[Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for Hannibal Season 3.]
Bryan Fuller's groundbreaking serial killer drama Hannibal has crashed to a close in a Season 3 finale that may yet serve as either a firm conclusion to the story or merely the end of one particular chapter. The final image (not counting the post-credits scene) of Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) drenched in blood, sharing a close embrace and whispering sweet nothings to one another before tumbling off a cliff was an apt encapsulation of the entire series and the curious relationship at the center of it.
As depictions of homosexuality have become progressively less prohibited in television and movies, portraying intimate emotional relationships that don't involve sex seems to have become even more complicated. Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film Strangers on a Train features a relationship between two male characters that is comparable to that between Will and Hannibal, and is widely regarded as having strong homoerotic subtext. Yet Strangers on a Train was made in an era where, thanks to the Hays Code, it wasn't possible to have explicitly gay characters in American films. That rule clearly doesn't apply to Hannibal, the latest season of which saw Margot Verger and Alana Bloom get married and have a child together - so why did Fuller choose not to make Hannibal and Will's relationship explicitly homosexual?
"Will Graham is very definitely heterosexual," Fuller explained in an interview with The Backlot. "But that does not necessarily prevent us from a homoerotic subtext. It’s practically text in a couple of episodes." The showrunner shied away from defining Hannibal Lecter's sexuality in explicit terms, instead admitting that he is "not sure about Hannibal" but believes that the character "is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer." When asked why he wanted to include so much homoeroticism between two characters who don't and never will have a sexual relationship, Fuller explained that the fact that sex is not involved is what makes Will and Hannibal's interactions so interesting.
"We really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them, but including a perception of sexuality that the cinema is actually portraying to the audience more than the characters are. There’s a scene at dinner where we were tackling in the edit bay because it was so transparently homoerotic. They were doing something that was not sex or anywhere near sex, but it was shot so suggestively that they may as well have been...
"It is that intimacy between heterosexual men that I’m fascinated with because it does go beyond physical parameters to this very primal basic male bonding place."
When used within a narrative, sex often acts as a simplifying factor, giving the audience familiar labels to attach to characters. After all, Will and Hannibal's relationship would be a lot easier to define if they were lovers. Over the past decade the word 'bromance' has entered into popular usage out of a collective desire to have at least one box to put relationships like this into, but its connotations of friendliness and camaraderie are ill-suited to describe Hannibal and Will.
In the real world, some straight men attempt to navigate the boundaries of friendship with other men by adding the caveat "no homo" to expressions of affection, appreciation of male beauty, or any other statement that might be interpreted as having gay connotations. In works of fiction it's not quite so easy. After all, "Come on, Mr Frodo. I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you. No homo," lacks a certain amount of gravitas.
The friendship between Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is, along with Hannibal, one of relatively few modern attempts to portray intensely emotional male homosocial relationships with absolute sincerity, and the number of gay jokes made about Frodo and Sam in the wake of the films' release speaks to the fact that audiences weren't (and still aren't) quite comfortable watching straight male characters get emotionally intimate with one another. Depictions of homosexuality may have become more acceptable in mainstream cinema and TV, but homophobia still exists in many pervasive and insidious ways - one of which is the cultural need to maintain a strong dividing line between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Hence, "no homo."
In TV, this kind of gay subtext is sometimes labelled 'queerbaiting' by fans, who accuse showrunners of trying to appeal to gay men (or, more commonly, straight women) by teasing the possibility of guy-on-guy action without ever taking the risk of actually making lead characters gay or bisexual. The CW's long-running series Supernatural is most commonly accused of this, with fans citing the intense and tumultuous relationship between Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Castiel (Misha Collins), and Supernatural's ten seasons (and counting) may speak to the efficacy of queerbaiting in maintaining a fanbase. Hannibal has similarly been accused of queerbaiting, though The Daily Dot has a comprehensive breakdown of why this label is somewhat unfair.
One show that seems to straddle the line between sincere homoerotic subtext and a running "no homo" gag is BBC's Sherlock, in which the complex nature of John Watson's (Martin Freeman) feelings for Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes (and vice versa) are explicitly addressed at various points in the series. This is often played for laughs, with characters mistakenly believing that John and Sherlock are boyfriends, and it speaks to how much the cessation of homosexuality as a taboo subject has complicated the business of portraying close male friendships.
Because of the continued existence of homophobia, even among people who consider themselves to be open-minded, seeing fiercely emotional scenes between heterosexual male characters can still elicit a feeling of awkwardness in viewers, and one of the most effective antidotes to awkwardness is laughter. With that in mind, some of the most progressive portrayals of male heterosexual love have emerged not from heartfelt drama, but from comedy.
Probably the best-known example of this is John Hamburg's 2009 film I Love You, Man, in which groom-to-be Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) realizes that he has no close male friends and takes on the considerable challenge of trying to make a new best friend as an adult. Predictably, his early attempts include a mix-up in which he accidentally goes on a date with a gay man. Eventually he finds his 'soulmate' in the free-spirited Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), and the film's narrative is structured exactly like that of a typical romantic comedy, with the twist that the 'romance' is playing out between two heterosexual men - one of whom is already in a long-term relationship with a woman.
Lynn Shelton's indie film Humpday also sees two best friends clumsily trying to define the boundaries of their friendship - though with an even bolder premise than I Love You, Man. Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) are two old buddies who have led very different lives, and upon being reunited they attend a booze-fuelled party with a bunch of hippies, where they drunkenly declare that they are going to film themselves having sex with each other for an upcoming arthouse porn festival. In the cold light of day, neither friend is willing to 'pussy out' of the challenge, and they set out with the serious intent of making their 'beyond gay' porn movie.
Humpday has a strongly naturalistic tone, but broader studio comedies like I Love You, Man and 22 Jump Street could be accused of perpetuating homophobia by treating homosexuality as something that is intrinsically weird or funny. There might be some merit to this interpretation, but the audience response to serious attempts at portraying emotionally intimate friendships between men demonstrates that homosexuality is still an elephant in the room, and sometimes the best way to deal with such an elephant is to point directly at it.
Emphasis on sometimes, because if Hannibal has demonstrated anything, it's that there's still room to have homoerotic subtext in fiction without drawing too much attention to it. That's why it's called subtext, after all.
Hannibal Seasons 1 and 2 are now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD. The show has been canceled on NBC, but may one day continue either as a movie or TV show.