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Hannibal – Sorbet (Review)

Hannibal took its time building up Hannibal Lecter as a serial killer. According to creator Bryan Fuller, there would have been a joke in Aperitif about Lecter’s culinary habits, but holding off on the sight of Lecter as a serial killer until the end of Entrée feels like it was a shrewd move. Not because it could ever fool the audience into forgetting that Hannibal Lecter is a murdering cannibal or anything like that. Instead, it builds up a certain amount of tension and suspense around the character, allowing us to see how those around him could have been blinded by his persona.

With a few obvious exceptions – knocking out Doctor Bloom in Potage or phoning the Hobbs household in Aperitif – we’ve mostly seen Lecter through the eyes of others. While the very premise of the show counts on the audience knowing who or what Lecter is, keeping him at a distance allowed the show a bit of breathing room in its first year. However, now that we’ve caught a glimpse of Lecter in action, Sorbet feels like its willing to pull back the layers on our eponymous epicurean.

Best served warm...

Best served warm…

Exploring the character of Hannibal Lecter can be a double-edged sword. After all, many would argue that the literary Lecter became a much less interesting character once Thomas Harris revealed his origins and motivations in Hannibal, to the point that many are quite glad that Ridley Scott’s film adaptation glossed over them entirely. (And the film which did eventually delve into his origin story – Hannibal Rising – was eviscerated by critics and film-goers.)

Still, there’s something quite compelling about the character, explaining how he’s remained such an iconic pop culture touchstone even after all these years. Anthony Hopkins’ performance in The Silence of the Lambs is a major part of that, but there’s also just something very intriguing about the cannibal with the refined tastes, the perfectly mannered serial killer, the sophisticated murderer. It’s such a strange combination, but one that works so very well.

Just a taste...

Just a taste…

Sorbet is really the first time that the show has focused heavily on Hannibal, rather than putting him towards the edge of the narrative. Here, he’s not a sinister force manipulating the rest of the cast for his own ends. Instead, he’s the centre of attention. It’s a very delicate balance to strike, with writers Jesse Alexander & Bryan Fuller and lead actor Mads Mikkelsen walking a tightrope. Reveal too much and risk making Hannibal banal. Reveal too little, and the whole thing winds up feeling incredibly unsatisfying.

Sorbet strikes the balance perfectly, making up for the fact that Hannibal hasn’t really been doing too much on-screen killing so far. We get quick snippets of Hannibal preparing a gigantic feast for the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra. “It’s been too long since you’ve cooked for us, Hannibal,” one member of the board boasts after a high-end musical performance, prompting Lecter to put a little effort into preparing several of his culinary masterpieces for the group.

Let's be Franklin...

Let’s be Franklin…

There’s something wonderfully business-like about the way that Lecter operates. His meal appears to have been years in the making, keeping a special rolodex full of fresh meat handy for such an occasion. Hannibal has blended horror and black comedy particularly well, and the sequences of Hannibal taking cards and tracking down their owners is both bleakly comic and downright terrifying. (It also reinforces that old “prefers to eat the rude” aspect of Lecter’s personality which – along with his meal to the Philharmonic – serves as an effective call back to the source material.)

Sorbet wisely glosses over giving too much away about Lecter’s origin or back story. There have been a few oblique hints towards the history provided by Thomas Harris in the way that show has developed Lecter’s relationship with Abigail Hobbs, but the series has wisely steered clear of providing a cookie-cutter explanation for why Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people. The closest we get here is a rather abstract philosophical statement from the psychiatrist. “Oh, but a feast is life,” he assures his colleagues. “You put the life in your belly and you live.”

He could use a hand with the investigation...

He could use a hand with the investigation…

It’s a decidedly oblique explanation and motivation, one more concerned with the philosophical forces driving the character than any particular event from his own back story. Lecter doesn’t really have too much of a history at this point in the show. At the moment, he just is. It will be interesting to see if the show ever feels the need to provide a reason or an explanation, but I’m glad that it has kept some air of mystery around the character.

At the same time, Sorbet allows us a glimpse at Lecter’s inner life. We’re introduced to his patient Franklin, who was imagined by Bryan Fuller as a stand-in for the unavailable character of Benjamin Raspail. Played by Dan Fogel, there’s something incredibly pathetic about Franklin, who just so desperately wants a friend. “I’m a great friend,” Franklin assures Lecter, as if vouching for a vital service he can render. Franklin has some boundary issues, at one point complaining, “It makes me sad that I have to pay to see you.”

