Fatal Riddles: HANNIBAL and the Figure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Television

Fatal Riddles: HANNIBAL and the Figure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Television


season premiere of Law & Order‘s
fourteenth season, Bodies, constituted
a departure from prior episodes.  Cryptic
markings on a dead body are matched to similar markings found on a victim in
Brooklyn five years before, and then to more bodies, all of which leads
Detectives Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Green (Jesse L. Martin) to conclude there
is a serial killer at work in New York City. The killer—a psychopathic taxi
driver named Mark Bruner (played by guest star Ritchie Coster)—is apprehended
relatively quickly. Briscoe and Green take no actions in pursuit of the killer
that fans of the show haven’t seen a thousand times before: they canvass,
retrace the steps of the victim, happen upon a nightclub waitress with a keen
eye for creepy patrons, and finally follow a hunch that leads them to Bruner’s apartment.
It’s not the pursuit and capture that provide the climax of the episode,
however, but the legal predicament that follows: Bruner’s attorney, an idealistic
public defender, must either break attorney-client privilege—and tell the
prosecutors (and the court) where Bruner has hidden additional bodies—or be
charged as an accessory to Bruner’s crimes.

Wolf’s Law & Order debuted in the
fall of 1990, at the peak of New York’s violent crime wave—that year, there
were over 2,000 murders (compared to 333 in 2013).  Law
& Order
embraced the fear of social disintegration and addressed it
with a severe formalism that married esperanto liberalism with a faith in traditional
institutions of justice.  The formula fit
the times.  The show debuted four years
after Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory
minimum sentences and helped inaugurate our current prison crisis, and four
years before Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (1994),
which flooded the streets with policemen and extended the death penalty to
forty new offenses.  Nonetheless, by the
late 1990s, as the economy rode a wave of irrational exuberance, and NYC transitioned
from a dystopia to a destination for hipsters and financiers alike, the kinds
of crimes that captured the public imagination changed as well. Events like the
Columbine High School shootings of 1999 and the September 11, 2001 terrorist
attacks spiked fear of hidden threats from within.  Over time, Wolf adapted to this changing landscape
by bringing different versions of Law
& Order
to television, shifting the focus to tawdrier crimes (SVU), or quirkier detectives, (Criminal Intent).[1]
On the flagship show, however, the  basic
format prevailed, with few exceptions, for the duration of its twenty-year run.
It was plug-and-play television, and its reliance on formula guaranteed the
show was almost always competent if rarely great.


Bodies, however, Bruner’s lack of traditional
motive—he doesn’t kill out of greed, or revenge, or jealousy—renders him
less a typical Law & Order criminal
than a force of deconstruction and illogic. When Bruner bestows knowledge of
his victims’ whereabouts on his public defender and then relies on legal rules
and ethics to preclude the attorney from sharing that information, he reveals the
fundamental contradictions between our abstract notions of justice and the
institutional rules which make the judicial system work. By using Bruner this
way, Bodies takes a cue from the modern
archetype of the fictional intelligent psychopath: the creature in Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In a fit of rage, Shelley’s creature – powerful,
brilliant, and a wounded social reject all at once – frames the Frankenstein
family’s adopted daughter Justine Moritz for the murder of an infant family
member.  Torn between confessing to a
crime she didn’t commit and ex-communication, Justine admits guilt and is
hanged. Although her death may be characterized as innocence lost, it’s not the
senseless destruction of innocence that drives the creature. Rather, having
been judged and excluded by society because of his appearance, the creature seeks
revenge by turning the Frankenstein family against itself and exposing the internal
contradictions and inherent arbitrariness of the justice system and, by
extension, society.

