And so it comes to an end. After three seasons of biting, clawing and bleeding itself through life on a network in which Hannibal seemed rather off-brand (to say the least), the bold and unconventional crime drama finally had its Great Becoming terminated. There’s a vague possibility of Bryan Fuller resurrecting (to borrow this season’s Christian parlance) his creation in miniseries or movie form somewhere down the road, but for all intents and purposes, Hannibal is just as dead as Dolarhyde, destroyed by network executives even more brutal and unsparing than Dr. Lecter himself. And thanks to their lack of willingness to let Fuller realize his artistic vision, we were left with, in “The Wrath of the Lamb,” an ending which didn’t quite feel like the climax Hannibal had been building to for its three seasons of boundary pushing television.
Not to say that it was a wholly unsatisfying episode. The cold open and first act sported a clever riff on Dolarhyde’s surprise return in the book, selling his certain death, then bringing him back in a terrifying motel room attack just before the commercial break. As I discussed last week, the episodes of Hannibal most directly adapting Red Dragon have been deftly in dialogue with the novel, maintaining a certain level of narrative fidelity while still remaining true to the show’s style. Tonally, Red Dragon is the Thomas Harris novel most different from Fuller’s conception of the Lecter universe, as it’s Harris’s most traditional detective story and furthest distance from the horror genre, but Fuller has come up with witty ways of incorporating the book’s events. In using Dolarhyde’s reappearance essentially for a jump scare (and quite an effective one), “The Wrath of the Lamb” featured perhaps Fuller’s finest incorporation of Harris material thus far.
If only Fuller had been granted the time to use the references as a mere stop in Hannibal’s twisted journey rather than the conclusion it’s ostensibly serving as. The third season faced the looming specter of a tonal challenge from the moment the news broke that the show would tackle the Red Dragon arc, as Fuller had to incorporate another villain into his vision. True, Red Dragon does also feature Will, Dolarhyde, and Hannibal, but the doctor is a mere side player rather than a true antagonist, to the point where it’d be hard to imagine someone predicting he’d become the face of the franchise based on the evidence of the novel alone.
But after all, the show is called Hannibal, and it’s this disparity which ultimately kept “The Wrath of the Lamb” from being a satisfying finale. As good of a job as Richard Armitage has done at selling Dolarhyde’s brooding physicality over the last few episodes, the relationship between Will and Hannibal has remained at the series’ heart. Accordingly, centering the episode around a villain introduced just a few episodes ago instead of a relationship the series has spent three seasons building alienates the viewer and lowers the psychological stakes which have made Hannibal so compelling.
Fuller (along with co-writers Steve Lightfoot and Nick Antosca) doesn’t totally move away from the show’s gravitational pull. In having Will and Jack use Hannibal as bait for Dolarhyde, we see the brutality the doctor has imparted on them, and he’s at least involved in the failed attempt. The image which leads to the credits feels like the most direct attempt to align “The Wrath of the Lamb” with the rest of the series, as Will and Hannibal’s ostensibly suicidal embrace makes for a conceivable ending to what the two have been building towards all along. But it’s too little too late, and whatever emotion comes from seeing their fate gets derailed by the feeling that Dolarhyde’s the real focus of the episode (even if that runs contrary to the rest of the series).
“The Wrath of the Lamb” does redeem itself a bit with the post-credits sequence, which feels much more like an adequate Hannibal send-off. Regardless of how you interpret the scene (I read it as Bedelia being abandoned and eating alone, even if Fuller says otherwise), it brings our attention to a relationship which has been an instrumental aspect of the series since Gillian Anderson’s first appearance, and in a less predictable and more emotional way than Will and Hannibal’s hug. More than possibly anything else, Hannibal has centered around the effect its titular character has upon others, and seeing the end result of one of the most tragic of those effects makes for a fitting coda to an otherwise not-so-fitting finale.
Still, it’s hard to blame Fuller for any of this, as he’s made clear that he has more story to tell if given the opportunity to do so. If “The Wrath of the Lamb” doesn’t quite work as a series finale, it’s only because it wasn’t really supposed to be one. This wasn’t Fuller’s design, even if it functioned as the ending to a series which so unabashedly was.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.