The job of filling in Lecter and Graham’s backstory surely must be one of the most exciting ones for a creative to have, but showrunner Bryan Fuller probably doesn’t find it an easy one, either.

Fanfic writers can confirm that it’s always fun to play in a popular property’s sandbox, and Thomas Harris has left some great toys in this one. But Fuller also has to respect the canon (even the bits that we’d rather weren’t there), satisfy fans of the source material, and tell a compelling story that stands on its own two feet that people who don’t know The Silence of the Lambs from a hole in the ground can follow. (There must be a few out there…) If Hannibal is only interesting because it’s about Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, and stops working if you change their names to Anton Robertas and Bill Edwards, then Fuller and company have failed.

Episodes six, seven and eight form a loose trilogy, elaborating on some of the backstory’s specific details such as the Chesapeake Ripper, showing Lecter at work and playing with the iconography–both from the novels and the movies–with more confidence.

Hannibal "Entrée"

“Entrée” (Episode 6; May 2, 2013)

In American cuisine, the main course (literally “entrance,” as in France the entrée is served at the beginning of a meal)

This week on Hannibal: At the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, inmate Abel Gideon brutally murders a nurse. The M.O. matches that of the infamous Chesapeake Ripper, who’s not killed in two years; indeed, Gideon now takes credit for the Ripper’s murders. Hospital administrator Frederick Chilton accepts Gideon’s claim, but the BAU team is skeptical. And that’s when Jack starts receiving phone calls from the Ripper’s last known victim: Miriam Lass, an FBI trainee who disappeared whom Jack assigned to assist in the Ripper investigation.

Have you heard about the Chesapeake Ripper? They say he’s a former surgeon, an immaculately-groomed aesthete, with a mind like a steel trap and a rapier wit. Ladies and gentlemen, meet…Dr. Abel Gideon.

Of course we’re never convinced for one second that Dr. Gideon is the Chesapeake Ripper; even those who don’t know the source material should easily suss out that the Ripper is really Lecter. The audience shouldn’t be quite sure whether Gideon actually believes he’s the Ripper or whether he’s just fucking with Alana, Jack and Will. The problem is that nobody seems to have told Eddie Izzard, who plays Gideon, that. Izzard plays the role with a certain archness that suggests he’s in the joke; you expect him to offer someone cake or death at any moment. (Of course, on this show, why would you want to choose?)

Still, Izzard gets away with it because he’s so goddamned fun to watch, his performance being an obvious riff on the Anthony Hopkins version of Lecter. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Fuller would have put Multiple Miggs in the next cell over and replay the Miggs/Clarice/Lecter exchange (“He said, ‘I can smell your cunt'”) with Alana and Gideon if he could get away with it. Alas, he’s not yet able to legally use characters specific to The Silence of the Lambs, and it’s not clear he ever will–if the show lasts that long.

Izzard isn’t the only fantastic performance in the episode, or the only one that calls back to the film version of Silence. The B-plot sees Anna Chlumsky subtly channeling Jodie Foster as Jack’s doomed trainee Miriam Lass. And, of course, you can’t have the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane without Dr. Frederick Chilton coming to the party. (Between Chilton and Lounds, what does Thomas Harris have against people named Frederick?) Raúl Esparza’s take on the character is…I probably shouldn’t say that it’s fractionally more sympathetic than previous interpretations of the character; maybe it’s fractionally less…obviously out for only himself, maybe. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still self-important, egotistical, nakedly ambitious and outright rude, but he can still pass for competent.

This one’s more about character than plot, but the story’s a strong one; my one problem with it being that I didn’t buy the “psychic driving” business. That, along with a couple of other details, keep it from being a perfect episode, but it’s still a very, very good one.

★★★★☆

Hannibal: "Sorbet"

“Sorbet” (Episode 7; May 9, 2013)

A frozen dessert made from frozen sweetened water, flavored with fruit juice or purée, wine, or liqueur

This week on Hannibal: Corpses are found with organs missing. Could they be victims of the Chesapeake Ripper? The members of the BAU team can’t agree. Meanwhile, Dr. Lecter plans the menu of one of his famous dinner parties, and Franklin Froideveaux’s obsession with him grows.

When people ask you what a narrative work is about, be it a movie or a show or a book, you can give them a range of answers. You can describe the narrative structure: Hannibal is about the relationship between an emotionally unstable criminologist and his psychiatrist, who is secretly a dangerous, crafty serial killer. You can talk about the themes: Hannibal is about the dichotomy between the person we pretend to be and the person we actually are. Jack pretends he can fix everything. Alana pretends she doesn’t have a thing for Will. Lecter pretends he doesn’t kill people and eat their vital organs.

