If you took the sex scenes from Bryan Fuller’s TV shows and spliced them all together, you might get the best show on TV. At the very least, you’d have one of the most visually experimental shows, but at the most you’d have a compelling narrative that gives insight into its characters and the transformations they go through.
Sex in a Bryan Fuller show is about changing from who you are into something darker, or bolder, or truer. Sex transforms both his characters and his visuals into something closer to baser human nature. Sex scenes in a Bryan Fuller show are like looking directly into a fire: The world flickers and, for an instant, becomes too hot and nebulous to touch.
Take a sex scene from season three of Hannibal, a show Fuller created based on the famed fictional serial killer of the same name. Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), gender flipped from Thomas Harris’s novels, begins a sexual relationship with Margot Verger (Katharine Isabelle), a patient of Hannibal’s (Mads Mikkelsen). When the scene starts, it isn’t clear that it’s a sex scene at all. The screen shows a closeup of Margot’s eye that splits into two eyes as the camera’s focus shifts. Her face then splits into two faces that mirror each other and turn to kiss another mirror image of her own face. Images of legs and hands seem intertwined, and like a kaleidoscope, they merge and separate as they spin in circles. Alana and Margot’s torsos are shown as they kiss, their bodies fading into one another, skin on skin, lips on lips, legs everywhere. When she climaxes, Margot’s face fades into Alana’s, and then the images of their faces split from each other, as if they were one body being torn in two. The images evoke an orgasm more than they depict one. The scene becomes erotic through suggestion of physical and emotional connection, and through the idea of pleasure so good it makes the room spin.
Sam Adams at IndieWire compared the finished scene to the script to see how the stunning visuals were laid out on the page. When the script describes Alana and Margot, it says “As their faces TWIN with each kiss in an erotic, PULSING rhythm, Alana BECOMING Margot BECOMING Alana BECOMING Margot.”
The idea of “becoming,” of transforming into something new, is what connects all of Fuller’s sex scenes. After Margot and Alana have sex, they come together to form a team to fight back against the men that threaten to ruin their lives. They become powerful. They become a truer version of themselves by loving each other, and they find one of the only happy endings on a dark and complex show. This scene, of their bodies dissolving into one another, suggests that as they become one unit, together, they can become whole.
Alana becoming Margot becoming Alana becoming Margot.
Alana and Margot had sex and were changed, permanently. Similarly, you can’t go from a person who hasn’t had sex to a person who has, and back again. You can’t unknow the feeling of someone’s skin against yours, or what it was like to be vulnerable and truly seen. Sex doesn’t always equal connection and respect, but when it does, it can be transformative, and Fuller puts that into his work. A sex scene from his most recent show (co-created with Michael Green), American Gods, exemplifies this [full disclosure, I previously recapped this episode for Paste].
Salim (Omid Abtahi), a salesman from Oman, travels to America to sell trinkets no one wants to buy. After a particularly long and terrible day, where the businessman he is supposed to meet ignores him completely, Salim gets into a cab to go back to his hotel. His cab driver (Mousa Kraish)—who is really one of the Jinn, from Arabic myth—speaks with him in their shared language, and they bond over remembering where they are from. The two men spend a passionate night in Salim’s hotel, where they have the kind of sex that reflects the connection they’ve formed and the humanity they see in each other.
The sex scene is dazzling. It’s stunningly beautiful, it’s erotic, it’s sensual. The camera shows their full naked bodies straight on, viewing them with compassion and without shame. This reflects that instead of being ignored, Salim is truly seen, both by the Jinn and the audience. The scene cuts between the men intertwined in each other’s bodies in their hotel room and an image of the men depicted as large black figures against a desert night sky in a fantasy world. The heat of the desert mirrors the heat the men feel for each other, and when they climax, there is fire in their bodies.
Sex between men in television and movies is sometimes violent, full of shame, or stolen away in hidden moments, but Fuller uses it in American Gods to depict men clearly and openly experiencing pleasure. There is no hiding the passion the men feel for each other—they literally have fire in their eyes—just as Salim is no longer hiding in a world that doesn’t fully see him.
The next morning, the Jinn leaves Salim the keys to his cab along with a new life as a cab driver in New York, should Salim want to take it. The Jinn himself has disappeared, presumably into a new life of his own. The men’s encounter has led them from their past, which they shared with each other, into a new future. Salim transforms from an anonymous salesman following orders into a man who chooses a new life for himself and forces the world to finally acknowledge his desires.
Two other men in Fuller’s work who have just as strong a connection as Salim and the Jinn are Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal. Criminal profiler Will has an intense relationship with Hannibal, the killer he’s chased for so long. But Will and Hannibal’s relationship is less explicitly sexual. This is likely in part because the show aired on NBC, which has less freedom to show nudity and sex than a premium cable channel. But their lack of sex also represents that Will never completes his transformation into the cold killer that Hannibal wishes he would be. Instead of the open and explicit sex scene of Salim and the Jinn, Will and Hannibal’s relationship is rife with homoerotic subtext that never comes to fruition.
