Do you Ache for Him? On Gender, Appetite and Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal
By K. Blair
Recently I had a dream that I saw a billboard advert of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal eating an old El Paso fajita kit, and the only words on the ad were ‘who is he having for dinner, is it you?’. Every time I tried to take a picture, my phone malfunctioned, presumably because Hannibal Lecter would never partake of a branded fajita kit and if he did, there can be no physical evidence, on pain of ending up in his pantry.
And what a pantry it is. Decadent, indulgent and well stocked in equal measure, I will never not be jealous of it. It’s a cornucopia of expensive ingredients and I can’t imagine ever having the kind of money that would allow me to have a walk-in pantry as well as a kitchen with the floor space to have moveable prep tables. Honestly, I’m jealous of Doctor Lecter’s entire house, from murder basement to double bedroom, even if his design choices are bonkers. Namely the dining room, which has a living wall of lettuce on one side and a graphic painting of Leda and the swan on the other, a painting that had to be blurred every time it was on screen to meet broadcast regulations for adult content. I don’t know how you can sit at a dining table, facing that painting and not be thinking about it obsessively throughout the meal, though maybe this is how Hannibal got so many cannibal puns past his guests.
This is the part where I say that I do not condone murder or cannibalism, or the numerous other crimes Hannibal has committed. Look, I get it, the horror genre isn’t for everyone, this particular series isn’t for everyone. The body horror and violent content is extreme, the dialogue was described by TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz as “what vampires might say to each other if they got stoned”, and it quickly diverges from its police procedural origins into an intense gothic fairytale, where the lines between dream and reality, like the questionable Leda painting, are often blurred. But these are all the reasons I love it, why I’ve watched all three seasons over and over again. I describe it as my comfort show, the one show I know I can return to without fear that it’s gone stale in between viewings. Because there’s another part of Hannibal that I love dearly. The show was created by a gay man and the series itself, to me at least, comes across as queer.
Queer in the sense that it has explicitly queer characters; even though the lesbian sex scene is kaleidoscopic and obscured because the censors’ frown on eroticism but are perfectly fine with angel wings made of back skin. Alana and Margot’s relationship was a wonderful surprise, one I welcomed with relish and was pleased to see continue until the end of the series. The relationship between the main characters, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, is charged with homoerotic tension from the beginning. In season one, episode nine, Will leans against the ladder in Hannibal’s office (yes, Hannibal has ladders in his therapist office. He climbs them in order to get to the balcony where he keeps all his leather-bound psychiatrist textbooks because he’s rich and pretentious) like he’s a maiden and the ladder is a fainting couch. Hannibal decides that the appropriate distance to stand apart from Will is less than a foot away, immediately adding an erotic charge to this moment that would fuel many, many fanfics.
Hannibal compares his and Will’s relationship to Achilles and Patroclus. They have moments of complicated physical intimacy; Hannibal cups Will’s face, tends to his wounded knuckles, they cling to each other in the last moments of the final episode, blood splattered and overcome with their emotions. There are numerous moments in dialogue that are deeply romantic, my favourites being ‘I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him’, ‘if I saw you every day, forever Will, I would remember this time’ and this entire exchange:
WILL: Is Hannibal… in love with me?
BEDELIA: Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for you and find nourishment at the very sight of you? Yes. But do you ache for him?
When I witnessed that, experienced it for the first time, some part of me opened up and bathed in the light emanating from the screen. I am forever changed by that dialogue, it slid its fingers beneath the latches of my heart and climbed in, making a home in the chambers.
The show is queer in the sense that it is a visual feast. Cinematography, editing, set design, food styling, costuming; this entire series is a wonder to watch. Everything has been carefully chosen, lovingly cultivated to look as vivid and grotesque as possible. It’s Romantic with a capital R. It inspires terror and awe. It is the definition of sublime. Where else am I going to see a man in the middle of a concrete parking lot, organs replaced with vibrant flowers and veins threaded with roots, so that the tree grows out of him. Where else am I going to see a man carry another, bridal style through the crisp, white snow, leaving a trail of blood in their wake. Where else will I see an array of female characters that are given depth and personality and complexity.
In an interview, showrunner and creator, Bryan Fuller said that quote ‘every director who comes on the show gets the same lecture. We are not making television. We are making a pretentious art film from the 80s’ unquote. Hannibal looks like that, sounds like that, Bryan Fuller just gets it, ok, and he speaks directly to the depths of my bisexual, bigender soul.
Speaking of my gender, everyone in Hannibal is impeccably dressed, and while I didn’t fully realise it when first watching the series, I definitely had gender envy for almost everyone on screen. Hannibal’s array of dark, colourful suits, each element coordinated right down to the paisley pocket square. Will’s rugged, fishing-Dad shirts and jeans, paired with round glasses and soft cowlick hair. Alana’s journey from professional woman-at-work attire, to suits so sharp they could cut your cheek. Beverly Katz leather jacket and Chiyoh’s olive green winter coat and Frederick Chilton’s gold tie pin, that goes wonderfully askew when he turns up at Will’s house covered in blood.
