Hannibal Lecter kills and eats people.
This is, I think, a fairly well-known fact of pop culture. James Bond prefers his martinis shaken, not stirred; Batman’s parents are dead; Hannibal Lecter kills and eats people.
Certainly, excepting particularly devoted Mads Mikkelsen fans, anyone tuning in to Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal would have an idea of who this Lecter fellow is. Which leads us to a defining element of the show — no one knows Hannibal is a killer. So what exactly does Fuller do with this bit of dramatic irony?
The most obvious effect, of course, is to create a sense of dread. In the earliest episodes, Hannibal’s (Mikkelsen) presence is as a secondary character. The main focus on the show is on Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a troubled criminologist with an intuition for profiling killers. Hannibal enters as a practicing psychologist assigned as Will’s therapist. We get very few details of any killings his name might be put to up till episodes five and six, where we learn of the unsolved Chesapeake Ripper murders —heavily implied to be Hannibal’s handiwork. However, he just does not get that much screen time.
When we see him, he is a complete gentleman, as when he cooks dinner for FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), or a detached philosopher, as when he counsels Will Graham. The latter, particularly, serves to unsettle the audience, as we know this is an insight into the mind of a killer. One of the most memorable early scenes comes in episode two, when Hannibal counsels Will following his use of lethal force. Hannibal brings up the notion that God kills all the time, that He must feel powerful. What Will must take as reassurance that he is not evil for feeling strength in killing a bad man, the audience sees as part of Hannibal’s own profile. Additionally, a motif introduced early on is that of Hannibal cooking. In lovingly shot scenes framed to appetize, we see Hannibal as amateur chef, as master of his craft. These create a profound sense of unease, as they are, in microcosm, a presentation of the disturbing coexistence of Hannibal the killer and Hannibal the gentleman. Nothing needs to be shown, because the very presence of meat on his table is a reminder to the audience of what he is.
However, in the later episodes of the season, as Hannibal’s manipulation of Will Graham escalates, the show’s use of dramatic irony serves a purpose beyond simply indicating that things are going bad places. Rather, it gives us, the audience, a measure of complicity in Hannibal’s plans for Will. Toward the end of the first season, Will has begun losing time and hallucinating, and in episode 10, he has a vivid hallucination of killing as one of the killers he must profile. As Lecter conceals the encephalitis at the root of this break from reality (going so far as to kill the neurologist who administered the MRI), and proceeds to ‘counsel’ Will through his ‘mental illness,’ we are left to simply follow Hannibal’s gaslighting of Will. The procedural structure is abandoned as the whole of the plotting is devoted to Hannibal’s plan to convince the FBI and Will himself that Will has unknowingly become a killer.
As every piece falls into place, as an audience, we are left to marvel at the intricacy of the plan. Hannibal commits murders not just to cover his tracks, but to pin blame on Will Graham. Inexplicable or unsatisfactorily-explained killings dating back to the pilot become explicable, if we are to trust Will’s intuitions. While there is little evidence besides the neurologist’s murder that Hannibal has been killing all along, disguised as a number of copycat killers, the audience knows he is capable of it. The viewer is, along with Hannibal, one step ahead of everyone, as, in a sense, we have been all along. We came to the show to watch a killer and a manipulator, and as Hannibal pulls all the strings leading up to the fruition of his plan, we are given what we expect.