How the Dream Logic of ‘Hannibal’ Elevates the Police Procedural TV Genre

Published 2 years ago by

Mads Mikkelsen and John Benjamin Hickey in Hannibal Buffet Froid How the Dream Logic of Hannibal Elevates the Police Procedural TV Genre

In just 10 episodes, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal has surprised many by proving itself to be one of the most compelling and richly-rewarding series on television at the moment. In fact, it likely ranks right up there with The Americans as one of the best new dramas to appear on television so far this year (and the fact that it’s on NBC makes it even more mind-boggling).

And while taut storytelling, well-crafted characters and cinematic visuals are what separates these series from lesser entries that are new to our screens in 2013, what makes Hannibal unique is its pervasive dream logic and an unwillingness to be confined by the rules or conventions adhered to by the kind of program it most closely resembles.

Hannibal is, for the most part, a crime procedural, meaning week-in and week-out, there is a specific crime that is usually discovered and resolved within a single episode’s timeframe. However, the conceit of the series isn’t to make it just a killer-of-the-week drama in which the heroes apprehend the villain and then go back to their nondescript (or nonexistent) home life – as though they hadn’t just spent an extended amount of exploring the absolute worst of what human nature has to offer. Hannibal instead depicts the emotionally corrosive effect these crimes have on the essentially good people who have made it their mission in life to stop these killers from striking again and ruining the lives of more innocent people.

Hannibal Episode 5 Coquilles How the Dream Logic of Hannibal Elevates the Police Procedural TV Genre

Rather than play up familiar tropes and clichés, Bryan Fuller and the rest of his Hannibal crew – which has so far included the talents of David Slade, James Foley and John Dahl, to much success – have chosen to play up the caustic consequences of these investigations with a helping of deeply symbolic imagery and a lengthy examination of the series’ protagonist’s state of mind.

To make this more effective, Hannibal utilizes Will Graham’s psychological deterioration as the foundation on which it offers the story to the viewer. Although there are plenty of (more or less) sane characters surrounding Will, the narrative is presented primarily through the radically different and sometimes unreliable filter of his mind. Scenes seem to jump wildly in time and location, while characters seem to manifestin the most peculiar and convenient of places. The result of this, then, is certain story elements play out with a skewed, dream-like logic that rather than being unquestioningly devoted to producing an airtight plot, serves instead to inform on the characters in a way that is more emotionally satisfying than your typical procedural drama.

This focus on character means the series is more interested in the repercussions of the crime and the parallels that are drawn between the two sides of the investigation, rather than an examination or graphic depiction of the violence itself. During last week’s ‘Trou Normand,’ there was some dismay expressed in the comment section regarding what appeared to be the marginalization of the killer played by Lance Henriksen. While Henriksen only had a single scene, it seemed to me that the character was intended less as a way to progress the plot, and more a way of coloring the characters and how they view their work, their legacy and, ultimately, what impact they will have had on the world when their time is up.

Lance Henriksen in Hannibal Trou Normand How the Dream Logic of Hannibal Elevates the Police Procedural TV Genre

Henriksen’s character was practically nonexistent; he was deliberately insubstantial in a way that made his appearance feel almost like a hallucination, and that nightmarish quality helped make his gruesome tableau all the more traumatic and haunting.

In that sense, there has also been a lot of debate around the series’ depiction of various killers and the horrific, yet fascinating crime scenes they leave behind. Much of the deliberation has revolved around whether or not these elaborate and complex tableaus could be pulled off at all, let alone by a single person.

These questions started swirling around the fifth episode, ‘Coquilles,’ which saw a man with a brain tumor peeling the skin off his victims’ backs, transforming them into grotesque angel-like statues. One of his victims was suspended from some scaffolding, nearly a story high. Then, last week, Lance Henriksen’s character constructed a sizeable totem pole consisting of dozens of dead bodies, causing many to wonder just how such a scene could be constructed, by a man in his seventies no less.

Hugh Dancy in Hannibal Coquilles How the Dream Logic of Hannibal Elevates the Police Procedural TV Genre

I’m not sure why that matters so much, or if it even matters at all. Hannibal is a highly-stylized show that uses genre elements in an incredibly specific and detailed way. The series may have a procedural in its blood, and an intriguing ongoing serial component about essentially “real” people – but, as far as I can tell, it’s not intended to be grounded in some firm sense of our reality.

Hannibal is successful because it adheres primarily to a dream-logic; things make sense because they’re presented to the viewer in such a way that they only work within the confines of the story at hand. Take what you see in an episode outside the context of the series and it naturally begins to break down, like scrutinizing a dream upon waking. The show operates on a skewed perspective, a bent reasoning that’s more like a walking through a nightmare than spending time in the world of a hard-and-fast cop-drama. This makes it unique and rare, and that’s one of the many reasons people are drawn to it.

So, to ask that the killers suddenly adhere more to the laws of our existence would be to rob a wonderfully dark, twisted and imaginative series of the essence which made it so special in the first place. You tell me Lance Henriksen built a totem pole out of dead bodies on any other show and I’ll scoff; but if Hannibal tells me Lance Henriksen built a totem pole out of dead bodies, then I’ll say, “Of course he did.”

Crime procedurals are a dime a dozen, and if standing out means Hannibal adheres to a set of rules that only apply to its distinctive dream-logic, then so be it; the procedural genre and television as a whole are better off because of this series’ unwillingness to play by the rules.