Law & Order premiered on NBC in
the autumn of 1990, it did so over the protests of some executives who thought
it was too intense for weekly network television. Just under twenty-five years
later, on June 6, 2013, on the same network, roughly 2.5 million viewers
watched as Hannibal‘s Dr. Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard)
graphically disemboweled psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raul Esparza) while
a still-conscious Chilton looked on. Gideon is but one of fourteen serial
killers introduced in the first twenty-two episodes of Hannibal.  Although notably
graphic in its violence, Hannibal is
not the first network show to focus on serial killers.[2]  A non-exhaustive list includes NBC’s Profiler and Fox’s Millenium, both of which premiered in 1996.  It also includes CSI, which premiered on CBS in 2000 (to be followed in 2002 by CSI: Miami and in 2004 by CSI: NY) and which, although not solely devoted
to serial killers, relied on a serial killer in its pilot and has depended on
serial killers for a number of its multi-episode narrative arcs. Criminal Minds, also on CBS and just
renewed for its tenth season, follows the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (the
“BAU” also featured on Hannibal)
as they track a new serial killer every week. Within months of Hannibal’s premiere in April, 2013, The
debuted on Fox, The Bridge
on FX, and The Killing’s third (but
first serial killer-based) season began on AMC. 
And, although they are not network shows, the past year saw both the
successful initial run of HBO’s True
and the disappointing conclusion of Showtime’s Dexter.

the fascination with “intelligent psychopaths” and serial killers? It’s
certainly true that there’s an audience for gratuitous and/or sadistic violence.
The killers are almost invariably white men directing violence (frequently
sexual) against “helpless” victims, typically women.  But there must be some further appeal, given
the fact that these shows (and novels and movies) command a large, diverse
audience of both sexes.  At a minimum,
serial killer plotlines are so culturally-determined at this point that they
seem to provide a kind of generic gravity, atmosphere, and stability to any
But Daniel Tiffany, in Infidel Poetics,
identifies something atavistic in our morbid fascination that dates back to the
legend of the Sphinx, the mythical creature who terrorized Thebes with a fatal
As a “liminal” creature – part human, part
lion, part eagle but not actually human, lion, or eagle – the Sphinx is both an
antecedent and ancestor to Frankenstein’s creature, whose parts also fail to
add up, leaving him at once both human and less-than-human. Both figures presage
the “intelligent psychopath” of contemporary television, whose inscrutability
is the product of his fundamental lack of that something that we believe makes us “human.”
In this way,
the “riddling serial killers and
cryptographers of modernity” supply us with a “vernacular strain of
‘poetry'” and join the Sphinx (and Shelley’s creature) as authors of a
vertiginous, “apocalyptic” narrative. 
These figures embody a riddle that suspends us between a “promise
of revelation” and “the threat of annihilation.”[4]
By internalizing the superficial grotesqueness of Shelley’s creature, the
serial killer is all the more beguiling because – unlike the Sphinx or the
creature – he terrorizes us from within. 
If it seems a stretch to call the work of these killers poems, we need only consider how we
distinguish a killer’s “style” by what we call his signature.


not a stretch to say that our
construction and re-construction of these narratives – and the means we devise
to solve their riddles – can tell us something about a given cultural moment.  Shelley’s Frankenstein,
for instance, provides a strong critique of Romantic hubris, depicting the
destructive results of our attempt to “play God” through science.  Centuries later, CSI flipped Frankenstein‘s
script by suggesting a solution in science.
CSI kept in place many of the familiar
markers of the police procedural, but it also instituted a few significant
changes.  Most importantly, it focused on
the analytical methods of forensic scientists who preferred to stay far away
from the action. (“I don’t chase criminals,” explains lead-scientist
Gil Grissom, “I analyze evidence.”)[5]  These scientists function not only as a team,
but also as a kind of marketplace of ideas
– the laboratory is collaborative but also competitive,
with the scientists vying for Grissom’s favor and sourcing solutions from a
diversity of character stereotypes including an ex-stripper, an All-American
good-old-boy, a strong-but-silently-troubled bad-ass, and geeks galore. For the
bulk of its run, the CSI method was explicitly anti-theoretical; speculation
earned a quick rebuke from Grissom. It’s not difficult to identify in early CSI a pragmatism, a belief in markets
(at least of the intellectual variety), and a fetish for technology that reflect
the Clinton era that gave birth to it. When Criminal
first aired five years later, it adopted this pragmatism, down to its
team/market of diverse stereotypes, but swapped out the gleaming machinery of
the lab for behavioral models (and a dash of Big Data analysis). Criminal Minds‘ BAU also operates
collaboratively and competitively, dramatically prioritizing an internal trust
and transparency that stands in stark contradiction to the inscrutability of
the criminals they track. Both CSI and
Criminal Minds are notable for the
integral, authoritative roles they give to women. Their “marketplace”
is an inclusive one, a fact that, to a limited degree, helps off-set the
recurrent victimhood of women. Although both CSI and Criminal Minds
traffic in pop-philosophy (Criminal Minds
actually brackets its episodes with de-contextualized quotes from literature
and philosophy), neither treat serial killers as a kind of existential or philosophical
threat. Instead, the killer is merely one more problem to be solved, that can be solved, through a combination of
reason, diligence, technology, and cooperation.[6]

