This review contains spoilers.
At this point, I don’t think it’s a secret that I am really enjoying Hannibal and think it’s excellent both from a technical and story-telling viewpoint. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. In fact, it has one glaring issue that I otherwise try to look past, but this week’s Futamono highlighted it rather spectacularly.
That issue is women.
I get that this is a show primarily about male characters: Will Graham, Jack Crawford, and of course, Hannibal Lecter. But let’s be clear: just because a show’s writers choose to focus on a limited number of characters does not mean that we should expect the rest of the characters to be one-dimensional or otherwise throwaway. Dr Chilton and Dr Abel Gideon are great examples of the writers’ awareness of this.
Both characters could well have remained one-dimensional. Certainly, Dr Chilton in The Silence Of The Lambs largely lacked in this arena. We were given just enough information and just enough characterisation for the story to work: the writer, Ted Tally, made it clear we were meant to see him as a sleazy, vaguely unethical, completely inferior mental health professional with a hate on for Hannibal. This was all we needed to know for him to work as a foil for both Hannibal and Clarice Starling.
But Hannibal’s Dr Chilton goes far beyond this simplistic characterisation. Yes, he is used in a similar way in the show, as a foil for Hannibal, Graham, and Gideon simultaneously, and yes, he’s a bit sleazy and we’re not supposed to identify with him. But in a hundred little ways, the writers, directors, and actor have fleshed this character out into someone who, while we don’t want to be him, we certainly want to watch him. Lines hint at motivations that are complex. Blocking suggests mood and involvement. And facial expressions communicate inner monologues and even internal dialogues that make us want to know more about him. In fact, as we get into the meat of the second series, Chilton is becoming downright fascinating, much in the same way that, after a shaky start last year, we are now captivated by Izzard’s Gideon.
So why is it that we don’t get the same for the women in the story?
We have had some great potential, after all. Last series, Abigail Hobbes had a great storyline that hinted that she was either an innocent victim of her father’s crimes or potentially apprenticing as a serial killer. We were given enough development that our appetites were whetted: we leaned forward to catch her words and watched her as intently as her foil Hannibal. But Abigail was killed off before we really learned who she really was, and since then, the women have largely receded into the background.
But wait, I hear you cry, what about Beverly Katz and Dr Alana Bloom?
Well, what about them? What, for example, do we know about Katz? That she was a solid forensic pathologist? That she was willing to trade her investigative talents for Graham’s insights? That she was a little too good at her job? Each one of those aspects of her were utterly necessary to the plot. Had she not been a good pathologist, Graham could not have used her. Had she not been so single-minded about solving the murders, she would not have entertained Graham’s request, forcing things to a head with Hannibal. And had she not been so good at her job, she would not have become last week’s spectacle – the thing that hit too close to home for either Crawford or Hannibal to feel safe. But other than that and what Hettienne Park managed to give the character in her quick and functional moments on the screen, what did we really know about Beverly Katz? And had we even been given reason to care enough to miss anything but her potential? Now she’s relegated to that most nominal of functions: a spectre created by Graham’s tortured psyche – voiceless for now, but never again to speak for herself regardless.
And then there’s Dr Alana Bloom. She seems a nice enough girl, but her character is sadly lacking considering her position in the story. As both Hannibal and Graham’s colleague (at different stages of the backstory), she is the person who should know the most about the two primary forces in the story – the one who should have some real insights. And yet, for the most part, she simply bears witness – recounting moments, reporting discussions, listening as the male characters pour out their hearts or use her for their own purposes.
In one of last year’s series reviews, I pointed out that the women on the show were being given short shrift and particularly called out my concern that Bloom was essentially being set up as a damsel in distress rather than playing on the same level (or even in the same game) as those around her. This year’s Futamono has made it clear: Alana Bloom (what need the title Dr?) is the object over which Hannibal and Graham will square off. But there’s seems no indication that she will even be aware of this fact, let alone take any kind of an active role in her own defense.
And having Hannibal take her to bed solely to give himself an alibi might not have been so bad if she were not what we have been told she is (because clearly we haven’t been shown): whatever his reasons for doing so, Hannibal – as well as Crawford and Graham – talks about her and treats her as though she is a skilled and respected mental health professional. But short of providing canned psychological explanations, what evidence have we seen of this? There are no flashes of insight, no canny looks, nothing truly substantial to back up that reputation we keep hearing about. Her would-be beloved Graham has told her that someone in her life is potentially a craven serial killer, there’s already evidence that the charges against Will himself are highly questionable, and she chooses to ignore all that and have “funeral sex” (that’s not just funeral sex) with the man she’s been warned against. If this were a slasher flick, she’d already be dead and we’d chalk it up to that special stupidity that exists only in the women who inhabit such movies.
And all this, this lack of respect for the female characters, is ironic for a couple of reasons. First, Bryan Fuller made the choice to create these characters as women in some cases. In the books, both Freddie Lounds and Alan(a) Bloom were men. Remaking them as women was purely his choice and likely a way to turn a very male-centric story in which women are more commonly fodder for the serial killer than important actors in the plot into something a little more balanced. Which is admirable.
But if you’re going to do that, there’s more required than simply changing their sex. What kind of balance is there if the men do all the heavy lifting (including the emoting) in the storyline while the women are relegated to the one-dimensional (Katz and Lounds) or the damsel stereotype (Bloom)? How would it do anything but make the series better if the writers gave these characters and the actors who play them something truly meaty? We already know that how Lounds ends up. Do all the women on the show exist only to be eventual victims? Georgia, Abigail, Miriam, Lounds, Bloom… the pattern is unmistakable.
Worse yet, if you go back to the original books, the entire reason there is a story in the first place is because of the victimization of women. Hannibal became what he is largely as the result of being forced to bear witness to the murder and cannibalising of his sister Mischa. Throughout his life, both before the series Hannibal and after it, he will go out of his way to attempt to save women. So I have to wonder what exactly it is Hannibal is trying to accomplish by treating the women in its story with less respect than one of the most prolific and horrific of fictional psychopaths.
It seems unlikely that Fuller will kill Bloom off this series, but given his track record, I don’t have a lot of faith that even if she survives that she will have been worth the saving. After what I’ve seen thus far of Hannibal, I’m sold on the idea that Fuller is an amazing narrative craftsman. He could bring Bloom into the mix and make her every bit as riveting, complex, and dynamic as the men on the show. So I can’t help asking: what on Earth is stopping him?
It is not enough to give women like Beverly Katz and Alana Bloom spectacular deaths. They deserve to live as compellingly as they die.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Mukozuke, here.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.