[Review] - Hannibal, Season 1

Courtesy of NBC.
"Are you a murderer, Doctor Lecter?"

From the beginning, I've been sceptical about Hannibal. From the announcement, to the various trailers, to the premier, I was apprehensive about the prospect of yet another revisitation to a character that had been stripped of any effect he might have once had. Was it worth it, I asked, to delve deeper into a character that been stripped of his menace, for the sake of brand recognition. I honestly believed that Hannibal Lecter had no surprises left in him.

What I forgot was Bryan Fuller. Fuller, whose particular blend of absurdity, dark humour and attention to detail, especially when it comes to character, have produced three of the best TV shows of the last fifteen years (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies). That Fuller, whose resume also includes Star Trek Voyager and Heroes, was the least likely choice to dive into the world created by Thomas Harris is probably put me off. What sort of Hannibal might Fuller create? What sort of places might be go?

As it turns out, I was wrong. And I am so very happy when I am wrong. Not only was I wrong, I was wrong in a fashion so spectacular, it made me giddy. After watching the first episode, I was elated and horrified. Elated, because the series was clearly built on a foundation of quality and masterful understanding. And horrified because I was watching it on NBC. The Enemy, when it comes to those previous mentioned adjectives. This was a show surely meant for the halls of prosperity, like HBO or AMC. What future could a show like Hannibal, which it is reasonable to declare the best current drama on network television, have? And, it turns out I was wrong, as NBC (who took their sweet time with it) have renewed Hannibal for a second season. Which means the viewers will be able to continue on this decent into madness.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which don't appreciate rudeness.

The killing of Garrett Jacob Hobbs (if you know anyone with three names, they are probably a serial killer) in the first episode was what did it for me. Any other show would have made that the focus on an entire year. Any novelist would have made that the focus of an entire book. Fuller dashed it out in forty some odd minutes. Hobbs took several bullets. Done. A worry set in that Hannibal might be nothing more then a brand name version of Criminal Minds, a cold procedural with nothing of substance to say. It really, really isn't. Yes, there are procedural elements, and those episodes that focused on Case of the Week stuff were the weakest of the season. But it was so refreshing to see that the driving element of the series wasn't going to be the MacGuffins or the drive to clear cases. It was going to be about emotion, and trauma and the horrors inflicted upon people by themselves as much as anyone. Shows like that are rare as it is, and extinct on network TV.

It should be pointed out that the series, despite how it was advertised (and maybe that was where I got hung up in the push beforehand), is not an adaptation of Red Dragon. The credits are clear to point this out. The series is based upon characters appearing in Red Dragon, not on the story. Not yet at least. Fuller has a clear four to seven year plan for the series, which time and permissions depending, would see the series work its way through both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. In doing so, I finally have an example I can point to when trying to explain my personal preference for adaptations. I don't want to see a story replicated in another medium. I'm much more interested in seeing interesting characters brought to life, and reacting to new situations. This is what Hannibal does. It defines the characters the characters of Jack Crawford, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter through interaction and scenario rather then getting hung up adhering to canon.

The first episode was also important in that, it falsely presented Will Graham as the star of the series. Hannibal himself appears briefly and secularly in that first episode, and is made a part of the universe gradually (a wonderful choice too, having him not advise on the case, but on the investigator's well being). As for the title, it is clearly the best way to attract viewers, treading on established preconceptions. But for the entire season, I've been at a loss as to what else they might have possibly been able to call it. Because as the series has progressed, it hasn't been about Hannibal, or Will. It's been about the trinity of Will, Jack and Hannibal (who, as an important symbol of acceptance, are all referred to by their familiar first names rather then the static and distant surnames). Over time, presumably, Will will give way to Clarice, but Jack and Hannibal will remain. The angel and demon sitting on the neutrals shoulders. Which is which is a question the show delights in obscuring for us.

In many ways, the hunting of Garrett Jacob Hobbs was the season arc, just backwards. Will's inability to get over his killing of Hobbs, his combination of grief, guilt and lingering doubt, send him very early on into the spiral from which he never recovers. While Encephalitis is eventually determined to be the cause of Will's greatest suffering, it is never made clear exactly how much the disease effected him. How much of the bizarre behaviour, hallucinations and other various forms of dementia are symptoms, and which are just bred in the bone. Will has an empathy disorder, which allows him to assume the emotional state of the killers, used to great effect in explaining the murders by having Will act them out in his head (it also allows Hugh Dancy to play the hero and the villain each week). He's also on the autism spectrum somewhere. And the show has gone to great lengths to show the horror of mental illness, as Will's brain turns against him and drags him into his visions. The implication that, the deeper Will goes, the less of him that comes back each time, is brought to a head in the final three episodes, where Will is all but lost.

Hannibal Lecter has never had a voice, to me. Neither has Will Graham, to be fair. But Lecter is the more famous of the two. But when I read the novels, I never hear Anthony Hopkins in my head. Hopkins' Lecter, as well as Brian Cox's, were events, not characters. They spend most of their time hocking hammy exposition. they are information dumps, successful ones, but that is the role they play. In Red Dragon, Harris uses Lecter as a catalyst rather then a component. So, once you get past the cannibalism and the "hsst-hsst-hsst," there isn't really anything there (until the novel Hannibal, which turned Dr. Lecter into a super villain, or anti-hero). Ed Norton and William Petersen's portrayals of Will are equally flat, mostly because as Harris wrote him, Graham is a flat character. However, having reread Red Dragon in the last couple weeks, I was delighted to find that the characters have finally found their voice.