what do we make of Hannibal? It’s sui generis.  It adapts characters from, but pre-dates,
Thomas Harris’s well-known novels.  This means
that, to the extent it plans to follow those novels (with some, but not total,
fidelity thus far), the audience already knows a great deal about where the
narrative is going.  The show centers on
Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancey, a “pure empath” who experiences crimes from
the criminal’s perspective, and Hannibal Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, a
psychiatrist who has been brought in by the FBI to help Graham handle the
psychic burden of his job (and, eventually, to aid in tracking down killers). There
is no mystery for the audience to Lecter’s identity, or the fact that he is a
psychopath, a killer, and a cannibal. 
Instead, the two characters face-off in a kind of dialectical opposition
as Lecter attempts to maneuver Graham into becoming a killer himself. The other
characters orbit them, occasionally changing polarities for the convenience of
the plot.  Dancy’s Graham is slightly-built,
boyish, soulful, all frayed ends. Although he “teaches” criminal
profiling at the FBI training center at Quantico, the show is exceedingly light
on the analytical. You could be forgiven for wondering about the substance of
his lectures, given the fact that his “talents” are the apparent
byproduct of cognitive and psychological abnormalities. Mikkelsen’s Lecter
manages to be droll, aloof, creepy, charming, and – it must be said – a hell of
a clotheshorse. (His plaid suits and large-knotted paisley ties are a costume
designer’s dream.) He is also an unparalleled chef, a visual artist (he studied
drawing at Johns Hopkins on a fellowship), a musician and composer (harpsichord
and Theremin), a one-time neurosurgeon, and, now, a psychologist.[7]  He is so refined, and his composure so total,
that it would be nice, just once, for the show to sneak up on him as he watches
television and eats cereal in sweatpants. 

be clear, Hannibal is beautiful. And
it bears all the hallmarks of prestige television – not just the high quality
of the visuals, but also its accomplished cast and casual erudition. That said,
the show’s compositions are clearly its calling card. They are meticulous,
often daring, and Hannibal consistently
fills the screen with striking images drawn from a super-saturated palette.  The most striking images are, of course, the
dead bodies themselves, and the show’s attentiveness to the
“expressive” quality of the murdered body suggests an affinity with
David Fincher’s Seven (1995).[8]  No matter the killer, the dead bodies of the “victims”
are nearly always arranged and presented by the murderer in ways that blur the line
between the beautiful and the grotesque. Of the fourteen serial killers thus
far, not one has stooped to the banal depths of, say, strangling a prostitute
in a dark alley. Although the crime scenes
are elaborate, the majority of the actual murders in Hannibal occur off-screen. 
Thus we “meet” most victims for the first time when they are already
dead, already posed. Only belatedly (and even then only occasionally), through
Graham’s experience of the crimes, does the audience witness any of the
brutality behind the “art.” As a result, Hannibal‘s disinterest in the victims’ interior life parallels the
disinterest of the killers themselves. Deprived of a backstory, the victims never
exist as subjects, only as the
eventual objects of the killer’s art.
That it is art that we’re seeing is reinforced again and again as the
characters “admire” the monumental design, and, yes, the “poetry”
of the “death tableaux.”

show is equally meticulous thematically. It maps out a symbolic universe of
mirrors and reflections, parlor rooms and libraries, sublime landscapes and
dream imagery that, in combination with the violence done to the human body, suggests
what might result if Eli Roth plucked his writers from a graduate seminar on
Lacan. That half the main characters are psychologists permits Hannibal to lay it on thick – for a show
about chasing serial killers, it spends a great deal of time listening in on
characters in book-lined rooms as they earnestly discuss psychic
“borders,” dream interpretation, and “identity.” In this
way, Hannibal shares an intellectual
ambition with both The Following and True Detective.[9]  It is a credit to the creators that Hannibal manages to avoid The Following‘s too-obvious literary
aspirations. Like True Detective, it
succeeds largely in spite of itself, relying on strong visuals, charismatic
performances, and self-awareness to hide an intellectual and narrative preposterousness
that grows increasingly hard to ignore.


