In his conception of the character, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller has pushed both aspects of the character to their utmost. He's Lucifer, capable of slipping undetected beneath the radar of law enforcement for decades. He's also a remarkably competent therapist, who believes the best way to help his patients is to turn them into their darkest, most murderous selves. Humanity can only be itself when it gives in to its basest desires. It's at the center of both Hannibal's devilry and his therapeutic process.
What's most remarkable about Hannibal is that it works.
Hannibal is in control — even when imprisoned
Take, for instance, the final scene of "...And the Beast from the Sea," the latest episode of the series.
I suggested a few weeks ago that this Red Dragon mini-arc was focused on the many found families that had formed in the three years that elapsed between the season's seventh and eighth episodes. In "Beast," Hannibal immediately begins tugging at the strands pulling these various people together, seemingly in hopes of dissolving those bonds for once and all.
That includes sending Francis Dolarhyde after Will's wife and son.
What's fascinating about this is that it's not immediately clear why Hannibal is doing this. Does he resent Will for settling down and finding a life that doesn't include Hannibal in it? Yes. Does he want to help Francis become his best, most murderous self? Also yes. And does he want to use this as a kind of shock therapy designed to push Will past his breaking point? Again, the answer is yes.
But doing this is also exactly what Will needs to have a major breakthrough in the case. Hannibal's action — sending a serial killer after the family of a man he apparently still considers a friend — is evil, but it has a positive result.
Will has been unable to grasp what Francis is up to because he can only see the end result — the murdered, formerly happy family. Hannibal wants to push Will to a place where he considers not what happens to the family, but the gift Francis thinks he is giving to said family (namely, a transformation into some new, better form). And to do that, Hannibal needs Will to stop thinking like a family man and start thinking, once again, like a killer.
Take a look at how director Michael Rymer shoots this scene. Though Hannibal is behind bars and Will is a free man, Rymer frames everything to suggest Hannibal is either Will's equal or his superior. We go from seeing the two of them at eye level, only the clear plastic wall of Hannibal's cell separating them:
To Will shot from above, to make him seem smaller, more powerless, and out of control.
Hannibal, meanwhile, is at the top of his powers, even if he's imprisoned. Rymer shoots him from below to make him seem looming, intimidating.
The episode frames Hannibal in this way throughout. He's always in charge of the situation, even when others think they have him trapped. From his jail cell, he's manipulating the world, pulling at all the strands in his web that will make his many puppets dance.
Even when Hannibal has his luxuries — including his toilet — taken from him, he remains firmly in control.
Hannibal certainly doesn't like being imprisoned in a mental hospital, but there's the decided sense that he's pretty sure he's got everybody else humming his tune, even when they're nowhere near him.
At its heart, Hannibal is about how Will simply can't expunge Hannibal from his very soul. And even after three years of trying, that's still true.
Francis and Reba's relationship deteriorates, too
The marriage between Will and Molly and the stepparent relationship between Will and Walter aren't the only relationships falling apart here. Though Hannibal tries to suggest Francis can have Reba and the Dragon in his life, this episode shows the steady way Francis turns against Reba, the one thing that might keep him from descending fully into his worst possible self.
The dragon inside Francis, see, wants to kill Reba. He would rather not, but he also knows that the longer he spends with her, the more dangerous he becomes to her. This is demonstrated perfectly by the shot of the two of them, cuddled on the couch, him watching footage of the family he's preparing to kill while she rests, unaware, next to him. Catastrophe is always looming over Reba, even if she doesn't know it.
Tellingly, Fuller and company wait until this episode to let us see Francis actually stalking people in their homes, during the terrifying sequence when he invades Will and Molly's home and fails to kill either Molly or her son, mostly thanks to her being a light sleeper. He's obviously a man, but with the false teeth in his mouth and the cap pulled over his eyes, he looks more like a beast than he ever has before.
Of course, he also beats the shit out of himself after he fails to kill anyone, imagining the dragon pummeling him.
Rymer, Fuller, and Richard Armitage are painting for us what happens when Hannibal invades a fragile mind with his tendrils, as surely as he did with Hannibal's manipulation of the slowly decaying Will all the way back in season one. But where Will somehow held out against the monster's manipulations, Francis is unable to do much other than punish himself.
This is where the lines between therapist Hannibal and Lucifer Hannibal well and truly blur. On some level, therapist Hannibal really does want to help his patients — even if his version of help usually involves turning them into strange, animal versions of themselves, unconstrained by the boundaries of society. Lucifer Hannibal, however, wishes to sow as much destruction and chaos as he can, spreading the darkness within him over the face of the Earth. The lines between help and punishment stop feeling hard and fast and start to blend into each other.
Hannibal — and the work of Thomas Harris, more generally — is obsessed with duality, with the idea that every one of these characters carries two selves within them. Will is the investigator who harbors his own murderous side. Francis is a wounded, gentle man — who also believes himself to be a grand, murderous manifestation of the devil.
What makes Hannibal the king of this world is the way he seems aware of both sides of himself, the way he allows for his help to become punishment and his punishment to become help. He is sour and spiteful and vengeful, but he's also strangely controlled and majestic. You lie down on his therapist's couch and don't know if you're going to learn more about the inner workings of your own mind or the inner workings of his. You don't know if you'll be saved or devoured — or if those are the same thing.