From Haute Cuisine to the Guillotine: Class in Hannibal

Hannibal season three promo image: Hannibal eating Will

Bryan Fuller’s cancelled drama Hannibal is nominally billed as being about the cannibal Hannibal Lecter. It also tackles a number of weighty themes, such as love, the nature of evil, and even the subtle ways in which people may be divided by forces both moral and class-related.

Class is a palpable force in Hannibal. This is most clearly illustrated in the characters of FBI teacher and investigator Will Graham and psychologist and serial killer Hannibal Lecter, although it can be seen throughout the narrative. Hannibal is of European descent and old money and someone who is fully integrated into Baltimore’s high society, attending the opera, throwing legendary dinner parties, and assessing the psychological health of the elite. Will on the other hand, is a working class man who lives in a large home in Wolf Trap, Virginia, owns a pack of dogs, and is neuroatypical. When combined, all of these traits make Will an outsider not only from the the FBI, but many social circles as he is openly “other.”

At first glance the two men are utterly dissimilar, where Will is a neuroatypical FBI consultant who prefers to live alone in the company of a pack of dogs, Hannibal circulates among the elite of Baltimore society. Then there is their choice in wardrobes, Will is most comfortable in khakis, fishing jackets, and the occasional blazer.  His cologne is the type that comes in a bottle with a ship on it, and he wears glasses as much to assist his vision as us them to shield himself against the rest of the world. He is eminently capable of living off the land and prefers repairing machines over interacting with people.

In contrast, Hannibal dresses like a peacock. His suits are tailored, his manners impeccable, and he is able to slide effortlessly through academic circles and stand toe to toe with head of the Behavior Analysis Unit, Jack Crawford, without feeling ill at ease. This is apparent from their first meeting, although when Hannibal begins interacting with Will, he chooses clothing that is still of excellent quality, but which is less loud, the transition from an elegant blue suit to more earthy tones does not negate his position, rather it makes him seem more approachable to Will, a man who Hannibal correctly deduces is ill at ease with wealth and those who wield it.

This is likewise mirrored in their interactions and staging. Will is displeased with what Hannibal terms his “analytical ambush,” but accepts the gesture of a home cooked breakfast Hannibal has prepared, not knowing what makes the sausage so delicious—human flesh. The distrust is plainly seen in the scene where Hannibal “rubber stamps” Will as being fit to return to duty. Will is standing an upper level of Hannibal’s office, looking down at someone who at least at the moment, has a great deal of power over him.

These class distinctions extend beyond wardrobe and their social interactions; they also filter into their professional work together. Whereas Will is prone to giving in to requests from Jack Crawford out of a mixture of respect and awareness that he, as a retired police officer and FBI Academy teacher has less clout than the FBI agent. This is evident in scenes in which Jack barges into the men’s bathroom to harangue Will, interrupts classes, and all but drags Will out into the field, in spite of Will communicating that he feels he isn’t physically or emotionally equipped to continue providing the unique insight that Jack has come to depend on. Jack is confident that he is enough support for Will, he is “bedrock,” in his own words, but does not actually extend that protection to “his profiler.”

Hannibal  on the other hand easily takes on the duties of confidante and friend to Crawford and does not give way to him during investigations without his point of view being considered. Almost immediately, Hannibal invites Jack to dinner and woos him with sumptuous meals, as impressive in their variety as they are in the way Hannibal presents them. He and Jack then discuss Will the way one might a child, student, or indeed, a lab subject under study with Jack likely none the wiser, but nonetheless enjoying these displays of culture and the insight Hannibal provides. Notably, Hannibal is placing himself in a position of power over Jack as well, asking him questions about his own psyche so openly that Jack notes he has already had his psychological evaluation. But Hannibal, ever charming, points out that the examination was not performed by him, and Jack chuckles, and permits it, unaware that he is another piece for Hannibal to wind up and release out into the world.

Hannibal’s authority is such that he is automatically afforded respect, whereas Will is suspect both for his lack of prestige and the way he refuses to conform.

In short, Hannibal’s authority is such that he is automatically afforded respect, whereas Will is suspect both for his lack of prestige and the way he refuses to conform. Of course, this awareness of class is part of the reason that Hannibal has been able to avoid detection for so long. He is so adept at hiding in plain sight that when Jack Crawford first meets him, he is so impressed by Hannibal’s psychiatric expertise and the lavishly decorated office that he is polite, obsequious, and as a result doesn’t see the wounded man sketch Hannibal has barely concealed, a drawing which would have clued him in as to Hannibal’s true nature much sooner.

This is hugely important as it is her glimpse of this very sketch that clues FBI agent-in-training Miriam Lass in to the fact that she has through insight and luck stumbled upon the Chesapeake Ripper. Whereas Jack was wowed by Hannibal and touched on the surface of the office, he didn’t look deeper; rather he accepted him at face value, and in doing so, missed what would have been the biggest break in the case that defines his career.

The fact that Jack overlooks something so obvious is typical of interactions with Hannibal, who often lets hints slip about who he truly is, jokes that people enjoy without looking deeper, and so he is able to flash a little silver and get away with it.

