Hannibal episode 5 review: Coquilles

Gina Torres guests in the latest Hannibal, which continues to favour the crime-fighters' psychology over that of the criminals...

This review contains spoilers.

1.5 Coquilles

A couple of weeks ago, in my review of Hannibal‘s second episode, I commented on the way the show prioritised the psychological strands among its crime fighters over that of the criminals, an odd but potentially interesting choice in a series that revolves around criminal profilers: their job is to get into the heads of the evil-doers, while we’re getting into their own. As a result, the actual crimes and the criminals themselves receive minimal attention.

This last week saw that in spades.

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First, the fourth episode itself, Œuf, was pulled in the United States because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. It’s hard, sight-unseen, to know precisely how the story about children brainwashed into killing their own families after over a year estranged maps to what show creator Bryan Fuller refers to as “recent events.” The timing of the decision, which came just before the Boston attack, possibly addresses concerns of a connection to the carnage at Newtown in December.  But NBC’s handling of that episode reveals something interesting about the series.

Because it focuses so much on Graham, Crawford, Hannibal, and now Abigail and has a very detailed and nuanced myth arc around those characters, you can’t just pull the episode out and have that larger story still make sense. For US audiences, Fuller has instead cut Œuf down to that arc and “cannibalized it” (as he put it) into a webseries. While all of the crimes depicted in Hannibal serve primarily to reveal things about the main characters, it is still surprising that the six-part webseries isn’t just missing the beautiful but brutal images of the crimes that we have come to expect, but literally all discussion of the crime the episode depicted. It’s not mentioned a single time.

What is even more surprising is that, after Fuller and his team meticulously cut out every bit of evidence of that crime, the webseries still clocks in at twenty-two and a half minutes (without including Fuller’s introduction), or over one half of the entire running time of an American episode. Gives you a good idea of how much time is spent on actually solving crimes in this crime procedural.

Which is not necessarily a problem. You don’t always have to spend a lot of time on something to do it justice. But after the mushroom gardener’s own story was quickly glossed over in Amuse-Bouche, I began to worry. The editing out of Molly Shannon’s turn as a deadly mother figure in Œuf made me more anxious. And with this week’s Coquilles, where the good guys solve the crime in the most generic way possible, only to find the bad guy has already killed himself, I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t a connection between this and the drop-off in the ratings. Yes, in the previous incarnations of the Hannibal stories, we spent less time on the serial killers than on Lecter and the FBI, but we still had a very strong sense of who those serial killers were and what drove them.

Unfortunately, Hannibal seems to be taking this a step too far. It’s one thing to scale down the “working the case” portion of the story in favor of examining the psychological labyrinth of Graham, Hannibal, and the rest. It’s quite another to reduce it to the point where it is obviously no more than clumsy plot device. The story of the mushroom gardener basically went nowhere beyond a vague description of how mushrooms are a lot smarter than you think. And this week’s angel engineer didn’t even have to be caught. Like the mushroom gardener, his story ends abruptly, probably because it’s no longer useful as a mirror into the souls of the important characters. In fact, he’s not even in the last act (except for thirty seconds as part of a hallucination that Graham has) simply because the real story is about Crawford’s dysfunctional marriage.

Still, while the cases are neither fleshed out nor resolved satisfactorily, the labyrinth itself is fascinating.

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This week’s twist focused on the relationship between Crawford and his wife (played by Fishburne’s real-life wife Gina Torres) who has been hiding her stage-four cancer from him. While generally the knowledge that a character couple is being played by real-life spouses is usually little more than an amusing footnote, here, as we see them work through their differences on how her cancer has been and will be handled, the casting resonates: Fishburne and Torres are having the very conversation that husbands and wives most hope never to have to have. It adds a level of real-life horror to the proceedings. And the two play so very well off each other.

And again Mikkelsen brings it. The best thing about the character of Hannibal is just how easily he slips tidbits of his true nature into normal conversation without anyone noticing. In fact, Crawford even describes him as so very charming – and does it directly after Hannibal does just this. It takes some skill to smell Graham, get caught doing so, and still not be suspected as the monster you are. We know, but at best, Graham is just left thinking Hannibal is a bit eccentric.

In fact, the writing and Mikkelsen’s acting work together to almost make us forget who Hannibal is. One scene has Crawford asking “What am I putting in my mouth?” “Rabbit,” Hannibal answers. When Crawford responds by suggesting that it’s good for them that the rabbit wasn’t a faster hopper, there’s a very quick cut to a man running from something in terror. The shot quickly returns to Hannibal’s dining room as the psychiatrist smiles a bit and agrees. But in the very same episode, we see Hannibal expressing fatherly feelings for Abigail, concern for the stress that Crawford is putting on Graham, and fairly compassionately counselling Bella Crawford on the secret she’s keeping from her husband. In those moments, we are left wondering: we haven’t seen him eat anyone. It’s just been hinted at. Is it possible that Hannibal is no more than lawful neutral at this point in the game? Is it possible he might actually care for those around him? Disconcerting to say the least.

The weaker link in all of this is Hugh Dancy. Will Graham is a difficult part to play, but certainly not more so than Hannibal. And where Mikkelsen manages to keep us wondering about who his character is, Dancy seems content to beat us over the head with Will Graham. At one point in the episode, Graham is supposed to blow up at Crawford, chewing him out in front of the team. The problem is that Dancy’s depiction has been so one-note (bitter, anti-social, pained, angry) that, when he does, we have to rely on the fact that the other characters quickly leave the two of them alone and Crawford calls Graham up on the carpet in order to understand that what the empathic FBI agent did was supposed to be out of character for him. Because, really, that moment wasn’t much variation from anything else we’ve seen in Graham.

Still, all told, a really good episode. The rift and interaction between Crawford and his wife has given him some real depth, which he was beginning to be in need of. Dr. Bloom, likewise, is emerging as something other than a set piece. We were even given a break from Freddie Lounds (who was starting to grate). Now if Dancy can just catch up to the rest of the class and the writers can give the cases the development (not even more screen-time, just a good beginning, middle, and end) they deserve, we could have an unqualified winner.

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