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

It’s hard not to pity Franklin’s insecurity or his awkwardness. I like the way that Hannibal has exploited the profession of its lead character to give us insight into the dysfunctional side of human behaviour and thought, and it’s easy to see how Lecter could develop such contempt for those who constantly try to burden him with their insecurities and fantasies. Will Graham suggests that the Chesapeake Ripper views his victims “not as people, not as prey. Pigs.” Objects he needs to “humiliate in death.”

Listening to Franklin’s heartbreakingly pathetic reflections on the death of Michael Jackson, one can understand where Lecter’s contempt and anger might come from. “Do you know what I think is the saddest thing about him dying… is that I will never get to meet him?” Franklin asks, betraying just how lonely he must be. “And I feel as though, if I were his friend, I would have been able to help save him from himself.” When Lecter asks what Franklin would get in return, he replies, “I just get to touch greatness.”

He's all Jacked up...

He’s all Jacked up…

Of course, what makes this more unsettling for Hannibal – and what possibly serves as the “stresser” leading to his killing-spree dinner party – is the idea that he might feel the same sort of crippling loneliness that Franklin does. Fuller and Mikkelsen do an excellent job of playing up the possibility without diluting the character’s essence. The obviously loneliness and isolation felt by Lecter doesn’t make him any less unsettling or frightening, and it doesn’t really make him any easier to understand or relate to either.

Instead, it serves to develop Lecter into more than just a boogie man haunting the edge of the frame and manoeuvring Will Graham and Jack Crawford precisely where they want him. The first season of Hannibal has borrowed quite heavily and overtly from the style and approach of the Thomas Harris books, and this mid-season episode feels like the inevitable point in Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs where we get to meet the monster and discover that they feel some of the same basic drives and desires as other people. They just act on them in monstrous ways.

A slice of life...

A slice of life…

The addition of Gillian Anderson to the cast as Bedelia du Maurier – Hannibal’s semi-retired psychiatrist – is also a bit of a coup for the show. The ambiguities surrounding their relationship – what history they have, how much she knows about what it is that Hannibal does – are intriguing. However, she also serves as a springboard to bring Hannibal’s character to the fore. Given the function of a psychiatrist and the nature of their relationship with their patients, it can be hard to sketch out and develop the character of the person whose primary role is to listen. Look at how much difficulty The Sopranos had with Melfi.

By putting Hannibal on the couch, it shifts him into focus and allows us a bit of a limited glimpse into his otherwise well-shielded psyche. De Maurier allows Hannibal to touch on and expand particular themes and motivations that might otherwise be concealed behind his sophisticated demeanour. It’s also intriguing to know that at least one member of the cast has a read on Hannibal, and can see through the persona he’s crafted for himself – the “very well-tailored person-suit” in a nice shout-out to The Silence of the Lambs.

Talk about taking Will apart...

Talk about taking Will apart…

At the same time, the show doesn’t take the heat off the other characters. Entrée was an intriguing look at the workings of Jack Crawford, and Sorbet keeps that plot simmering over. it’s tough to balance the demands of an ensemble television show. It would be much easier to just push everybody except Will and Hannibal to the background. Instead, giving Crawford his own history and demons adds a great deal of depth to the series.

It’s also worth remarking on just how beautiful Hannibal looks. The whole show has an eerily striking aesthetic to it. It’s easy to take that for granted, given how consistent the quality has been. The early sequence in the museum during the musical performance is absolutely stunning, a combination of rich colours set against a somewhat desaturated background. Hannibal has one of the best visual pallets on American television, and it always looks absolutely stunning. The editing and cinematography in Sorbet move at a consciously faster pace than those of earlier episodes, as if the show has done its set-up and now it’s ready to have some good-old-fashioned fun.

Savouring the flavour...

Drinking it in…

Sorbet is the moment that a lot of people would have been waiting for since Hannibal began. It’s the first episode really focused on the working of Mads Mikkelsen’s kill-happy Hannibal Lecter, and it’s probably what a lot of people have been expecting from the outset. Instead, the show took its time building to this, allowing the show to cook slowly to a boil, for the different tastes to mix and mingle. It’s much more rewarding than it might otherwise have been.

Sorbet is Hannibal firing on all cylinders.

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