Hannibal TV Series: What Does The Observatory Stand For?

The observatory in Hannibal TV Series.
The observatory in Hannibal TV Series.

The finale of the Hannibal TV Series aired in 2015, some two years after it premiered. Not a very long run for such an intense show. But Hannibal seems destined for a lasting cult legacy, owing to its dark tone and uncompromising vision. The David Dunlap Observatory appears as a key place throughout its run. Of course, it’s not the ‘David Dunlop Observatory’ in the series universe. It is just an observatory in Baltimore, where the show is set.

The infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter seems clearly interested in the site, as does the show itself. Let us look at how this observatory in Hannibal functions as a thematic device.

Like An Audience To A Slaughter: The Observatory As A Stage In ‘Hannibal’ TV Series

You begin Hannibal, what immediately strikes you is how serious the show is. Apart from the occasional ironic humor, it is almost completely devoid of laughter. That’s not the only thing that sets it apart. Bleak visuals are a hallmark of many crime series – Fargo and True Detective, for instance. But it is the nature of the violence in Hannibal that stands out. The violence is not just gratuitous. It is otherworldly. The things you witness on the screen appear beyond belief. Even the psychology behind them is incredible. One really has to stretch the bounds of credulity for some of these storylines. The Mushroom Killer, for example. The man induces diabetic stroke in his victims and buries them alive to grow mushrooms on their bodies. To what end? To make a statement about the interconnectedness of life and fungi. I mean, seriously?

The observatory in Hannibal TV Series: Dr. Lecter invites the audience for a ride
The observatory in the Hannibal TV Series: Dr. Lecter invites the audience for a ride.
But that is not the point of the series.

Or rather, that is exactly the point. Hannibal sets out to create a world that is violently unique; has its own twisted logic. There is an uncoupling from the world as we know it, even as it remains tethered to that very world. It mentally prepares the audience for the slaughter to come by thrusting them into the deep end. And what is to come is a barrage of bodies, including some of the most likable characters on the show. There are moments when you want to scream at the screen in frustration.

Seeing the characters you care for not recognizing the danger they are in, that can be traumatizing. Especially when they don’t make it out alive – which frequently happens in Hannibal TV Series. New characters are introduced, and they get quickly butchered in bizarre ways. Dr. Sutcliffe for example. He is introduced as an intelligent neurosurgeon, and what’s more, an old colleague of Hannibal’s. You figure, maybe Hannibal will spare him. One episode later, Hannibal leaves his mutilated corpse with a Cheshire grin on his face. Just for a little personal experiment.

The Observatory As A Laboratory in Hannibal TV Series

Several significant events in the series happen in or around the observatory in Hannibal. It is the location where Hannibal Lecter leaves Miriam Lass’s severed arm for Jack Crawford to find. Crawford was a mentor to her and carries a lot of guilt on his mind for pushing her into danger. The observatory is the place where the killer Abel Gideon forces tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds into a clear, ironic view of the sensational nature of her reporting. By trapping her in a sensational event herself, which she has often done throughout the show more subtly. The observatory is also the place where Hannibal leaves the body of Beverly Katz – in neat slices. Perhaps the most shocking event in the entire show.

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In a cosmic sense,

The observatory is a portal into the world outside this world. It is the window through which the scientist gazes at the chaotic order of the universe. It is the place where Hannibal studies the effects of his actions on his subjects. And the audience is invited too. There is a voyeuristic thrill about it. Hannibal’s killings are so often not about the victims. Equally important to him, if not more, are the people associated with the victims. He is a clinical observer. That opens up a possibility for the audience to examine themselves. Where do you stand when the characters you have been observing are slaughtered in such unimaginable ways? Is it vicarious thrill, shock, and repulsion? Or is it a mixture of all three?

In Breaking Bad, Gale Boetticher recites Walt Whitman’s poem ‘The Learned Astronomer’ to express his admiration for Walter White’s vast knowledge of his subject. Hannibal shows the same awestruck admiration for deviant psychology as Breaking Bad shows for deviant chemistry. In both these worlds, deviant is the norm.

The observatory in Hannibal TV Series: Dr. Lecter is a clinical observer of both others and himself
The observatory in Hannibal: Dr. Lecter is a clinical observer of others in relation to himself.

Ride To The Space

The observatory is a sign of how the “otherworldly” operates in Hannibal. There is a sense of shock and awe involved – as one might feel watching through an observatory. It is hard to pinpoint the precise nature of pleasure this series elicits in the viewer. You are dazed by the slaughter and the pathology of it all, but you cannot look away. It creates a genuine numbness in the viewer, especially if one decides to binge-watch the entire show. The murder of Beverly Katz – who is a forensic specialist – suggests the theme of a violent shift: from the subject who observes, to the object under observation. These violent shifts in the show are its primary sites of pleasure.

The long, climactic carnage between Hannibal, Will Graham, and Francis Dolarhyde (‘Red Dragon’) appears to conclude that Hannibal and Will can finally merge: as the subject who observes and the object under observation, crafting a more fulfilling identity for both of them. They – (and the audience with them) have let go of the structure of the observatory by the end. And like the outdoor night fight which culminates with Hannibal and Will falling off the cliff, the audience too is ready to take an astronomical plunge – if only for that moment.

In that decisive moment,

It is time to put the observations to the test. To let go of clinical certainties and journey into unchartered territories, into the possibility of the murky unknown. Hannibal and Will finally witness each other through mutual action, not just intellectual fencing. And so do we, as they draw us in for the ride, forcing us to give up whatever critical distance may have still remained. And in that climax, just like what they have done to each other throughout, this terrific duo thrill and pummel the audience into submission. What the series had promised them all along: an ecstatic, glorious, sacrilegious submission.

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Sambuddha Roy

Sambuddha is a postgraduate in English literature. He knows there is nothing new under the sun, but still holds a love for everything under the sun as long as it doesn't bore him. You may find him at [email protected]

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