The Most Beautifully Designed Murders of the Hannibal TV Show

Each of the deaths on Bryan Fuller's Hannibal show is beautiful in its own way. But these 10 stand out from the crowd.

This week we all plod forward, knowing that a new episode of Hannibal will never grace our TV screens again (they’re “looking into financing for a film,” says showrunner Bryan Fuller, but who knows how long that’ll take- if it takes at all). It’s a dreary day, for sure.

But as Mads Mikkelsen once said, Hannibal “finds life is most beautiful on the threshold to death.” So let’s make like the good Dr. Lecter and seek out the beauty in Hannibal as it plunges over that threshold and into the churning waters below (in the same interview that gave us that quote, Mikkelsen also compares Will and Hannibal to Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Kinda spooky, given where we last saw those two).

Now that Hannibal is a finished entity, let’s remember how it romanticized the stitching of corpse parts into to macabre, ingenious (also, smelly?) works of fine art. A definitive ranking of Hannibal’s top ten death tableaus.

(I can’t begin to describe just how NSFW and Spoiler Alert-y the following list is).

10. The Human Firefly

I wavered back and forth in picking a death for the number ten spot. Nine through one all came clearly, but there were maybe four or five also-rans that all had enough potential to make the list. Should I pick the mushroom deaths that, while certainly enough to make me give up on lunch mid-Hannibal, didn’t have the same cinematic flair as later kills? Maybe the various characters mounted on stag horns, even if that’s become passé since True Detective.

Ultimately I went with Will’s transformation of deranged cage dweller into human firefly ornament from the season three episode “Secondo.” There’s almost no explanation as to why Will does it- surely it must have taken hours, and Will doesn’t really have time to spare in his Hannibal-finding quest. Even Mikkelsen’s not quite sure: “It can be a little slight sign of him stepping into my shoes. Or it can also be trying to erase me.”

It is gorgeous, though. Really, truly gorgeous. Especially as it blends two of season three’s animal motifs in the fireflies that mingle and cast their light around the body and the snails that ooze over its torso. Who cares if it was kind of a question mark.

9. Doctor Sutcliffe’s Missing Cheeks

The death of Doctor Donald Sutcliffe earns maybe a 3/10 on creativity. Carving up someone’s face is certainly gross, but nothing on the level of turning someone into a tree or melding a human carcass with a prehistoric bear.

It’s the framing that does it for me, though. If you were to see that prosthetic head in perfectly average viewing conditions (maybe as part of a selfie or something) it’d be sickening, for sure. But you might hesitate to call it beautiful, or even particularly frightening. But in “Buffet Froid?” The angle is everything. It’s almost cartoonish, the way the tongue lolls out and how the mouth hangs open at such an impossible angle. You can almost imagine the top half of Sutcliffe’s skull gently swinging in the breeze, entirely independent of what the lower jaw is doing.

I get a tiny jump scare jolt every time I look at this thing, and I’ve clicked back to the above photo at least ten times in the process of writing these three paragraphs. I just did it again. Someone please stop me.

8. Cross-Sections of Beverly Katz

Fun fact: Beverly Katz was the Jesse Pinkman of Hannibal, scripted to die at the end of the first season (it was originally supposed to be her ear that Will coughs into the sink), but kept around a while longer. Unlike Jesse Pinkman, Beverly stumbles onto the wrong secret just four episodes into the second season, and ends up cross-sectioned into six head-to-toe slices.

The image above doesn’t really do it justice. For full effect, check out the reveal of Beverly’s death in glorious HD (“embedding disabled by request,” I’m afraid).

It feels weird to compliment, because I want to use words like “gorgeous” and “elegant” but it’s also a fan-favorite character chopped into little pieces and something twinges inside me when I call this graphic guts-cut a “thing of beauty.” Still, though. How we only see Beverly from the side (with Jack moving forward, reflected in the glass) and then the camera pans left and all those Beverly Katz microscope slides unfold like an accordion. It really is a work to be admired.

7. The Human Totem Pole

Casting Lance Henriksen as a guy who murdered 18 people over the course of 40 years and stitched them into a towering human totem pole was definitely an outside choice. Henriksen’s best known for getting messily dispatched by what goes bump in the night (an alien, a predator, a Terminator). As a serial killer? He’s very low key. At the end of “Trou Normand,” Will and Jack burst into Larry Wells’s (Henriksen) to find him kicking back in his Barcalounger, more than happy to chat about those dozen and a half murders.

It makes for a nice contrast, because that human totem pole is far and away the hugest undertaking of any arthouse kill in Hannibal’s debut season (and only the Body Mural can boast more corpses in a single installation). It’s everything you’d want in a death tableau: imposing, surreal and with a weirdly appealing sense of artistry. You just want to stare at it for hours (and when you do so for long enough, you’ll realize the uppermost victim’s head is resting gently on his own buttcheeks).

I can only hope that Bryan Fuller and NBC will hold onto all these tableaus for the indefinite future, and that they’ll put together a live exhibit some day (fingers crossed). I wonder if this’ll be the centerpiece.

6. The Human Tree

What’s so fascinating about the Human Tree is how inconsequential he is to the rest of “Futamono,” the hour where he meets his end. Hannibal’s feeling off his game, so he decides to throw a dinner party. Any worthwhile dinner party requires a few human organs… leading us to the vision above.

That’s it, really. The Human Tree nudges the story a bit forward (a few clues found in the body push Jack a bit closer to catching Hannibal), but it’s really just a death tableaux for death tableaux’s sake. Yet there’s just as much thought put into it (from both Hannibal and Fuller) as any tableaux that commanded a full episode’s attention. Hannibal’s victim is a dickish city councilman with a poor track record on environmental issues, so Hannibal extends his body outward with vines and branches, hollows out his chest cavity and replaces a full spread of missing organs with poisonous flowers. Amazing that a quick throwaway kill can be so captivating.

