, and actor have fleshed this character out into someone who, while we don’t want to be him, we certainly want to watch him. Lines hint at motivations that are complex. Blocking suggests mood and involvement. And facial expressions communicate inner monologues and even internal dialogues that make us want to know more about him. In fact, as we get into the meat of the second series, Chilton is becoming downright fascinating, much in the same way that, after a shaky start last year, we have been captivated by Eddie Izzard’s Gideon.
So why is it that we don’t get the same for the women in the story?
After all, the women on Hannibal have just as much, if not more potential, than Chilton. Abigail Hobbes was, last season, a really compelling character. With the death of her father, her complicity in his crimes was unclear: was the girl for whom Graham, Bloom, and Hannibal had such compassion just an innocent victim of her father’s crimes? Or was she actually his apprentice, not simply luring girls to him but taking part in their murders and recycling?
Through her conversations with the three psychologists (and Freddie Lounds), Fuller began to reveal a smart, disturbed, but ultimately (her own guilt notwithstanding) sympathetic young woman whose inner workings made her far more interesting than either simply “victim” or “killer.” We were given enough development that our appetites were whetted: we leaned forward to catch her words and watched her as intently as we did her protector and eventual killer, Hannibal. Unfortunately, Abigail was murdered before we actually learned who she really was, cutting off all that potential. And since then, the women have largely receded into the background.
But what about Beverly Katz and Dr. Alana Bloom? you might ask.
At the beginning of this season, tertiary character Beverly Katz moved out of the background she shared with lab techs Price and Zeller, becoming a driving force in the narrative and thus ripe, like Chilton, for some real development. But what do we actually know about Katz beyond her fairly straightforward function in the story? She was a solid forensic pathologist who was passionate about discovering the truth and good at her job.
But each one of those aspects of her were utterly necessary to the plot. The character needed to be a forensic pathologist to uncover the necessary clues. She had to be driven enough to step outside the usual limits of her profession (and thus willing to work directly with suspected serial killer Graham). And she had to be good enough at her job to follow the evidence to Hannibal. But beyond these things, she’s a virtual cypher. In the end, we were never given reason to care about her; we miss her more for what she could have been than what she was. And whatever potential she had is forever lost as she seems now to have taken over the place occupied by Garret Jacobs Hobbes last season: she is the empty body that stands in for the voices Graham hears in his head, never again to speak for herself.
And then there’s Dr. Alana Bloom. From the first episode, she has been touted as both Hannibal and Graham’s colleague (at different stages of the backstory) and enjoys at least as much time on screen as Chilton. She is also the person who should know the most about the two primary forces in the story — the one who should have some real insights. Certainly Hannibal — as well as Crawford and Graham — talks about her and treats her as though she is a skilled and respected mental health professional and his equal (not that common an admission for Lecter). But short of providing canned psychological explanations, how much evidence have we seen of her professional prowess or personal motivations? She is notable more for what she misses than what she understands or reveals about the psychology of those around her. She has, in turn, been wrong about Abigail, Will, and now, rather spectacularly, Lecter.
After all, one senses that Hannibal could have taken any one of a number of women to bed with him in order to secure an alibi — or engineered another way to cover his ass. Fuller’s choice in having the cannibal use Bloom in this capacity only underlines how much she fails to be the character that we have been repeatedly told she is: someone who judges the mental soundness and motivations of those around her for a living. Instead, her would-be beloved Graham has told her that someone in her life is potentially a craven serial killer, there’s already evidence that the charges against Will himself are highly questionable, and she chooses to ignore all that and have “funeral sex” (that’s not just funeral sex) with the man she’s been warned against. If this were a slasher flick, she’d already be dead and we’d chalk it up to that special stupidity that exists only in the women who inhabit such movies.
And this has become her role on the show: that of victim. Already once last season, she was nearly killed by Dr. Abel Gideon. And this year’s “Futamono” has made it clear: Alana Bloom (what need the title Dr?) is the object over which Hannibal and Graham will square off this season. Bloom is essentially being set up as a damsel in distress rather than a character playing on the same level (or even in the same game) as those around her. And there seems no indication that she will even be aware of this fact, let alone take any kind of an active role in her own defense.
Nor does it seem that she has anything of substance to add to the investigation. In fact, in two extremely revealing scenes this last week, we get a very clear idea of what part she is playing in this larger drama. When Miriam Lass first attempts to identify the Ripper, Jack Crawford puts Bloom into the interrogation room with Lecter, but it’s hardly to question him. This makes no sense at first, but Hannibal quickly recognizes what Crawford hopes to accomplish: Miriam can only identify her former captor by the sound of his voice. “Jack wants them to hear my voice. Otherwise, I’d be in here alone.” Bloom is only in the room to get Lecter talking, not because there’s any chance that she might provoke a confession or other otherwise uncover facts important to the case; despite all her touted credentials, her part in most discussions in the series is simply to give the male characters someone to talk to, or at. Chilton, in finding himself in the same position as Hannibal at the end of the episode puts the finest of points on exactly what her level of input is: “Those are just words coming out of your mouth. No weight to them. No consideration they might be true.”
In the balance, Bloom—the primary female character on Hannibal—is little more than a sounding board and a recurring victim.
And all this, this lack of respect for female characters like Bloom, is ironic for a couple of reasons. First, there was no need for them to be female in the first place. In the books, Alan(a) Bloom, as well as Freddie Lounds, were men. Fuller consciously chose to make them women, likely as a way to turn a very male-centric story in which women are more commonly fodder for the serial killer than important actors in the plot into something a little more balanced. Which is might have been admirable if he’d really then done something with them.
But simply making them women doesn’t actually make the story any less male-centric or appealing to women. What kind of balance is there if the men do all the heavy lifting (including the emoting) in the storyline while the women are relegated to the one-dimensional (Katz and Lounds) or the damsel stereotype (Bloom)? How does it make sense to introduce a character like Bloom, one who could and should operate almost on par with Graham and Lecter and then make her less perceptive (for no earthly reason) than the character you’ve intentionally created to be to be their clear inferior (Chilton)? Or, worse yet, to reduce her to a bargaining chip or prey? Women (and men, for that matter) are not so easily mollified.
And certainly, there is nothing to lose and much to gain—as Fuller and the writers have illustrated with Chilton and Abel Gideon—by allowing secondary characters (and the actors who play them) to be more than simply functional within the story. Yet women on Hannibal seem relegated to be throwaway characters: used to advance the plot in some way and then disposed of—literally. We already know that how Lounds ends up. Are all the women on the show destined to become little more than victims? Georgia, Abigail, Miriam, Freddie, Alana… the pattern is unmistakable.
Worse yet, if you go back to the original books, the entire reason Hannibal the cannibal exists in the first place is because of the victimization of women. Lecter became what he is largely because he was forced to watch as his sister Mischa was first murdered and then eaten by Nazi soldiers. Throughout his life, both before the series Hannibal and after it, he will go out of his way to attempt to save women. So I think we have to wonder what exactly it is Hannibal is trying to accomplish by treating the women in its story with less respect than one of the most prolific and horrific of fictional psychopaths.
It seems unlikely that Fuller will kill Bloom off this series, but given his track record, I don’t have a lot of faith that even if she survives that she will have been worth the saving. And it’s not as though Fuller couldn’t salvage her. The male characters and just about everything else in Hannibal has proven that he is more than equal to the task. It would not be difficult to bring Bloom into the mix and make her every bit as riveting, complex, and dynamic as the men on the show. So I can’t help asking: what on Earth is stopping him?
Because no matter how visually and narratively striking it has been and could be, it is not enough to give female characters like Beverly Katz and Alana Bloom spectacular deaths. They first deserve to live at least as compellingly as they eventually die.