This review contains spoilers.
It’s been a hell of a season.
Generally speaking, the first season of most shows, even the good ones, tend to be their worst. Babylon 5, Star Trek: The Next Generation, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer: looking back, you wonder how they ever got renewed. Only a handful have come roaring out of the gates from the very start.
Hannibal has been one of those few. And it has ended its first season as strongly as it began.
Abigail’s death between this episode and the last has paid great benefits, in its own sick way. You would think after coughing up Abigail’s severed ear, Will’s supposed guilt would be clinched. Certainly the trap that Lecter has been slowly closing around him seems inescapable.
If we had any doubts whatsoever about the depth of the game that Hannibal has been playing, of the sheer scope of his machinations, then Savoureux would definitely quell them. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Lecter, in any of his incarnations, devise something as complicated or downright thorough as this. His pièce de résistance, of course, is the flies. This last nail in Will’s coffin is a stroke of mastery not only by Lecter, but by Bryan Fuller.
A couple of weeks ago, I posited a theory about Dr. Du Maurier possibly being a projection of Lecter’s mind based on some striking similarities between the two characters. Some commenters felt I was reading too much into what we were seeing. But while I was wrong about what we saw meant, in a show like this one, there’s no such thing as reading too much into what we’re seeing.
And that’s because Fuller wants us to see… everything. Because seeing everything is what keeps us wondering, theorising, rewinding. Looking closer and closer so that he can pull a sleight-of-hand so good, we can’t even feel cheated. He didn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat in Savoureux. In that standard magician’s trick, you don’t know the rabbit exists until the magician reveals it. But in Fuller’s version, the flies have been there the entire time. We’ve seen them again and again and thought we knew what they meant: the obsessive-compulsive habit of a man otherwise spinning wildly out of control, exerting control over the one thing he could.
Until we find out that even this was in Lecter’s control – as we have been in Fuller’s control – the entire time.
And this is what has made Hannibal such a joy this first season. Some of the elk stuff aside early on (though an argument could be made even in defense of that), I’m not sure there has ever been a network television show this tight. While lush in its cinematography (who would have thought murder and cannibalism could look so delicious?), Hannibal is incredibly economical in just about every way imaginable. Scenes, dialogue, fantasy shots… all are only are long as they must be to accomplish their task in this narrative.
This is easy when the series is action-based; show the event and move on. But in a show that is centered around the psychology of the characters, there’s an extremely difficult balance to be maintained between revealing only those emotional aspects necessary to drive the story forward and giving the actors the wonderful emotional scenes that they (and we) crave but which can distract.
We get two of these great leanly emotional moments this week.
In one, Hannibal sits stoically, except for the unshed tears in his eyes, talking to Du Maurier about his “failure” with Will. “I was so confident in my ability to help him. To solve him.” It appears, on some level, that his emotional reaction to the outcome of his game is real. And certainly, we are getting more and more evidence that he has little to hide from his own shrink: between the discussion about the nature of veal and Du Maurier’s warning over their meal (“You have to be careful, Hannibal. They’re starting to see your pattern.”), it seems obvious that she knows a great deal about Lecter’s true nature, thus leaving him little need to hide much from her. Of course, as he has all season, Fuller keeps us guessing. After all, if she does know what he is, shouldn’t his tears surprise her? But Du Maurier remains as unreadable as ever.
Much more readable is Dr. Bloom. Her scene with Jack is emotional for her and emotionally fulfilling for us. She stands in for much of our own frustration over the fact that Crawford, against Bloom’s repeated reproofs, has continued to put Will in (psychological) harm’s way. “Shut up! Stop talking. ‘He won’t get too close.’ You said you would cover him. You could see he was breaking.” But it’s the wordless scene in the car, five short cuts in twenty seconds with atmospheric music in the background as particles whirl in the foreground, that tells us all we need to know about the one character who truly cares, as we do, about Will.
And what this lean-ness buys us is so much more story. The sheer amount of ground this season has covered in thirteen short episodes is impressive. But it’s also quite challenging. After all, Fuller cuts so close to the bone that often we are required to do some of the narrative lifting ourselves: because everything is essential and nothing (not even the tertiary forensic characters) is wasted, we are called upon to provide a good deal of the connective tissue. But this has only made the show more satisfying.
A good part of the reason that shows like Babylon 5, ST:TNG, and Buffy struggled that first year is because they initially underestimated their audiences. Each became much smarter as the years went on because they came to understand that their audiences were not only intelligent enough to follow them on the paths they eventually took but that we wanted to be challenged to keep up.
Hannibal, on the other hand, trusted from the very first episode that such an audience was waiting. To be fair, this wasn’t a huge leap. After all, this point has largely been proven by cable series which have been quite successful in requiring more than simple passive consumption from their audiences. But it has been rare that a broadcast network takes such a chance, and in this era of series cancelled after two or three episodes, this kind of risk has become virtually unimaginable.
Which is perhaps why we’ve gotten the series we have: Fuller may have believed he’d be lucky to get a second season or even that he’d get all the way through the first one, so he fit every bit of story he could into these few episodes. The last scene doesn’t read like a cliffhanger really, which is what I think we were all expecting. It feels more like the end of The Usual Suspects. Hannibal is unmasked (at least by Will) but it’s too late, and it’s only in the last few seconds that we get a glimpse at the real evil behind all the events we’ve been witnessing.
In other words, had NBC not renewed Hannibal, we would still be left with a riveting, gorgeous, and amazingly complete story.
But since we know that Hannibal ends up of the other side of the bars, the story really isn’t over yet, and bless NBC for giving the show another shot despite falling ratings. Your assignment for the summer is to get more people hooked on this epic, twisted, wonderful show. You’ll be doing all of us a favour. Let’s face it: we can’t afford to squander television this tasty.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Releves, here.
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