5. The SaberMan

Randall Tier fancied himself some kind of prehistoric animal. So Randall Tier fashioned himself an animal suit out of wolf bones, bear bones and pneumatic presses (granting himself bear-appropriate bite strength) and tore into snowbound strangers like an urban legend. But Randall Tier was no match for Will Graham- Hannibal sent his man-bear-protege against Will, and Will beats him to death in self-defense.

“You owe him a debt,” Hannibal suggests, post-murder. So Will peels away large segments of Randall’s skin (and at least some meat and bone, it looks like) and wraps them around a cave bear skeleton at the Natural History Museum where Randall worked. In death, he’s the man-bear he always strived to be. Debt repaid.

Randall (or the SaberMan, as he’s labelled in concept art) always stood out to me above some of Hannibal’s other death tableaus. It might be the movie monster vibe- some corpses are just corpses, but this is thing is a living, breathing monster, even in death. Or maybe it’s because we get a good, hard look into Randall’s eyes. Not the most common thing in the corpse tableau world (and a startlingly real effect- I can’t tell if it’s a practical head or the actor’s real face with a little computer-added cut and paste).

4. The Human Cello

Could you actually play a set of human vocal chords (properly treated, of course) like cello strings? The Ludwig Voice Studio says: no. Our vocal chords lack the “ropey bits” that “vibrate as air passes over them,” which apparently is crucial to getting sound out of bowed strings. Hannibal composer Brian Reitzell also admitted that the sound is a combination of “Live cello, vocal samples, bowed wood, and probably some low-end treatment” rather than an actual bow across actual vocal chords.

Nonetheless, this ranks among the most ingenious things Hannibal’s ever done with the human body. Anyone can sew corpses together, but converting a human being into a working musical instrument- allowing “Fromage” to work as hard aurally as it does visually- is absolutely ingenious. Even if it’s not a real human cello.

3. The Stag Man

Hannibal’s third season eased up on the death tableaus (as the series clung to Thomas Harris’s novels more closely, it no longer required the “corpse of the week” format), but it still bent a few of its killed-off characters into modern art.

I’d say this one was the most memorable, by far. First seen in “Antipasto,” the third season premiere, it’s Dimmond, TA to a library curator who’s already been killed, consumed and idenity theft-ed by Hannibal. Dimmond knows Hannibal’s secret. This won’t do at all. So Hannibal chops of Dimmond’s head, bends his limbs inward, and voila! Not only is he no longer a threat, he’s also a heart-shaped Come see me in Palermo! love note for Will.

On its own, the Dimmond-heart is worth a couple tingles (neat, but certainly not the most imaginative thing Hannibal’s done with human flesh). But in the next hour (“Primavera”), Will locks eyes with his valentine… and it starts tearing open at the stapled-up seams. The Dimmond-heart’s stumpy arms and legs (Hannibal lopped off his hands and feet, it looks like) curl downwards and grow hooves. Bloody antlers sprout from its neck-hole as it shambles towards Will. Will is appropriately petrified.

The Dimmond-stag is entirely CGI, but everything about it- its walk, its blood-slippery texture, the creepy arch in its back- is just as powerful as any practical-effects kill scene. When it looks into Will’s eyes (and also the camera) you can sense this thing’s anger, despite it not having a face. It’s Hannibal, by way of The Thing.

2. The Skin Angels

I’d say this is where Hannibal really committed to the death tableau as an art form. Before “Coquilles,” the show’s fifth episode, we’d been given a few women mounted on stag horns, living victims decaying into mushroom farms and a killer who brainwashed young sons into killing their families. Creatively gruesome, for sure, but nothing you couldn’t see on The Blacklist or Criminal Minds (not that either could ever compete with Hannibal, visually).

But “Coquilles” gave us Elliot Buddish, a man whose cancer was causing hallucinations, and whose hallucinations were causing him to murder criminals (he could sense their evil… somehow), flay the skin off their backs and position it like angel’s wings.

There’s a genuine (also: gross) artistry to it. Hannibal makes a point of showing us the fishing line attached to the victim’s hands and “wings” that keep everything suspended, as that’s how they’d be shown in any art gallery. Compare that to an extremely similar kill in The Silence of the Lambs (there’s some kind of homage here, I know it) where Hannibal’s angel is hung from the bars with less of a museum-piece sensibility.

Comparatively speaking, Silence strung up its angel like a party streamer (although Hopkins’ Hannibal was pressed for time) while Hannibal went full fine art.

1. The Body Mural

Hannibal rarely deigns to dive in deep with how its killers (all of them with a BFA in fine arts, naturally) actually construct their works of art. We’ll see some poor victim dispatched in the dark, horror movie-style, then cut to Will, Jack and the rest of the gang examining how he or she was, I dunno, melted down and splattered against canvas like a Jackson Pollock. Maybe Will demos the creative process with his empathy-powers and a “this is my design,” but it’s not quite the same.

Not so with the corpse color wheel seen in the first two hours of season two. Like always, a poor schmuck is kidnapped, pumped full of heroin and sewn into a mural of human victims arranged by skin tone. But our schmuck wakes up (turns out he had a history of drug use, and the dose he was given wasn’t enough to kill someone with a tolerance), and we see him undo all of the killer’s handiwork.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find the opening sequence to “Sakizuki” online. Lucky you. Because I’d guarantee there’s no way anyone could watch those first few minutes (wherein the most-certainly-not-dead victim has to tear his body- and large patches of skin- from the mural where it’s been sewn in place) without their face crinkling up in disgust. The mural is astounding, but watching it come undone elevates it even more.

Adam Bellotto: