Hannibal, season 1: "Relevés" & "Savoureaux"

Hannibal stars with a simple question, one I discussed way back when I started writing these episodes up. Do we really need another prequel to Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs?

The answer that question (which is, of course, “yes”) continues to leave a lot of people surprised. Hannibal has been hailed by many as one of the best dramas currently on television, if not the best. I’m not familiar with every drama on television, of course, so I’m not in a position to judge whether it really is better than Mad Men, or Game of Thrones, or Justified, whatever else is supposed to be good these days. (I can confirm that it is marginally better than The Americans.)

There are many reasons for this, of course. An excellent cast, led by a fresh approach to the character of Hannibal Lecter that, at the very least, rivals Anthony Hopkins’s definitive interpretation of the character. (And I, for one, prefer Mads Mikklelsen’s version to that of Hopkins.) A crack team of directors, led by David Slade, work with a crew of talented designers to take the series’ comparatively meager budget and translate it into episodes that look as expensive as anything executive-produced by J.J. Abrams.

But for me, the key is always in the writing, of course. And it’s not just the plots or characterization that impress me here. Rather, it’s showrunner Bryan Fuller’s faith in the intelligence of the audience. How the viewers all understand certain things–what, for example, Hannibal Lecter’s agenda toward Will Graham is, without having to write a scene requiring Hannibal to tell Will something along the lines of, “I’m a cannibal and serial killer, and I see you as the only person I could possibly be friends with. How do you feel about going into serial killing yourself? Miss Lounds certainly thinks you capable of it.”

This serves Hannibal very well as it heads into the final two episodes of its first season, changing the game drastically and laying the groundwork for the second season.

Hannibal: "Relevés"

“Relevés” (Episode 12; June 13, 2013)

Lighter courses served before the main course

This week on Hannibal: Georgia Madchen dies when a fire starts in her hyperbaric chamber; Will Graham believes she was murdered by the same person who killed Dr. Sutcliffe. Jack Crawford finally discovers evidence that Abigail Hobbs was an accomplice to the murders her father committed. Will and Abigail return to Minnesota.

“Relevés” is largely defined by the events that book end it: the murder of Georgia Madchen in the cold open and the apparent murder of Abigail Hobbs at the end.

That doesn’t mean that those are the only things that happen over the course of the episode. It also offers tantalizing hints of the nature of the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Bedelia du Maurier. More importantly, the evidence starts to point to Will Graham as responsible for the murders of Georgia, the two victims of the Minnesota Shrike copycat, and Dr. Sutcliffe as well. By the end of the episode, maybe we can add Abigail to the list.

We-the-audience have, of course, known all along that Hannibal is really the murderer. We’ve suspected this since Will theorized that the Minnesota Shrike didn’t kill Cassie Boyle back in “Apéritif.” And “Buffet Froid” confirmed this by showing us Hannibal butchering Dr. Sutcliffe’s body. The final chilling scene between Hannibal and Abigail underlines what we already know. That final scene, where Abigail realizes that the two men she relied upon to protect her were no longer going to do so–Will because of his mental affliction, Hannibal because of a shift in his agenda–is easily the most memorable and affecting moment of the episode and indeed the series by far.

If the rest of the material tends to fall through the cracks it’s not because it’s weak. The entire cast is on-point. Kacey Rohl deserves special mention here, as her portrayal of Abigail’s journey from the seemingly-innocent all-American girl we thought she was in the pilot to the darker, more tortured young woman she’s become is a highlight of the season.

I also want to mention Gillian Anderson here, because discussion of Bedelia du Maurier has been a bit thin on the ground. I haven’t written much about du Maurier because as a character, her role is more thematic than plot-oriented, but it’s through that thematic role that we see Hannibal’s agenda most clearly. (I’ll discuss this more in “Savoureaux.”) But now that we understand that du Maurier knows that Hannibal is far more dangerous than anybody realizes, the importance of having an actress of Anderson’s skill and stature in the role becomes obvious. The satisfaction of the stunt-casting–that Anderson’s signature role is, as I discussed before, a spiritual child of the Lecter mythos–is the icing on the cake.

The only real misstep is the CGI fire effect during Georgia’s death scene. But while the episode isn’t really “filler” per se its plot is largely tasked with moving all the pieces into place before the explosive finale. And tonally, it serves as the calm before the storm that is “Savoureaux.”

