Hannibal and Queer-Baiting
[ General spoilers below for both seasons ]
Queer-baiting, the act of hinting at queer characters or relationships without ever openly acknowledging them, is a hot topic right now as TV networks strive to garner LGBT viewership while still adhering to traditional heteronormative narratives. A lot of popular shows are commonly held up as examples of queer-baiting – Sherlock being a popular example – and for the most part these claims are accurate. However, there’s at least one show where the common claim of queer-baiting is not only inaccurate, but acts as erasure of an actual canon queer-platonic relationship: NBC’s Hannibal. NBC’s Hannibal is often cited as an example of queer-baiting due to the deep connection between the two main characters, Dr. Hannibal Lector and Special Agent Will Graham. It’s obvious from season one, and extremely so in season two, that these two men are drawn to each other in a way neither can quite understand. Hannibal is fascinated by Will’s mind, yes, and Will is at first drawn to Hannibal as a mentor and then out of suspicion he may be a killer, but the viewer knows there’s more. The show wants the viewer to know there’s more.
By citing NBC’s Hannibal as an example of queer-baiting, what people are saying is this: because these two characters never have sex or profess romantic love for each other, they can’t have a queer relationship. This erases not only the spectrum of asexuality and aromanticism, but denies the importance and influence of non-romantic love. After all, what is more queer than two seemingly heterosexual men* forming a bond so powerful that one is willing to cripple the other when he feels that bond, and the future possible through that bond, has been betrayed? And what about Will who, in season 2, grows so close to Hannibal that even the viewer is unsure whether he has slipped from the side of the good guys to become Hannibal’s protege?
The relationship between Hannibal and Will is arguably the most fascinating aspect of the show. We watch Will move from disliking Hannibal to cautiously trusting him as a therapist and then, perhaps without Will even realizing it, confiding in him as a friend and mentor. As Will faces situations and experiences no one around him can quite understand, Hannibal becomes the only person to whom Will can turn; the only person, he believes, who he can completely trust with the growing instability of his mind. And even when Will realizes this trust has been incredibly misplaced, season 2 finds him reconnecting with Hannibal – ostensibly to spring the trap on him, but are we sure? Is Will fishing for Hannibal, or learning to hunt with him? Even until the very last episode of the season, we as the viewer don’t know for certain. What we do know is that Will loves Hannibal; and if you love someone, how do you betray them, even when you know it’s the right thing to do? How can Will bear to give up arguably the only person who can truly understand his mind?
Even Hannibal, a brilliant psychopath five steps ahead of everyone else on the show, is blinded by this love to the point of delusion. Despite what we expect to be Hannibal’s inability to love, to feel hope or longing or beauty, he truly wants this life where he and Will are together as partners in crime. And in this life, who is with them? Abigail, the girl they both view as a daughter. Hannibal dreams of a life with Will and Abigail, just the three of them, and seems willing to do anything to achieve it. So when this dream is ripped away from him, Hannibal’s reaction is almost understandable; we see his rage, his grief, his desire to punish. If he cannot have that life, neither can Will. He takes from his beloved what his beloved has taken from him. Haven’t many of us had that desire?
That’s the beauty, and tragedy, of this show. Hannibal and Will can never “work”. They can never be friends or partners. They can never be mentor and mentee. They can never be anything but enemies drawn inexplicably to each other. They love each other, and that love is destructive, abusive, manipulative. But it’s love, whether either of them can admit it.
Anyone who cites NBC’s Hannibal as an example of queer-baiting either hasn’t seen the show or simply didn’t understand what they were watching. Hannibal steps far beyond the usual narrative of gay or lesbian characters and shows us a form of queerness otherwise never represented in mainstream media. Not only that, but it shows us the beauty and danger love can possess, romantic or not. NBC’s Hannibal is a show that celebrates the power of platonic love, even as it uses that love to (pun intended) stick the knife in our hearts and give it a twist.
*While Hannibal engages briefly in sex with a woman in the show, I don’t believe he’s strictly heterosexual/heteroromantic. I think the show gives us too much evidence to suggest Hannibal at least to be on the asexual spectrum, if not also aromantic.
I can understand why people cite Hannibal under shows which show queer-baiting, but it also goes beyond that. What I mean is, other shows, such as Merlin, Supernatural and Sherlock, all have storylines of these deep relationships between two men that fans swear contains proof of real love between them, just as you have done for Hannibal. I’ve heard people say of Arthur’s death in Merlin, that even without strictly saying “I love you,” his actions said it for him. I’ve read a very convincing blog post providing evidence that not only is Dean from Supernatural bisexual, he is also in love with Cas. And I’ve seen several fans say that even if you don’t ship it, John and Sherlock genuinely love and care about each other, giving evidence of how far they would go for each other.
So how is Hannibal separate from these examples? Even though they talk about having love for each other (even if only in dream sequences), it isn’t as if the characters are acknowledging even in their own internal narratives that they are in love. They may, arguably, show more between Will and Hannibal than they do other couples, but I don’t think they openly acknowledge even in interviews the precise nature of Will and Hannibal’s relationship, even though (as in other shows) it’s obvious to all.
I’ll admit your point though. Just because they don’t have a sexual relationship on screen, and indeed an completely obvious romantic one, to call it queer-baiting does seem to add to erasure. But, in my opinion, the same can be said for any of the other shows considered to contain it. It seems that unless a true romantic relationship happens, it isn’t given proper credit.
In fact, I wonder if there’s a reason these writers feel the need to hold back. In the current climate, perhaps there’s a need both for these relationships and not to acknowledge them at a certain extent. Perhaps some viewers still can only accept these kinds of relationships to such a point; or perhaps the writers themselves feel a tension in their own hearts that forces them to hold to a certain point, whether because of the climate or because they feel the need to disguise or reconsider certain parts of themselves, so they come up with plot tensions to hide those parts. Perhaps it is both of these things, perhaps there are still things that are unacceptable or need to be faced.
Either way, I’d certainly say these inhibitions probably add to erasure, and that’s a shame. But as long as things continue to change, and as long as there are writers telling stories, there is still hope.