To say that this most recent incarnation of the world of Hannibal Lecter subverts the crime procedural genre is a huge understatement. Simply said, you’ve never seen crime scenes like these. Not that I expect anything less from Hannibal’s creator, Bryan Fuller, whose previous shows range from undeniably joyous to the macabre, sometimes seamlessly within the same hour of television.
Hannibal appears to have its two feet planted in the rich but murky world of psychology. What makes us tick? How far are we willing to go to carry out our motivations? What’s the cost? And what of our motivations can be attributed to instinct? The tensions in the show are built from these questions. (And how.) And it’s done in beautiful, complicated and often unexpected ways.
Every episode of Season 1 has a French food-related name. The pilot suggests it’s the series’ Aperitif, the intoxicating beverage before the meal. And, why not? The first look into these characters is absolutely its own kind of euphoria.
In the show’s first moments, a flashback to another time, we meet Will Graham (played with whole-heartedness and utter sympathy by Hugh Dancy), an uncommonly gifted FBI profiler beleaguered by an empathetic connection to the world. It’s immediately obvious why Will’s uncanny ability to see the aftermath of a crime and reconstruct it in compassionate detail will make him so hotly pursued by Laurence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford, a rather determined agent who heads up the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. But Will prefers the comfort of a classroom, specifically one at Quantico. (I see it as his attempt at separating out the dimensional details of the gruesomeness of what he’s seen while staying intellectually relevant.) So when Jack approaches Will after class, Will doesn’t conceal how unsteady he is about being a profiler in the field. At the very least, he shares with Jack, he falls somewhere on the autism spectrum and doesn’t like being around people. In a broader sense, Will’s candor effectively puts the onus on Jack which, in turn, introduces a great uncertainty for the series: Is solving these horrific cases worth one man’s total undoing?
Once Will agrees to help with Jack’s case du jour, we are, as they say, off and running on a real mind-boggler involving eight missing girls with near-identical physicality. After a trip to a recent victim’s home, Will’s effort, naturally, begins to tease out the right details for Jack and his crack forensic team (a welcomed trio who provide the show’s only humor, albeit dark) to get a foothold in the case. But Will begins to unravel quickly.
Well, when better to invite into the drama the titular character, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, psychiatrist extraordinaire? He who is the rarest of the rare, inscrutable, alluring and ultimately engaged in this life with the intentions of a panther or cobra… (Hell, any number of nature’s majestic killing machines) played by Mads Mikkelsen.
Here’s where it gets really good. Jack tasks Hannibal with assisting Will in refining the killer’s profile but really he’s treating Will so Jack can assuage whatever small guilt he does allow himself to feel. But really Hannibal’s testing Will to see if he’s a worthy adversary. In fine form, this “test” involves a copycat killing that Hannibal perpetrates. It's from this moment that all three characters’ motivations now mingle in twisted dreadful suspense (and undoubtedly continue to through the show’s long arc).
The get-to-know-you scenes between Will and Hannibal, wonderfully tense, are front-loaded with equal parts terrible and exhilarating possibility. And whether Jack is out of the picture at this point by his own choice, it’s unclear but Will and Hannibal unpack the rest of the clues that lead to them stopping the killer, Garret Jacob Hobbs. (Though not before Hannibal surreptitiously warns Hobbs that the jig is up when no one’s looking.)Yes, the unstable ex-cop autistic professor and a psychopathic killer psychiatrist save the day so to speak. I don’t know that it gets better than that as far as paradoxes go.
Don’t fret! Things end on a very messy note. Hobbs murders his wife and almost manages to kill his daughter, Abigail, during his sociopathic swan song. This sets up multiple connections between Will and Hannibal because Hobbs’ daughter remains alive, although barely. And she answered the phone initially when Hannibal placed his anonymous heads-up call to Hobbs. We also intuit that Will’s never killed someone before. (He shoots Hobbs dead so mechanically that his upper body looks like a 3-D version of a target practice sheet.)
Odds and Ends
*Casting Mikkelsen is a stroke of genius, one that enormously serves the show’s tone because what he lacks in wily charm (a trait of Hannibal portrayals that have come before him), he makes up for with a presence like a taut rubber band poised to snap. It was a gamble the creative team took that pays countless dividends.
*Speaking of casting—the forensic team contains one Scott “Kids in the Hall” Thompson (who plays Jimmy Price). Perfect. The threesome is rounded out by Hetienne Park as Beverly Katz and Aaron Abrams as Brian Zeller.
*A lot of the choices the creative team uses to enhance the production stylistically incorporate the senses. Of course cooking is a big theme, as is the sensuality of eating. The ambient music is unnervingly dissonant. Many of the visuals are tableau beautiful. Then there’s the slo-mo. Scene transitions use the trick of lowering the number of frames in order to give the appearance of time lapsing. And there is a key visual/sound cue (a long thin gauzy pendulum of light) for each time Will is about to switch out of his reality into the reality of the killer.
*As riveting to watch as any gifted profiler, Will Graham’s skill is not done with the jaunty precision of, let’s say, Sherlock Holmes (Cumberbatch or Miller!) but rather with a disturbed I-don’t-know-why-or-how-I-ended-up-here attitude that instantly endeared me to him.
*“This is my design” becomes a catchphrase Will asks his students to ponder in order to put themselves in the killer’s mind but I’d guess that psychologically it’s a way from him to tolerate his experience of the grotesque; the killers with whom he interfaces are nothing if not artists, architects, creators... right? (The production design team certainly thinks so!)
*One of the finest scenes of visual storytelling in anything I’ve ever watched shows a remarkable coping mechanism of Will Graham’s. Will finds a stray dog, painstakingly coaxes him home, bathes and names him, then the reveal… He introduces Winston to his six other dogs. It says more about his inner-workings than a novel could.
*Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), another therapist who respects Will as a peer, and perhaps something more, shows up to protect Will from Jack by laying out the ethical issues Jack prefers to bulldoze over.
*Will Graham lives in Wolf Trap, Virginia. Ha. On several levels.
*Ominous things that MUST lead to more drama: Will asks for aspirin for a headache then later takes unknown pills on the plane ride home. Will has bad dreams. Very very very bad dreams. And the occasional hallucination while perfectly awake! And finally, deer antlers!
Will: “He’s like Willy Wonka. Every girl he takes is like a candy bar.”
Jack (to Will): “You have a very specific way of thinking about things.”
Will: “Winston, this is everybody. Everybody, this is Winston.”
Jack (to a male FBI agent who’s come into the men’s bathroom while he’s intently talking to Will): “USE THE LADIES ROOM.”
Hannibal (to his patient): “If you weren’t neurotic, you would be something much worse.”
Will: “You won’t like me when I’m psychoanalyzed.”