John Lucking reviews the fourth and fifth episodes of Hannibal…
Art imitates life, especially within the world of television, and while innumerable shows take their dramatic concepts from real-world events it’s much less common for art to stand aside and let life run its course. That was the decision made by Bryan Fuller regarding Hannibal’s fourth episode as a result of the Boston Marathon bombings. The content of the episode was not tied to the bombings (it dealt with Molly Shannon’s character training children to kill other children) but Fuller says he made this choice out of a cultural sensitivity, stating that he doesn’t want anybody sitting down to watch Hannibal to have a bad time. The episode was only pulled in North America, and rather than an outright ban Fuller did mention that he has no problem with people seeking this episode out further down the line. Whether or not you agree with his choice it does raise a problem for Hannibal given its serial nature, but this is where Fuller again stepped in and “cannibalised” (his word) the fourth episode, releasing this compacted version online which removed any potentially sensitive imagery and instead focused on character interaction.
It is of course impossible to judge alongside the previous three episodes – it’s littered throughout with hard cuts and fade outs, presumably dancing around any stray lines of dialogue that referenced Shannon’s character or any other procedural events within that episode. Given that it is nothing but character moments it does however manage to provide a few illuminating moments. Will speaks with Hannibal in therapy about the impact of inhabiting Hobbs mind and how this lead to a feeling of guilt upon seeing Abigail’s friend Marissa impaled. This is not strictly a feeling of responsibility for failing Marissa, but a fragment of guilt for having killed her, and this is the price that Will pays for getting too close, not to the victims but to the perpetrators. Hannibal encourages Alana to release Abigail from custody, offering himself as a surrogate without ever saying the words, and Crawford most likely eats human again as we’re shown shots of a fleeing man during another lunch with Lecter. Most significantly within these twenty-two minutes we are finally introduced to Crawford’s wife as they prepare for bed. There isn’t too much to this scene but it does lay down important groundwork for the next episode, which is a problem in some ways, but a problem overcome in the upcoming episode by strong performances from Laurence Fishburne and (his real-life wife) Gina Torres.
Hannibal doesn’t quite take custody of Abigail but brings her to his house where he drugs her and begins to further manipulate her, although to what end is as yet uncertain. Alana joins them and a family is established for Abigail as she smiles and begins to look ahead for the first time yet. Lecter’s aim with this surrogate family is certainly to begin grooming Abigail, but whether he sees her as an accomplice or a creation to be unleashed upon the world is still hidden within Mads’ invisible smirks. It is particularly unfortunate for those who worked on this episode (including writer Jennifer Schuur) that the audience for this episode has been significantly impacted, and that even those who do seek it out will find an incomplete series of vignettes divorced from context, but as a package designed to inform the next episode it does serve a purpose. The parts for a great episode are there, but unfortunately they can never be more than that due to unforeseen circumstances and a tough decision on the part of people with access to the attention of millions.
Episode five (Coquilles) is thus given the burden of expectation, both as a self-contained episode and a means of continuing character development that a large chunk of the audience has not seen. It turns out that this episode not only meets those expectations but manages to excel on all fronts. We begin with Will sleepwalking down a road in a semi-hallucinatory state followed by the manifestation of his guilt in the form of a stag. He visits Lecter soon after and begins airing grievances about his treatment at the hands of Crawford, telling Lecter he feels more like an old mug than a piece of fine China wheeled out to impress guests. It’s another reinforcement of Will’s mental degradation psyche and one which the episode further plumbs to great effect. The beginnings of this seen here are all especially well done given that they work as both serialised and self-contained aspects of this particular story. We’re also quickly introduced to the episode’s killer and given insight into how he views his victims, which is to say, somewhat like Ghost Rider. To our killer their heads are engorged in flames and we see as he struggles to disregard this vision before accepting it with a look of renewed determination.
