Hannibal season 2 episode 9 review: Shiizakana
This week's episode of Hannibal is something you can really get your teeth into...
This review contains spoilers.
While Hannibal - both the character and the show - spends a lot of time contemplating some fairly lofty questions, this week’s Shiizakana - which is a substantial dish sometimes included in a Japanese multi-course meal - really gives us some things to chew on.
The show has hinted, even before the appearance of Margot Verger, that Will Graham is not exactly the first person that Hannibal has tried to groom into a killer. This week, we got a much clearer picture (to the extent that anything is truly clear on Hannibal) that, rather than this being a sideline, grooming - or training - people in certain brutal directions may in fact be Hannibal’s raison d’etre.
The good doctor tells Jack Crawford that “therapy only works when we have a genuine desire to know ourselves as we are, not as we would like to be.” And this is certainly true. But while personal discovery is one of the goals of therapy, another is to help the patient to find a better way to live within society. And this requires not just the foundation of knowing who you are, but - to some extent - moulding yourself to the accepted cultural standards.
To a small degree, Hannibal does do this with his “special” patients (although we’ve yet to see one who does not fall into this category); we see this in the trajectory of Randall Tier: when Randall came to Dr. Lecter it appears he was barely functional, caught up in what the cannibal refers to as “species dysphoria” and terrified to reveal this secret to the man contracted to help him. Hannibal validates his patient’s perceptions of himself as an animal and helps him to fit in: “I know who I am now and I’m doing much better,” Randall claims. “I’m socializing, I take my medication, I’m employed, and I work very hard. And I’m proof that mental illness is treatable.”
But Hannibal helps him to adopt these behaviors only to buy Tier enough time to accomplish the goal that he has acknowledged: the young man’s desire to transform himself in some way into the predator who then serves as this episode’s “freak of the week.”
And Tier is quite good in this role. At first, this may not be entirely obvious. After all, actor Mark O’Brien spends most of his on-screen time either behind the engineered cave bear skull or performing in a quiet wooden way, and the latter feels uncomfortable. But this actually makes sense. After all, it is not the former that’s the mask. It's the human version that is the disguise, and thus O’Brien has Tier wear it the same way that we would wear a suit tailored to Pee-Wee Herman’s frame rather than our own: it is restrictive and uncomfortable. It does not fit.
Likewise, the character he plays is not just an excellent freak, but an important proof to Will that what he has become convinced that Hannibal is doing to him is only the latest of attempts to “help” his patients to “adapt, evolve, become.” In fact, Graham’s understanding of what is really happening between he and Hannibal is so spot-on, that when he expresses the goal so succinctly, Mikkelsen’s Lecter has a split second of what looks like surprise and then perhaps a bit of pride (of Will? himself?) at Graham’s “breakthrough.”
Tier’s particular psychosis also allows Fuller and Jeff Vlaming to bring in another important thread of thought on the show: the “one thin barrier” between human beings and animals. This is one of the things that the show has played with a lot, from the obvious imagery of the elk/stag’s head to the more gruesome reminder that we serve equally well as food.
But one of the aspects of the human/animal dichotomy has been the show’s use of our common assumption that humans are the superior species (despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary in each week’s brutality). While we have had a mild marker of the problems with this conclusion by the show positing dogs as the only ones civilized enough for Will to be able to handle as housemates, the writers go further this week, forcing us to question this assumption not by screaming it from the rooftops but by putting the words into the whispering mouth of Peter Bernardone - a man whose empathy with animals appears to match Graham’s with other humans.
Played with wonderful but touching neurotic tics, Jeremy Davies’ portrayal of the usually gentle man gives the point force because we sense that he cannot lie and, considering his background, he understands the animal half of the binary quite well and has chosen to live just that side of the barrier. Peter’s quiet paraphrase of the truism that “man is the only (animal) to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures in amusing in itself” (James Anthony Froude) has rarely seemed so accurate.
This is certainly a great deal of what Hannibal has been playing with all this time. We know that he pursues the lofty expressions of humanity - music, cuisine, the arts. But to this he adds another artistic outlet: murder. While the investigators at first believe that the level of savagery inflicted on this week’s victims is the work of lower-order animals, Hannibal almost immediately sees the truth and is proud of his part in it: Tier has engineered a complex machine - a skill generally thought of as reserved to humanity - that does the work of the animal. In other words, in attempting to become an animal, he has actually called himself out as a human. And his craft is certainly closely aligned with the works of art that Hannibal has created through death. It seems that, to Hannibal, there can be no higher or more human art form. Certainly his pleasure and approval are unmistakable in the smile he gives Tier when he tells him, “You bore screams like a sculptor bears dust from the beaten stone.” And helping these artists and craftsmen to reach their full potential seems to be Hannibal’s ultimate goal.
So how effective has all of this been on Will?
It’s clear that that should be the Gordian knot of this series, and yet, in many ways, despite all the right words (from Lecter’s point of view) coming from Will when the two talk alone - all the discussion of murdering with one’s own hands being intimate and feeling powerful in ending a life - we know that Graham is playing with Hannibal, perhaps even as much as Hannibal did with Will last year.
With the introduction last week of Margot Verger’s and her curious pursuit of Will, we get the opportunity to see yet another one of Hannibal’s fosterlings. But more important, we get someone with whom Will can actually discuss Dr. Lecter without immediately seeming deluded. From their first real connection (and the wonderful line “I’m the guy who didn’t kill all those people”), it’s clear that they are both coming to grips with what Hannibal is doing to them, training them to join him in the art.
But when Will admits that he tried to kill Hannibal, she asks his whether their shared shrink deserved it. “I can’t say that I know,” he replies, a conclusion she confesses that she shares. Because this is part of their essential problem and inability to walk away: those that Hannibal offers up for the killing seem so deserving. Lecter holds out to them a form of justice that might otherwise be denied if they play by the rules. For all his seductive psychological manipulations, this is perhaps the most attractive to both Margot and Will - and maybe us as well.
But still, despite the fact that Tier so obviously seems to deserve death, when Will is waiting for Tier in his darkened house and the music cuts away from Brian Reitzell’s wonderfully creepy mood music to the moving strains of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, we hold our breath hoping that Graham will not give in to this darkness. Which initially makes the following scene tragic: Will standing at one end and Hannibal at the other end of the table with the chilling corpse of Randall Tier laid out on its surface.
Despite Will’s words that things are now okay between the two of them (because they’ve each sent someone to kill the other), we know that this isn’t really so. Will may have been completely legally justified in his killing of Tier, but that’s not really the issue. Hannibal has forced his hand by sending Tier after him in the first place. So far from being even, Graham now has one more death with which to justify his campaign against Lecter, this one leaving blood on his own hands. Tier would likely have been caught and prosecuted through normal police work. But it appears that such methods have failed with Hannibal, which is precisely what has driven the profiler to this point. What Hannibal no doubt sees as a mini triumph (getting Graham to kill again) doesn’t really come off this way. When Will says they are “even Steven” it sounds less like any olive branch and more like as a declaration of war.
Bring it on.
Read Paul's review of the previous episode, Su-zakana, here.
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