• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

Hannibal: Coquilles (Review)

I feel a little bad now. I spent a lot of time in Amuse-Boche and Ceuf complaining about the possibility that Hannibal might turn into a serial-killer-of-the-week procedural, at a time when the networks are over-saturated with that sort of forensic drama. However, Coquilles manages to be a pretty superlative hour of television despite feeling like a pretty conventional “catch the serial killer” story. The key is in the execution, with Coquilles serving as a rich character-driven drama that just happens to involve the hunt for a gruesome serial killer.

It also helps that the “angel maker” feels like a refugee from an early draft of a Thomas Harris novel rather than a bland psychopath of the week.

Served...

Served…

The relationship between Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal and the novels written by Thomas Harris is somewhat interesting. As I’ve pointed out before, the opening credits specifically reference the characters from the novel Red Dragon, Harris’ first novel to feature Hannibal Lecter. At the same time, the show cleverly draws on the iconography and imagery (and even themes) from all the novels and screen adaptations involving Harris’ iconic serial killer.

Coquilles, in particularly, is fixated on the idea of killing as a transformation. It’s a recurring theme throughout Harris’ work. In Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde talks about transforming the families he murders, as if helping them to transcend their mortal shells. In The Silence of the Lambs, Jame Gumb kills so that he might himself be transformed. You could even argue that Lecter himself performs some of this murder-as-alchemy, turning his victims into fine food.

The scent of death...

The scent of death…

Fuller’s Hannibal has flirted with this idea before. In Amuse-Bouche, the killer was transforming the bodies into fungus, the mushrooms themselves literally fermenting the remains. In Potage, Garret Jacob Hobbs talked about how it was only “murder” if you allowed any part of the body to go to waste. He served up his victims to his family and even stuffed cushions with their hair. So it’s not as if Fuller has been ignoring this particular Harrisonian theme.

And yet Coquilles still feels like the most distinctly Harris-esque episode of the season to date. Perhaps it’s something as superficial as the visuals, the notion of the bodies arranged as grotesque sculptures. It evokes comparisons to the murders committed by Dolarhyde in Harris’ Red Dragon, where he would painstakingly arrange the bodies to watch him. Coquilles provides some of the most grotesquely artistic visuals of the show to date.

The sound of his wings...

The sound of his wings…

“He’s not mocking them,” Will explains of the victims. “He’s transforming them.” Later on, Graham extrapolates, “He thinks he’s elevating them somehow…” During one haunted vision of the killer, Graham imagines the villain offering, “I can give you the majesty of becoming.” He makes it sound almost religious, like transcending or moving to a higher plane. It somehow feels like it fits perfectly with Harris’ approach to serial killers and their work, the disturbing quasi-religious angle to the brutality.

After all, as Hannibal teased in Amuse-Bouche, evoking a reference he makes in The Silence of the Lambs, isn’t God the most prolific serial killer of all? The one with the most grotesque sense of humour? The show has hinted, as Harris does with Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, that the power over life and death allows the killers to feel like some sort of divine power. Coquilles just takes all that imagery and sticks it in a blender, offering a pretty strong distillation of some of Harris’ more uncomfortable and disturbing ideas. “Can’t beat God, become him?” Will asks at one point, and it’s close enough.

A cut above...

A cut above…

Coquilles also feels rather closely connected to Harris’ Red Dragon for other reasons. It really pushes forward the idea that Will is having troubled doing what he does. “It’s getting harder to make myself look,” he confesses to Jack Crawford. Again, this isn’t a sudden development. We’ve suspected that this was coming since at least Aperitif. (And probably since the moment it was announced the show would focus on Graham.)

This is the meat of Graham’s arc in Red Dragon, and one that has been massively influential across all serial killer fiction. Harris’ Will Graham codified the idea that gazing too long into madness could provoke madness itself. When Crawford wonders what happens if Will gives up, Will replies, “Then maybe I find a job as a diesel repair man in a boat yard.” That is where Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon finds him, with Crawford forced to ask for assistance one last time.

The road to hell...

The road to hell…

There are other similarities that make Coquilles feel like a forensic character drama in the style of Harris’ first two Lecter books. Although he’s hardly the most developed character in the show, mostly discussed by Graham and his team in the third person, the killer here seems more pathetic and sympathetic than any of the previous serial killers on the show, including Molly Shannon’s creepy wannabe-mother from Ceuf.

With his brain tumour and the ambiguously supernatural insight it grants him, there’s a sense that the “angel maker” can’t be held entirely accountable for his actions. Submitting to his own masochistic urges as a way of dealing with his inevitable death, he becomes a figure who is almost as pitiable as he is terrifying. Recalling the way that Harris could Dolarhyde or even Gumb seem strangely broken and almost faintly tragic, the “angel maker” is a fascinating creation haunting the periphery of Coquilles.

It's murder... but is it art?

It’s murder… but is it art?

Then again, he works quite well as more of a symbol than a character. His crimes are gruesome and grotesque enough, his story dark enough, that we can understand Will’s increasing reluctance to look. The serial killer also serves as an effective counterpoint to the grief felt by Jack Crawford and his wife at her inevitable death. The killer never feels like he’s going to steal the focus of the show from the regular characters, which is probably the key to making this work.

