The good doctor's tastes illustrate our insecurities about class. Here's what’s really on the menu in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal

Illustration: Rob Beschizza

Fannibals, as they call themselves, are swooning over Hannibal Lecter's killer style in the NBC series Hannibal. They've poring over Esquire's tips on how to get the Lecter Look ("Different shades of the same color are layered to create an effect that's part understated, part show-off"), duly noting the double-Windsor knots in his paisley ties, loving the blood-red walls of his office (he's a clinical psychiatrist), and searching out the chef's knife he cooks with (a Chroma Type 301 by F.A. Porsche), the better to painstakingly recreate his Lambs' Tongues en Papillote with Duxelle Sauce.

Isn't all this commodity fetishism a little tasteless, given that the show is, after all, about a smiling sociopath whose "well-tailored person suit," as his shrink puts it, conceals a gourmet cannibal? In one sense, not at all, since the Lecter of the Thomas Harris novels Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal—the inspiration for producer Bryan Fuller's reimagining of the Lecter myth—is very much a consumer, both in the figurative sense (he's an opera buff, a patron of his local orchestra, a connoisseur of old-money status totems) and in the more obvious, literal sense: he's an oenophile, a gastronome, and, of course, a cannibal (albeit a well-bred one, the sort who knows which fork to use).

But consuming things is what Lecter does, not who he is. Lecter isn't some shop-aholic, consuming for the sake of consumption; that would be mere materialism, which is gauche, and one thing Lecter isn't is gauche. Just the opposite: he's the epitome, at least outwardly, of upper-crust gentility and highbrow good taste. The NBC series gets this. A close reader of Harris's novels, Fuller understands that Lecter is defined by his tastes—as are we all, in a consumer society. In his books, Harris signals the centrality of taste to Lecter's psychology by repeatedly zooming in on his tongue, whose unnaturally "red and pointed" appearance marks him as both bestial and demonic. He scents the air with a nose so supernaturally sensitive it can conjure the ghost of the L'Air du Temps perfume the FBI trainee Clarice Starling sometimes wears, even though she's "determinedly unperfumed" at that moment. (Smelling and tasting are intertwined, in our sensory apparatus.) In fact, he's such a supertaster he can savor not just his own sensory impressions but the contents of another man's mind, or a woman's heart: in Silence, he takes a sip, like some sadistic sommelier, of the psychic pain he's inflicted on Senator Martin; in Dragon, he inhales the bouquet of the serial-killer profiler Will Graham's thoughts, which have "the warm brass smell of an electric clock."

But again, as any devout reader of the Harris novels knows, Lecter isn't so much a man who tastes but a man of taste; his oral fixation is, among other things, a metaphor for his obsession with taste in the cultural sense. Like Count Dracula or des Esseintes in Huysman's novel Against Nature , he's that stock character from Gothic and Decadent literature, the depraved aristocrat, debased in his appetites yet refined in his tastes. He may have eaten a census-taker's liver, but he served it with fava beans and a big Amarone, and the presentation, no doubt, was pure gastroporn. He quotes Marcus Aurelius from memory, daydreams about Géricault, and tut-tuts about the post-literacy of our times. Speaking of which, he'd surely win the heart of Allan Bloom, the culture warrior who bemoaned the decline of cultural literacy in The Closing of the American Mind (and who, by no coincidence, is the namesake of a forensic psychiatrist in Red Dragon who helps the FBI profile serial murderers). Courtly, erudite, punctilious in matters of grammar, Hannibal Lecter is William F. Buckley's idea of a cannibal killer, quoting Alexandre Dumas's Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine and dispatching his victims to the strains of Bach's Goldberg Variations (the Glenn Gould version, of course).

The NBC series, smart as it is, has to heave most of Lecter's high-culture references and classical allusions overboard because it's trying to do a multi-threaded, emotionally complex drama for a network audience. Still, the show gives us the look of taste, and does so with such visual intelligence that you find yourself scouring the credits for Umberto Eco's name, under "semiotics consultant." The camera runs its eye—our eye—over sumptuous interiors, caresses the jutting cheekbones of Mads Mikkelsen (who plays Hannibal), appraises his bespoke suits, feasts on the Baroque still lifes of Lecter's gourmet dishes, and even gazes, rapt, at the bizarre tableaux left by the show's various killers: a totem pole made of dead bodies; a corpse with a swarming beehive nestled in his scooped-clean brainpan; a shrink with his tongue pulled through a gash in his neck (the talking cure?). And it should gaze, because, like everything else on Hannibal, the crime scenes are aestheticized to death; worlds away from the squalid, forlorn remains of real-life homicides, they're installations by murder artists. ("I love your work," Lecter tells a maniac who's gluing his victims, chosen for their skin tones, into a "human mural.") "This is my design," says the serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), channeling the murderer as he surveys his gory handiwork. The catchphrase winks at the show's metanarrative of design, style, taste.

Fuller and his writers have forgotten the same thing that Harris lost somewhere along the way from Silence to its soulless sequel and the summer house in Sag Harbor and the winter house in Miami Beach and all the other fine things Hannibal has bought him. What they've forgotten is the monster of class we see up close and ugly in Silence, the Hannibal who showed us there's a Mr. Hyde to the highbrow side of him that sips Batard-Montrachet and listens to Bach. And it's not just his closet cannibal. It's the insufferable toff who mocks Starling's cheap shoes, badgers her into admitting her dear dead dad wasn't a heroic lawman after all, just some minimum-wage schmuck scraping by as a night watchman. For all his vaunted good taste, the Lecter of Silence has a nasty streak of snobbery. Classy he may be, but his class consciousness locates him right alongside Conrad Hilton, the trust-fund lout last seen terrorizing the crew on a British Airways flight, screaming, "I will fucking own anyone on this flight; they are fucking peasants. … I could get you all fired in five minutes. I know your boss!"

Which is what makes Harris's Hannibal a more complex, unsettling, deeply American character than Mads Mikkelsen's tasteful, subtly but unmistakably foreign-born Hannibal, mesmerizing a presence as he is. In his Janus-faced nature, the Lecter of Silence incarnates our class conflicts and our conflicted feelings about class. Because what is taste, after all, but a way of talking about class? Lecter puts a face on our cognitive dissonance about the 1%: we're taught to believe in the meritocracy, but we know the game is rigged in favor of the Conrad Hiltons of the world, and we know they think we're fucking peasants. The average CEO earns 11.7 million a year while wage laborers rake in $35,293 but we're fed the line that life is a level playing field and CEOs are self-made men, an inspiration to us all, and the free market is what makes the Land of the Free free, and a lot of us swallow it.

Harris had no illusions about such things once, back when the memory of growing up in 1950s Mississippi, dirt poor or damn near, still stung. We catch glimpses of what Harris's childhood taught him about class in moments like the scene in Silence where Starling is investigating the abduction of a senator's daughter, poking around among her designer-label clothes and 23 pairs of shoes—"the belongings of a privileged kid, a student and practice teacher who lived better than most." That scent we detect is the smell of class insecurity and class resentment and class envy, a complex bouquet that clings to practically everything in American life, but wafts off our possessions especially. We catch a whiff of it in Red Dragon, too, where Will Graham is getting to know a family of solidly middle-class murder victims through their possessions: a ski boat, golf clubs, a trail bike, unused power tools. Adult toys, the playthings of people who've never known a day of money worries in their self-satisfied lives. "Graham, who owned almost nothing except basic fishing equipment, a third-hand Volkswagen, and two cases of Montrachet, felt a mild animosity toward the adult toys and wondered why."

But class is complicated: Graham's Montrachet bespeaks Harris's faith—a striver's faith—in the power of acquired taste to lift us above the class we were born into. And the murdered dad with the unused power tools may be "a successful tax attorney" with the beautiful wife and the beautiful house but he, too, is gnawed by class anxiety: Graham notes, "all in a row" on his bookshelf, the obligatory set of Mortimer Adler's Great Books—a crash course in cultural literacy that, once upon a time, no self-improving, class-insecure American was without.

I like to think some of Harris's firsthand experience with the wounds of class went into the contests of wits between Starling and Lecter. Starling, with her hardscrabble toughness and a dignity no sneer can take away from her; Lecter, with his manor-born airs, telling her she should address him in a manner appropriate to her "station," then belittling her, to her face, as a "well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste" (which is worse, as we all know, than having no taste at all).

