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The famous mask goes on Hannibal Lecter's face.
The famous mask goes on Hannibal Lecter's face.
NBC

Hannibal season 3 finale: Creator Bryan Fuller looks back at his show’s last season

"It's alive in some form, even though that form may be a ghost."

Spoilers for the entire run of Hannibal follow.

HannibalBryan Fuller's grandly bloody reimagining of Thomas Harris's famed cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter for television — is dead. At least for now.

That's true in the world of the show, where the murderer, bleeding profusely after being shot, plunged from the top of a cliff into the sea below, criminal profiler and object of his obsession Will Graham clutched in his arms. Sure, he could come back from that — and a teasing post-credits scene suggested he had — but it's just as easy to imagine he's at the bottom of the ocean.

But it's also true for the show itself, which now goes on a long, possibly eternal, hiatus, after NBC canceled the show and its production studio, Gaumont, failed to find a new partner to keep making new episodes. The actors have moved on. Fuller is now working on Starz's adaptation of the novel American Gods. And the fans are preparing to go back through the 39 episodes that exist and savor them all over again.

But is there still hope for an eventual resurrection? Fuller suggested there's so much story left to tell when I called him shortly before the finale aired in the US. And what's more, he says the next chapter would be "the most interesting" in Will Graham's story.

Over a half-hour, Fuller and I chatted about the structure of the most recent season, whether the show will ever continue, and why American Gods will tackle something US television almost never takes seriously — religion. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Where the story could still go: "It's alive in some form, even though that form may be a ghost"

Will consults with Hannibal.

Will and Hannibal's relationship takes a dark new turn in the season finale.

NBC

Todd VanDerWerff

Obviously, this could serve well as an ending for the whole series, but it wasn't intended to be. Where would this go in a fourth season or future movies or miniseries, and how on Earth would you ever wrap back around to Silence of the Lambs [as was rumored the show would eventually do]?

Bryan Fuller

The Silence of the Lambs wouldn't have been part of the fourth season. The fourth season would have been Will and Hannibal, having survived the fall, taking a new and dramatic turn in their relationship. For me, it was perhaps the most interesting chapter of Will Graham's story.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you have any faith that you may get to do that some day?

Bryan Fuller

It's a hard question to answer, because you're asking somebody who sees that story very clearly in his mind. It's alive in some form, even though that form may be a ghost. It's hard to not see it and not be able to visualize it. I'm a person who makes a living with their imagination, so it's hard for me to answer whether I see that coming to fruition, because I do see a form of that clearly in my mind.

Todd VanDerWerff

I've had so many arguments about that post-credits scene with people.

Bryan Fuller

What's your theory?

Todd VanDerWerff

Maybe my screener was just too dark, but I didn't see a place set for Will. And in the montage beforehand, we see all of the other characters making preparations for Hannibal being free. So my theory was that Bedelia is preparing for Hannibal's return to her life by accepting that he's going to kill her. She has somehow arranged for her leg to be prepared as this meal for him.

Bryan Fuller

I thought it would be very clearly suggestive that Hannibal survived and Bedelia got what was coming to her. That's why she grabs the fork and she holds it under the table. She is waiting for whoever cut off her leg and is serving it to her to return so that she can bury that fork in his or her throat.

Constructing a two-part season: "That felt like it justified Will's requirements for murder"

Hannibal kidnaps Bedelia.

Bedelia's attempts to understand Hannibal drove much of the season.

NBC

Todd VanDerWerff

Lots of people complained in the first half of the season that Will didn't have enough agency and was being led around by others. What did you make of those complaints?

Bryan Fuller

What I wanted to accomplish was telling the story of Will's psychological trauma from the finale of season two. He has essentially been in a post-traumatic fog, not knowing what's real anymore. If he just stepped right back up to bat, then I would doubt his existence as a human being. It would feel disingenuous to me if he was just like, "I've got a job, and I'm gonna get that guy."

It's such a cowboy, television-storytelling shortcut that I simply didn't want to take it. I wanted to be in the subjective point of view of his character and his trauma, from what he experienced, and tell that story as honestly to the nature of his character as we could. I get that people wanted more action from him, but I don't think I believed that.