“You and I had begun to blur,” Will says to Hannibal at one point, echoing the visuals of two lovers blurring together the way Margot and Alana did. In the same episode as Margot and Alana’s sex scene, Will is shot, and Hannibal gives him medical attention. Hannibal holds Will close, as a lover would, caressing his head as he cares for his injury. While Will is with Hannibal, the images of the two mirror the kaleidoscope of Margot and Alana. Will’s and Hannibal’s faces fade into and split apart from each other, dissolving into smoke. An image of Will is overlaid onto an image of Hannibal sitting at his dinner table. All that’s missing from the scene is the actual sex.
Throughout the series, Hannibal tries to break Will, and to get him to join him in his cannibalistic escapades. Will is tempted—he even dangles a foot in the waters of darkness—but he never gives in completely. So his transformation and their sexual relationship go unconsummated, but the eroticism of their connection remains.
This long-teased sexual tension can also be seen in another one of Fuller’s shows, which uses brighter colors than Hannibal but explores equally dark themes. In Pushing Daisies, a quiet and unassuming man who runs a pie shop, Ned (Lee Pace), has the ability to touch dead people to bring them back to life. If he keeps the newly awakened dead alive for more than a minute, another innocent bystander will be struck dead to take their place. But if he touches the newly awakened person again, they go back to being dead, forever. When Ned’s private investigator friend brings him along to help solve the murder of a young, beautiful woman found dead on a cruise ship, Ned finds that it’s his childhood sweetheart who was killed. He touches Charlotte (Anna Friel), who goes by Chuck, to wake her up to ask her how she died—and then impulsively decides to keep her alive. This means he can’t touch her again because it would end her (second) life, and she’d be gone for good. What follows is an achingly sweet romance, where two people want to connect but can’t touch skin to skin.
This sexual relationship, or lack thereof, is also about transformation. If they were to touch and give into their sexual desires, Chuck would end up dead, with no way to bring her back to life, and Ned would end up alive but without his true love. To avoid this Shakespearean tragedy, they choose to never have sex, delaying their dark transformation indefinitely and remaining in love, but also in limbo.
By never touching they are not apart, but they are also never fully together. Having a genuine connection with someone changes you. But to remain in their relationship, Ned and Chuck must literally and metaphorically put up walls. When Ned and Chuck delay their touch, they also delay the transformation that comes with true intimacy. Instead, they are forever stuck in a pretty mirage of what a relationship looks like, without the overwhelming transformation that comes from fully giving into love. By trying to avoid the grief that comes with death, they instead face a lifetime of a different kind of sadness.
Grief, like change, can never entirely be avoided. (After all, if they go on like this long enough, Ned will eventually become the corpse that Chuck once was.) When Chuck and Ned do try to touch, they must place a barrier between them—saran wrap between a kiss, a slow dance while their bodies are covered in beekeeping suits. These images are so sweet they almost mask the painful truth at their heart—that sometimes there are some obstacles you can’t break through, some transformations you can’t come back from.
Death is typically one such transformation. But that’s not always the case in Fuller’s imagined worlds. Chuck isn’t the only one given a second chance to walk among the living—or to view sex as a bridge between those worlds. After Laura (Emily Browning) on American Gods dies, her husband, Shadow (Ricky Whittle), gives her a magical coin at her funeral. This coin transports her from her afterlife back onto Earth, where she can walk and talk, but her body keeps decomposing. The only thing that makes her feel truly alive again is a kiss from Shadow.
When she sees Shadow again and asks him to continue their relationship, despite her decomposing body, she kisses him. When their lips meet, her heart glows, and then beats for the first time since the car crash that killed her. (The car crashed while Laura was giving a man who isn’t Shadow a blowjob—another sexual act that transformed her, from one of the living into one of the dead.) During Laura and Shadow’s kiss, blood starts to rush again, and she feels alive. But Shadow breaks away. When he does this, Laura’s heart stops beating and she stays dead. Laura does not become alive the way Margot and Alana do, or the way that Salim does after having sex with the Jinn. Laura remains stuck as the undead, dreaming of a kiss.
The reason Fuller’s sex scenes work so well is because the characters’ physical desires are tied to their emotional desires. Laura wants Shadow, but she also wants to be alive. Salim wants the Jinn but also wants to be seen. Alana wants Margot, but she also wants to fight back.
Fuller told Todd VanDerWerff at The AV Club that some of the Hannibal writers pushed for Margot, who is a lesbian in the source material, to be straight on the show. That way she could have a relationship with Will and they could get more sex into their storylines. Fuller responded, “I just thought, ‘I hear you on the sex part.’ [Laughs.] ‘But let’s make it more in line with who the character is and what the character’s agenda is.’”
This connection of character to desire is what makes the sex scenes, and the transformations they spur, so powerful. Alana becomes Margot who becomes Alana, and they both become strong. For Fuller, sex is about connecting to your most elemental desires—and what happens when you actually get what you want. It’s skin on skin, legs everywhere, emotions swirling. It’s hot and sweaty, and it makes the room spin. It’s desire, intimacy, and most of all, becoming something new.