In my initial pessimism, I suggested that Mads Mikkelsen had made the wrong choice, in picking Hannibal over Thor: The Dark World. I was wrong. So very wrong. Let Marvel have their fun, what he has done in reinventing the character of Lecter is a performance of the lifetime. It can, at times, be difficult to wade through his thick accent, but that obscuring of communication actually helps the performance, since Lecter is hiding behind himself anyway. Mikkelsen's Lecter can't be compared to Hopkins, because they are entirely different characters. I find it hard to picture Mads taunting Clarice the way Hopkins went after Jodie Foster. Mikkelsen's Lecter is too polite, to reserved, too subtle for that. Mikkelsen has created a character that is worthy of the definition Chilton gives, that he is a monster. Even when this Hannibal is at his most primal, he is still collected (Mikkelsen has said that he plays the character as Lucifer, someone who loves too much, and is seen as evil because of it)

Hugh Dancy too, has found a character where none existed before, and every bit of equal kudos to the writers, who found something interesting to do with a character that isn't that interesting. His depleted version of Will, someone who isn't just unwilling, but actively afraid of himself, is mesmerising to watch. The trailers did not capture anything of the true performance, and as Will became increasingly unstable, Dancy only became more impressive. I mentioned before, how Dancy often gets to play multiple roles in episodes, as he fills in the blanks at crime scenes. Those roles are electric, and show a range that TV actors rarely get to show off. Of course, there is much to be said about playing things straight. After the first episode, my favourite character was Jack Crawford, played with expected quality by Lawrence Fishburne. My opinion of the character, not the actor, has wavered as the season progressed, to the point of near (and unintended) villainy, but it is still a strong and ever present portrayal. Same can be said of Caroline Dhavernas as Alana Bloom, essentially a new character to the universe, borrowing a name from a minor male character in the novel. A stand out in the cast is the minor character of Freddie Lounds, played by Lara Jean Chorostecki, and the closest thing the series has to an out-and-out villain. I love that I hate Lounds so much, that I crave Lecter to snap her neck. Shows need characters like that, to keep things in perspective.

The writing is top notch, with Fuller having a hand in nearly every script (and those that he didn't showing evidence of that). But a good script is nothing without good performances, and a steady hand behind the camera. The series looks amazing, with attention to every detail. Shadows, lights, angles, everything frames the characters exactly. And the food. The show treats food as others do violence, with intense interest and grotesque detail. And treats violence as others do food, with a palpable apathy and desensitised disinterest. Comes, no doubt, from having a gourmet chef as a consultant.

The show also revels in the mythology not just of the novels, but of the whole Lecter character. It swaps elements from the books and movies, from production gags and references, throws them all into a bag, and let it pour out. Hobbs, the Minnesota Shrike, was a reference in the books, as was his daughter Abigail, who had a far happier fate in written form. These foundations are elaborated on, with Abigail becoming an obsession for both Will and Hannibal, one out of guilt, the other because he likes to see how things works. We also got a copyright-friendly retelling of Clarice Starling's story, merging it with Will's backstory from the novels. Lines of dialogue form the book are placed in new context. Doctor Chilton and the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane are reproduced from their movie forms, and the series created it's first purely original character, except that it didn't. Dr. Abel Gideon, played by Eddie Izzard, was a joy to watch, and an intentional copy of the film version of Lecter (Gideon was the name of the character in the Silence of the Lambs script, before they had permission to use Lecter). It drives home the point that this Lecter isn't anything we've seen before, and every preconception we might have had needs to be done away with.

Fuller being Fuller, can't resist adding his own touches. All of Fuller's shows exist in once massive, and bizarre, shared universe and Hannibal is no exception. Aside from returning actors in new roles, like Dhavernas or Pushing Daisies' Ellen Greene, we got a story line concerning a girl named Georgia Madchen, played by Dead Like Me star Ellen Muth, where she played Georgia Lass. Madchen means "girl" in German, and Lass means 'girl' in Middle English. Her Hannibal character suffered from an illness that made her believe she was dead, and thus calls into question the entire reality of Dead Like Me in a brilliant and startling way. Promises that Lee Pace and Anna Friel will appear in the series eventually makes me wonder what other twists Fuller has in store.

The best episodes were the final three, while the weakest were five, nine and seven. Sadly, the story line about Jack's wife (played by his real wife, Gina Torres) simply didn't go anywhere, for the plot or the character. Five, concerning organ thieves, was very by the book, and despite seven starting off with a totem pole of corpses, was much more of a waste of Lance Henriksen then a memorable episode.

The finale has left us in a interesting place, moving into season two (and remember, everything was filmed and finished before they knew they were coming back). Will has been arrested, and implicated in the deaths of at least five copycat murders. Hannibal, the Chesapeake Ripper, has managed to manipulate everyone into believing exactly what he needs them to believe, except Will. It is interesting that Gillain Anderson's Bedelia Du Maurier apparently knows, or at least has a good idea of what Hannibal does, and that Will, despite being incapacitated by disease and dementia, was able to figure it out too. The season ended perfectly, with Will and Lecter in reversed roles, each aware of what the other truly is (note Will's change in the episode from calling him Hannibal to calling him Dr. Lecter). Next season will undoubtedly be focused on Will attempting to clear his name and shift the focus onto Hannibal. Which I'm sure the good doctor will have something to say about.

My favourite part of the show though? Mads Mikkelsen's hair. In particular, three strands normally pushed back from the part. When things get out of his control, they dangled in front of his forehead like scars. And when things are returned to calm normalcy, he pushed them back up into place. Everything is deliberate here, and it is beautiful.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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