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Credit: NBC

How Hannibal pushed network TV sex scene boundaries

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Jul 13, 2020

Throughout its brief but impactful three-season run, Hannibal continually pushed the envelope of what could be shown on network television. Human skin flayed and posed to look like wings, several characters eating their own body parts, and a musical instrument-cadaver hybrid were just a few among the many graphic and gory images that ended up depicted on-screen. Creator Bryan Fuller was often asked how such bloody scenes were approved by Standards and Practices to make it NBC-appropriate. A variety of shooting and editing techniques were employed to stay true to his vision while appeasing censors. Fuller explained that shadow was utilized to aid the portrayal of Mason Verger's (Michael Pitt) gruesome face-off and nose-chomping scene. The visual issue from the aforementioned flesh wings wasn't the exposed bloody tissue; rather, the visible butt cracks were the offending factor. The solution? To fill them with blood.

Sex, or even non-sexual nudity, often causes more consternation and is seen as a bigger taboo on television than violence. The Hannibal anecdote is an example of how something truly horrifying and unnatural is deemed acceptable when a naked derriere is not. Even artwork does not escape the censors, which saw the blurring of the Botticelli painting that gives the Season 3 episode "Primavera" its name — the uncensored version is incredibly chaste. In the previous episode, a naked Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier's (Gillian Anderson) bath time descent into the watery abyss was nipple-free — after all, it is still NBC — giving a smooth doll-like visage. Later in the same season, Francis Dolarhyde's (Richard Armitage) bare behind is bathed in shadow, but the disturbing Red Dragon death tableaus are fair game. Despite these restrictions, the Hannibal team did find a creative way to show the intense intimacy of the romantic relationships in two groundbreaking sex scenes. Hannibal is now available on Netflix — still with the censorship edits — making this an ideal time to revisit the mind-bending hook-ups.

Spoilers for the entirety of Hannibal ahead.

Credit: NBC

Sexual tension bubbled beneath the surface for multiple characters from the first season onwards. Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) shared a moment early on before they both pulled back — dead bodies have a way of ruining a burgeoning crush. Meanwhile, Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) flirted with pretty much anyone he found interesting. There is a reason why Hannibal and Will are called "murder husbands" and shipped by many; their bond involves a level of intimate craving and desire rarely seen on television.

Consumption is a huge Hannibal theme extending far beyond the titular character's diet. The two defining sex scenes of the series deal with desire and identity in an ethereal tone. In Season 2, Alana and Hannibal begin dating while Will is detained in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Sure, Hannibal ultimately sees her as disposable and snarks at her when they are reunited in Season 3, but he respects her intellect and is physically attracted to her. Everyone is attractive and shares some similar interests, so this dating overlap is forgiven.

Credit: NBC

Alana and Hannibal have a shared history dating back to before the series began, which makes this pairing complicated because of her previous tentative relationship with Will (not to mention all the murder). Nevertheless, the psychological aspect of their shared profession coupled with sexual yearning leads to a network TV first. A fivesome is not even a cable staple, which is part of the reason why this sequence still feels transgressive.

The other reason? The inclusion of the Wendigo hovering in the corner as an observer before getting in on the action. This terrifying-looking figure is a manifestation of Hannibal, which is why it is even more unnerving that Will sees this representation while he is getting hot and heavy. Will is consumed with thoughts of Hannibal and Alana, which is also why the latter is briefly shown with the Stag Man on top.

Credit: NBC

Director Vincenzo Natali is the genius behind this out-there character inclusion that was a last-minute addition. "Time and space have merged," Fuller told the director about how he wanted this scene to look. Fuller added to The AV Club, "Then Vincenzo asked, very sheepishly, 'I don't know if this is too far, or if it's not the show, but what if we threw the Stag Man in there?' and I was like, 'Great!' If we're going to be doing that, then it has to be getting in on the hump."