I’ve come to describe my gender in a lot of different ways. My gender is a murder mystery, a femme fatale, a my-husband-died-in-mysterious-circumstances. I’m a sometimes-woman, a woman but slightly to the left, doing gender but in an unmistakably bisexual way. I want to be the most beautiful person in the aisle in Sainsburys, and on the train, and walking down the street, and at a poetry night where you see me across a room and your heart goes thump thump thump because I’m sexy in an intimidating way, but then I smile and you realise I’m actually not going to murder you, but would if you asked nicely. Maybe I want my gender to have a flavour of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Maybe a paisley pocket square would be the aji pepper sauce on the Lomo Saltado, so to speak.
To talk about Hannibal is to talk about food. To watch Hannibal is to salivate. Janice Poon, Hannibal’s food stylist, and her team were responsible for every wicked detail, every aperitif that made you question how it could possibly involve parts of people. I’m forever grateful that she released a Hannibal cookbook, chock full of fantastic recipes, stories from the show and concept illustrations. To be able to see exactly how the dishes came together, the artistic direction combined with a chef’s knowledge of flavour profiles and associations, is fascinating. A tv show is a collaborative process, to see that laid out between behind-the-scenes photographs and beautiful food photography only increases my love tenfold.
I requested this cookbook for Christmas. I’ve slowly been working my way through, some recipes are dinner party only, being far too big or extravagant for my little family of three. The particular recipe I want to try most, Sanguinaccio Dolce, requires a cup of blood. Mum curls her lip in disgust, Dad licks his in anticipation. On screen, Hannibal says he doesn’t ‘feel guilty about eating anything’ and I smile.
As I’ve been so upfront with you this far, I have an eating disorder. I’ve learned to manage it, not let it consume me from the inside, and as strange as it may sound, I have Hannibal in part to thank for that. I took what he said to heart, I would no longer punish myself about what I eat, I would strive to enjoy everything and not let guilt fester in my stomach. I taught myself to remember what I loved about certain foods in the first place. The sharp, sour sweetness of pomegranate seeds. The undertow of salt in the flaky, buttery puff pastry covering a steak and chorizo pie. The bitterness of dark chocolate, uplifted by the bouncing taste of mint or warm softness of caramel. Slowly teaching myself to see food as benediction, not contrition.
I rediscovered a love of baking. Not only is it therapeutic, but there is something very special about providing loved ones with baked goods that you’ve made. The joy at being given a homemade sweet treat, that someone took the time to make it with great care and attention. Love is the secret ingredient.
As is the way of network television, Hannibal was cancelled after season three. It’s been given a new lease of life by appearing on various streaming sites, the fandom is alive and well and clamouring for a season four. I don’t know if it will ever get made, there’s no way I’m not watching if it does. Season four exists in the gap between dream and reality, that mythical place where there’s interest and desire, undercut by capitalism and censorship. My gender and my appetite exist in the same place too. Not quite a woman, never completely full. No budget for a handmade suit, no ability to host a ten-person dinner party. But when you can come around, I’ll always cook for you. As Hannibal says, it’s nice to have an old friend for dinner.
Fuller, Bryan. Thurm, Eric. 2015, ‘Hannibal showrunner: ‘We are not making television. We are making a pretentious art film from the 80s’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/jun/03/hannibal-tv-showrunner-bryan-fuller#:~:text=Talking%20to%20Hannibal%20showrunner%20Bryan,art%20film%20from%20the%2080s.%E2%80%9D, June 3, 2015
Hannibal, Season 3, Episode 3: Secundo, dir. By Vincenzo Natali, (NBC, 2015)
Hannibal Season 3, Episode 6: Dolce, dir. By Vincenzo Natalia, (NBC, 2015)
Hannibal, Season 3, Episode 12: The Number of the Beast is 666, dir. By Guillermo Navarro, (NBC, 2015)
Zoller Seitz, Matt. 2015 ‘A conversation with Dr. Lecter’, Vulture, https://www.vulture.com/2015/06/hannibal-review-a-conversation-with-dr-lecter.html, June 4, 2015
K. Blair (she/they) is a member of London Queer Writers, and helps to run/host their LGBTQ+ spoken word night, SPEAK =. They have been published in Spoken Word London’s Anti-Hate Anthology, The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, Opia magazine, From the Farther Trees and HAD. She recently took a uquiz titled ‘What horror movie trope are you?’ and was incredibly smug that she got ‘Final Girl’. Find them in the wild, on Twitter: @WhattheBlair, and Instagram: @urban_barbarian