Sexuality Isn’t Physical – The Homoeroticism of NBC’s ‘Hannibal’

Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart is an English graduate and currently on the MA in Writing program at the University of Warwick. He is Culture Journalist and Contributing Writer for other publications. He enjoys suburban literature, folk music, curry, chick-flicks, Mojitos, books, watches and poetry.

With season two of Hannibal rapidly coming to an end in the US and the news of NBC renewing it for a third season, it’s time to reflect on what we’ve seen so far, what corners Bryan Fuller has taken us down and, most importantly, what has happened in the relationship of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham.

In Thomas Harris’ novel, Red Dragon – five pages of which the show is based upon – we know that Will and Hannibal worked together on cases and profiling murderers. We also know that Will has an empathy disorder where he can not only understand murderer’s minds but empathise with them. These two traits have been transcended into the show but have been twisted.

In season one, Hannibal and Will’s relationship began and it resulted in Hannibal framing Will for several murders. Now, in season two, with Will firmly believing that Hannibal is not only The Chesapeake Ripper but also the man who framed him, we have progressed in the stages of their warped friendship. Bryan Fuller said that by Hannibal framing Will – someone he constantly called his friend and said he cared about – he was actually trying to do something loyal. Only now has it become clear what that is – for Hannibal to make Will a killer like himself.

To obtain this, however, Hannibal has had to tap into Will’s psyche which, naturally, both he and Will are interested in. Hannibal’s interested in Will much like a doctor would be with a guinea pig. Will is interested in Hannibal as he is interested in killers. What then could happen when these two combust? We’ve been watching it. As they linger at one another, as their eyes meet, as they discuss violence and passion, art and theory, they are, in their own strange way, a love story.

Sexuality is a complex thing and becomes divided with gender. Female sexuality is more open than male. We can see a woman kiss another and not consider that these women are lesbians, but may be ‘experimenting’ or ‘messing around’. If a man does it, we tend to instantly think that he’s gay as the strength for such a kiss has come from somewhere deeper. Sexuality is not, however, split down the middle in terms of gender. There is another layer and that is being explored here in Hannibal. Here, we have a form of sexuality that is not necessarily physical but mental. Mental sexuality, a desire for one’s mind, is an odd concept but something that is happening with Hannibal and Will. Both are tapping into one another and both have dark fantasies that neither can explore alone, at least to the full level of satisfaction.

This level of sexuality, however, cannot just stay as is. Like all forms, there is a progression. When a teenager watches pornography there comes a time when said teenager wants to act on it; this is the same for Hannibal and Will who mentally stimulate each other but cannot do so physically. Bryan Fuller, the show’s creator, has said he believes Hannibal to be open to many things but Will to be very much heterosexual. How then can these two men – who are attracted and falling in love with the other’s brutal and dysfunctional mind – make love? They do this via a surrogate and this poor soul is Dr. Alana Bloom.

In the first season, Alana had a brief romance with Will in which she kissed him, said she had feelings for him but couldn’t go further because she felt he was unstable. Now, in season two, she has entered into a sexual relationship with Hannibal. She has become their scapegoat, their surrogate; they are using her body as a form of stimulus. This is expressed in one of the latest episodes in which Hannibal and Alana are having sex. Will and Margot are also having sex but the camera merges and a threesome commences. Alana is in the middle of these two men – quite literally – and in the middle of their minds and their love. Hannibal and Will, albeit predominantly heterosexual men, need to take their attraction to the next level and use Alana as that source.

Their relationship – their ‘love’ – is not ordinary, it’s brutal. With physicality wavering in their mental-romance we enter, therefore, a sadomasochistic relationship at a heightened form. Will has tried to have Hannibal killed and vice versa; they acknowledge this and continue. Within any type of S&M relationship there is pain and pleasure, the line between which is blurred. One wants to get spanked in order to heighten the lust; another wants to be smacked around the face to feel something harder, perhaps more degrading, perhaps – and in the case of Will and Hannibal – to become more intimate. This bond that the two of them have created is blurred and grey, they exist in it.

Will ends up beating a man to death (we believe) and as he beats him he imagines it to be Hannibal he is beating. There’s an element of loving the monster here; going back to the husband who slaps you or the guy that treats you badly. Will’s mind has opened up to Hannibal, it has allowed him to get inside.

Will has been hurt by Hannibal; he was put in jail, had his friends turn against him and yet he stays. When he beats the man and imagines Hannibal it’s not revenge but intimacy. It’s almost killing someone and holding their life – their heart – in your hands to do with as you want. Love is to have power over one another, it is to be able to break someone with just a word, it is trusting someone with your secrets and your life, it is putting yourself up for heartbreak.

Hannibal and Will can break one another’s hearts quite literally, they play around with power and enter one another’s heads. Any physicality is done so through their minds. One of Will’s visions is seeing Hannibal tied to a tree in which Will could rip Hannibal apart. The rope tightens as does their intimacy and, by extension, their unorthodox love for one another.