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Hannibal – Savoureux (Review)

That was one impressive first season. Hannibal has developed from something that seemed like an idle curiosity – a police procedural based around the over-used cannibalistic serial killer? – into one of the best new American dramas of the past season. I suspect a lot of that is down to the decision to structure the season across thirteen episodes, instead of a larger (more traditional) network structure of twenty-or-more. To be fair, there were a few missteps early in the first season as Hannibal tried to balance the expectations of a procedural drama with the demands of an intimate character study, but it found its feet almost half-way through the season and it has never looked back.

Hannibal has been tightly plotted and cleverly constructed from around about Coquilles, and it’s remarkably how the show has found a way to weave its “serial killers of the week” into the over-arching plot. For example, Georgia from Buffet Froid winds up being a vital piece of Hannibal’s plot to incriminate Will. The clock that the sinister psychiatrist asked Will to draw in that episode is used to generate some exquisite tension here. Everything seems to have been building towards this point, and Bryan Fuller has done a simply tremendous job constructing a thirteen-episode Rube Goldberg machine that pays off beautifully.

Portrait of the killer?

Portrait of the killer?

Savoureux is really the perfect way to wrap up the season, and a solid demonstration of how this approach has paid off. It’s clever and powerful stuff, creating a sense that the show hasn’t wasted a frame in quite some time, managing to the rare feat of making a carefully planned and structured build-up seem organic. It also beautifully subverts expectations, and manages to not only serve as a satisfying conclusion to this first year, but also leaves fans hungering for the second season.

Savoureux is a fantastic piece of television, from the first frame to the last. It includes a dizzying array of twists and turns, without ever seeming convoluted or losing the audience. It ties up a lot of the season’s loose ends, while teasing an exciting new status quo for the second season. It gives all of its ensemble (including Bloom) something to do, but also remains tightly focused on the two leads.

Nailing it...

Nailing it…

Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy have done tremendous work this season, each inheriting roles from established and veteran performers and struggling to put their own stamp on them. Mikkelsen has had the higher profile role, succeeding an actor who won an Oscar for his interpretation of Hannibal Lecter and turned the character into a pop culture staple. There was a huge amount of expectation there, and – with some welcome assistance from Fuller’s scripts – Mikkelsen has managed to make this role thoroughly his own.

Dancy’s accomplishment is easier to overlook. After all, I’m constantly surprised by the people unaware that there was movie (let alone a book) produced before The Silence of the Lambs. While William Peterson’s portrayal of Will Graham played through to his casting on CSI, it remains a cult film. Similarly, Ed Norton did great work in Red Dragon, but he was hardly the star attraction of Brett Ratner’s Hannibal Lecter reboot.

Have they got him hook, line and sinker?

Have they got him hook, line and sinker?

Graham is a massively influential character, particularly for those with even the slightest interest in the history of the forensic thriller subgenre, but he lacks the same cultural cache as Lecter does. This puts Dancy in an interesting position – he has to distinguish himself from two predecessors the audiences might not really be familiar with. And it’s to Dancy’s credit that he does so with a minimum of fuss. Much as Mikkelsen’s Lecter is unique, so is Dancy’s Graham. You couldn’t imagine Peterson or Norton playing the role, and yet the casting is perfect.

And that’s the key here. Fuller’s scripting and structuring is fantastic – the case against Will is surprisingly sturdy without any of the elements feeling too contrived or convenient. However, the show relies on Dancy (and Mikkelsen) to sell it. And they do. The pair give wonderful performances, and the show sparkles whenever they share the screen. Part of the reason that Savoureux works so well is that its climax hinges on a pretty earth-shattering scene between Lecter and Graham, the moment where Graham realises that he has been played for a fool.

A clean frame...

A clean frame…

It’s powerful stuff, and Dancy is phenomenal. We have to believe that Graham can be both shrewdly resourceful and completely desperate – that’s both incredibly dangerous and eerily vulnerable at the same time. Will’s character arc – as elegantly structured as it is – wouldn’t work if Dancy wasn’t up to the task. He is, and his work here is absolutely phenomenal. Hannibal is a show that has been very fortunate in all aspects of its production, from casting to writing to direction.

Of course, the scripting is a massive part of how this works, with Fuller having a wonderful gift for disguising the most careful and meticulous of plotting as organic development. There’s an absolutely wonderful little thread running through the middle section of Savoureux where the script plays with audience expectations. Asking Will to draw a clock, Bloom discovers his mental illness, harking back to Buffet Froid.