Hannibal: "Savoureux"

“Savoureux” (Episode 13; June 20, 2013)

A savory dessert course (literally, “tasty”)

This week on Hannibal: Abigail Hobbs is missing, and when Will Graham finds evidence of her murder in his own kitchen, there’s only one possible conclusion. But can Will cut through the fog of his illness to prove that Hannibal Lecter set him up?

Like “Relevés,” starts and ends with two shocking plot points. During the cold open, Jack Crawford arrests Will Graham for five murders (after Will confides to Hannibal that he found a severed ear, later confirmed to belong to Abigail, in his kitchen sink). In the final scene, Will and Hannibal face each other in the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, separated by iron bars. But it’s Will in the cell, Hannibal outside. For those with knowledge of the iconography of Thomas Harris’s fictional universe, and particularly for those familiar with Red Dragon/Manhunter, this is a violation of the natural order. This is a huge risk on Bryan Fuller’s part, and it pays off handsomely, although we won’t see the real richness of those dividends until season two.

Against this backdrop, the rest of the regular cast–Jack, Alana, Beverly, Zeller and Price–cope with the apparent betrayal. And Will receives the bombshell revelation we’ve been waiting 13 episodes for: not only did Hannibal frame him for the murders of Abigail, Dr. Sutcliffe, Georgia Madchen, and the two Minnesota Shrike copycat victims, he’s also the Chesapeake Ripper.

It’s a bit of a shame that the Will/Hannibal drama plays out against a somewhat clichéd series of plot points that starts off with Will escaping from prison and ends up with him forcing Hannibal to take him, you guessed it, back to Minnesota. (Characters undertake this trip as casually as the Fringe team travels to-and-from Boston and New York, making me wonder if Bryan Fuller actually knows where Minnesota actually is, in relation to the Beltway.)

More interesting by far is the BAU team’s collective angst, especially Jack, who contemplates his own culpability in Will’s crimes, and Alana, who also contemplates Jack’s culpability. The “dodged a bullet” conversation between Alana and Will is aces, too.

By this point, the viewer should have a strong hold on Hannibal’s motives and agenda despite the absence of clumsy infodump dialogue. In retrospect, the consistent discussions about friendship during the midseason gives one the impression that Hannibal sees Will as a kindred spirit and a potential “intelligent-psychopath-in-training” whom he could mentor. The occasional use of family themes makes me wonder if Abigail might have fit into a surrogate psycho family unit, or if Abigail was simply a pawn he always intended to sacrifice at some point…

…or indeed, at all. We haven’t received on-screen confirmation of her death–that severed ear is hardly definitive–and Hannibal is a series that loves, and needs, its tableaux. Fuller, and by extension Hannibal, is clearly not done with Abigail yet.

Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that Hannibal might not have engineered Will’s incarceration for malicious or expedient reasons. In his own way, he might think he’s actually doing Will a favor. The fly in the ointment is represented by Dr. du Maurier–maybe not the good doctor herself, but the possibility that someone out there might figure out that Hannibal is a dangerous man. Du Maurier clearly has no intention of revealing what she knows (yet), and everybody’s convinced of Will’s guilt. But who will be the first domino to fall? Jack? Alana? Someone else?

If you’re asking questions like that, you’re invested enough in the show to continue on with it. And that’s ultimately the job of any season finale: to wrap up ongoing plots and subplots in satisfying ways while changing the status quo to point to future stories, in such a way that the audience needs to know what happens next. “Savoureaux” succeeds wildly on both counts.

Of course, that only makes Bryan Fuller’s job tougher in season two…

Final season 1 episode ranking:

  1. Sorbet (1.07)
  2. Buffet Froid (1.10)
  3. Apéritif (1.01)
  4. Entrée (1.06)
  5. Trou Normand (1.09)
  6. Coquilles (1.05)
  7. Savoureaux (1.13)
  8. Rôti (1.11)
  9. Relevés (1.12)
  10. Potage (1.03)
  11. Fromage (1.08)
  12. Amuse-Bouche (1.02)
  13. Œuf (1.04)

Next season on Hannibal: Won’t somebody help Will Graham?

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