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Redefining a legend: How Mikkelsen’s Hannibal changed the way we look at the villain

Redefining a legend: How Mikkelsen’s Hannibal changed the way we look at the villain

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

When Hannibal first premiered in 2013, no one really expected much. How could a show about one of film’s greatest villains survive on TV, let alone network TV? And from Bryan Fuller, the man who created the delightful Pushing Daisies? But somehow, against all odds, Hannibal has become a visually stunning show that’s among the best and most fully realized on TV.

A prequel to most of the Thomas Harris books and films, Hannibal has forged its own path, creating a world that is a terrifying and dazzling mix of horror and character study. Set before Red Dragon, Hannibal explores the relationship between Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and the emotionally unstable but brilliant FBI consultant Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).

Even before the show started, the series’ chances for survival seemed to land squarely on the shoulders of whomever would be chosen to play Hannibal. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal had become so legendary, and so widely associated with the character, that it was near impossible to imagine who could take on the role. The duties eventually went to Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, then most famous for his role as Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Hopkins’ portrayal was ubiquitous, and while viewers had seen Hannibal outside of a prison cell (Hopkins in 2001’s Hannibal and 2007’s prequel Hannibal Rising, starring Gaspard Ulliel as a young Hannibal), this show would be the first time audiences had seen the character in-depth, existing in the world and forming relationships. And Mikkelsen has had a ball with the role from episode one.

Hopkins’ Hannibal was villainous and refined, but Mikkelsen’s is a whole other animal. He is vicious, charming, handsome, terrifying, well-read, and wounded. Mikkelsen is having fun, and it’s clear how deeply he understands the character. It’s those wounds that make his Hannibal so unique, so fresh.  They are undeniable in “Mizumono”, the second season’s brilliant finale.

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“Fate and circumstance have returned us to this moment, when the teacup shatters. I forgive you, Will. Will you forgive me?” 

Mikkelsen has allowed Hannibal to become much more than what we’d seen before. Watch his eyes after he attacks Abigail Hobbs and confronts Will at the end of “Mizumono”. Behind them is a wealth of pain, rage, and regret. Whether those emotions are there because his long standing plan has been blown up or because he is truly hurt, the point is that they are there at all, and Fuller and Mikkelsen allow them to shine through.

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter in the season 2 finale, Mizumono

And that is why Mikkelsen’s portrayal works so well. This is the first and only time Hannibal has been allowed a heart. It’s a dark and twisted heart, but a heart nonetheless. Mikkelsen lets that heart beat violently, and ironically with so much truth that it is painful at times. Hannibal is undeniably evil, but in many instances, even when he’s at his most terrifying, he is still somehow likable. Mikkelsen is probably the only actor who could make him sympathetic after he’s gutted the show’s co-lead, slashed the throat of two others, and orchestrated the possible death of his former lover.

Mikkelsen has, on numerous occasions (recently, in an interview with Clash), described his Hannibal as a fallen angel. In Mikkelsen’s portrayal, the character has true emotions, but he is also in complete control of everything and everyone. Mikkelsen has also stated that he chooses not to refer to Hannibal as a psychopath: it’s too simple a description for such a complex character.

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Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is lonely, searching for a partner to share his pursuits and someone who understands him. Many have called Silence of the Lambs a love story, and if that is true, then so is Hannibal. One could argue that Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is simply searching for someone who wants the same things he does, or at the very least will accept him. This is why he is so desperately and violently hurt by Will’s choice in the season two finale.

Over the course of two seasons, Hannibal has changed the image of a character and story already well defined, thanks in large part to Mads Mikkelsen and his portrayal of the legendary villain. He has added an emotional core to Hannibal when that didn’t seem possible and given this already horrifying character new, enthralling depths.

Tressa Eckermann