This review contains spoilers.
Early on in its run, and at some personal risk, I compared Hannibal to Twin Peaks. My juxtaposition of the two was mostly to talk about how rare it is that we get a show that goes beyond simply the guiding hand of a showrunner and instead takes on the quality of auteur cinema.
The problem with the possibility of auteur television is that, generally speaking, it can be too much. After all, a movie, generally, lasts a couple of hours. Four, if you’re really stubborn or either Branagh or de Mille. Thus, as an artist, you are largely limited by the medium—you only have so much material to work with. But with television, there is no such built-in limit beyond ratings. In fact, the very nature of television seasons, particularly the longer American television seasons, is that a series may outlive its own success: if networks have paid to shoot 23 episodes of a series, they will generally let it run even if they’ve already decided that the public has rejected because the ratings have fallen below a certain threshold.
As a result, it is all too easy for someone with vision–like David Lynch or Bryan Fuller–to step over the line from strong creative drive into self-indulgence, a kind of artistic masturbation. For Lynch, many would argue that this happened in the middle of the second season—that the resolution of Laura Palmer’s murder left the series adrift in the confused symbolism and supernatural chaos of the Black and White Lodges and much else—and that it sputtered to an unfulfilling end which the later movie only partially salvaged.
There have been similar mutterings about the first part of this third season of Hannibal.
A good portion of this has been because so little happened in the first five episodes of the season. The largest portion of these outings have been conversations, which does not actually make them that much different than a lot of the first or second season. What is different is the who and the how.
Early on, what made the show so wonderful was the focus on the three main characters and their interactions with each other, and most importantly, the tightness of those scenes. It was so clear that Fuller believed he was unlikely to get more than a single season because of how much information he poured into those exchanges—he was racing to tell his story. Every word, every glance—even the silences—were laden with meaning (often multiple ones). Three sharp minds, working off each other—sometimes with, other times against—and revealing in those discussion who each of them were. And you feared looking away because you might miss something.
Fast forward to the scenes with those same characters this season and all of that is largely missing. The pacing is gone. And while there are just as many conversations, they do not have either the intensity nor the importance of the previous ones. This may largely be due to the fact that those three main characters have not, in these episodes, been talking to each other; their insights do not play off each other, nor do their conflicts unlock secrets. Instead, they have been talking about each other, and about themselves, to a host of proxies. And while those proxies have been interesting, they have left us feeling that Will, Hannibal, and Jack have really just been talking to themselves, to a great extent, about themselves. Their discourses have become masturbatory, and this has led to a certain frustration in the segments of the audience.
But in Dolce and this week’s Digestivo, talk has been replaced with action. When Hannibal and Will were captured last week, it was unclear at first who was responsible for their move (or at least Graham’s) from frying pan—literally—to fire. The corrupt Italian police send the pair off to Muskrat farm where Mason awaits, and prepare to frame Hannibal for one last act of butchery by killing Jack Crawford. Chiyo intervenes, killing the would-be assassins, and learns of the destination from Jack before allowing him to escape Italy unharmed.
In the meantime, Mason has made preparations not only for them but his sister. He has decided that, since Hannibal and Will are responsible for the loss of his own face, he will eat Hannibal using Will’s face, owing to the combined culinary and plastic surgery skills of Cordell. And to theoretically make it up to his sister for sterilizing her, he reveals that he salvaged some of her eggs and had them fertilized with his own sperm and implanted into a surrogate.
As Cordell prepares to perform the surgery to remove Graham’s face and graft it onto Mason’s maimed skull, Margot and Alana visit Lecter and ask him to kill Mason and save Will. Hannibal promises to do the latter, but only to take credit for the former, pointing out that it will be better for Margot’s psyche to kill her brother herself, especially since he will never give her what he has promised her. They release the cannibal despite Lecter’s affirmation that he will also kill Alana.