Todd VanDerWerff

In the first season, for instance, this show was definitely weird and grandiose, but it was also recognizably a cop show, and the characters more or less operated like they were in that reality. But by this season, it's like everybody realizes they live in a strange opera, and season three seems to be so much about these seemingly "normal" people learning to live within the show's reality where the devil could grab them at any time.

SiriusXM's Entertainment Weekly Radio Channel Broadcasts From Comic-Con 2015

Bryan Fuller at 2015 San Diego Comic-Con.

Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Bryan Fuller

That goes back to your earlier question about the decision to be more methodical and contemplative with Will Graham's arc in the first few episodes. It really was about being as authentic as I imagined we could be with someone in the state of mind of, "Holy shit, I live in a fucking dream — or a nightmare, more specifically — and this is my reality now. How do I navigate myself back to something I can plant my feet on and stand back up again?"

For me, that was the impetus to crawl inside Will psychologically in those first three episodes, until we hit episode four and we understand that, no, Hannibal is his friend and this is very confusing for him. That's why he's been so shaken and so noncommittal to what he's going to do when he finds Hannibal Lecter. I think he honestly doesn't know, or didn't know until Chiyoh pointed out to him that what he likely wants to do is kill Hannibal so he doesn't become Hannibal.

Todd VanDerWerff

Bedelia really sets out the rules for this world as they pertain to Hannibal's seeming omnipotence. That made her a much bigger figure in this season — even in the latter half of the season, after she's escaped his captivity. What did you see as her role in the season?

Bryan Fuller

It was somebody who was Hannibal Lecter's intellectual equal in terms of understanding human psychology, yet someone who could not resist putting her hand in the flame and seeing how hot it was. That's what drew Bedelia to Hannibal — this desire to, for her own edification, understand the worst in humanity as she saw in Hannibal Lecter, to perhaps understand the worst in herself.

I love Gillian Anderson, and I love her performance as Bedelia. It's such a wonderful high-wire act that she's balancing between this Grand Guignol Victorian, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf drama to, arguably, camp. There are scenes where she mixes all of those elements in such a wonderful, strange way that I think her purpose in the second half of the season, really, is to better understand her role in the first part of the season by understanding Will Graham more intimately than she ever has before, and realizing that they are sharing a lot of the same self-destructive obsessions when it comes to Hannibal.

Todd VanDerWerff

Obviously, I know the show's title, and I know there are other books featuring the character you may adapt someday, but this season talked so much about how the only way to be free of Hannibal is to kill him. Don't you ever find yourself wondering why the characters don't just do it already?

Bryan Fuller

The most efficient way would just be to put a bullet in his head and be done with it. But for Will Graham, who is caught in his gravitational pull, he's always afraid of will he be able to pull that trigger when the time comes? Because of the connection that he has to Hannibal and the feelings he has with Hannibal of being understood, of being seen in a way that no one else can see him. Saying goodbye to that forever is a pretty daunting task. In his mind, he needed Francis Dolarhyde to make that happen, because he simply didn't trust himself to carry through.

Todd VanDerWerff

This season consisted of two very different halves — the Italian half and the Red Dragon half. How did you unite those halves together as a single season of TV?

Bryan Fuller

I think it really comes down to Will's stating in the Italian side that in order to avoid becoming Hannibal Lecter, he has to kill Hannibal Lecter, and that thread being pulled through the Red Dragon arc into the finale. That's the conclusion that Will had to come to. That's the goal he set for himself. It was distracted by Hannibal's incarceration and [Will] finding a family of his own. Being pulled back into the FBI caused him to really question how he was going to accomplish that goal.

Todd VanDerWerff

Will always goes grudgingly to Hannibal in Red Dragon and its adaptations, but this added that extra level of his near-certainty that doing so would destroy his life. And it sort of does! How did you make the events of the story into major parts of the Will-Hannibal arc?

Bryan Fuller

Making killing the Red Dragon be the ritualistic killing by Hannibal and Will together for the first time. That felt like it justified Will's requirements for murder as laid out by Bedelia. He's not so much a murderer as he is capable of righteous violence. The Venn diagram of Will's righteous violence intersected Hannibal's desire to push Will to places that he may not be comfortable with but are actually perfectly valid for his psyche. It felt like it was a natural conclusion that Francis Dolarhyde would be the pig on the spit roast for these two guys.

