As ‘Hannibal’ Ends, So Does the Best Love Story on Television

Before anything else, Hannibal is — let’s face it, probably was — the story of a seduction. Hannibal Lecter saw a kindred spirit in Will Graham, the FBI profiler whose superhuman empathy brought him perilously close to the killers he was attempting to track; Will was terrified of Hannibal, and the part of himself Hannibal identified with so strongly, even as the two formed a genuine connection. With not one, but two cliffhangers, Saturday’s finale may be inherently unsatisfying as a full-stop end to a series. But as a consummation of Will and Hannibal’s tortured, twisted relationship, “The Wrath of the Lamb” was near-perfect.

Reading Will and Hannibal’s dynamic as a romance isn’t exactly an act of interpretive genius; that particular subtext was basically text long before Will asked Bedelia DuMaurier point-blank whether Hannibal was in love with him. But in “The Wrath of the Lamb,” Will finally gives himself an opportunity to reciprocate that love — and because this is Hannibal, he does it with murder.

Ever since the halfway point of its third season, Hannibal has followed the “becoming” of Francis Dolarhyde, a killer inspired by William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun to “change” his victims and transform himself into the mythical beast. As is Hannibal’s wont, he directly encouraged Dolarhyde’s murderous impulses, maneuvering around his imprisonment in a Maryland mental hospital to egg Francis on — urging him, for example, to sacrifice his love interest Reba McClane to his inner Dragon.

Ultimately, however, Hannibal used the Dragon as an intermediary between him and his true target. Hannibal is possibly the only show on television where (and Hannibal Lecter the only character for whom) sending a serial killer after your wife and stepson is a form of love note. But that’s precisely what Hannibal does, less as a genuine attempt to get Will’s loved ones out of the picture – though that’d surely be a bonus — than to keep Will close, and push him further towards the edge. As long as the Red Dragon remains at large, Will still needs Hannibal’s help. And the angrier Will is, the more likely he’ll unleash a beast of his own.

Even before their final confrontation with the Red Dragon, Hannibal had all but succeeded. Last week, Will handed Dr. Frederick Chilton, the fame-hungry psychiatrist who served as Hannibal‘s version of comic relief, a death sentence by using him as bait for the Red Dragon. This time, Will uses Hannibal himself, arranging with Dolarhyde (and, later, the FBI) a face-off against Dr. Lecter. Will intends to use the Red Dragon to do what he can’t and end Hannibal’s temptation once and for all — except that to take a life, even by proxy, is to fulfill Lecter’s vision for him.

So Will and Jack Crawford plan a “fake” escape that turns very real. Dolarhyde causes a car crash as the FBI transfers Hannibal to federal custody. Hannibal removes his iconic muzzle, the second shot of the season in which Lecter triumphantly frees himself from imprisonment. And within hours , he seamlessly transitions back into the sophisticated lifestyle he’d been so cruelly stripped of in the hospital. Soon enough, Hannibal’s pouring a drink in a glass-and-steel seaside hideaway — the same place, he confesses, where he took captive Miriam Lass, captive-protegé Abigail Hobbs, and now Will, his just plain protegé.

When the Red Dragon makes his appearance, everything initially goes as planned: Hannibal is shot, Dolarhyde promises to kill him, and Will stands by, wine glass in hand. But then Will moves to help Hannibal, Dolarhyde turns on him, and all hell breaks loose: a brutal, three-way knife fight slowly turns into a tag-team of the Red Dragon. By the time the blood stops geysering, Lecter and Will have taken down Dolarhyde as true partners, with Will a full and enthusiastic participant in a killing, gore and all. “This is all I ever wanted for you, Will,” Hannibal says. “For both of us.” “It’s beautiful,” Will admits. The two finally embrace.

And then Will throws the both of them over a cliff. Cue Siouxsie Sioux. 

If we didn’t know Hannibal somehow survives, let alone get a post-credit glimpse of Bedelia DuMaurier being served her own severed leg, “The Wrath of Lamb” might be the perfect conclusion to three seasons of attraction, repulsion, rejection, and eventually, acceptance. Will and Hannibal’s interactions in the finale are practically a microcosm of their relationship and its shifting power dynamics: Hannibal claims he admires Will’s work with Dr. Chilton; Will reveals he tricked Hannibal into turning himself in, because “you’d only do that if I rejected you” (a line that is, according to Lecter himself, “a mic drop”); Hannibal forces Will to admit he needs him.

Will’s solution to this vicious cycle is to give Hannibal — and the Red Dragon, and if he’s being honest, Will himself — exactly what he wants: a transformation. In death, Dolarhyde achieves his goal of changing his victim and unleashing a monster, albeit not quite in the way he intended. And Will allows his altered self a few seconds of loving Hannibal without reservation or self-hatred before he pays the price.

Hannibal thus caps off one of the most unconventional love stories ever captured in any medium, let alone broadcast television. There are aspects of Hannibal and Will’s bond that are found in almost any romance: mutual understanding, vulnerability, enabling, even a shared sense of humor. And then there’s what made their connection, and Hannibal itself, so special. Part platonic, part romantic, part fraternal, part filial, it’s a relationship that may well be over, but at least had a chance to come to its logical end.