Hannibal and Will sitting for therapy in season one, episode 4, "Oeuf"
Hannibal and Will during therapy. (1.04, “Oeuf”)

This is tied into the meals he prepares, which aren’t simple fare by any definition, yet another area where Hannibal shows he is a man of “wealth and taste” and in doing so, plays a great joke on people he feels are little more than sheep to be cut from the herd as necessary. Hannibal is different from most of the other serial killers that Will and the FBI team encounter, and the way that he kills is only part of it. Many killers are unable to stop what they are doing, being driven by emotional or social turmoil. Hannibal chooses his victims with the same care that he does other ingredients to be included in a meal. It’s not enough that he ends their lives, Hannibal makes statements with their bodies to tease the FBI or to communicate, because he has the palate and tools of a killer set quite apart from people of a lower social class.

It’s not enough that he ends their lives, Hannibal makes statements with their bodies to tease the FBI or to communicate, because he has the palate and tools of a killer set quite apart from people of a lower social class.

Beyond his meticulously maintained “person suit” as his psychologist, Bedelia Du Maurier, terms it, Hannibal ingratiates himself further to those around him by presenting them with such things as they will feel comfortable accepting, her own beer vintage for Alana, meals and conversation in Jack’s case, and relatively simple meals brought to Will, and then a surrogate daughter—Abigail Hobbs, who is an interesting choice as an adopted child, given she is coded as being very much like Will, rural and working class. This is very much similar to Will’s own upbringing, and while Garrett Jacob Hobbs took his daughter deer hunting, Will imagines teaching her how to fish, an avenue of connecting with her as normal people might do in such a situation.

But there is no way for Will and Abigail to connect in any way that is not stained with the fact that her father was the Minnesota Shrike, a serial killer Will found and killed, and it is into this bloody, foreign space that Hannibal steps. He was visibly a part of their relationship when he chose to save Abigail’s life and affirmed that by staying by her side at the hospital. He and Will sitting on either side of her bed can be framed as much as two possible paths for her to follow as it is the visualization of her having two parents again. Where Hannibal is concerned, Abigail reminds him vividly of Mischa, the sister he tried to protect, and ultimately ate, then avenged, and with her he sees a chance for a second chance, and to ultimately create a family.

This effort takes the form of assisting Abigail in covering up her murder of Nicholas Boyle, as well as serving as a paternal figure with the means to keep her comfortable, and see to her education as both a young adult and a potential hunting partner. With Will, Hannibal outright states that they are “her fathers now” and when Will learns she killed Boyle, they act in concert to protect her. Of course in later framing Will for Abigail’s death, Hannibal misjudges how this will affect Will, which ultimately leads to a catastrophic betrayal.

Hannibal in no way fits the profile of any of the killers that the FBI is pursuing’ he is the wendigo in a suit and tie who can slip through their fingers as amorphous as odorless smoke with a slick smile that most people don’t recognize as a threat.

Had he not trusted Will, Hannibal could very well have continued living undetected for an indefinite period. This is not due to any grand failing on the part of Jack or his team, except from a bit of willful blindness. Hannibal in no way fits the profile of any of the killers that the FBI is pursuing’ he is the wendigo in a suit and tie who can slip through their fingers as amorphous as odorless smoke with a slick smile that most people don’t recognize as a threat. Because he looks normal, is pleasant in public, and has a great deal of money, any minor oddities are seen as eccentricities, making Hannibal all the more of a sought after dinner guest and expert in his field.

This is again in contrast to Will, for whom being “odd” makes him an easy target for virtually everyone’s concern, condescension, and manipulation, and so it’s relatively easy for Hannibal to frame Will and put himself into yet another position of power. While Hannibal is in theory “evaluating” Will, he campaigns for Will to remove himself from Jack’s influence, interceding with Jack on Will’s behalf, serving as a buffer from a secure position as someone Jack respects and considers an expert and will therefore be more likely to defer to and comes to depend on.

It’s at the point when Will sees Hannibal for who he truly is that they begin to move towards more even footing. When he is accused of murder, everyone steps away from Will to some degree, and he must learn to look out for himself according to the rules of a higher social class. He does this gradually, first by adopting a mask of detachment and unconcern, acting as if the bars of his cell are no obstacle to arranging meetings with Beverly Katz, Hannibal, and Dr. Abel Gideon. His wardrobe, following his release likewise evolves, and he begins dressing much more on par with someone in Hannibal’s social circles, Oxford shirts, tweed jackets, and high-end blazers, while still favoring the sort of sensible, if more expensive boots which allow him to outrun serial killers in snowdrifts. He then makes the choice to seek out Hannibal and continue their conversations, an act which impresses Hannibal, and gives him power in their interactions.

In time Will is able to move so far inside Hannibal’s social and emotional barriers that he is able to fool him into thinking that he has become the monster Hannibal has been seeking. When this is revealed to be a ploy, Hannibal strikes back violently, peeling off the masks he has worn for so long, and the world sees Hannibal Lecter not as the sophisticated man, but the Chesapeake Ripper. It’s notable that before the trap closes around Hannibal, Will changes his mind and warns him, having hoped that he would be able to prevent him from being captured.

