I’m obsessed with the KGB and cannibals. Not because I’m an anti-American people-eater: I’m just obsessed with two of the best dramas on TV, “The Americans” and “Hannibal.” Clearly these shows are very different. “The American” is about two KGB agents posing as suburbanites in the early years of Reagan’s America. “Hannibal” features Hannibal Lecter’s heyday, before FBI profiler Will Graham (who you may remember from “Manhunter” or “Red Dragon”) caught him.
But this week, these series have a pure coincidence in common: the season finale of their second seasons. (Thankfully, both have been renewed for a third.) But, despite many obvious differences, they have a few other odd similarities that aren’t apparent at first blush. At their core, “The Americans” and “”Hannibal” are both doomed romances with intense psychological complexity that remind us the real monsters aren’t some other guy, but us.
The romantic aspect is obvious in “The Americans.” Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) were paired together not by love, but by the KGB, who have never been a reliable alternative to Match.com. In season one, viewers watched Philip (who’s more embracing of all things American) and Elizabeth (who’s more of a true believer for the motherland) struggle with the idea that they might be life partners for real. As Dr. Ruth never said, “The couple that assassinates together stays together.”
The Jennings’ marriage might be easier to manage if all they did was snoop and kill, but both frequently run honey traps (using sex for manipulation). One of Philip’s sex-based operations is so extensive that he actually married the woman: FBI Agent Gaad’s secretary Martha. When two people spend most of their lives lying, and sex and romance are often part of the lies, how can they possibly trust each other? Their relationship is fascinating—and an innovative development in TV anti-heroes. We’re used to solo male anti-heroes, but the Jennings are TV’s first anti-couple.
On “Hannibal,” the central romance is harder to spot—unless you have any sense for subtext or spend time on Tumblr, where linking the two leads romantically is a full-time job.Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) is a serial killer with a soul (or at least manners) and Will (Hugh Dancy) is a good man who can think like a serial killer. They’re the only people who understand each other, and the first two seasons have featured at least two rounds of seduction between the two men.
In season one, Hannibal—never the AMA’s psychiatrist of the year—is supposed to be helping Will deal with the mental toll of getting into killers’ heads. Instead, Hannibal takes the opportunity to get into Will’s head himself, trying to convince Will he really is a killer and setting him up for some of Hannibal’s crimes. In season two, Will reverses the seduction, trying to convince Hannibal that he was right about Will all along and hoping Lecter will incriminate himself. Amidst all the lies and trickery is the most profound connection on the show, and one of the deepest and weirdest on TV. Any week now, I expect Hannibal to channel the Joker and tell Will, his personal Batman: “You complete me.”
It wouldn’t be TV without love triangles, and while there are explicitly romantic triangles on both shows, the key third party on each is an FBI agent who forms more of a bromance triangle. On “Hannibal,” Jack Crawford (masterfully played by Laurence Fishburne) is friend to both Will and Hannibal, and he relies on help from both in catching serial killers. As season two has played out, it’s become clear Jack knows being a foodie is far from Hannibal’s worst sin, so Jack is working with Will (who, as always, may be in over his over-empathetic head) to catch the diabolical doctor. But Jack feels a real kinship with both. At any moment, these shenanigans could torpedo Jack’s career, and he’s also struggling with problems at home: his wife Phyllis (Gina Torres) is dying of cancer.
Bad as all that sounds, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) on “The Americans” might gladly switch places with Jack. He lives across the street from the Jennings, and aside from a slight hunch in the pilot, appears to have no clue the couple aren’t travel agents and good citizens. Philip is even Stan’s drinking and racquetball buddy. But in season one, Stan’s marriage slowly dissolved, his partner was murdered (by Philip, naturally), and he began taking his role as handler to Russian agent Nina a little literally—and romantically. As season one ended, Nina turned triple agent on him. Since then, she’s been playing Stan like a cheap guitar, while comrades Arkady and Oleg manipulate Stan’s concern for Nina to get him to betray America in ever more serious ways. Wifeless, partnerless, and compromised, Stan might be the most screwed person on a show full of screwed people (though after the finale, Nina may have taken that title).
Parenthood has been a minor theme of “Hannibal” and a major theme of “The Americans.” In season one, Hannibal and Will both took a parental interest in Abigail Hobbs, the daughter (and, as we later learn, accomplice) of Garrett Jacob Hobbs, a serial killer gunned down by Will. Ultimately, Hannibal kills Abigail, though he seemed to genuinely care for her. On “The Americans” season two, Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage is in a mostly good place, and their worries shift to their children. All parents fret over their kids, but when you’re KGB spies who could be killed or imprisoned at any moment, the stakes are a tad higher. Philip and Elizabeth worry, rightfully so, that Paige and Henry might end up as badly as Abigail Hobbs. In both shows, parents feel love and worry, but spread corruption and death.
In an era when series finales are anticipated and analyzed with a mania that would make Zapruder enthusiasts blush, both “The Americans” and “Hannibal” come with built-in closure, which helps viewers (and probably the writers) stay in the moment. No matter how good Philip and Elizabeth are at their jobs, we know they’re not going to destroy America. This gives the entire series a sense of subtle absurdist humor: all of this really is for nothing. Similarly, as I wrote before the season, we know Hannibal’s fate: he’ll be nabbed by Will and become the Hannibal we know so well from the movies. I find knowing the ultimate fate of the protagonists to be a huge relief: I’m more able to focus on the individual characters, episodes, and moments.
Even though we know the ultimate destinations of these shows, there have been jillions of unanswered questions along the way. Each series began the season in bloodshed. On “Hannibal,” there was a flash-forward to a horrific, bloody brawl between Hannibal and Jack. We don’t know the results of that ugly fight or what role Will (and probably Alana, Will’s sometimes love interest and Hannibal’s bed partner) might play. Over on “The Americans,”the season finale saw a horrific explanation for the jaw-dropper from the season premiere: another pair of married KGB agents, just like Philip and Elizabeth, were murdered in a hotel room along with one of their children. That scene is Philip and Elizabeth's worst nightmare, or so they thought, until learning the culprit was the family's son Jared, who imploded after being recruited by the KGB against his parent's wishes. Even worse, the Jennings learn their daughter Paige is next on the KGB's wish list for new agents. This was the biggest gut punch possible.
It also fits with a major theme of both series. We’d all like to think we’re doing the right thing, playing for the right team, and making the world a better place for puppies. But we’re usually lying to ourselves. George Costanza famously said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Both shows prove that line isn’t just a joke, but an abyss. Fortunately for us, it’s a very entertaining abyss.