Hannibal’s insight turns out to be correct about Mason, as Margot and Alana find the surrogate—a pig who is carrying a stillborn human fetus. Margot insists that Alana deliver the dead child, cradling her lost progeny tenderly as the scene cuts (metaphorically and otherwise) back and forth between this tragedy and the face-graft. When Mason awakes, he calls out for Cordell, only to find that it is not Will’s face but that of his chef and surgeon now resting on his own. Margot and Alana confront him, informing him that they have found his sick biological joke, but that there will be an actual child thanks to Hannibal, who helped them harvest Mason’s sperm, and who has now escaped (thanks again to Chiyo’s intervention) with Will. The two kill Verger.
The final scenes take place in Will’s old house where Lecter has taken him, and on the profiler finally making a break with Hannibal, telling him he never wants to see him and know anything about him ever again. In response, Lecter surrenders to Jack Crawford.
It’s a lot to happen in 44 minutes and must surely act as an antidote to the conversation-heavy episodes that came before.
Yes, and no.
Yes, it’s a lot of action. In fact, it’s a bit too much action in places. One of the strengths of Hannibal, and one of the mistakes that people make about it, is its placement in the genre of horror. Many people have stayed away from the show because they believed it to be horror in the sense that a slasher flick is horror—that is, it is the sheer volume of violence that earns it that label. But that’s not what Hannibal is. It’s a psychological thriller that focuses on an aspect of humanity that is intensely disturbing, but at the same times normalizes and gives it an aesthetic quality, and in doing so horrifies us partly because we eagerly embrace its ethos.
But to accomplish these things does take time. It is almost impossible to see the beauty in an image flashed quickly on the screen, and certainly to accept something, we must be given time to acclimatize. Digestivo moves so quickly, the audience isn’t given the chance for either.
More importantly, we’ve been setting up for these confrontations for weeks with so many possible desires, motivations, courses of action, etc. What, for example, does Will really want from Hannibal? What is Alana really doing in the heart of the Verger beast (and in its bed)? And how can Jack possibly justify his ever-increasing extra-jurisdictional adventures to himself or anyone else?
So how can it be an antidote to all of that discussion–all of those musings and dangled clues—if the episode that is supposed to bring us clarity on those issues all but ignores them? We never learn what Graham wanted, in his heart-of-hearts, from Lecter because by the end of the episode, and with no explanation, his desire for connection with Hannibal evaporates. Alana tells us that she fell in with the Vergers in order to bring Hannibal to justice before Will was drawn back to him, but this hardly accounts for her unethical and criminal actions—she could have accomplished much the same from a much greater distance. And obviously Jack’s arrival with the full force of the FBI behind him at the end of the episode makes it clear that despite the fact that he was already in very hot water before leaving for Italy, the agency, forgiving outfit that it is, has chosen to let bygones be bygones on both sides of the pond.
And with Saturday’s episode picking up three years later, it’s unlikely that there will be any sudden revelations that will suddenly throw all of that early discussion into some more meaningful context. Has Hannibal, like Twin Peaks before it, lost its way?
Normally, I’d say yes. The episode on its own merits was solid enough, but certainly not the narrative payoff we might have hoped for. It certainly lacked the earlier seasons’ ability to communicate so much with so little. At least until the end.
The one payoff that really worked is not one built up over many episodes but one that is both built up and climaxes in the last few minutes of this one. When Will gives Hannibal his walking papers, it comes as a surprise precisely because it’s the first healthy thing that Will (or Jack) has done in a very long time. It is the enactment of that old adage about people only having the power over you that you give them. It may come out of left field, but on one level it actually succeeds: there is simply no way that Will can ever win by playing Hannibal’s game (regardless of what it is that Graham actually wishes to win in the first place). The only possible way to come out ahead is to refuse to play. He may eat you, but he can then only triumph over your body, rather than also dominating over your mind as he has done with Graham.
So when Will tells Hannibal that he doesn’t want to know where he is or what he’s doing, it’s all that we can do not to cheer, because he’s actually found a way to beat the monster. And for a split second, it seems foolproof. Even to Lecter, whose beaten expression is clear.
And this is where Fuller returns to the best moments of those earlier seasons. Because no sooner are we certain that everything is sewn up neatly than he busts the entire thing wide open with a single sentence: “You finally caught the Chesapeake Ripper, Jack.”
But Jack has not won, Will has not escaped, and Hannibal continues to play. Perhaps Fuller has not run out of steam yet.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Dolce, here.
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