Artful Violence: Hannibal, True Blood, and Other Visceral Viewing

(Note: This piece graphically discusses images of violence on television, many of which specifically involve women. Said scenes are discussed in the third paragraph, which you can skip without losing the context and argument of the piece, should you so desire.)

The hit US television series Hannibal has an unforgettable set of titles — eerie, uncomfortable music laid over wisps of blood that ebb and flow, creating the suggestion of human faces and coalescing, eventually, into the show’s name against a blank screen, with just a hint of smudging. It’s a sign of the fine craftsmanship of the show, which operates in a sort of restrained, subdued elegance throughout the series, no matter what it’s presenting to the viewer, an aesthetic that is very deliberate; Bryan Fuller, the show’s producer, works within tight 13 episode seasons which provide less room for error, but at the same time, offer greater opportunities for artistic expression, and he’s taken those opportunities.

Structurally, Hannibal is brilliant, and the aesthetic is carried over throughout the lighting, costuming, and set design to create a seamless whole. Hannibal is dark, but it’s also hauntingly beautiful, with moments on screen that crystallise into perfection in the eyes of the viewer, and scenes that appear again and again in flashbacks.

Many of those scenes depict gruesome and deeply macabre violence. There’s the woman splayed across an assortment of antlers, which are used to pin her in place so her back is arched and her eyes stare emptily at the sky. The massive tower of human bodies, the silo filled with bodies sewn together to create an eye. These are images of death and suffering, but on Hannibal, they become beautiful, artistic, stunning — the characters themselves acknowledge it, talking about what they see as art, not just a scene of carnage. There is something surgically clean and elegant about these crimes, and in how they’re displayed.

Hannibal isn’t the only series to present artful violence, of course. There are Dexter’s bloody titles, and the sultry Southern violence of True Blood, which, when it ran, employed a mixture of seductive violence in vampire form and more brute force. The Following, another serial killer drama, is likewise steeped in graphic violence which is presented to the viewer in a highly compelling, artistic way. This is not just a scene of unspeakable horror, the presentation insists, but also something deeper, something spoken in a sort of universal language of violence and human history.

This feels like an increase in the number of television shows that use artful violence as a narrative tool, taking viewers deeper into the drama and the minds of the characters by presenting a highly stylised form of violence; the likeable serial killer, the unsettling psychiatrist whom you have to admire just this same for his impeccable taste and his talent in the kitchen, no matter what he might be cooking. The viewer watches Hannibal and feels a stirring of hunger, but for what? For elegant food, or for something more primal? What is the show stirring in viewers, what deeper emotional or evolutionary drive is it tapping to compel viewers?

Hannibal and The Following, running contemporaneously, are both strangely charismatic shows with a growing following, despite their gruesome subject matter and the way in which it’s so frankly shown on screen. This is not simply about a growing tolerance towards violence or a dulling of the human spirit when it comes to seeing people killed horribly on television, but something much more complex, because these are both programmes about the personalities behind the violence, where the violence has been turned into its own character, one that readers follow just as closely as the rest of the characters on the show.

The violence speaks to viewers, in a way that many people are uncomfortable with and wouldn’t openly admit. Television viewers are inured to violence at this point, as any number of crime-oriented shows can attest — people can look upon bodies killed in any number of horrible ways and not even flinch, as long as they’re on the television screen. But in programmes like CSI, the violence itself isn’t a singular, remarkable, and artful part of the narrative. It’s simply a storytelling tool, and it occupies a backseat to everything else that’s going on, incidental to the characters: this is a show about crime scene investigation, so and thus, the characters need a crime scene to investigate.

What shows like Hannibal do is much deeper and darker, creating a violence that is strangely compelling — not in the sense that it’s affirming violent feelings in the minds of viewers, but in the sense that it’s touching upon something deep inside of the viewer that people may not want to probe on their own time. Human beings all have the capacity for violence, including extreme violence like that shown on screen, but violence is rarely presented to us with a sort of artful appreciation and grace, an elegance. We’re supposed to recoil from violence, even though it’s all around us in society and media, and Hannibal, along with shows like it, push that envelope and challenge the viewer to reconsider our relationship with violence.

It would be a mistake to claim that Hannibal and shows like it are romanticising violence, because they’re not. But they are forcing a new read on violence, demanding a more just and even assessment of violence in media and in our own lives; when viewers talk about the beauty and the high production values of Hannibal, they must also perforce admit that they are engaging directly with the violence, too, in a way that is inescapable. Viewers aren’t budding serial killers or violence fetishists, necessarily, but it is notable that Fuller can compel such a large audience with a programme that is fundamentally about pushing the human body, and mind, to its breaking point, and turning it into art.