Hannibal  incorporates the components of a modern
criminal procedural – FBI agents, gunplay, high-tech labs and the quirky
squints who occupy them – but it displays none of the other shows’ faith in (or
fetish for) methodology.  On the
contrary, in the universe of Hannibal,
science is inert, ineffective, and easily manipulated. These manipulations
rarely serve as a surprise to the audience; instead, as Lecter uses forensic
evidence to frame others, send messages, or toy with the FBI, the audience is allowed
in on the joke.  The wholesale
institutional haplessness of the FBI is driven home by the fact that Jack
Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), the Director of the BAU, spends most of Season
One sharing meals with Lecter in which they eat
the very victims of the crimes he’s investigating
.  The medical and psychology professions fare
no better. Lecter “gives” Graham encephalitis then corrupts (and then
kills) the neurologist to keep it quiet. The psychiatrist Chilton, who manages
to survive his encounter with Gideon only to be killed soon after by means of one
of Hannibal’s more elaborate strategems, is a blowhard and fraud.  In the course of a couple of episodes, Lecter
manipulates both the FBI and Graham’s love interest (a psychologist consultant
to the FBI) into believing that Graham is a serial killer.  Naturally, it’s also Lecter who later gets
him freed. Lecter’s ability to manipulate and escape detection is explained in Mephistopholean
and metaphysical terms by the few who recognize his dangerousness – he’s Satan,
he’s smoke, he can’t be seen. As Lecter’s psychiatrist (an excellent Gillian
Anderson) explains to him, severing their relationship before fleeing town in
fear, “
I’ve had to draw a
conclusion based on what I glimpsed through the stitching of the person suit
that you wear.” That the stitching holds up as long as it does may be Hannibal‘s sole mystery.

espouses a superficially stringent code of etiquette and ethics, and a breach
of these codes can have fatal consequences. 
Like all things Hannibal,
however, this code frequently bends to his will.  Although it may be Lecter’s world we’re
living in, fortune doesn’t only favor
Lecter; it favors all the killers, who always seem to finish their
“monuments,” no matter how ambitious, without any wires snapping,
without the whole Rube Goldbergian apparatus tumbling down, and without
interruption.[10]  From time-to-time, Hannibal slyly concedes a universe in which psychopaths are not an
exception but rather a kind of cabal, fixing and amending its rules. “Look
at us,” the journalist Freddie Lounds (
Jean Chorostecki) observes to Graham and Lecter, “a bunch of psychopaths
helping one another out.”

Lecter’s ability to manipulate the actions of others, even from remote
distances (of space and/or time) suggests not so much that he’s playing chess
while the FBI plays checkers, but rather that all of us are merely pawns in a
match he plays against himself for idle amusement. Stripped of a Sphinx-like
“fatal riddle,” the drama of Hannibal
is reduced to Lecter’s attempt to corrupt Graham. Its focus on the
“borders” that separate “us” from psychopaths suggests that
its closest relative is Showtime’s Dexter.  But it lacks a central paradox like the one
that animated the first few seasons of Dexter.
There, the audience was encouraged to root for Dexter’s happiness, his
normalization. But any relationship with Dexter posed, by its very nature, a
mortal risk. As those who cared for him were endangered or killed, Dexter forced its audience to examine
its own complicity in the violence.  Hannibal, on the other hand, solicits
admiration at the risk of leaving complicity unexamined. The shows share an
additional thematic similarity, however. And it’s a significant one. The
bumbling nature of the Miami police in Dexter
mirrors Hannibal’s hapless FBI;
both shows mask an inherent pessimism with a kind of “flawed hero”-worship,
suggesting a need to delegate the fight against “evil” to someone different,
and better, than us. This is not a
new trope. The transformation of Sherlock Holmes into a “high-functioning
sociopath” on Sherlock and the
emotional and intellectual volatility of Criminal
’s Detective Goren are just two recent examples that suggest that the
battle against psychopaths can only be won by psychopaths. We’re watching Titans
and Olympians battle it out across the mountaintops. Or, more aptly, it’s a
comic book universe as seen through the lens of the DSM.

