(S P O I L E R S)
In which killing must feel good to God too. He does it all the time. And are we not created in his image?
“Amuse-Bouche” might be the perfect microcosm for the first season of Hannibal. The backbone of its plot is constructed from the fairly accessible standards of the modern crime procedural (a killer of the week, the compressed hunt for said killer, a semi-breakneck storytelling pace). Hannibal and Will have their first faceoff in his American Gothic/Art Nouveau office, an arena they will return to again and again over the next 24 episodes. A familiar character is introduced in revamped manner (Freddie Lounds.) And along the way, everything starts breaking up, teetering on the edge of oblivion in a Francis Bacon/Hieronymous Bosch nightmarescape of theological nihilism and mushroom-infested bodies.
Ah yes, the mushrooms. Talk about laying all your cards on the table from the beginning. “Apertif”’s treatment of Cassie Boyle’s death scene tableau was gruesome, but the left turn that “Amuse-Bouche” takes, into a world wherein rogue pharmacist Eldon Stammets plants drugged diabetics so that the fungus they grow will offer them a more profound connection to humanity and the world, shows that Bryan Fuller and company aren’t interested in playing things straight. The mushroom as metaphor device is a giddy embrace of the psychedelically obscene, but it’s also fertile ground for the show’s deeper obsessions. As Hannibal tells Will during their first session, “The structure of the fungus mirrors that of the human brain. A web of intricate connections.” Will claims that that therapy doesn’t work on him because he knows all the tricks, but the mind games that Lecter wants to play draw from a rulebook more angular and oblique than anything Will has seen before, from a cool, observational philosophy that seeks intricate connections in terms most stark and calculating.
The connections that slowly grow between Will and Hannibal are at the forefront of this extended metaphor. As established in “Apertif”, there’s a strong symbiosis between these two opposite ends of the empathy spectrum. During their first session, Will roams the upper level library of Lecter’s office, while Hannibal stands still on the floor, listening intently to his reservations about therapy. From a visual standpoint, Hannibal is a very warm and inviting abyss, but Will isn’t quite ready to dive in yet (note too that in one shot of Hannibal, a blurry statue of a wolf is featured in the background, pointing directly in his sightline toward Will.) But Hannibal’s overarching motivations are much more complex. While classic Lecter lore depicts the Will-Hannibal dynamic as one based in animosity and revenge, Hannibal paints a portrait of a platonic love affair between two deeply flawed outsiders. Though he’ll always be an alluring amalgam of anti-hero and villain (and though he’ll test these boundaries in future episodes) the Hannibal Lecter of this show defies the easy logic of a traditional antagonist. Indeed, much like the fungus so prominently featured in this episode (and the phantasmagoric deer that treads through Will’s subconscious), he’s more a force of nature than anything, a self-imagined feature of the natural order of being, constantly expanding into other territories, colonizing, reaching out. It’s a concept in line with the best of David Cronenberg: the disease is just doing its job.
And in this episode, Hannibal’s fungus-like nature is paralleled in the introduction of Freddie Lounds. In past incarnations, this Red Dragon character has been a loutish male tabloid journalist who quickly meets a flaming wheelchair-bound demise at the hands of Francis Dolarhyde. Which is what makes Lara Jean Chorostecki’s reinvention of the character so interesting. She’s still a tabloid ambulance chaser, but she’s also a highly seductive and stylized presence, her pixie-like physicality offset by a steely killer instinct. Several characters inadvertently draw strong parallels between Hannibal and her. When he detains her in the hotel room, Jack says “Everywhere you go, you contaminate crime scenes.” And when the ill-fated Detective Pascal runs her down in the parking lot, his jibe that “You stir the hornet’s nest and I’m the one who gets stung” could be easily applied to the amoral experiments that Hannibal so relishes. At heart, they’re both parasites, leeching off of others for their sustenance. (Another parallel could be drawn to the viral nature of Freddie’s stomping grounds: the internet.) The complex relationship that she and Hannibal will form is beautifully captured in the scene on his office couch, when he demands that she destroy the recording of Will’s just-ended session. Framed in a medium shot, Mads Mikkelsen and Chorostecki are visual study in contrasts: his intimidating frame versus her petite build, his cool blue suit versus her deep red outfit and tight amber curls. When he asks her what they’re to do about her spying, the camera cuts from a close-up of red-drenched Freddie to a slice of pork loin being drenched in red sauce at Hannibal’s dinner with Jack. It’s a nice fakeout of a jump cut, but it also establishes early on that Freddie is a prime candidate for Hannibal’s menu.