Hear, hear...

Hear, hear…

In any other season finalé, this would be where Hannibal’s plan would unravel. Bloom knows that Will has an illness that is distorting his perception. We know that this has allowed Hannibal to exploit him for the past few episodes. This is the loose end for Bloom to grab, causing all of Lecter’s plotting and manipulations to come undone. Will is vindicated, and Hannibal is uncovered. At the very least, Hannibal murders Bloom to cover his tracks and the stakes are upped.

These are logical and predictable story strands, and I’m amazed at how far ahead my mind leaped when Bloom made the discovery – a fascinating demonstration at how narrative television has created certain structural and narrative expectations in the audience. (Or maybe it was just me.) I was convinced that the clock would be a game-changer. After all, why make such a big deal of the clock earlier in the season if not to have it pay-off now? There must have been less obvious ways for Lecter to make his diagnosis?

A great cell...

A great cell…

And yet Savoureux raises the possibility and immediately discards it. In narrative terms, this might seem like a bit of a cheat – a narrative dead-end, a red herring, set-up that doesn’t pay off. And yet there’s something oddly brilliant about it. Bloom presents the clock, and Lecter dismisses it by producing his own doctored test results. Nobody questions him. That thread is cut. That particular angle of Will’s redemption is closed, brutally and efficiently.

It’s deft manoeuvrings, and Savoureux shrewdly plays to audience expectations before gleefully subverting them. There’s no convenient wrap-up, no immediate redemption for Will Graham. Instead of improving, things just get worse, pushing Will deeper and deeper, crushing him further and further under Hannibal’s sinister conspiracy. The frame-up is elegant, and particularly so because Hannibal never relies on Bloom and Crawford being idiots. They’re just not quite in the same league as the eponymous psychopath.

Doctoring the evidence...

Doctoring the evidence…

The episode’s ending is a master-stroke. It’s a great hook for the second season, but it also beautifully underscores the theme of identity running through this first season. Will feared being consumed by the minds of the people he hunted, so it’s bitterly ironic that he should wind up assuming the identity of one pop culture’s most recognisable serial killers. It’s also a pretty wonderful homage, right down to the decision to score the scene with Vide Cor Meum from the movie Hannibal was inspired.

The “walking through the basement of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane” bit from The Silence of the Lambs is so iconic that even the movie’s prequel – Red Dragon – riffed on it. The show has arguably already homaged it in Entrée. As such the decision to repeat the scene – but casting Hannibal in the role of “person walking into the interview” – is a beautiful and incredibly simple twist on one of the most memorable movie moments of the past couple of decades.

Psycho driving...

Psycho driving…

Still, the ending works because it feels organic and logical. It’s an end point that makes a great deal of sense for allt he characters involved, and wraps up the series’ big theme – the question of identity. On a purely textual level, that question has haunted Will for the show’s first year, as he struggles to hold on to his own psyche and identity in the midst of his ability to completely immerse himself in the mind of another.

However, on a somewhat higher level, it’s also something the show has had to grapple with – dealing with the fact that it is only the latest reimagining of an iconic character, following on from a commercially and critically successful horror film where the best lines have become pop cultural touchstones. The first season has often been about Fuller and the show figuring how to be the same and yet different – how to remain Hannibal Lecter without being Anthony Hopkins. This first year has been a remarkably successful attempt by the show to define its own identity.

The doctor is in...

The doctor is in…

And so the ending of the first season feels earned. Will overcomes his identity crisis. “I know who I am,” Will tells us, and he could be speaking for the show. “I am who I’ve always been.” It’s a powerful sentiment, and it’s appropriate that Will’s first season ends with the character given complete awareness not only of his own identity – but that of Hannibal Lecter himself. The series ends with a scene that plays off what we know in order to seem incredibly wrong, but also somehow perversely right.

It might not be the story we know exactly, but Hannibal is well aware of itself. The second season cannot arrive fast enough.

4 Responses

  1. This show is one of the most pleasantly and consistently surprising viewing experiences of the year. Totally agree with the shorter season working to its advantage.

  2. Hmm, can’t really see anyone but Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lector, one of the greatest villains ever. However through the magic of streaming, I’ll try this show out

    • Give it a go. The first season is very “case of the week.” The second season improves dramatically. The second half of the second season and the first half of the third season are some of the most striking television that I have ever seen.

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