By Robert Tiemstra ‘16/ Emertainment Monthly Writing Staff
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story.”
Let’s get this out of the way: Hannibal Lecter’s backstory (as provided by his creator, Thomas Harris) is absolute rubbish. There is no academic, movie critic, or artist who will ever say that the narrative provided in Hannibal Rising, in which a young Hannibal Lecter is irreversibly traumatized by a group of cannibalistic Nazi deserters eating his sister, provides information that in any way improves the other works in the series. Say what you will about taking one of the most iconic villains of cinema and blaming the Nazis for his insanity, but Lecter never needed an origin story to begin with ( pun intended). He was interesting as a character because he had no shocking backstory, and existed with perfect harmony with his identity as a monster. That disarming frankness is what made him so disturbing and enticing to begin with. There is a passage in The Silence of the Lambs where Dr. Lecter claims “Nothing happened to me. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.” This passage is partially quoted in Secondo, when the Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) questions Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) about what happened to him at his home. His response makes one think that with this particular part of the source material Bryan Fuller is trying to have his cake and eat it too.
While this paragraph long appraisal of Dr. Lecter’s literary history might be excessive, it is of the utmost importance when viewed in the context of this week’s episode, where Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) departs Florence to explore Hannibal’s family in Lithuania. So far, season three of Hannibal has felt like a series of waking nightmares occasionally interrupted by character elements. If that is the case, Secondo is a segway into a completely different sort of nightmare – the kind constructed by fairy tale imagery and forgotten memories. The Castle that belonged to Lecter’s family looks like what would happen if Hogwarts had a love-child with Silent Hill, which was then adopted by Guillermo Del Toro, who raised it during its formative years.
The atmosphere here – a mixture of fog, trees, insects (both slimy & glowing), and ancient stones – is palpably photographed, and makes one feel as if they’re walking side by side with Will Graham through the darker rooms in Hannibal’s mind. While there are quite a few logistical issues – how Will found out that Hannibal is from Lithuania is never addressed, nor is how he discovered the ancient property – they are of secondary concern to the meat of the episode, which involves Will learning about Hannibal from Chiyo (Tao Okamoto), the enigmatic caretaker of the property. In these scenes, however, the cryptic cadence of the dialogue starts to undermine the episode, and Hannibal’s backstory becomes murky and inscrutable amidst some bizarre evidence and ambiguous word choice. Perhaps this is for the best, but one gets the uncomfortable feeling that we’re supposed to learn something about Lecter’s backstory that remains mysterious. And with this sort of episode, it is always more enjoyable to wonder about Lecter’s backstory than it is to wonder about whether we understood his backstory correctly.
What we do know about Hannibal’s backstory is that he had a sister named Mischa who died horribly, and he has left Chiyo at his home with the man he claims murdered her locked up and kept in a feral state. There is a nice touch of ambiguity here, as Hannibal Lecter is a clearly unreliable narrator under these circumstances, and it is perhaps the best way for anyone to handle the dead sister plot-line anyone could come up with. Fortunately for us, the modern day setting effectively removes the Nazi elements from the story entirely, freeing us from the goofy elements of this backstory, if not the cliche. It is heavily implied that Hannibal ate his sister, and we can only hope that the show does not explore further (or attempt to clarify what it failed to explain here) for the sake of not falling into the pit of pseudo-psychological melodrama.
Back in Florence, we get a chance to see that Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne) has also survived the blood drenched encounter at the end of last season. He meets up with Inspector Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino), and the audience is given a few nice moments to notice just how similar these dogged detectives are – worn ragged by their respective obsessions with Il Monstro (although it is a little funny that Jack Crawford shows up in Florence “looking for Will Graham”, then ends up sitting in a chapel while Will – unbeknownst to him – traipses around the Lithuanian wilderness).
As for Dr. Lecter himself, he remains exactly where we left him, serving one rude dinner guest to another inside his lavish Florence Apartments. Have any serial killers (in fiction or otherwise) gone on the lamb with as much flourish as Hannibal Lecter? The show does a fine job establishing that he acquired the gorgeous Florence apartment because of his ingenuity and knowledge of Italian, but it does seem a rather obnoxious way of telegraphing just how cultured Hannibal Lecter is – most fleeing Serial Killers are lucky if they end up settling down to the life of a lumberjack (Michael C. Hall)* once they’ve evaded the law. These scenes provide us with one of the most deliciously twisted gag in the series, where Hannibal stabs a man through the brain, then sits down at the table and mutters “perhaps that was impulsive.” The scenes between Bedelia and Hannibal are still as well-written as ever, and their behavior around each other gives away precious little about the nature of this complex relationship. However, the last line of the episode proves that even the most sumptuous cinematography can’t save a line so shamelessly silly as “I have to eat him.” Maybe this line would have been significantly less silly if the episode previews hadn’t teased it as some sort of big moment, but we’ll never know for sure.
To be perfectly honest, “Secondo” is a hard episode to rate – Jack Crawford and Dinner Party murders aside, it plays a tough game with how much information it chooses to reveal or withhold. The best way to describe Hannibal’s origins are a murky nest of secrets crossbred with a can of worms. Hopefully this episode was just an instance of the writers giving us a quick peek inside the can, but shutting it tight before any of the worms could wriggle out and strangle the show’s sense of dignity.
Episode Grade: B
*No, Michael C. Hall does not appear in this episode. This is just a subtle hint that the show-runners should work in a cameo for him at some point. That is all.