For three glorious seasons, Hannibal graced the airwaves of NBC. It’s still hard to believe a show this gory, this poetic, this weird aired on broadcast television, but by the grace of showrunner Bryan Fuller, it happened. Hannibal began as a fairly straightforward adaptation of the Thomas Harris books, with Mads Mikkelsen playing serial killer/foodie Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy playing FBI special investigator Will Graham. An origin story of sorts, the first season saw Lecter and Graham working together to track serial killers, with Graham and the FBI unaware that Lecter was the perpetrator of some of the more heinous crimes they were investigating.
But as Hannibal progressed, it got weirder in the best way. Fuller turned this into a twisted love story of sorts between Lecter and Graham, with the two primally drawn to one another and Graham slowly going insane. Twists and turns abounded in Season 2 (during which Graham was framed and arrested for Lecter’s crimes) and Season 3 (which finally outed Lecter as the perpetrator and put him on the run). But Hannibal struggled to pull in solid ratings for most of its tenure and was canceled after its third season in 2015.
That’s not to say Fuller didn’t have plans for Hannibal Season 4, and given the unique way the show was structured financially (it was owned and produced by Gaumont International Television) a cancellation on NBC wasn’t exactly a death sentence. Indeed, the showrunner has been vocal about his desire to bring the show back for years now. So with Hannibal now on Netflix, it felt apt to run down everything we know about Fuller’s plans for Season 4, and what a new season of Hannibal could entail.
Before we get to that, however, let’s briefly recap where Hannibal left off. Collider’s own Liz Shannon Miller put together a pretty thorough explainer of the Season 3 finale, but you may or may not recall that the third season adapted Harris’ book Red Dragon and found Richard Armitage playing the murderous Francis Dolarhyde. In the Season 3 finale, Graham and the FBI hatch a plan to use an imprisoned Lecter as bait to catch Dolarhyde, but their plan goes awry when their convoy is attacked by Dolarhyde. The Red Dragon shoots Lecter in the stomach and stabs Graham in the face before being killed by the dynamic duo. In the final shot of the season, Graham and Lecter embrace and fall over a cliff, leaving their fates ambiguous — although a post-credits scene seems to suggest at least Hannibal survived.
Fuller knew going into Hannibal Season 3 that the show likely would not continue, which is why he decided to split it into two halves—the Italy-set first half and the Red Dragon second half. But throughout the show’s tenure, he was also trying to get the rights to adapt The Silence of the Lambs. His show could use characters and events from every Harris novel but that one, and Fuller in 2015 expressed his desire to bring Clarice Starling into the fold, with Ellen Page or an actress of color stepping into the role:
“If we get the chance to tell The Silence of the Lambs, I think it would be very interesting to have a black or non-white Clarice because as much as you want to say, ‘Oh, race doesn’t matter!,’ race totally matters. Race totally changes your point of view. It’s a different experience. That would be something that would make that story worth telling again, in a way that we could do what we did with Red Dragon and Hannibal with that character. I hope we get the opportunity to do that. I would love to see Hannibal: The Silence of the Lambs and see Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal with Clarice Starling. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be trying to do that.”
Fuller even had Lee Pace ready and willing to play James Gumb/Buffalo Bill, but rights issues remained a problem, and it now seems highly unlikely that Hannibal Season 4 could venture into Silence of the Lambs territory, given that CBS has a new Clarice Starling-focused series called Clarice in the works.
So what would Hannibal Season 4 be about, then? Dancy previously described Fuller’s pitch as a return to the Season 1 dynamics:
“Bryan [Fuller] pitched it to me … well, he, described to me in an overview with what he wanted to do with the 4th season, had there been an interest, and it was really fantastic. It was a complete restart, without describing it — because who knows, God knows, maybe some way we may be able to do it in the future — but it took us back to the first season in a very unexpected way, and made total sense of that cliffhanger ending; it seemed justified. It was born out of a part of one of the books so it was still coming out of that universe, but it wasn’t the Clarice / Silence of the Lambs storyline.”
As recently as 2017, Fuller said he had an idea for Hannibal Season 4 that he described as “Inception meets Angel Heart,” the former being Christopher Nolan’s dream-focused thriller and the latter being Alan Parker’s supernatural horror movie. He didn’t elaborate, but one can only imagine what a dream logic version of Hannibal would look like in the hands of Fuller. Perhaps a season set within Will Graham’s mind as he’s falling over that cliff?
While there is no official movement on Hannibal Season 4 just yet, all involved seem keen to return should a studio or network want to pay for it. Dancy and Mikkelsen have both said they’d be happy to reprise their roles, and Fuller clearly has significant enthusiasm for the franchise and has said it could even benefit from taking a few years off. And who knows, perhaps the show’s popularity on Netflix will spur some buyer into bringing the series back for a limited run? One can only hope.
For more on Hannibal, check out our full cast and character guide.