Referring to this sequence as "an expansion of his Hannibal sex-scene vocabulary by just throwing more people into it" the scripted version notes it is a "psychological ménage à trois." Margot Verger (Katharine Isabelle) and the creepy Stag Man are present, but the focus is the connection between Alana, Will, and Hannibal. The set-up is both incredibly sensual and absurd in a way that only a show with disturbing romanticism at its heart could produce.

Will's involvement isn't just in the imaginary space; rather, he gets a late-night visit from Margot, who is desperate for a baby. In the Thomas Harris books, Margot is a lesbian. Fuller isn't altering her sexuality; instead, she is using Will for his potential baby daddy status. This choice does still feel like a misstep, no matter the motive. Will imagines Alana because she is his desire at this current time; meanwhile, Alana is caught between both men in her life.

Credit: Sophie Giraud/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images 

Alana Bloom's second season trajectory is a messy one, as she isn't always served by the narrative. Stuck in the middle between these two men, she is without all the information regarding Hannibal's extracurricular activities. Choosing to be brave and not blind in the finale sets her on a more satisfying path, but it took a lot of work to get there.

Bouncing from Will to Hannibal as a romantic interest also reduces her to a pawn in the overall game, one lacking agency. She is the object of multiple affections in the fivesome — she will also fall in love with another participant in the future — but the boundaries she discusses over dinner in "Naka-Choko" with these two men are not decided by her. Control doesn't come easy in Hannibal; mind games and manipulation are a relationship staple. In the third season, Alana gets a costume makeover and finds love with Margot Verger.

Credit: NBC

The inclusion of the Stag Man in the foursome-turned-fivesome was director Vincenzo Natali's brainchild; the romantic relationship evolvement between Alana and Margot was a suggestion made by Dhavernas during the DVD audio commentary for "Naka-Choko." Fuller notes that fans were unhappy that a lesbian hooked up with a man, so when Dhavernas asked if there would be a lesbian sex scene to make up for it, she points out her character could be an option. Later, in response to this development, Fuller spoke about the representation of sexual fluidity: "I feel that sexuality can be fluid, and there are so many stopping points on the spectrum that it seemed perfectly natural for Alana to be bisexual, and not make a thing of it, it's just who she is. She didn't have to explain it or rationalize it."

The sex scene between Alana and Margot in "Dolce" (also directed by Natali) adds another dimension to the eroticism. It's a kaleidoscope of merged body parts, and the script makes note of the network restrictions, stating "their nudity tastefully obscured." Unlike the fivesome, there are no bystanders or imagined lovers. They are the only ones in the room both real and imagined; in this act, their identities are merging into one.

Credit: NBC

The scripted direction emphasizes this detail: "As their faces TWIN with each kiss in an erotic, PULSING rhythm, Alana BECOMING Margot BECOMING Alana BECOMING Margot. Their faces transported by ecstasy as they arch in climax." It is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins, the sex scene is all-consuming, and Natali captures this — even with the network restrictions.

"The best sex is an out of body experience even though it is primarily physical," Fuller posits while discussing the aim of this scene on the "Dolce" DVD commentary. In terms of editing, the only thing they had to do was shadow out some side-boob and butt cracks — although, thankfully, not with blood. Rather than having to put up a fight with Standards and Practices about keeping this scene intact, Fuller reveals he got a thank you note for "pulling off a daring and bold" sex scene they could air. The intimacy continues after the scene returns to a less ethereal plane, with Alana tying Margot's dress back up.

Having to work within parameters set by NBC did not hamper the ambitious creativity of Hannibal. It was a television show like no other, and the style choices made by Fuller and directors like Natali ensured that it still feels fresh five years after it came to an end. Rewatching its three seasons reinforces how special this endeavor was (and still is) and how lucky we are to be able to experience a world as beautifully twisted as this one. If Hannibal were to come back for a much-talked-about fourth season, regardless of what platform it would air or stream on, it is safe to say this team would push the envelope once more — no matter the restrictions.

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