Hannibal & the Ethics of Meat

HannabeeI’ve finally finished watching Hannibal, the television series created by Bryan Fuller that recently aired for 3 seasons on NBC. The show was particularly known for its lush, cinematic camera work and its focus on food–the preparation, the serving, and consumption of food. As Hannibal Lecter is known for his impeccable sense of taste (in everything, including fashion, which might be another interesting topic in itself), the series focused closely on his cooking, lingering over shots of Hannibal chopping, sautéing, tasting, serving, and eating lavish meals, typically with guests. Of course, Hannibal also serves his guests as the main course–not all of his meat is found at the local butcher.

As a vegan, it was interesting to watch these displays of meat–and “meat”–consumption within the series. A lot of ink was spilled over the “pornographic” quality of the meal prep on the show, how beautiful the food was, how intricate the recipes, etc. The series employed a food consultant to assist with the work of making the meals look gorgeous, despite their disturbing provenance.  Yet, for me, since meat itself is already off putting, I didn’t find the televised food as “delicious” perhaps as many did. Beautiful and artfully constructed, yes, but not particularly appetizing. So that got me thinking about the ethics of meat consumption as presented in the series.

Throughout the series, it is clear that there is a link between the eating of animal flesh and the eating of human flesh. Strictly on a visual level, Hannibal prepares all of his meats with the same care and gusto, although human flesh seems to be a particular favorite of his. The link can be seen on an ethical level, as well. This is not to say that the characters who do eat animal flesh are necessarily “bad” or are murderers themselves, but simply that their meat eating makes them vulnerable to Hannibal; each character who eats animal flesh, at one point or another, also eats human flesh. Will, Jack, and Alana especially tread an ethical line, as they are responsible for the deaths of others, whether directly or indirectly, through their own murky moralities, and they each ate A LOT of Hannibal’s cooking, even after they knew he was serving up people.

Will’s morality is perhaps the most tested on the show, and his meat consumption seems somewhat counter to his love of wild life and dogs. While we know he catches his own food, particularly fish, and perhaps thus opts out of the horrors of factory farming, his care and attention to his dogs suggests a certain compassion for animals that clashes with his consumption of them. While it is not uncommon for a person to both eat meat and love dogs, in the case of the particularly empathetic Will Graham, it seems that this clash is another aspect of his continually blurred ethics.

The show is also famously violent, although the murders and blood spurts are as artfully directed as the food. I think this is another way the show links the violence of murder/killing with the violence of animal consumption. There are several montages and other sequences that draw direct visual parallels between Hannibal’s killing of humans and his preparation of meat. In other words, for Hannibal certainly, and for his unknowing guests, there is no difference in the preparation of the meals Hannibal serves, whether the lungs are from a cow or from a human victim. Because he is always cooking “traditional” recipes, Hannibal himself collapses the boundary between human and animal, both in his kitchen and when wearing his murder suit.

There are a few characters who challenge Hannibal’s methods and presentation of food: Dr. Chilton, Dr. Du Maurier, and Freddie Lounds. And, interestingly, each of them also survives through the end of the series (as do Jack and Alana, though Will is a question mark), although really only Freddie Lounds survives…intact.

Dr. Frederick Chilton is a character who barely survives the series, after having been disemboweled (then re-emboweled?), shot in the face, and burned alive. But he survives. He also took part in Hannibal’s grotesque dinner parties, although he was an early suspecter of the man. After having his organs removed by Dr. Gideon, he is more or less patched back up, less one kidney. At that point, Chilton claims he can longer eat and process meat efficiently, so he keeps to a mostly vegetarian diet. His dietary change is motivated by the violence his body has endured, suggesting again that violence against humans imitates that against animals.