But the doctor and the tabloid journalist aren’t the only characters joined in a web of fungus-like interconnectivity. In the aftermath of the Hobbs house massacre, Will has become increasingly attached to Abigail. Hannibal intimates that he’s adopted her as his surrogate daughter, but Will also sees her as a vehicle for redemption, a chance to break free of the prison of paralysis in which so much of his hyper-empathic insight traps him. At the same time he’s also deeply wary of overtaking her with the viral curse of his insight. (Abigail will become the great blank canvas upon which both Will and Hannibal project themselves during this season, a slight whiff of homoerotic mediation permeating the proceedings.) In death, Garret Jacob Hobbs continues to sprout all over Will’s subconscious, invading both his dreams and reality. And if Abigail is Will’s daughter, then the supporting characters form a surrogate family of sorts around him in the wake of his deep trauma, Jack playing the father, Alana the sister/wife, and Hannibal the…..strange brother? Creepy uncle? In this context, Eldon Stammets’s desire to plant Abigail so that she’s finally able to reach out to Will is almost noble, albeit in a very twisted way. (Once again, the show depicts the victim as art project, their embracing of the greater natural order through death an elevation into almost spiritual transcendence.)
It’s the visions of Garret Hobbs that finally force Will to relent and agree to therapy with Hannibal. And it’s here that Hannibal’s grand experiment truly begins, as he prods Will’s feelings about envisioning the vicarious thrill of killing being weakened after his own experience with it. His comment about God’s ambiguous propensity for killing (featured at the beginning of this essay) ties in with the greater philosophical musing in which he delights: the subject of goodness vs. power.
One of the most instructive insights into the nature of Hannibal Lecter comes in one of the episode’s briefest moments. When Will and Alana meet in Abigail’s hospital room, she reads the unconscious girl an excerpt from Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor was the master of Southern gothic, horror-tinged, religious morality fables, in which she mixed a finely honed sense of character complexity with an Old Testament philosophy of blood sacrifice as the only true means for redemption. “A Good Man” finds a family driving through the South on their vacation, their cantankerous, stuck in the past grandmother insisting that they visit the old family homestead one last time. The cosmic irony is that this minor diversion (inspired by her false memory of the house’s location) sets in motion an improbable series of events that leads to their execution by escaped serial killer The Misfit and his two sidekicks. It’s a brutal and nightmarish resolution to a story that initially seems to be about the generational divide. The Misfit is a fascinating character. His final sentiment, that the now-murdered grandmother would’ve been a good woman if someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life, caps off his musings that his role as the killer is a logical progression of life. O’Connor intended the grandmother to find some form of final redemption in her murder, but she also often noted how she thought The Misfit might find the light after the elderly woman calls him one of her children immediately before he murders her.
This same sense of motivational complexity courses through Hannibal, as the notorious killer (at least to us) betrays a deeper philosophical bent about his place in the universal order than we might expect. But maybe the real question is who’s the true misfit in all of this? As the show slithers its way through its two seasons, the line between Will and Hannibal, killer and victim, hunter and hunted, will become increasingly blurred. It makes for very uncomfortable viewing at times (especially in Season 2), but such is the grand interconnected web that Bryan Fuller and company spin. And as an audience, being caught in that web can be a deeply intoxicating experience.
A few leftovers before we go:
*One of Hannibal’s great pleasures is its willingness to indulge in the pure beauty of imagery (often on a symbolic level.) “Amuse-Bouche” has two of my favorite examples of this.
When Jack and Will invade Hobbs’s cabin at the episode’s beginning, they discover his infamous attic of deer antlers, another image that could be straight out of Will’s nightmare netherworld. It forms a neat visual metaphor for the animal/human, hunter/hunted dichotomy, as well as for the doom-laden traps that Will must traverse throughout the show’s run.
And when Will muses to Alana about his mental state in the hospital, the final shot of him cuts to a swirl of white liquid entering a sea of darkness. It turns out to be the cream in Freddie Lounds’s coffee cup, an impressionistic callback to Jean-Luc Godard’s universe in a coffee cup scene in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but also a stark metaphor for the yin-yang synthesis of Will and Hannibal.
*Only Hannibal Lecter would use the term “sprig of zest” to describe the feeling Will experienced in killing Garret Jacob Hobbs.
*”The mirrors of your mind can reflect the best of yourself, not the worst of someone else.” (Hannibal to Will.)
*One trait that Mads Mikkelsen carries over from former screen Lecters is his absolute sense of stillness, which is eerily complemented by his unconventionally chiseled face. He’s like a preening hawk, waiting for the chance to pounce.
*This is also the first episode to use the famous opening credits, in which torrents of blood slowly congeal into Hannibal’s face.