John Lucking reviews the first episode of Hannibal….
The Brett Ratner directed Red Dragon opens with Edward Norton’s profiler Will Graham realising that the man he’s been working with to bring down serial killers, Hannibal Lecter, is in fact himself a murderous cannibal. A struggle ensues and Lecter is captured, with Will Graham retiring and moving to Florida to be with his family. It’s an interesting opening since it’s clearly the climax of another story; a cop and a cannibal hunting down killers is fertile ground for the world of television, and so it’s this period of Thomas Harris’s saga that Hannibal aims to explore.
Hannibal begins with our new Will Graham reliving the murder of a family courtesy of his unique ability to empathise with and inhabit the minds of the people he’s hunting. It’s an atmospheric and eerie opening, with multiple acts of violence playing out in detail and slow motion. While initially this may seem gratuitous the strength of the show comes in the follow-up; in treating these deaths with a regard lacking in shows of a similar nature. The deaths in this episode are felt strongly not in dialogue but through Will, through Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of a man able to understand the mind of a killer at a great personal cost. It’s a largely wordless mission statement for the show to come, a confluence of style and substance illustrating graphic violence and its effect on those who live in it.
Soon after Laurence Fishburne’s agent Jack Crawford steps in to recruit Will to aid him in the case of a killer targeting teenage girls with no discernible motive outside of appearance. During this conversation Will’s nature is established as being somewhere in the realm of autism, aspergers, sociopathy and narcissism. It is this that gives him, as Lecter puts it, “a knack for the monsters.”
After a discussion with Will’s friend Alona Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Crawford also makes the decision to seek the help of renowned psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter as a means of both aiding in the investigation and to help keep Will’s mental state in check while he works. The relationship of course gets off to a rocky start as Lecter immediately begins profiling Will, but other than a few jabs and wry observations he remains largely a supporting character throughout this episode. Besides a brief glimpse of him eating, our first meeting with Lecter is at work with a patient, reluctantly handing over a tissue. His disgust of people is made instantly apparent as the patient wantonly discards of the now used tissue onto his pristine table, while soon after his proclivities are made entirely explicit as we see him preparing a meal consisting of human lungs. Their first joint investigation concerns a girl whose organs are removed and then placed back inside before her body is returned home. We learn during the autopsy that the victim was pierced by the antlers of a deer, but also that her liver was diseased. This detail leads Will to the conclusion that our killer’s goal is to eat his victims, a detail that firmly establishes the cat-and-mouse game to come as we’re shown Lecter consuming his second meal of the episode.
After a second murder involving a girl mounted onto the antlers of a stag it becomes apparent to Will that a copycat has struck, which feels somewhat like a cheat for the episode; a means of achieving a resolution and revenge for the victims while keeping Lecter squarely out of harm’s way. Not long after the copycat is found, with Lecter managing to send him a warning before any law enforcement can arrive. This leads to the copycat panicking, killing his wife and then taking his daughter hostage with no real goal, reacting like a cornered animal before a standoff which leads to Will shooting and killing our murderer. The heightened drama of the third act is tempered by the depiction of Will’s fragility in the face of violence, saving it from becoming ‘just another day’ in the life of a TV procedural. The show’s attempt to handle violence and death with a regard beyond the bare minimum required by network censors is admirable, and serves to differentiate it from shows of a similar mold.
Outside of the triumvirate of Will, Crawford and Lecter, few others are given a chance to shine in the pilot. The foundations of Will and Alona’s relationship are laid out for further development but the remaining lab assistants come off as either cloying or like extras desperate to earn their ‘featured’ title.
The direction throughout is strong as David Slade (Hard Candy) helms the first episode, and with Michael Rymer (Battlestar Galactica), James Foley (Glengarry Glenn Ross) and Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth and the upcoming Pacific Rim) on board the talent is clearly in place for an exceptional thirteen episodes. Slade in particular makes excellent use of colour, something not surprising given his direction of 30 Days of Night, a film that seemed to take its colour palette from a roulette wheel as reds and blacks dominated throughout. Bryan Fuller has taken what appeared to be a cash grab based solely on brand recognition and assembled a cast and crew of people able and willing to do more.
The necessity of television (network television) demands that some form of satisfactory ending be reached within a typical episode, although ideally this level of ‘satisfaction’ would be left to the showrunner and writers to decide. A pilot however should concern itself primarily with establishing potential, tone and a voice; Hannibal’s pilot succeeds in all three areas. In the long term any dramatic show will ideally tell self-contained stories that serve an overarching narrative in content or theme, and judging from the first episode Hannibal seems to not only understand this but act on it. Calling it a worthy addition to the adaptations of Harris’s work doesn’t carry much weight given its company, but Hannibal looks poised to be an intelligent and well crafted series which aspires to more than any other procedural currently airing.