Or you can talk about the façade, the surface, the presentation. Sure, there’s gotta be substance there, but it’s the style that draws us in and keeps us coming back. And in many ways a narrative work is about the surface than it is about the structure or the themes.

In this sense, Hannibal is about decadent people living the high life. It’s about getting dolled up in your best gown or tux and going to the opera. It’s about drinking wine, fine wine, not bottles of Yellow Tail on sale for $5 at the drug store; even when Lecter brews beer, he ages it in wine casks. It’s about elaborate, exquisite, meticulously-prepared meals. And at the center of it all is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the most decadent gourmand of all, a man who takes recipes like “Parmesean Crumbled Lambs’ Brains” and “Crisp Lemon Calf Liver,” substitutes human meat for animal, and serves them to his friends, who are none the wiser.

Which makes “Sorbet” the most Hannibal-y episode of Hannibal to date. Sure, there’s a case to solve, but it’s barely important. And there’s a plot, but it’s only there to introduce Tobias, re-introduce Franklyn and put the pieces in place for the next episode. Both are merely frameworks for the actors to do the things they do. Laurence Fishburne is gruff and in charge. Hugh Dancy is sensitive and Byronic, Caroline Dhavernas is sensitive and concerned. Hettienne Park, Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson lob zingers off of each other.

But ultimately, it’s about Hannibal doing what Hannibal does–or, more importantly, doing what we all know he does but haven’t seen yet. Planning his dinner party, selecting his meals. All that’s missing are the fava beans and a nice chianti.

That’s what “Sorbet” is about. No other show on television would introduce Gillian fucking Anderson as a shrink–Lecter’s shrink, no less–and downplay it to the point where it became so minor a point that I nearly forgot to mention it. This is the definitive installment of the series, and at this point, only season two’s “Takiawase” is a realistic rival for the mantle of best episode so far. Sorbet” is the reason one watches Hannibal, and if you find you don’t like it…well, that’s what CSI is for.

★★★★★

Hannibal: "Fromage"

“Fromage” (Episode 8; May 16, 2013)

“Cheese”

This week on Hannibal: Classical trombonist Douglas Wilson is found dead in a concert hall, his throat open, a cello neck inserted through his mouth. Meanwhile, Franklyn’s growing obsession with Dr. Lecter worries the psychiatrist, but it’s Franklyn’s friend Tobias Budge–a possible psychopath, according to Franklyn–who may pose the greater threat…

Any show would have difficulty sustaining a high standard of quality after the one-two-three punch of “Coquilles,” “Entrée” and “Sorbet.” And, indeed, any episode would have difficulty living up to the standard set by “Fromage”’s central image, the Human Cello.

And yet…I do have to say I was a bit let down by “Fromage”: too much of Mads Mikkelsen and Gillian Anderson discussing the themes of the episode with each other, too much “two psychopaths talking clever to each other” during the dinner scene. I never really bought into Tobias as a character; he just seems too much like…well, a TV show’s idea of what a cultured serial killer, a Hannibal Lecter wannabe, is like.

I dunno, maybe that’s the point. Or maybe the writers didn’t have enough time to build him up. Tobias and Franklyn are a prime example of how a show in Hannibal’s position can let down. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Bryan Fuller can’t use characters specific to The Silence of the Lambs? Well…rumor has it that Franklyn Froidevaux and Tobias Budge were originally supposed to be Benjamin Raspail and Jame Gumb. And that would have been more interesting, I think.

Still, by this point in the game even a weaker episode has a lot to offer, such as first real sense that something’s seriously wrong with Will’s brain, a tender make-out session between Will and Alana, and a crackerjack of a fight scene at the end. The guest cast–not just Gillian Anderson, but Demore Barnes as Tobias and Dan Fogler as Franklyn–are all on point. So in the end, it’s all good, if not great.

★★★☆☆

Next time on Hannibal: Family relationships and a human totem pole come into play in “Trou Normand”; the BAU investigate a killer who cannot see faces in “Buffet Froid”; and in “Rôti,” a dangerous psychopath escapes imprisonment and seeks revenge against those who treated him–including Frederick Chilton and Alana Bloom. Meanwhile, Will hits his emotional breaking point, and Lecter is more than happy to manipulate that to his own ends. Guest stars include Dead Like Me’s Ellen Muth and living legend Lance Henriksen, along with return appearances from Gillian Anderson and Eddie Izzard.

Season 1 episode ranking:

  1. Sorbet (1.07)
  2. Apéritif (1.01)
  3. Entrée (1.06)
  4. Coquilles (1.05)
  5. Potage (1.03)
  6. Fromage (1.08)
  7. Amuse-Bouche (1.02)
  8. Œuf (1.04)

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