Hannibal can be commended for its
even-handed approach to victimhood – it has avoided the kind of unrelenting
victimization of women (victimhood is distributed across gender and race) that
plagues Criminal Minds, and that famously
drove Mandy Patinkin from the cast. It also largely avoids that show’s
uncomfortable voyeurism.  But does that
discomfort have a kind of value? By hiding so much of its actual violence from
us, Hannibal often leaves the
audience with nothing but passive admiration of its technical accomplishment.  Having pre-emptively emptied both science and
the law of value, it cannot offer comment or critique. Having tilted the
universe so fully in favor of its killers, Hannibal
self-limits what it can tell us about the nature of evil – banal or
otherwise – in the world off-screen.[11]
Because of this, Hannibal struggles
to justify either its graphic violence or its body count.  Does it need justification? None of my
criticism detracts from the show’s direction and acting – which are excellent,
and significantly better than its kin, save perhaps for True Detective. It’s possible the wealth of surface pleasures is
enough. At one point, Graham criticizes Crawford for “mythologiz[ing]
banal and cruel men who didn’t deserve
to be thought of as supervillains.” 
That the show itself goes on to do exactly that suggests a winking,
Lecter-like self-awareness. In these moments
the show is most fully a reflection of the title character himself – clever,
facile, worldly, stylish, vicious, and hollow. 
As the audience, we are in on the joke but denied the riddle.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of
Tremolo (Harper 2001), was
awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have
been published in
The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic,
Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.

[1] An informal count tallied more
than three times as many serial killers in the combined twenty-five years of SVU and Criminal Intent than in the twenty years of the original Law & Order.

[2] As far back as 1988, NBC
broadcast the short-lived and before-its-time Unsub, starring Starsky &
David Soul as the leader of a team of FBI forensic scientists
tracking the same kinds of “unknown subjects” at issue in Criminal Minds.

[3] The
dramatic improvement in the third season of The
suggests that a serial killer plotline can serve to stabilize an
ambitious, but troubled, show. In other cases, serial killers have been used to
lend “lightweight” shows a sense of substane; hence the serial killer plotlines
in lighter fare such as NCIS, Bones, and even the soap operas Loving and One Life to Live.

[4] Tiffany, Infidel Poetics (2009), p. 72.

[5] Grissom was played by William
Petersen who, coincidentally, played Will Graham in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) the first  adaptation from Thomas Harris’s Lecter novels.
It was remade as Red Dragon in 2002.

[6] Fox’s Bones is another example of the “empirical” procedural and is
strongly indebted to CSI.

[7] Lecter also has an exceptionally
keen sense of smell – at one point he claims to have “smelled” Graham’s encephalitis
– a trait he shares with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the serial killer anti-hero
of Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume.
In Susskind’s novel, the hyperosmia is actually what drives Grenouille to kill.

[8] Twelve years later, Fincher
would again direct a film about a serial killer – this time the Zodiac – but
would focus less on the overtly apocalyptic and the graphically violent and
focus instead on the destructive internal toll that the Zodiac’s “fatal
riddle” imposed on those investigating him.

[9] It also shares significant
structural similarities to The Following
but that is beyond the scope of this piece, mostly because it would have
required watching more of The Following.

[10] Contrast all of this with the
one victim we see who manages to escape from a killer: he leaps from a bluff to
the river below only to bounce awkwardly against the rocks and plunge, already
dead, into the water.

[11] The fantastic British crime
drama The Fall (also, coincidentally,
starring Gillian Anderson) provides a welcome antidote to this self-regard. It
shares a number of structural similarities to Hannibal, but manages to capture a tension between menace and
banality that is wholly absent from Hannibal.

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