Season three sees Will recovering from his near-death at Hannibal’s hands, while the latter is again moving among the wealthy, this time in Europe. In the meantime, Will is again not quite a trusted member of Jack Crawford’s team, and this time, it’s not wholly to do with his skills and social standing, but also the fact that he may have aligned himself more permanently with Hannibal in a way that defies social conventions and offends the sensibilities of everyone they know. This is compounded by Will confiding to Jack that he wanted to run away with Hannibal and even sails to Europe in order to track Hannibal down through the unconventional means of walking through Hannibal’s life, visiting his childhood home and attempting to determine whether it was trauma that shaped Hannibal or some combination of that and opportunity.

A contrast to and connection between Hannibal and Will, throughout seasons two and three are the Vergers, Margot and Mason, a family whose business is slaughter, but who hide it in often tacky excess. They become entangled in the drama between Will and Hannibal—or he is tugged into their own game. Will demonstrates that while he may have been included in the Verger power struggle, he remains apart, first when, in season two,  he frees Hannibal rather than allow Mason to kill him, and then when he is complicit in Mason Verger’s drug-induced self-mutilation and paralyzation.

These decisions are complicated in season three when Will and Jack are racing to find Hannibal before Mason, and both Hannibal and then Mason Verger very nearly consume at Will, although their intentions—love and revenge—lead them to very different consequences.

Hannibal rescues Will from Mason Verger with the assistance of Margot and Alana, and then chooses to put himself in a cage so that Will will “always know where [he is],” although Will manages to avoid seeing him for several years. He returns to his working class life, this time finding romance with Molly, adopting more dogs, and living in a house which is comfortable, but in no way ostentatious. At the same time Hannibal has been stripped of all his luxuries and is living in a glass cell with only the amenities that Alana Bloom and Jack Crawford allow him.

It is clear that Hannibal is only biding his time in this situation, and when he sees Will again, he challenges the assumption that Will is happy with his little life, correctly deducing that Will is more than the perceptions other people have of him. In other words, the butterfly has emerged from its chrysalis, and it cannot contort itself into a shape that no longer fits. That is evident in the scenes at Hannibal’s house, when interrupted by Francis Dolarhyde and Hannibal is wounded, Will has a moment where he does consider the merits of allowing Hannibal to be killed, something that would not have occurred to the Will of several years ago. That man was insecure in the inescapable class differences between himself and Hannibal and often chose to disengage rather than challenge those boundaries.

However, now Will Graham is very much aware of what he is capable of, and this knowledge puts him on a more even footing with Hannibal. They have seen one another dressed up in the finery of “good society” and stripped down to the essentials of survival, and this supersedes the lines class would have them draw. It is these experiences both loving and painful that allow Will and Hannibal respond to a threat as a united force, both throwing off all vestiges of the men they were perceived to be and embracing, blood soaked as equals in every way possible.

Kirsten Thompson

Kirsten Thompson

Writer, comics editor: Strange Wit, The Bargain. Needs more tea.

5 thoughts on “From Haute Cuisine to the Guillotine: Class in Hannibal

  1. Peacock is right – I used to work for the bespoke house that did many of Hannibal’s suits for the show, and basic bespoke suits at that house ran between $1400-2200, spending on base fabric and number of pieces. Many of his suits are so ostentatious that it also highlights how wealthy he is –– many men can shell out good money for an all-purpose charcoal or navy suit, but Hannibal evidently invests a lot of money in a lot of different really unusual, bold fabrics. Fabric selection is so very much an indicator of money in bespoke circles, because unique pieces are very expensive! (It’s also hard to imagine someone who dresses like that being inclined to sully his cuffs with blood and guts.)

    You’ll also notice that Hannibal wears purple in moments of triumph. I think that ties in pretty well to the discourse of how his wardrobe emphasizes class differences, with purple being the colour of nobility and luxury.

    1. “You’ll also notice that Hannibal wears purple in moments of triumph.”

      Oh that’s so clever. I really appreciate how much attention to detail went into the sets and wardrobe on this show.

    2. Regarding unique pieces being so much more expensive – absolutely, it’s a mark of monetary wealth as well as time – being able to be fitted, have input on over the top suits, instead of someone who simply has time to get one off the rack and maybe get it altered.

      I also love the detail about Hannibal wearing purple in triumphant moments. It’s such a personal in-joke too.

      1. Definitely. Bespoke is a bizarre world; lots of old money, but also a lot of self-made people who see bespoke as part of accessing the social class of wealth. There’s so much procedure behind it, too, and a big performance of subservience put on by people who work in it. The moment a patron walked in for a scheduled appointment, there’d be an instant change in atmosphere, kind of like Miranda Priestly walking into the building in the Devil Wears Prada. It’s a hard culture to work in if you can’t kowtow to the hundreds of years of “tradition”, and frankly, the real-life Hannibal Lecters (in class/attitude, not in dietary habits) can make things very stressful. They don’t know just how much of the bespoke world has been set up to romance them and keep them happy.

        I love the purple thing haha. It’s my favourite little fact.

Comments are closed.