This review contains spoilers.
In writing these reviews, I do my best to stay away from the books on which Hannibal is based. A good portion of this is because I don’t want the reviews or the comments that follow to sink into a simple comparison of how faithful one is—or should be—to the other, nor which is the superior telling. Another aspect of it is that Hannibal must, and should, stand on its one merits and knowing the books should not be necessary to understand or appreciate the series.
I’m going to utterly fail in this endeavour this week. But, really, I don’t think you can blame me.
Bryan Fuller has made it clear from the start that he’s never felt bound to the books by Thomas Harris. But at the same time, he has never ignored them. It would be easiest to say that the relationship between the two is that Fuller has committed himself to many of the largest plot points while feeling less married to any of those peskier smaller ones. This has allowed him to change some things about his characters and their actions, while still keeping the story somewhat recognizable.
However, the easiest explanation is rarely the most true. For those familiar with the novels, it would be far more accurate to say that Fuller is not ignoring the books at all. In fact, he regularly capitalizes on them, and this week was a prime example of that.
The book from which this week’s Dolce borrows many of its elements is Hannibal, Harris’ third novel about Lecter, published in 1999. The follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs (1988), it focuses on Clarice Starling’s continued pursuit of, and seduction by, the cannibal. The larger strokes of the book are evident in the setting: The book starts with Lecter hiding out in Florence where he is detected by Mason Verger’s bounty hunter, Pazzi, whom he disembowels and hangs a la Francesco Pazzi and then makes his escape.
But there are smaller and fascinating strokes throughout.
Bedelia helps Lecter clean and patch himself up after his encounter with Crawford, and we get our first actual view of her end-game as she informs him that she will not be fleeing with him. Their conversation is subdued and reads nothing like the one about betrayal one might expect if almost any other people were involved. There are references to prior discussions and agreements both spoken and unspoken between them, including the understanding that he would eventually eat her, but no drama and no recriminations. Such nonsense is gauche. And of course, her gamble that he would not want to waste the culinary effort he has put into her isn’t much of one for a psychiatric professional able to keep herself from his knife for as long as she already has.
It is this same expertise that gives her a way out and provides an interesting connection to the novel. In the book, Starling and Lecter both fall prey to Mason Verger who wishes, as in last season, to feed the cannibal to his hogs. Hannibal manages to recue both of them and sets about trying to brainwash Clarice into believing she is his long-gone sister Mischa, using behavioural therapy and psychotropic drugs. Fuller has Bedelia twisting this bit of plot by dosing herself with said drugs and making it look like Lecter was doing something similar to her—convincing her that she really was wife Lydia to his cover identity Roman Fell. And Hannibal, in their last conversation together, has promised to that he will maintain that story even if captured.
Crawford and Graham, who get to Bedelia ahead of the Florentine police (who have been paid off by the Vergers to be as incompetent as they already wish to be), are not, however, convinced by her performance. Nor does she really do all that much to convince them, in the end, since she readily points out that they have zero jurisdiction. In the end, even in her eventual dealings with the Italian cops, she acts with an invincibility that is telling not just in-character but at a meta-level.
For a long time, it has been speculated what Fuller would do about the character of Clarice Starling since MGM holds the rights to that character. While some have suggested that Bedelia, who is Fuller’s own invention, might be a substitute for her, Dolce seems to suggest something else: Bedelia is certainly not the ingénue that Crawford discovers, but she is also not entirely not Starling. If the series does finally find a second home, it’s entirely possible that we may find that Fuller always intended Dr. du Maurier to be Hannibal’s long-time partner—brainwashing real or manufactured.
Another set of allusions to Hannibal are found in the Verger connection—some quite subtle, and others decidedly less so. Perhaps the easiest one to miss is in the form of a moray eel in water at the beginning of the conversation between brother and sister Verger when Margot reports back from Italy. Mason is pleased enough to ask her how he may reward her for her service to him, and she talks about wanting to adopt a baby. Her brother suggests instead that the two of them procreate together by finding an available uterus (since he ripped hers out) and find out that there may already be one on the horizon because, it turns out, she and Alana have become lovers.
I’m not sure which I have more of a hard time with in relation to this, honestly: Alana’s sexuality or the cinematography.
Alana’s never been hinted at as being anything but the most straight-laced heterosexual, so the idea that she’s taken Margot as a lover comes off as one of two things: either she’s so bent on revenge that she’s willing to stoop to this (pulling the obviously damaged and still-abused Margot into this) or she’s been “turned gay” by her recent experiences with straight men. Either leaves a very bad taste.
The over-the-top effects used in depicting their lovemaking, though, is almost as bad. Yes, I realize there are plenty of similar effects on the show, and I’ve never called them on this. And initially, I was actually pretty pleased, because it looked like this was an interesting way of referencing back to the surrogate sex scene from last season’s Naka-Choko. But it became obvious that, like that previous scene, the director (Vincenzo Natali) of both just does not know when to say when. By the time the scene broke the women into a kaleidoscope, I was literally laughing out loud.
Which detracted from the more obvious connection to the book: the implication that Alana was being set up as that available uterus. Because in the novel, that’s precisely what Margot does. Spoiler-warning for anyone who hasn’t read Hannibal or Red Dragon: After Hannibal and Clarice escape her brother’s clutches, Margot sodomizes him with a cattle prod in order to force him to ejaculate, collects his semen and uses it to impregnate her lover. Oh, and kills him by shoving his pet moray eel down his throat.
We see one final connection at the dinner that Hannibal prepares at the end of the episode. Once Lecter has secured Will and then Jack, he pulls out a saw and begins to cut into Graham’s forehead to expose his frontal lobe. This is an obvious reference to the end of Hannibal in which the cannibal does the same to Starling’s long-time frustration Paul Krendler, removing pieces of his brain, sautéing it with shallots and feeding it back to him.
Krendler, however, dies from this procedure, and this knowledge created a momentary schism in the audience. For those of us who had read the book and who saw Hannibal’s blade beginning to shred skin and bone, we knew the denouement. This was the end, and we knew it because we’d seen it before. But how could it be? After all, we’d also seen Will Graham survive his adventure with Lecter because we’d read Red Dragon.
Fuller’s resolution (Verger’s “rescuing” of predator and prey) never occurred to us because it was never possible in the book. Mason would not confront Hannibal for more than a decade after Graham and Lecter said their final goodbyes, and Verger would be dead by the time Krendler was finally served up for dinner. Will and Mason would never meet in the books, as we must assume they will (again) next week on the show. End of spoilers.
But this has been one of the ways in which Hannibal has been so successful. Rather than falling into either simple option of ignoring the novels or enslaving himself to them, Fuller frequently uses them to deepen the experience of his audience. You don’t have to have read them to enjoy the show, but if you have, it allows him to play all sorts of tricks on you and get you to consider possibilities and theories you might not otherwise consider.
In the last two seasons, he did this more simply by swapping up genders, motivations, and actions. This season, he’s conflating entire books, almost as though he knew this might be his last bite at the narrative apple. But what this has given us is the very thing he’s reminded us of and which the books themselves lacked. Each novel is a distinct story which a strong bad guy (in addition to Lecter) and through-line. You knew from what direction the blow was coming.
By weaving several of the stories together this season, Fuller has instead given us many characters operating for a lot of different, often contradictory reasons. When Bedelia warns that Hannibal is drawing them in, the assumption is that he is the one who will strike and from the centre. But the truth is that Lecter has remade so many people in his image, those now surrounding him have bites almost as dangerous as his and they are just as unpredictable. Which is what we saw this week and why the next few episodes promise to be even more full of surprises.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Contorno, here.
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