Dr. Bedelia du Maurier, who becomes both Hannibal’s victim and his enabler at different times in the series, declares at one point that she no longer consumes animals “with a central nervous system.” This is when she is Hannibal’s captive (Prisoner? Partner?) in Italy, and she has seen far more of his means of “butchering” than she ever intended to. Because her relationship to Hannibal while they are in Italy is not entirely clear, it does seem that her dietary choices could represent one small way by which she can resist Hannibal’s control. At the very least, it suggests that she is refusing to completely play along with Hannibal’s criminal lifestyle, and thus opens the door for the audience to see her as more of a victim than an accessory. Yet, the final scene of the series implies that she simply could not escape Hannibal’s knife, no matter how much she refused his cuisine.

And thus we are brought to Freddie Lounds, who survives the series 100% intact. She is the tabloid crime reporter who mucks up the FBI’s investigations, torments Will Graham, and is generally disliked. And yet, I liked her, perhaps because she is the only real vegetarian character. In fact, her declaration that she is a vegetarian creates quite a challenge for Hannibal in the kitchen. He tells her “I feel terrible…it never entered my head you might be a vegetarian” and brings her a very creative…salad. Of course he never considered she might be vegetarian. For Hannibal, not eating meat is possibly the ONE concept that he doesn’t understand. (Although Freddie says it is the best salad she’s ever had, I wonder truly if Hannibal even knows what to do with something like seitan or tempeh.)

And so, Freddie is the only character in the series who does not consume Hannibal’s human flesh dishes, and she is also the only character who survives completely intact. Interestingly, she is also one of the more unethical characters, although I would posit that Freddie is firmly in control of her ethics and is honest with herself about what she does. She doesn’t claim to be ethical or law abiding or even nice; she is brutally herself. In this way, she is maybe not so different from Hannibal. And yet she certainly challenges the ideas of consumption and ethics raised by Hannibal and, to a lesser extent, Will. It is possible to exist outside of Hannibal’s influence and constraints, but it seems that it requires opting out of his diet, as well.

The boundaries between “human” and “animal” meat are collapsed once and for all in the final season, when Hannibal is caught and held by Mason Verger, the pork heir himself. In seeking extreme revenge against Hannibal, Verger imprisons him in a pig stall and brands him with the Verger pork logo (instead of just killing him immediately, which any sane person seeking revenge would have done). He ties Hannibal up in the pig stall with ropes that prevent him from moving or turning around, in a manner reminiscent of gestation crates, in which sows are kept. They are inseminated, get pregnant, and give birth, all in tiny stalls that entirely limit their movement. And, in a delicious bit of visual poetic justice, Hannibal is briefly kept in such a stall. Until Alana lets him out, of course. Sigh.

All of these observations suggest to me that the Hannibal series has a lot to say about what the practice of eating animals means. I think the show asks us to consider whether being cruel toward animals is at all related to being cruel toward humans. It is true that animal abuse has a strong correlation to violent behavior against humans, but Hannibal seems to take this correlation one step further. What of the act of raising, killing, and then consuming animals is itself recognized as a violent act? What if meat eating blurs the lines between human and animal in ways that lead to further violence?

Series creator Bryan Fuller gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly in which he discusses how he became semi-vegetarian as a result of working on Hannibal . He notes that for him, the boundary between meat and cannibalism dissolved:

[…] “I am a pescatarian as a result of not only writing about cannibalism for the last three years, but also doing considerable research on the psychology of animals and how sophisticated cows and pigs and the animals that we eat actually are, and emotionally alive in a way that we’ve kind of been taught to dehumanize them so that we can eat them. […] I’m eating another sentient being and it’s no different than eating another human being, in my mind.”

So, while I typically don’t give two figs about what an author/artist/creator says about their work in relation to my analysis of their work, I do find it interesting that Fuller came to his own conclusions about the ethics of meat eating as he worked on the show and that his views align with smaller arcs within the series itself, as I’ve discussed here.

Hannibal was a beautifully designed and directed series, with amazing performances from every actor who stepped on those sets. Its willingness to plumb the depths of human psychology and the darkness that may lie within is a hallmark of the show, but I think its willingness to ask really difficult questions about meat, animals, humans, and our own ethics is what will stay with me for quite a while.

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