My most recent fannish loves – in a long line of infatuations – have been BBC’s Sherlock and NBC’s Hannibal (the network designations belie the transnational coproduction contexts of each, but that’s a post for another day). Both are named for characters who have unwittingly embarked on journeys of emotional discovery, precipitated by and torturously focused on the first men we see in each series, who themselves hide behind walls of self-delusion that they are somehow ‘normal’ in contrast with the titular characters’ abnormalities.
Throughout the first season of each show, viewers are given glimpses into the ways that unanticipated (and even unprecedented) friendship begins to alter both Sherlock Holmes and Hannibal Lecter. Their interest is piqued from the first by two seemingly unassuming men who, as Sherlock and Hannibal both recognize, are somewhat more than their ordinary demeanor suggests.
We watch as both Sherlock and Hannibal succumb to frighteningly unfamiliar feelings of nascent affection, incomprehensible need
that may prompt diametrically opposed responses in each, but which collectively signal a deepening of emotional attachment that will ultimately become the focal point of the next two seasons. Equally, each fledgling friendship founders in the face of (ostensible, in the case of Sherlock) betrayal and apparent death. There’s separation and regret
and self-sacrifice (however ostensibly self-serving it is in Hannibal’s case, because Hannibal)
Each is, in short, a romance, and one to which female fans in particular have flocked. We bring with us the entire arsenal of female fannish love: fan fiction, fan art, intricate analyses – the wealth of fannish activity that characterizes online Anglo-American female fandom in the 21st Century. We’ve made the characters our own and, in so doing, we’ve been acknowledged in the texts of each show by its showrunners.
And here’s where I see the biggest difference between the two shows (if you leave out, you know, the cannibalism thing) – at least as regards female fandom.
In Sherlock, acknowledgement of the show’s female fans and our theories about the nature of the characters’ relationships comes in an overblown fantasy sequence first rejected by, then equated with the rabid ravings of, Sherlock’s resident conspiracy theorist, Philip Anderson.
Bethan Jones explores the broader context of this scene in her essay on female fan shaming and pathologization in Sherlock, particularly at the hands of the show’s producers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, observing that
the teenage girl in Sherlock’s fanclub details a… fanfiction version of events – in which Sherlock and Moriarty sit giggling on the rooftop at John’s distress before almost sharing a kiss. “It’s just as possible as your scenario,” she says as the scene cuts back to a room of incredulous fans, but given Moffat and co.’s extratextual remarks, it’s not.
In much the same way that the show both visually and narratively tells us that the friendship between Sherlock and John is of a magnitude deeper than any ordinary friendship – that it may well be, in fact, romantic – only for the showrunners to qualify ‘romance’ and reject even the possibility of that romance having any sexual overtones, this scene tells those of us who discern precisely that kind of relationship that our theories are plausible while simultaneously rejecting them as (literally) laughable by equating them with Anderson’s outlandish ideas.
Which is to say, we’re making it up – or so say Sherlock’s producers, who may agree that the show is a romance of sorts, but it’s one of their own defining that is in no way similar to the more sexualized romance imagined by many female fans. No matter what we (think we) see, we’re wrong.
This leaves those of us who see a romantic relationship between Sherlock and John at something of an impasse. Do we accept the producers’ pronouncements (and even admonishments) at face value and retreat from such a reading? Do we embrace fanworks that reflect our (apparently incorrect) understanding of the characters? Do we quit the show altogether; or do we perhaps assume there must be a greater purpose to the showrunners’ obfuscations – one that requires secrecy until the final, redemptive reveal? These are all responses that slash-inclined female fans have had in the face of ridicule and rejection, the cumulative effect of which, speaking personally if not universally, has been to sour the relationship between fans and producers and even diminish interest in the show itself.
Hannibal, too, acknowledges its female fans in a scene that might be read as similarly mocking, but for its own textual and extra-textual contexts. Tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds is anything but a sympathetic character throughout the show; she’s opportunistic and vindictive – always prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone for a good story. In that sense, any association between Freddie and female fans might be read as an implicit criticism of those fans. Yet, not only are there virtually no characters in Hannibal who don’t have an unsympathetic side, making Freddie’s unsavory side par for the course rather than uniquely odious, but her observation here is one that Will Graham cannot actually refute.
This Will Graham is a man who has spent a good part of the season to date mulling over his many regrets over his betrayal of Hannibal, confessing to Jack Crawford that he had wanted to run away with Hannibal (and fantasizing about killing Jack with Hannibal), and pursuing Hannibal in his sailboat from Maryland to (IDK somewhere in Europe, because can you even sail directly to Italy?). His exasperation with Freddie notwithstanding, Will’s single-minded devotion to all things Hannibal borders on the obsessive, culminating in a singularly beautiful (and heartbreaking, since we know these two cannot go fifteen minutes without trying to kill each other) moment when Will tells Hannibal that they’re conjoined – that he doesn’t know if one can survive without the other.
So that, as K.T. Torrey has talked about at greater length, Will’s apparent disgust with Freddie’s characterization of him and Hannibal as “murder husbands” – borrowed directly from online fandom – notwithstanding, the fact is that he is, in fact, Hannibal’s murder husband (or wife, as Hannibal’s other wife, Bedelia, observes), and the two of them are very clearly in a romantic relationship that has never been a secret as far as Hannibal himself is concerned.
When season three – and possibly the entire series – of Hannibal ended with Will’s literal embrace of Hannibal (yes, yes, before he threw them both over a cliff, but this is what they do, bless them), many in the show’s online fandom rejoiced that, for once, a ship had become canon. This craving for ‘canon ships’ has been growing in recent years, attributed within online fandom to a variety of reasons ranging from desire for greater queer representation on mainstream television to a somewhat more simple longing to see a wished-for relationship materialize onscreen. And I’m sure that many of the positive reactions to the show’s acknowledgement of Will and Hannibal’s romantic relationship correspond to this diversity of needs fulfilled.
But to my mind, and particularly when contrasted with Sherlock, one significant reason for fans’ celebration of canonical ‘Hannigram’ was that its confirmation was an explicit rejection the contentious female fan/producer relations of recent years. The show might not have begun with the intention of ending in a canonical romance between Will and Hannibal, although Mads Mikkelsen has been clear about his interpretation of it from the beginning
but the fact that the finale was true to what was increasingly apparent to viewers (and especially fans) was singularly validating, and it’s this priceless – for being so rare – sense of validation that, I think, is at the heart of so much approbation. It’s wonderful to see a longed-for relationship effectively consummated; but it’s even better when we’re told that, yes, what we saw was, in fact, there – that we weren’t imagining it, that we weren’t delusional or ridiculous for seeing it.
That, more than anything, is for me the great difference between Sherlock and Hannibal, reflected in the gulf that separates the increasingly rancorous relationship between (some) female fans and Sherlock‘s producers, on the one hand, and the overwhelming goodwill the same kinds of fans have towards Fuller and the entire Hannibal production team on the other. It’s something other showrunners might learn from, were female fandom at all valued by them.