Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly TV Writer
“For a policeman, credit has a short half-life.”
Great characters do not exist in a vacuum. As much as various pop culture websites will have you believe, “10 Greatest Characters in [insert popular movie/TV show/video game here]” may be the least effective way to truly break down what makes a great character—whether the character is a hero, a villain, or a significant bystander. Hannibal Lecter is listed as the single greatest movie villain of all time according to the American Film Institute’s seminal list, “100 Years, 100 Heroes & Villains,” but this does very little to illuminate what makes Hannibal Lecter such an iconic figure. This week’s episode, “Contorno,” has its own clear answer to this question: It is Dr. Lecter’s uncanny ability to affect those who come into contact with him.
This week, we saw not only the continuing obsession Dr. Lecter inspires in detective Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino, whose first name proves slightly ironic in this episode), but also Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne) as they lose the fight against their own psychological baggage and become monsters in their own right. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) creates deep scars not just because of his surgical skills with kitchen cutlery, but also because of his sadistic psychological playfulness. Perhaps the best scene in “Contorno” (and one of the best in the entire series) is when Dr. Lecter has captured his Italian quarry, and starts interrogating him in the same way a normal person would talk to a humiliated sibling. Hannibal has always realized its titular character’s penchant for playing with his food, but never has it been so light on its feet in its deployment of flippant dark comedy—the way Dr. Lecter brushes off Alana Bloom’s (Caroline Dhavernas) phone call is a particularly incisive moment because of how casually Dr. Lecter dismisses it. This is the closest Mikkelsen’s performance has come to Anthony Hopkins’ iconic take on the character, while still remaining true to Fuller’s Satanic reimagining.
The lightness in this scene also works because of the scene that immediately follows it, in which Crawford ambushes Dr. Lecter and lets his own demons loose on him in the form of a bone-crunching crescendo of medieval violence and classical music. Episode director Guillermo Navarro (whose impressive resume includes the cinematography on Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth) stages the climax with a devilish flourish, reducing both Dr. Lecter and Crawford to the most primal versions of themselves. During this rather one-sided fight, Dr. Lecter’s intermittent dialogue reminds us that even while he’s getting beaten to a pulp, his hardest punches are still coming in the form of ongoing psychological warfare. It takes a talented hand to stage a scene this brutal that allows both the audience to have fun as well as appreciate the character drama behind the punches. In his entire history as a character (including his tenure at the Baltimore Home for the Criminally Insane), Hannibal Lecter has never been so physically overpowered, and the result is a virtuoso sequence as thrilling as any this show has ever given, while single-handedly solving the Hannibal Lecter franchise’s biggest fundamental flaw.
The reason the franchise has never really taken off as a mainstream series besides all the really goofy stuff in the novels is that they fall too easily into hero-worshipping Dr. Lecter himself. He becomes something of a serial killer demigod, untouchable by physical or psychological violence even when locked in a glass cage deep beneath Baltimore. One gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the Ed Geins of the world (or, to use an in-universe example, the Abel Gideons) to think of fondly while they’re locked away for not properly cleaning up after eating a meal of Braised Prostitute. But in “Contorno” (and indeed, much of this series in general), we see Lecter in a state of physical vulnerability that makes him less than the mercurial demon he so often becomes in the eyes of Will Graham. Even his fine taste in silverware and wines is used as a weapon against him, as Alana Bloom demonstrates to Mason Verger (Joe Anderson) in one of the most unique applications of detective work ever to grace the screen. This particular bread crumb trail is made up of missing persons and wine purchases. Why not?
Jumping to a different train for a moment here, Will Graham spends a good chunk of this episode sharing a train car with Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto) who watches him the way a person would watch a hungry Bengal tiger. She says to him “If you don’t kill him, you’re afraid you’ll become him”. This isn’t strictly speaking true—Graham’s transformation has already begun. When they sit across from each other, he taunts her in a playful manner not dissimilar to the way Lecter taunts Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) frequently throughout the course of the season. Although we’ve been with Graham for three seasons now, one has to admire the frankness that Chiyoh treats her dangerous traveling companion—by shoving him off the train. Graham isn’t dead (those Italian trains are notorious for abiding by speed laws), but it is clear his plot is a peripheral one. While once he was the audience surrogate character, now he’s another hungry wolf circling Lecter (or a stag if you’re going by this show’s particular animal metaphors).
Of particular note this week is the soundtrack. Hannibal has thrived on a diet of ambient and unsettling notes that make even the most casual scene as tense as a violinist’s suspenders, and “Contorno” isn’t an exception by any means. The scene in which Crawford disposes of Bella’s remains in the river Arno would have played for traditional pathos in any other show, but Brian Reitzell’s orchestra is well aware that the tears for Bella (Gina Torres) were shed last week. The haunting ambience and discordant notes (particularly when Crawford’s wedding ring strikes the river’s surface) produce an effect that isn’t cathartic, but is a reminder that Crawford has lost a part of what keeps him human. On that note, it is slightly distressing to see two important female characters reduced to “symbols of lost humanity” for Crawford and Graham (Dr. Lecter’s lost sister Mischa, who hasn’t made a physical appearance, therefore doesn’t count), but Bella and Abigail were both granted enough character arcs that their deaths aren’t as dramatically dissatisfying as these things can tend to be (will we be seeing more of the phantom Bella who Crawford saw at the funeral? Only time will tell).
It is safe to say that at this point, Hannibal is through picking up the pieces left by the end of Season 2, and ready to surge forward in (mostly) chronological order from here on out. Il Monstro roams free in Italy, Jack Crawford is left dissatisfied once again, and Will Graham is stumbling along a lonely railroad track with what looks like a severe concussion. At this point, it’s probably best to ignore the sword of Damocles currently hanging over Hannibal’s head and just enjoy where this gory train ride will take us next. Fuller and company have us by the throat, so now it’s either bowels in or bowels out as we hang here in suspense, waiting for next week’s dish.
“The piano has the quality of a memory.”
Episode Grade: A