What helps Coquilles stand head-and-shoulders above most serial killer fare is the fact that it’s still centred on its lead cast. It doesn’t treat the psychopath as a side show to distract from a fairly bland ensemble with perfunctory character plotting. Like the very best of Millennium, a show which feels more and more like a closer cousin than CSI or Criminal Minds, it seems like the freak of the weak is more of a vehicle for character drama and long-term story-telling.

Think (break)fast...

Think (break)fast…

There’s even room for the show’s usual sly referencing and foreshadowing. Lecter reveals he has an advanced sense of smell. Given the two senses are linked, it’s a nice way of relatively subtly revealing that he has a very developed sense of taste. Smelling Graham, he notes, “That smells like something with a ship on the bottle.” Graham replies, “I keep getting it for Christmas.” It’s a piece of dialogue from their encounter in Red Dragon, although Lecter’s observation is laced with less condescension here. (He doesn’t mention, although you can almost see Mads Mikkelsen thinking, “Something a child would buy.”)

While a lot of Coquilles feels like a fairly explicit homage to Red Dragon, with its darkly religious and haunted serial killer and the sense that the abyss is staring into Will Graham, Fuller and his team are still drawing on a lot of the shared history and iconography of the Lecter novels, refusing to tie their adaptation down to one book or one film, instead suggesting that the Lecter mythology offers a rich variety of inspirations and imagery.

They haven't a prayer of catching him...

They haven’t a prayer of catching him…

In particular, one killing can’t help but evoke the powerful image from climax of The Silence of the Lambs, as a body is suspended above the ground in a pose designed to evoke that of an angel. While the reveal here doesn’t match the sheer theatricality of Demme’s masterful movie moment, it does create the sense that Hannibal is haunted by these recurring ideas of visuals. It creates a strange and unnerving sense of continuity between the various interpretations of the character. All we need now is an episode climax set to Inna Gadda Da Vita to complete the references and connections.

There’s also a sense that Fuller has a tight grip on where his show is going. Hannibal works so well because it is character-driven. Laurence Fishburne has generally been cast in the role of the stern authority figure, but the production team seem to appreciate what a waste it is of the man’s formidable talents. After all, one of the benefits of reimagining Hannibal Lecter’s story in the form of a television show is that it allows more space to develop the cast.

Jacked up...

Jacked up…

Lecter and Graham are the obvious beneficiaries, but Coquilles sees Crawford given his own character arc, and his own unique relationship with death. Fishburne is – I’d argue – one of the strongest actors of his generation. I even thought he did a nice job on CSI, despite writing that doesn’t play to his strengths. Crawford has a tendency to come across in most Lecter stories as a fairly two-dimensional archetype.

Crawford is manipulative and ruthless, but he’s well-meaning and his cause is just. He’s a good guy who catches bad guys and uses our lead characters to do it. Coquilles adds a bit of flesh to those bones, giving us a more nuanced take on the character. It humanises Crawford, making him more than just “the guy who wants to use Will Graham until there’s nothing of use left.” Instead, Crawford becomes “the guy so horrified by death and so sick of losing to it that he will do anything to even the score.”

This your wife...

This your wife…

We also get some nice Lecter moments as well. I like the way the series is just letting Hannibal sort of do his own thing, and resisting the urge to push him front-and-centre. It trusts Mikkelsen enough that it doesn’t feel the need to push him to the fore to remind the viewers of whose name is branding the show. Instead, these early episodes seem to be filled with nice little character references and hints at motivation. There’s a delightfully black sense of humour to all these fancy meals as well.

I particularly like the irony of Crawford’s defence of Lecter’s culinary practises. When it’s pointed out that animal cruelty is the first sign of sociopathy, Crawford immediately retorts, “That doesn’t apply in the kitchen.” Oh, he’s going to eat those words. There’s something delightfully condescending and almost playful about Lecter’s attempts to assure Bella Crawford that he uses an “ethical butcher.” She responds, skeptically, “Be kind to animals and then eat them?” He clarifies, “No need for unnecessary suffering.” It just depends on who gets to define “necessary.”

He's hardly a by-the-book psychiatrist...

He’s hardly a by-the-book psychiatrist…

At the same time, I like the idea that Will is growing slowly suspicious of Lecter. When Lecter opens the episode with the classic bad guy gambit of trying to turn the heroes against each other, Graham is smart enough to catch on almost as quickly as the audience. (And he doesn’t have the advantage of knowing Lecter’s a bad dude.) “You trying to alienate me from Jack Crawford?” Will inquiries, in what’s a delightfully sharp bit of writing.

After all, it’s easy to make a villain look smart by running rings around a dumb cast. It takes genuine skill to have him run rings around a smart cast. What I’m getting at is that the script by Scott Nimerfro and Bryan Fuller is wonderful. The show also did very well to recruit director Guillermo Navarro, who won an Oscar for the cinematography on Pan’s Labyrinth. Navarro gives the episode a delightfully ethereal and downright macabre atmosphere, one which also helps it stand out from other procedurals.

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

Coquilles is just a fantastically constructed episode of television, and probably the strongest episode of the show’s first season to date. It’s a wonderful piece of work, and a demonstration of what the show is capable of.

2 Responses

  1. I haven’t seen this show yet but it seems interesting. Thanks for the review. I’m going to have to check it out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: