(S P O I L E R S) In which you have to convince yourself that the lion is not in the room. When it is, I assure you, you’ll know.
And so it begins, this gorgeous, thrilling, haunting dance between two men of obsession, two keen observers of the human condition trapped within the confines of their own personalities. An epic battle of wits. A stunning meditation on art and perception. A twisted love story, a bromance on Atropine.
The brilliance of Bryan Fuller’s vision is partly based in a storytelling methodology often used in prequels, but rarely done well: the expansion of a minor plot point referred to in the past tense. In Hannibal’s case, it’s a reference in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon to Will Graham’s work with the Minnesota Shrike, his first case and one that leaves deep scars. Fuller uses this throwaway line as the basis for the backbone of the plot for the first 13 episodes. But he also employs it as a springboard for the themes and motifs that will drive the show through its first two seasons: the role of the hunter and the hunted, the pathology of the killer’s mind, the fine line between the human and the animalistic, and the fungible duality of identity.
One of the most striking manipulations of the Harris universe that Hannibal offers is its depiction of Will’s finely honed/debilitating psychological insight, his “pure empathy” as Lecter puts it. Past cinematic versions of Will have paid lip service to this concept, usually showing his first person POV as he flashes back to what the killer might have seen. But Fuller goes one step further in having Will reenact each part of the murders in his head, completely assuming the role of the perpetrator. On a formal level, it’s an enticing visual shorthand which also establishes the existentially tortured state of his mind, the mental and physical toll of his visions, like no other depiction before. The mantra that he repeats (“This is my design”) is supposed to help him walk through the killer’s process, but it’s also an unconscious statement of the strict process that Will needs to deal with empathy this strong, and of the key role that this entire process plays in his life.
Will tells Jack Crawford that his hyper-empathy can be attributed to “an active imagination”, and Alana Bloom later informs him that fear is the price of imagination, and the force that drives Will. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, this sense of fear and imagination, and it’s no coincidence that when first analyzing the Shrike’s victim, Will uses Willy Wonka and his Golden Ticket as an analogy. After all, that 1971 film version of the story succinctly follows “Come with me, and we’ll be, in a world of pure imagination” with a harrowing boat ride into the nightmare landscape of its characters. It also paints Will as a slightly precocious child in a man’s body, someone who hasn’t had the youthful sense of imagination burned out of him, but who also pays a terrible price for maintaining this pure vision in a chaotic and grotesque adult world. His anti-social tendencies (quasi-autistic, in his own words) make him the ideal candidate for isolated dives into other people’s psyches (empathy crossed with slightly dysfunctional vicarious living), but they also bring him closer each time to losing himself in these netherworlds. It’s a perilous state that DP James Hawkinson expertly captures in the climax of the opening scene, when Will, who’s deep in the killer’s mindset, is rack focused into Theresa Marlow’s body in the foreground, only for the focus to rack back into him, now in the FBI Academy classroom, a man stuck in an empathic fantasy within an empathic fantasy.
Going back through “Apertif” for the second time, I was struck by how the show’s treatment of Will’s hyper-empathic abilities so deeply resonated with me, and how this subject matter might be why Hannibal has been more of a cult hit than breakout success. In a modern society that is technically more connected than ever, but whose relentless emphasis on the promotion of the individual has weakened a broader sense of empathy, Will’s plight (and the greater theme it encapsulates) can seem slightly off-putting and alien. It’s also a deeply earnest exploration of the process, without the buffer of irony to ease the tension, a cutting sense of black humor the only regular respite.
It’s this deep sense of empathy that makes the Will-Hannibal relationship so compelling. Michael Mann’s Manhunter plays with Hannibal’s desire for revenge on Will, and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, throws in a bit more of their backstory in its depiction of the night that Will almost dies in Chez Lecter. But Hannibal’s exploration of the origin of their connection delves into much greater areas of ambiguity and intrigue, setting up a yin-yang symbiosis between an empathy machine and an empathy vacuum. Framing Hannibal in the gestational days of his legend allows Fuller to bring out nuanced shades of detail in his character. Though he’s still the cannibal that a modern audience knows, he also has the same sense of childlike curiosity that drives Will’s visions. In Will, he sees a kindred soul, a chance for him to possibly gain a foothold in the experience of human emotions.