On adapting Red Dragon: "So much of this show is really fan fiction"

Reba and Francis in Hannibal.

The relationship between Reba and Francis drove much of the doomed tragedy in the Red Dragon arc.

NBC

Todd VanDerWerff

Red Dragon has been adapted before. Were there things you were concerned about with that, even as this is a show where the viewers have always been familiar with the characters?

Bryan Fuller

I was fighting the instinct of wanting to see these certain iconic scenes from the book that we've seen adapted a couple times before with Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne in those roles. "Well we've seen it before, should we do it again? And perhaps we should subvert it in a greater way." But then I was like, "Well, I would like to see Mads Mikkelsen say those lines that I've seen Anthony Hopkins and Brian Cox say."

Manhunter was screened at the [Toronto International Film Festival] when we were filming, and we all went, and Mads sat next to me and was kind of giggling at the '80s of it all and some of the lines. I was like, "Don't laugh too hard. You're going to be saying them pretty soon." I bit the bullet and felt that certain members of the audience who were as dedicated fans as I am would also like to see new actors in those scenes, justifying them and the canon of the series.

Todd VanDerWerff

What were the biggest shifts you had to make to Hannibal [the novel that served as basis for much of the season's first half] and Red Dragon to make them fit within the show's universe?

Bryan Fuller

The shifts were very fluid. I don't think there were any solid matter shifts where you could hear tectonic plates crunching. More of a liquid state of one thing flowing into the next in an organic way.

So much of this show is really fan fiction. "Oh, what if Hannibal and Will were friends? Let's explore that relationship and how complicated it could be." It was kind of the oil that lubricated the adaptation.

Todd VanDerWerff

The love between Will and Hannibal became much more explicit this season. What was the thinking behind that?

Bryan Fuller

I think it was really being able to address the conversations as they would come up. After everything that has happened, if anything, we asked the question a little too late — when everything he's been doing has been Glenn Close-caliber obsession.

Todd VanDerWerff

You played the season, then, as the long fallout from a big breakup. That upped the feeling of romantic ruin, too.

Bryan Fuller

I remember losing friends and it being every bit as traumatic as losing a lover — in fact, more so. There are great bonds that we have with people who we identify as friends and let them in in intimate ways that are so much more complicated than sex. It has every bit the resonance of an intimate physical relationship, but is on a different plane, no less powerful in the feeling it provokes.

Todd VanDerWerff

At the A.V. Club, there was an article about the past versions of this story, saying that you could tell which character was most important to that version based on who was on the cover — Francis on the book, Will for Manhunter, and Hannibal for the Red Dragon movie. Who would be on your cover of this version of the story?

Bryan Fuller

Really it's all three boys, Francis and Will and Hannibal. It felt like one of those cheesy collages from '90s movies where you have the faces floating in the darkness and slightly merging together, a la Dead Ringers. There are elements of Francis Dolarhyde that are so representative of what Will Graham is going through and simultaneously still representative of what Hannibal is going through. It felt like such a great triangle for these men to be facing each other. I feel in the telling of the story that we've told in the television series, it feels pretty balanced. It feels like there is equal weight given to Will, Hannibal, and Francis in that tale.

Todd VanDerWerff

The book certainly has a procedural element to it, focusing on how Francis and Hannibal communicate, or how he chooses his victims, but you eschewed a lot of that. Why was that?

Bryan Fuller

I was much more interested in the characters talking to each other, but I actually enjoyed the procedural aspects of Red Dragon. They were smart, insightful, and they were doing things that you don't traditionally see in a crime procedural and to a degree of reality that was refreshing. I enjoyed them in the context of the Red Dragon arc, but I also recognized that that wasn't the spine of the story we were telling. The spine of the story now that we're telling was the triangle of Will, Francis, and Hannibal.

Todd VanDerWerff

What most spoke to you in the character of Francis?

Bryan Fuller

The tragedy of Francis Dolarhyde spoke to me reading the novel, because Thomas Harris so clearly did create the impression of his life and how it slipped away from him very early on.

You see the humanity of that little boy who was crushed come percolating up to the surface, because there's an opportunity of new love and light in the face of a blind woman who can't perceive him in the ways that others who have ridiculed him in the past perceived him. It's a romance that I root for and want him to win. I want to forgive his horrible murders of families and let him have a win. You just know that he can't win. He's doomed to suffer because of his insanity.

Todd VanDerWerff

You mostly left his backstory untouched, though, leaving in little allusions and flashes to it. What was behind that choice?

Bryan Fuller

Well, there was the matter of real estate and how much we had to tell the tale.

It was also the fear of Jake Lloyd-ing Dolarhyde, where you see young Anakin Skywalker and what you're getting is an actor who's less experienced than the very sophisticated actor portraying the adult. It's always a difficult chasm to cross, because you are, in those storytelling moments, projecting the sophistication of a performance onto somebody that you haven't cast yet.

The reality is you're going to be casting that child actor in Toronto. You have a very shallow pool to chose from, and chances are they're not going to be up to the skill set of the story that you need to tell, or the sympathy that the character needs to communicate to the audience in order for empathy to take hold. It was just a fear of giving a lot of sophisticated material to a child actor who may not be able to pull it off.

On the many supporting characters — and what's next: "So many people in television are afraid to discuss religion"

Jack and Alana on Hannibal.

Jack and Alana both had smaller arcs playing in the background of the season.

NBC

Todd VanDerWerff

There were a lot of concerns about Alana in season two, but she had a strong season this year. What did you do to figure that character out?

Bryan Fuller

What I was doing was essentially making amends, not only to the audience but also to the actress, Caroline Dhavernas. Really saying, "Yes, there wasn't a lot of room for you to be much more than the third corner of the triangle between Will and Hannibal." The finale of season two, it felt like it serviced an attitude change in Alana that she had coming and that also empowered her to be the driver of her story in a way that she hadn't been before in the series.

Todd VanDerWerff

How about Jack? He felt like he had hardened a lot to me. Obviously, he's lost a lot too.

Bryan Fuller

What was interesting with Jack was the idea that we see at the beginning of the season, that he is actually not pursuing Hannibal, he is pursuing Will to save him from Hannibal. Will admitting to Jack that he did want to go with Hannibal because Hannibal is his friend, and Jack feeling responsible for that and wanting to not lose Will. Also, telling him that the reason that Jack did not kill Hannibal is because he felt that that was Will's task to do.

Then when we get into the Red Dragon story and all of the game-playing and the betrayals that Will was guilty of in his relationship with Jack, Jack is now in a hardened place where he doesn't trust any of these people. A great part of him does need Will Graham to kill Hannibal Lecter.

Todd VanDerWerff

Is there anything Chilton can't survive?

Bryan Fuller

It's partly because of my great, great, great, love for Raúl Esparza that I wanted to do such horrible things to Chilton. I knew Raúl was going to know exactly how to portray them and exactly how to maintain the black humor of his character and make these horrible events enjoyable in some way to the audience. Maybe that's just my fucked-up perspective, but I honestly get such a kick out of the ridiculous situations that we put Chilton through.

Todd VanDerWerff

If this show ever came back, would he somehow still be there, looking more or less like Raúl Esparza?

Bryan Fuller

I think we've made great leaps and bounds in the progress of tissue transplants and skin grafts. He would resemble him more than he did the last time we saw him [with most of his skin burned off], but there's something very fun about seeing him back behind the desk of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane slightly melted, with a wig, trying to persevere and live.

Todd VanDerWerff

At the start of this season, we discussed how Hannibal had put you into a certain mindset, and you missed writing brighter, lighter stuff. Now that you're working on American Gods, what parts of your creativity is that feeding?

Bryan Fuller

It's so in the zeitgeist right now — religion and belief and the things that we do for things that are intangible. So many people in television are afraid to discuss religion in any meaningful way because it is bound to insult and instigate fatwas, and so everybody is terrified.

There hasn't been any prolonged discussion of what religion truly is and truly means to us in a way that is not cynical and is not anti-religion, but is looking closely at who we are as human beings constantly trying to avert an existential crisis by burying ourselves in our iPhones or our computers or whatever screen we can get our eyeballs on, to not think about our role in the universe. That's very exciting to me.

The complete run of Hannibal is available for digital download. The first two seasons are on Amazon Prime, and season three is on Hulu.

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