Hannibal airs Thursday nights @10pm on NBC.

TAGS: Hannibal
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  1. I’m honestly not crazy about this show. It plays too fast and loose with the established mythos and lingers too much on how crazy Will apparently is. It’s a decent show, but it’s just not related to the Hannibal story.

    • I’m not a fan of the series either, maybe cause I’m more like fan of Hannibal himself. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor, but he portrays Hannibal differently, Hannibal’s arrogance and intelligence is not so much seen as in the movies. He seems too normal sometimes.

  2. Visually compelling and rich in story, this has turned out to be one of the best series I have ever seen. The acting on show is such that you believe the slow descent of will and the ever increasing influence of evil from Hannibal.
    An amazing show I cannot wait for the Blu ray release to see more behind the scenes on how each episode is constructed. This show is art.

  3. I cannot express how much I love this show, this is the kind of character study that I expected from Bates Motel and never got. Very thoughtful, well drawn characters, an unusual complexity that blurs reality and dreamscape. Perhaps we merely see the totem as Will sees it, slightly more elaborate with a fantastical dimensionality, waking the lines between being awake and asleep.

    • *walking the line

      • Screw it Rich. You’re the best.

  4. I’m a big fan of the show, and often find myself questioning if I’m watching a dream sequence or actual events. It keeps me guessing, and I’m just dying to see the “Hannibal” we all know and love—hopefully he rears that mug of his come season 2.

  5. AWESOME review of an extremely hard to pin down show .. in particular the way you addressed the continuity “issue” if one could call it that. It was driving me nuts trying to explain it but you nailed it .. and I agreeas well that fact that NBC rolled with the punches it delivers is a baffling and wonderful surprise.

  6. You are correct. It doesn’t matter. What hooked me are the performances of the main two and the adherence to classical psychological analysis. The dialogue scenes between Will and Hannibal are the real gold simply because we know how it ends. Therefore, I love the dynamic, love the fact Hannibal, despite himself, has come to care for Will. It adds validity and interest because it could’ve very easily coasted an ABC arc before getting to what we already know.

    I suppose if I have one very minor complaint, it is that there have not been as many dream sequences related to Will’s state of mind. I hope they come back because it complimented what this article so succinctly summarises.

    P.S. Spot on about Lance. Never quite got why people didn’t quite get what the point of is appearance was.

    • For someone like me who has only ever seen Silence Of The Lambs and not the other movies and has never read the books and therefore has no clue how it ends, it excites me too.

  7. Episode 5 (with the angel maker) only aired here this week but I know what you mean.

    Thing is, Hannibal “should” be an average crime drama, the problem is that it stands out because it seems TV networks and writers are afraid to explore characters and the wider repercussions like this one does (and as was pointed out in this article).

    It’s why I don’t normally watch crime shows unless they stand out to me in some way and the only ones I can recall that stood out were Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes, Mad Dogs (even though it’s not about cops), The Following and Hannibal (although The Following had me gripped from episode one, it took until the end of episode two for Hannibal to grasp me).

    I love moral ambiguity, viewers being played with psychologically (big reason I loved Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube with its HP Lovecraft inspirated descent into madness, Lovecraft’s own tales and why I also tried to do the same – to some degree of success – within a writing hobby back in 2009). Makes things more interesting if the people tuning in don’t know whether the characters are seeing things, whether it’s actually happening or – something I’d absolutely love – whether some events on screen are done in a “blink and you’ll miss it” situation to screw with the people watching.

    Things like having sound effects and brief glimpses of creatures and people with nobody on screen acknowledging those things.

    If something isn’t quite right and isn’t totally black and white then I’ll love the hell out of it.

  8. I’m not usually to much into naturalistic shows or crime shows for that matter, but this show has piqued my interest in such a way that only a sadist could explain.

    I think this article is where I’ll lead people if they ever need an explanation of the show. It’s incredible, and this article really wraps it up in a tight bow made of intestines.

    Nice job,

  9. Episode 5 (with the angel maker) only aired here this week but I know what you mean.

  10. The only problem I have with the show is how some of their “case of the week” ended abruptly.

  11. I strongly agree with this article. This show is brilliant. Reminds me of Millennium, with all the dream-like imagery and story logic, the profiler with the gift of seeing into the minds of killers, and the creeping threat of insanity that this creates. Probably my favorite serial killer show since Millennium too.

  12. I agree. Best show of the season and I am so relieved that NBC has renewed it. For anyone who is not a fan of the dream logic though that will probably fade over the seasons. Once the Encephalitis thing is taken care of will should get a little better, not to mention when they get to the Silence of the Lambs season we will get the new protagonist of Clarice.

  13. This show is easily one of the best shows on TV right now. Everything from the writing to the details is just top notch. I am soo glad it got picked up for Season 2.

  14. I like the show, but I have to agree that they do tend to go a bit over board with the serial killers. All these killers are really into doing everything in a big way. There’s not really just the run of the mill serial killers who finds women, violates them, kills them, and dumps them. The one who came closest used his own daughter as bait to lure them in, and then he’d violate them, kill them, eat them, and used their skin as leather. Granted the usual run of the mill killers might get boring, but these super killers are starting to get a bit rediculus.

    • “The one who came closest used his own daughter as bait to lure them in, and then he’d violate them, kill them, eat them, and used their skin as leather.”

      Just wanna correct this bit. He never violates any of them.

      • I thought it was implied. Must have jumped tithe conclusion. Creepy enough either way none the less