In Lecter, Harris peels back the WASP-y, old-money veneer of the power elite to expose the nastiness of class. Fuller's Hannibal averts its eyes from Lecter's petty snobberies, giving us a charming sociopath who's ready for his GQ spread. Harris draws our attention to them, contrasting Lecter's ascot-wearing sophistication with his brutishness. His Lecter is a gourmet "known for the excellence of his table" who is, at the same time, boorish enough to serve his dinner guests the thymus and pancreas of one of his victims, presumably as a gross-out joke. Discourtesy, he says, is "unspeakably ugly" to him, but just when you think he's the picture of civility, he does something jarringly crude like ask Starling, "Did your foster father fuck you?" or, nastier still, bite the nose off one of his jailers, tearing into the man's face "like a rat-killing dog."

Lecter, whose name puns on lector, in the original Latin a reader of liturgical texts to the illiterate, is always lecturing poor, culturally illiterate Starling about her lack of cultural literacy ("Are you entirely innocent of the gospel of St. John?"), her white-trash origins ("Is it the West Virginia Starlings or the Okie Starlings, Officer?"), and, most pointedly, on the social distance between her hick accent and what he hears as her grammatical hypercorrectness.

It makes perfect sense that Lecter is a grammar Nazi; there's no more cruelly polite way of putting someone in his place than pointing out his malaprops and solecisms, his lower-class dialect, his backwoods or inner-city pronunciation. Lecter's swipes at Starling's syntax and usage are fascinating studies in the way class is lived in America; the little, everyday ways we're kicked back to our stations. And Lecter's own syntax and vocabulary, not to mention his Buckley-esque sense of grammatical infallibility, have stories to tell, too, about the class insecurities that haunt even the well-bred and the well-read.

Consider the passage in Silence where Lecter makes disparaging remarks about Dr. Chilton, his officious warden, then pronounces a mental patient—a coprophiliac who expresses great interest in Starling's bowel movements—"charming" by comparison. "Which of them," he facetiously asks Clarice Starling, " had you rather talk with?" (Italics mine.) Elsewhere, he asks her, "Had you rather talk now?" (Again, italics mine.) Odd as it sounds to the modern American ear, Lecter's "had rather" is perfectly correct; it's a form of the subjunctive. Patricia T. O'Conner, the author of five books about the English language, reads his usage as "a sign that he's highly educated, very well read, and versed in the idioms of more elevated English." That said, it's more common in British English, she notes, "but even there it's somewhat archaic." The anatomist of class sees Anglophilia in Lecter's usage, which translates as a desire to pass as upper crust. (Is that why Fuller's Hannibal wears tweeds and plaids inspired by the Duke of Windsor?) And aspirational Englishness, in an American, reeks of class insecurity: think of Madonna's mockney. We hear Lecter's Anglophilia talking, too, in his use of the construction "You think not?" It's a present-tense negative interrogative, O'Conner informs, and, again, entirely grammatical, but still: a pretentious Briticism in a country where most of us would just say, "I don't think so," inserting the auxiliary verb, and be done with it.

Where things really get interesting, though, is the scene where Starling asks about the death of a prisoner in Lecter's cellblock, a foul-mouthed raver Lecter talked into killing himself. Starling asks, "Did you suggest to him that he swallow his tongue?" "Your interrogative case often has that proper subjunctive in it," sniffs Lecter. "With your accent, it stinks of the lamp." He's alluding to the Athenian orator Pytheas's snide remark that Demosthenes's speeches reeked of midnight oil, by which he meant that his fellow statesman's eloquence must've been the product of late-night cramming, since his middling intellect clearly wasn't up to the task of extempore brilliance. Once again, Lecter's intellectual vanity is on display; like Gore Vidal, he's forever flaunting his classical learning. Also on display is his unbecoming habit of rubbing Starling's nose in her cornpone origins, her degree—with honors—in psychology and criminology from the University of Virginia notwithstanding.

But Lecter, it turns out, could do with a little more lucubration himself. In a delicious irony, he commits a big, fat grammatical howler—in fact, several of them—in the same breath that he's admonishing Starling. First, says the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, "There's nothing particularly pedantic or recondite" about Starling's use of the present subjunctive. "Most middle-class people—the average bank-loan officer—would say it; there's nothing 'proper' about it." But where Lecter really puts his foot in it, says Nunberg, is with his smug harrumph about her "interrogative case." "First, the use of that subjunctive has nothing to do with the interrogative," he says. "It's these verbs of obligation (insist, demand, require) and a few others that trigger the present subjunctive." Worse yet, "the interrogative is not a case, it's a mood—that's a howler, from a grammatical point of view, so there are two grammatical howlers in that one phrase." Anyone with a classical education would know that "verbs don't have case and certainly moods don't have case," Nunberg points out, because languages with inflected case, such as Greek and Latin—the cornerstones of a classical education—teach you that.