Hannibal’s attempts to ingratiate himself with Will play out like a classic romantic seduction. They banter (in their own dry manner) about the matter of taste in Jack’s office, and later he brings Will breakfast (which turns out to be Chekhov’s cannibal protein scramble) in his hotel room. It’s with Abigail Hobbs that Hannibal finds his true entryway into his psyche, and a possible inroad toward normal emotional equilibrium. The episode’s final shot, of a slumbering Lecter holding her hand in the hospital room, while Will sits on her other side, sets up the relational triangle that will drive most of this season’s action, Will attempting to absolve his guilt through her salvation, Hannibal yearning for identification with both, while covertly using her to dig into Will’s psyche.
This shot also serves as a beautiful tableau, a motif that has become one of the show’s hallmarks, and which is on full display in this episode. The Marlow murder scene is a seductively lit portrait of pandemonium amidst the alluring normalcy of suburbia, the warm, somewhat sterile colors of the house’s interior invaded by the chaotic asymmetry of blood pools and spatter. Will’s visions of Elise Nichols are straight out of surrealist, gothic horror, her body offered up as spectral sacrifice to a bloodlust-filled god in search of expiation. Perhaps most striking of all is the site of Cassie Boyle’s murder, which Will quickly ferrets out as the work of a Minnesota Shrike copycat. For the first time, his nightmare visions of murder take concrete form, the spirit world invading our reality (and an invocation of the classic question of whether the person exploring the evil inadvertently brings the evil with them.) The copycat will eventually be revealed as Hannibal, beginning the long mindgame that will draw Will closer to him, while also playing a very logical and amoral experiment in conflict.
And it only makes sense, as Will notes “Our cannibal loves women. He doesn’t want to destroy them. He wants to consume them.” Hannibal’s aesthete leanings raise the matter of murder to the level of high art; as I noted in my introductory essay to this series, his murder tableaus give his victims a sense of transcendence that they might not have in life. In death, they become indelible symbols, forever imprinted upon the consciousness. His version of the Shrike killings takes the originals and elevates them to something much more heightened, more profound (much like Hannibal itself takes the somewhat direct machinations of the filmic Lecter universe and expands them in all directions within the long form structure of television.)
But it’s the simplest tableau that is the most resonant in terms of where Hannibal will take its characters. As he showers in his Minnesota hotel, Will has a vision of a deer standing outside his window at night. It’s a simple, solitary figure, but as his vision continues, its face begins to slightly warp and transform. It’s a vision that will gradually haunt Will more and more as the show progresses, a symbol of the encroaching darkness and murderous animal instinct that he fears will consume him. Of course, it will only be with time that he’ll see the animal’s true Hannibal Lecter-shaped form. But the darkness has to start somewhere.
Some leftovers to finish:
*Brian Reitzell and company set a great and creepy tone with the sound design for this episode, particularly with the looping bass thrumb and skittering notes that accompany Will’s fugue states.
*It’s interesting to think that if not for Alana’s recommendation of him, Hannibal might not have come into Will’s life (a plot beat that is further complicated in Season 2 with the Will-Hannibal-Alana love triangle), even as she tells Jack that she’s never wanted to be alone in the same room as Will (in order to maintain their friendship, although it’s also a sign of her blindspot for the urbane charm that disguises Lecter’s psychopathy.)
*As I noted in the intro essay to this series, Hannibal’s early episodes definitely show some of the impositions inherent in a modern major network show. Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams are fun as the comic relief crime scene investigators, but their scenes with Will and Beverly Katz sometimes too closely resemble the exposition-laden ones in standard modern crime shows. And the general pacing of the pilot is fairly breakneck, with a lot if information and character work packed into just under 45 minutes. But after all, the episode is called “Apertif”, so setting the stage in such a manner does prepare the viewer for the more deliberate indulgences ahead.