(S P O I L E R S)
In which the family you think is family is just a stepping stone to real family.
“Jack: What do you see Will?
Will: Family values.”
In my essay for “Amuse-Bouche”, I noted how one of Bryan Fuller’s overarching thematic motifs in Hannibal’s first season is the complex and twisted family that forms amongst the main characters. Both book and film versions of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal play around with this concept, mainly through Clarice Starling’s attachment to dueling surrogate father figures Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter. Those two relationships gain an added frisson from the latent romantic tension therein; Clarice’s dark romance with Hannibal is explored in greater depths, but there’s always an implication that Jack’s affections for her dance around the border of purely paternal instinct. This semi-incestuous dynamic is fully in line with the often hazy depiction of deviant/alternative sexuality in the Thomas Harris universe. Francis Dolarhyde, Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, and Mason Verger are theoretically all antagonistic figures dabbling in perverse sexual desires (Verger’s being the most reprehensible, at least in the novel’s grotesque depiction), but they’re also all outcasts from larger family structures. Dolarhyde and Gumb are both abandoned by their mothers, and Verger is stigmatized as the deformed monster of his affluent family via his drug-induced torture at Hannibal’s hands.
At this point in the show, Fuller’s adaptation of this concept downplays the sexual deviance angle (with the exception of the pseudo-incestuous trappings of Garret and Abigail’s relationship), but it fully embraces an extended family created from a band of orphans of all stripes. During their therapy session, Will admits to having never known his mother, while Hannibal reveals his upbringing as an orphan (a trait which further connects both of them with Abigail.) “Oeuf” features the first on screen appearance of Jack’s wife Bella (Gina Torres, the real life Mrs. Fishburne), but their obviously strained relationship marks him as the emotional orphan who seems to only find fulfillment in hunting suspects for the FBI. And even though she seems to be fairly stable, Alana is only defined by her work relationships, with no hint of an outside life.
There’s always an ambiguous aspect to this family tree. Will and Hannibal search for meaning in each other, and their mutual paternal feelings for Abigail have some benevolent motivations, even as self-interest taints the proceedings. And Jack may serves as father figure to Will, but he also pushes him to the brink in the name of justice. But the manipulations on display can also be read as a wry commentary on the power dynamics of any normal familial structure. At heart, these are still all people looking for some kind of connection.
“Oeuf” serves as a nightmare refutation of that desire, as ideal families are literally destroyed from within by a band of “Lost Boys”, kidnapped/orphaned middle children inducted into a warped surrogate clan, complete with a Peter Pan figure in the older C.J. Lincoln. The first post-credits shot, of maggots devouring a long-abandoned dinner, sets the stage for the larger thematic story on display: the age old fear that children are forces of destruction, a manifestation of a parent’s darkest impulses. The socio-economic factor of affluence being no protection from the self-cannibalizing impulse also serves as a pitch black satire of the inherent decadence of the well-off (a concept that defines much of the legend of Hannibal Lecter.) Will laments his inability to give the boys back what they’ve given away to this alternate family, while Hannibal theorizes to Jack that Will is desperately trying to return to his childhood with his father (effectively making him a Peter Pan figure chasing a Peter Pan figure.)
This greater theme takes on an added heft when considering the context of “Oeuf”s disappearance from the show’s initial run. On April 15th, 2013, ten days before this episode was set to debut, two brothers performed their own act of familial destruction when they bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Copley Square. Cautious of offending the afflicted with his portrayal of murderous children, Bryan Fuller asked NBC to pull this episode from airing, instead chopping it up into a series of web episodes (the unexpurgated version is widely available on video and streaming services.)
“Oeuf” was always going to be a bit of an odd duck, even before the Boston bombings disappeared it from prime time. It’s one of two Hannibal episodes not lensed by ace DP James Hawkinson, and even though the show’s house style is still evident, there’s a noticeable difference from the usual lush extravagance. Karim Hussain makes extensive use of reveals in his shooting, most notably in Alana and Hannibal’s first conversation about the best treatment for Abigail. It’s not readily apparent if this method is meant to emphasize the outpouring of new information or to lend more of a visual dynamism to the plotting. This slightly more traditional shooting scheme does hew to the grittier, more realistic view of crime that the episode takes, as aside from the graphic aftermath of the family murders, there’s not a speck of ritualism featured here.
Another odd feature of “Oeuf” is its employment of the criminally underused Molly Shannon. Playing the matriarch of the Lost Boys, she’s never given a name, and for such a driving presence in the plot, she has precious little screen time outside of stating her surrogate family philosophy and being gunned down in the climactic cookout siege. In my essay for “Potage”, I explored the possibility that Abigail Hobbs is reenacting the Electra Complex, and it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that Shannon’s nameless character is meant to represent motherhood in general.
Or maybe she’s the figurative manifestation of the absentee mothers that haunt so many of Thomas Harris’s characters. Will and Hannibal lament their tenuous connections with maternal figures, and maybe on a more universal level, Hannibal is dealing with the implications of Thackeray’s famous line stating that "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children." If this holds true, a universe with no mother is one with no God, where moral and ethical direction is fungible. It’s a state of behavioral blankness that Will and Hannibal certainly explore during these first two seasons. And it could also be argued that the main cast is fumbling through a somewhat amoral world in which they’re trying to assert their own godhood. Hannibal mentions to Abigail that “Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. I want to give you your power back.” And Beverly Katz compares Will to British artist Willard Wigan, whose microscopic works are perhaps the ultimate realization of the artistic impulse for total control in the act of creation (Will’s fly fishing hobby, one which entails a great deal of attention to microscopic detail, is revealed in this episode.)
The simplest answer might be the best one. The Lost Boys case forces the members of this burgeoning surrogate family to face their subconscious fears of what they’re entering for the first time. And it further foreshadows Will’s greatest fear, that Abigail is the killer everyone thinks she is. His attachment to her is somewhat paternal, but it’s also driven by his uncomfortable identification with Garret Jacob Hobbs, and his desire to prove that both he and Abigail are more than extensions of a murderous psychopath. When her complicity is finally revealed later in Season 1, it’s a devastating blow that pushes Will further into his psychological breakdown, the ultimate betrayal by his surrogate child.
In the aftermath of the Lost Boys wrap up, each of the main characters is left to retreat to their true families, as dysfunctional as they might be. Jack and Bella sleep in the same bed, but are worlds apart. Will’s refuge is with his pack of dogs, family members who will maintain total subservient devotion to him. And Abigail is reunited with her dead mother and father, if only through her psilocybin-induced hallucinations of Hannibal and Alana (another foreshadowing of their eventual romance, and of the bloody, Hobbs-esque massacre that will close Season 2.)
To the leftovers:
*I haven’t mentioned it before, but I’ve always loved the time lapse photography that Bryan Fuller uses for most of the establishing shots. At this point in filmic history, it can seem like a clichéd device, but in this context it creates a palpable sense of an exterior world at unrest, and of the fractured nature of time that will gradually envelop the show.
*Hannibal Lecter is truly in his element when preparing a meal, and the sheer delight that Mads Mikkelsen displays when cooking for Abigail is vastly entertaining. It almost makes you forget about his Machiavellian plans.
*To further extend the surrogate family metaphor, Jack’s dinner with Hannibal lends the good doctor the air of a brother and a father confessor. But Jack is also no fool; his prolonged dance with Hannibal will eventually lead to their epic confrontation in Season 2.
*”Family friction is usually a catalyst for personality development” (Brian Zeller, to Will, after asking him if he’s an only child.)