So Lecter's hoist by his own petard: class. As are we all, in the land dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, though some, it turns out, are more equal than others. Harris, a writer born poor and made rich beyond his dreams by a monster with manifest contempt for the poor, sold the screen rights to his creation to the invincibly crass Dino De Laurentiis, who returned the favor by arm-twisting the author into writing Hannibal Rising, a marketing memo disguised as a novel. Hannibal, an "upscale drama" popular with "adults 18-49 living in homes with $100K+ incomes," according to the entertainment press, gives itself over unashamedly to the eros of taste, beckoning us into an aesthete's dream of a world purged of the crass and the tacky. In so doing, it buys into Harris's regrettable reinvention of Lecter in Hannibal, the unreadably schlocky sequel to Silence, as keeper of the guttering flame of Eurocentric culture and highbrow taste who does us all a favor by singling out especially odious examples of the "free-range rude"—the uncouth, culturally illiterate masses—for culling. "Eat the rude" is the show's unofficial tagline, posted on the screenwriters' Twitter account.

Still, Clarice Starling is about to enter the series, and that prospect gives me hope. Clarice Starling, child of foster homes, creature of scrimp and save or do without, "veteran yard-sale decorator"; pierced to the quick by the stories told, in Silence, by the dollar-store things left behind by her sisters in socioeconomic class (as the demographers say), the ones who weren't senator's daughters (or for that matter don't live in homes with $100K+ incomes), the girls with the "budget wardrobes" who were short on shoes, who made their own clothes from Simplicity patterns, the mall-rat Kimberlys with their glitter-painted nails. ("Jesus, everybody was named Kimberly," where Starling came from, "four in her class. … Kimberly, are you angry somewhere? No senators out looking for her.") The Starling we came to know and love in Silence of the Lambs, before Harris perverted her in Hannibal, had a moral compass that was ever true, and her "class resentment, the buried anger that comes with mother's milk," was one of the things that kept her honest.

I like to think she'd be appalled and amused, in equal measure, to learn that Fuller's Hannibal takes his fashion cues from the Duke of Windsor: "For me, the Duke of Windsor is a huge fashion icon, so I wanted to make sure we had that classic gentleman represented on the show," the showrunner told Esquire. In a cockeyed way, that's just too perfect, since the Duke was both a style icon whose pitch-perfect taste has made him the envy of sartorialists like Fuller and a deeply distasteful creature, a monster of pelf and privilege whose contempt for the lesser-born led naturally to a sympathy for fascism. He palled around with Hitler and thought Italy a "repulsive nation" of "dagoes" and "didn't take much to the colored population" of Barbados and deemed Mexicans "too revolting for words, super dagoes & some of them are quite black as a result of Spaniards inter-breeding with the Indians," though they came off better than Australian aboriginals, whom the Duke decreed "the nearest thing to monkeys" he'd ever seen. I like to think Fuller, with his brilliance for semiotic messaging, is using Hannibal's Windsor-inspired wardrobe to tell us a parable about the ugliness of class and the corruptions of wealth. We first met Starling in 1988, when greed was good and yuppies were ascendant; now that the 1% have made Gordon Gekko look quaint by comparison, aren't the real free-range rude to be found among the Wall Street suits on that Cipriani's balcony, sneering down at the Occupy protesters and swilling champagne? Why fillet petty-criminal poachers and venal, careerist Deputy Assistant Inspector Generals when the hunting's so much better at a billionaires' retreat hosted by the Koch Brothers or one of Sheldon Adelson's fundraisers for causes dear to the plutocratic heart?

"How do you manage your rage?" Dr. Lecter asked her. I can't imagine Starling giving a tinker's damn about the new Lecter's paisley ties, or his office decor, or his Lambs' Tongues en Papillote with Duxelle Sauce. But I like to think of her urging him to consider a motto better-suited to our times: eat the rich.