This leads onto our first murders, and also the point at which the episode leaps above every other procedural currently airing. The first crime scene is beautiful in every sense; lighting, composition, imagination, realisation. Guillermo Navarro has repaid my earlier trust in full and helped the series to a visual high point, somewhere between admiration and repulsion. The bodies are given wings of flesh and suspended from the ceiling, positioned praying and made into angels. Of the four deaths total throughout the episode it is the second which leaves the biggest impact; a body suspended on scaffolding in a pose somewhere between Jesus on the cross and an angel ascending. The visual effects are superb, but the treatment given to them by Navarro and cinematographer Karim Hussain helps them achieve nightmare status. The IMDb press shot for the episode is of this body suspended high above the ground, so it’s reassuring to know that they’re aware of just how good this episode looks. Hannibal’s lunch with the Crawfords deserves another mention for the colour palette alone, desaturated and otherwise muted in direction and tone.
This week also marks the first full-episode appearance for Crawford’s wife Bella outside of a small scene in the truncated episode four, and it’s Gina Torres as Bella who pushes the episode beyond the sum of its parts. Within this episode alone she goes from disinterested and vacant to wholly sympathetic, a wilting woman crushed by circumstance. That she can do this in 42 minutes is a testament to her performance, the writing and the chemistry between her and her onscreen/real-life husband Jack Crawford/Laurence Fishburne. This is also the first time we’ve seen much of Jack when he’s not pushing Will into dark places, and Fishburne plays it very well. His wordless realisation of why his wife has become so distant is a touching moment and most importantly not over-acted as it takes place in the presence of other people. How he comes to the realisation is perhaps a case of thematic convergence that’s just a little too neat, but it affords the episode a later scene between Jack and Bella which makes it worth it. The Angel-Maker (this episode’s killer) is also tracked down off-camera, with an agent simply informing Jack of his identity, and while this also might seem lazy it’s clearly a deliberate choice on the part of the writers – a conscious choice regarding their division of efforts. The how of finding Elliot Budish is irrelevant. It is not part of Will’s function within the FBI, nor is it a salient use of screentime. Would the plot be better served by a scene in which an agent finds a stray hair leading to a lab scene and a DNA match? Is it better at the expense of moments like Jack’s confrontation of Bella?
This conversation between Jack and Bella is also illustrative of the depth that the show is accumulating. It’s perhaps the best scene of the series thus far – a married couple, one of which seeks to isolate herself out of love for the other, and it stems from a show in which the primary attraction was a pantomime villain eating human livers. Mads’ performance being what it is has also allowed for far more subtle examples of black humour. Hannibal smelling Will is a great example of what Mikkelson’s restraint has done for the performance of Lecter. The minor is amplified but his portrayal never becomes overbearing, allowing the show depth that it couldn’t achieve if the scenes were flitting between scenery-chewing and pathos. The lab technicians also reveal themselves to be well-written characters when they’re not wise-cracking at crime scenes as a means of alleviating dramatic tension. Beverly’s moment with Will is her best yet, made all the more touching when Will manages to eventually land eye contact.
Eventually Elliot Budish takes his own life, which is an interesting take on the procedural element of the episode; the audience gets their killer-of-the-week, the characterisation is interspersed with scenes of horrible beauty and yet it manages to avoid having Will and Lecter kicking down doors and saving soon-to-be victims with wisecracks and bullets. This is certainly the best balance so far of the show’s competing elements, servicing characters and plot in equal measure while staying open enough for any newcomers who’ve just jumped in. Most importantly though it sets in motion character develop for later in the series and makes you as excited for this as it does Lecter’s unmasking and eventual reveal to Will. Hannibal is a show intended to go on for years, and as such must keep its most famous aces firmly in its sleeve for now, but rather than stalling it has begun to dig into the psyche not just of Will but of those around him. It’s a smart decision, and if it maintains its current trajectory it’s one that’s capable of sustaining an audience until those larger reveals. Hopefully it’ll get the chance to give us its Tooth Fairy, but even if doesn’t then Hannibal could never be accused of pandering, something I’m sure Dr. Lecter would be proud of.