Hannibal episode 2 review: Amuse-Bouche

Tightly written, psychologically intriguing, and well-acted, NBC's Hannibal is something to be savoured...

This review contains spoilers.

1.2 Amuse-Bouche

When Dick Wolf created his Law & Order franchise, he sought to distance himself from the usual police procedurals by changing the frame of the narrative: where most such programmes at that point in time focused on the individual (or team) solving various crimes and got us involved in their own personal story sometimes to the point where the cases were simply plot devices to illuminate important things about the hero, Law & Order put the cases front and centre, only revealing details about the detectives or lawyers over the course of years.

Since then, most such shows have attempted to find a happy medium between the two. Hannibal, on the other hand, shows clear signs that the pendulum may be swinging back.

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This week’s Amuse-Bouche, for instance, provided a morbidly fascinating crime: the perpetrator buried people alive (and kept them alive) to serve as fodder for fungus. The setup was intricate, and in a sense, beautiful – I looked forward to understanding the psychology of a man who would do such a thing.

The case, however, was given short-shrift: the majority of the episode was spent setting up the remaining key players on the show and establishing the complexity and dangerous potential of the psychology of Will Graham.

In addition to getting a better sense of the still-marginal Dr. Alana Bloom, we are introduced to Freddie Lounds, a pivotal character in the original Harris novel Red Dragon. In that story – spoilers ahead – this (male), sleazy tabloid journalist first dogs Graham, and then is eventually used by him to plant a story to bring out the killer. This succeeds to the point where the killer takes Lounds out in a horrific way in order to correct the record. Thus, when we first meet the (female) sensationalist blogger of the same name, many of us will see a dead woman walking. Her bona fides as a purveyor of sleaze are firmly established when she poses as the mother of a young boy traumatized by the human mushroom garden in order to get information from (and subsequently destroy the career of) one of the investigators.

In fact, we may be learning a bit too much too soon about Ms. Lounds, who in many ways becomes the focus of the episode. Her ruse is discovered, and after she publishes an article which accuses the FBI of “using one demented mind to catch another,” Crawford has her detained and threatens her with jail time. This feels like a narrative miss: it’s easy to see the damage (and thus conflict) she could have created had she remained longer undiscovered.

If it is a miss, it’s one of the few in what is shaping up to be an excellent, if sometimes heavy-handed drama (the visualized metaphors continue to distract from the meat of the piece). The writing is extremely tight, which is quite the achievement. As Blaise Pascal once pointed out, it takes a great deal of effort to write less rather than more in making one’s point. Hannibal’s writers seem to understand this at a very basic level, and as a result, they pack a lot into a very few words and actions.

For example, when Graham presents the Hobbs case (which it seems will be seminal going forward – was Amanda a victim or co-conspirator?) to his class, he shows a letter written by Hobbs and announces: “This is how I caught Garrett Jacob Hobbs. It’s his resignation letter. Does anyone see the clue?” A few student hands go up in response to which Graham states that there’s nothing in the letter and that Hobbs was caught as a result of “bad bookkeeping and dumb luck.” These twenty-two seconds of television reveal more about Graham than ten minutes of explication normally could: Graham has no edifying reason to set his students up for this humiliation. He may have the ability to empathize with killers (something Hannibal and he delve into later in the episode), but he lacks either the desire or skill to understand the feelings of the more normal people around him. It displays an arrogance that might usually be associated with a desire to always be right or the authority on a given subject, but his willingness to acknowledge that he simply got “lucky” undercuts this. He is neither a moral paragon (as we often expect of our heroes) or a superman. Nor does he have any wish to be. His gift is a curse which leaves him bitter, anti-social, and angry at a world that cares nothing for his pain. Crawford’s interest is in making sure bringing Graham into the field won’t be bad for the FBI, rather than Graham himself, in the long run: he’s a pragmatist, not a concerned boss. It is ironically Hannibal who seems interested in helping Graham to deal with his issues, although the end-game of his treatment plan is highly questionable.

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We see similarly revealing brevity in an encounter between Lounds and Hannibal, when she visits the psychiatrist’s office disguised as a potential patient. Hannibal immediately sees through her subterfuge, and reprimands her: “You’ve been terribly rude, Ms. Lounds. What’s to be done about that?” The scene then cuts away to Hannibal serving a beautifully prepared loin to Crawford. For anyone who might have missed the entire Hannibal Lecter catalogue, twelve words and a single image both define his character’s central motivation and the eventual fate of the blogger. And Mikkelsen’s depiction is starting to develop real roots even in such small exchanges.

Again, the only letdown is the lack of attention to the mushroom gardener’s own motivations. In a show so steeped in the psychology of its characters, it’s a shame to give so little attention to such a potentially fascinating pathology. I’d assume that this is a result of the desire to develop the main characters, but I’m left wondering why the writers are in such a rush. It’s almost as though Hannibal feels it must tell as much of its story in as little time as possible not only on the micro-scale but the macro. Is it possible that the makers feel that Hannibal is at greater risk of early cancellation and so are eager to tell as much of the story as they can in this first thirteen episodes?

The fact that NBC was so impressed with the very idea of Bryan Fuller’s take on the Harris stories that they bypassed the pilot-based approval stage and ordered thirteen episodes seems to undercut this possibility. Still, with Hollywood’s recent penchant for killing promising series before they even get out of the gate (critically acclaimed Lone Star was cancelled by Fox a couple of years ago after only two episodes), such a spectre must haunt even the best shows. It would be a shame, however, to rush this story. Like one of Hannibal’s meals, this show is something to be savoured.

Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Aperitif, here.

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