(S P O I L E R S)
In which I got lost in the reconstruction.
“There's a grandiosity to the violence that I imagined that feels more real than what I know is true.” -Will
And so, ten episodes into Hannibal’s maiden televisual murder spree, we come to my origin story in regards to Bryan Fuller’s behemoth of depraved decadence. As I mentioned in the introductory essay to this series, I had avoided watching the show when I first heard about it. ‘Cause, ya know, how could a network television drama capture the richness of the Lecterverse? But then a friend started talking about how much she enjoyed it, and kept referring to it each week. At the time, we were both reading Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live, which features a brief diversion into discussing Cotard’s Syndrome (the belief that you are already dead, either figuratively or literally). When we got to this part, she enthusiastically noted how one of the recent episodes of Hannibal had featured a character suffering from this medical malady. I pitched in with a reference to Charlie Kaufman’s 2007 meta-meta-meta-drama Synecdoche, NY, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s misery-infested protagonist is named Caden Cotard. Much mutual enthusiasm and gushing ensued. And it was at this point when I finally decided that the cosmic consciousness was trying to tell me something, and that I should finally dive in and watch the show.
That’s how we ended up here, with me reconstructing my thoughts on Will’s Graham’s reconstruction of a killer’s mindset and deconstruction of his own psyche.
“Buffet Froid” seems to be the point where, as an audience member, you’re tempted to either adopt Hannibal’s viewpoint and continue appreciating the series with a mixture of passion and analytical remove, or to really start disliking everybody’s favorite cannibal. Up to this point, Fuller and his writing staff have walked such a fine line with his motivations; even in the aftermath of Abigail Hobbs’s murder of Nicholas Boyle, his intentions are somewhat noble in their own twisted way. But the revelation in this episode that Hannibal and Dr. Sutcliffe have colluded to hide Will’s Encephalitis from him, all in the name of medical exploration of the dual psychological and neurological effect of the disease, marks a definite turning point in the show’s central relationship.
In Hannibal’s mind, of course, this all makes sense. So well-trained is he in matters of compartmentalization that viewing Will as simultaneously a friend, a medical experiment, and an alibi is second nature. There’s probably commentary to be made here on Hannibal’s mindset echoing so much of the modern compartmentalization-driven corporate mindset that has filtered down into our everyday lives. But that might be another essay for another day. In the moment, his deliberate manipulation of Will to throw the scent off of his own murderous trail is probably the most overtly villainous act he’s committed in this season.
Even then, though, the show makes it difficult to cast a purely dichotomous judgment on him. During my first viewing of Season 1, I remember being deeply frustrated by some of the Hannibal-related plot machinations. At times, he seemed much like Frank Underwood in the first two seasons of House of Cards, a character who holds almost superhuman sway in his ability to stay several steps ahead of everyone else. House derives much of its viewing pleasure from this dynamic: Frank may be a devious anti-hero, but his enemies are generally such feckless amateurs (climaxing with the almost comically spineless president) that you have to admire his cunning intellect. And he’s the only character in the show that’s willing to be totally honest with you. Hannibal plays a much different game in setting up Will as a strong, noble, likeable protagonist. But the central motif of his empathic powers also requires the viewer to extend their empathy to Hannibal as well. As this is where the brilliance of Bryan Fuller’s vision is on full display. Even as he commits his most heinous acts (and it’s ironic that violating the Hippocratic Oath got me more riled up than his murders), Hannibal never descends into the realm of melodramatic arch-villain. Sure, you naturally want to root for Will to finally nail him (a desire that is only heightened during Season 2), but the complexity of his thought process, the purity of his predatorial instincts never really allows you to hate him. It’s a revelation that’s really hit home for me while rewatching Season 1 for this essay series, and it’s made the show an even richer experience this time around.
Which is an appropriate thread of discussion, as the perception of time, a thematic motif that’s been lurking its way through the past few episodes, becomes a major force in “Buffet Froid.” So much of our viewing perspective is filtered through Will’s increasingly fractured mindset that early in the episode, when he suddenly switches from gutting the fish he’s caught to gutting Beth LeBeau to exiting his crime scene vision in a panic, it’s a disorienting experience (Season 2 takes this concept to even more hallucinatory heights.) The breaks in time that he experiences later in the episode (when he returns to the LeBeau house, and during his second MRI) are ones that we also literally see as he does. In some ways, these blackouts are an interesting meta-commentary on the role of jump cuts, and the cinematic language in general. As has been noted many times, watching a film (or, especially in the modern era, the better long form television shows) is akin to an act of mass hallucination, a collective dream in which we partake for a few hours. Standard edits in a film become part of our accepted logical flow, but jump cuts can throw us for a loop. Even if we go with them, part of our brain still wants to fill in the blanks (which is also part and parcel of the persistence of vision required to view celluloid film prints, our minds filling in the imperceptible flicker between each of the 24 frames in a second….something that’s been completely lost in the much more passive realm of digital projection.)
Will’s obsession with reconstructing crime scenes requires him to fill in his own blanks, so these new gaps in time are the logical extension of the Encephalitis-fuelled mania that preys on one of the few points of stability in his life. Thus, the irony of Hannibal advising him to draw a clock in order to anchor his notion of time and place. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Will finds fulfillment and grounding in pursuing that which is missing; the tension between this pursuit and his feared loss of sanity is the price to be paid, but it’s now obvious that some of this fear has been based on a condition that’s purely medical in nature.
And this isn’t the only case of filling in the blanks on display here. Georgia Madchen’s Cotard’s Syndrome literally prevents her from seeing faces, driving her to attempt to remove them like masks. She views her own role in life as that of a giant blank, a void that only needs to be recognized by others. And her condition leads to one of the show’s most chilling images: Hannibal, clad for the first time in his ace, clear plastic killing suit, finishing his copycat murder of Dr. Sutcliffe, his face a total blank to her. This man, this vacuum of empathy has now been given his most stunning visual representation. And it’s telling that it’s taken a person as damaged as Georgia to see what all of the show’s sane characters have been unable to discern.
Time for the leftovers:
*During his dinner with Hannibal, Dr. Sutcliffe metaphorically extends his discussion of their meal by referring to Will as a pig that Lecter has found. It’s a nice callback to “Sorbet”, in which Will tells his students that the Chesapeake Ripper views his victims as pigs.
*In an episode in which Hannibal and Sutcliffe engage in medical malpractice, Jack Crawford’s own role in such a crime is also pushed to the forefront again, as he and Will spar over the shady ethics of having him treated by Lecter in order to keep his condition private (thus allowing him to continue working on the FBI cases.) It’s yet another development in the dual father figure dynamic that Hannibal and Jack have with Will.
*One of my favorite images of this episode is the rack focus shot of the wolf-shaped porch decoration at the LeBeau house, which is a nice reference to the concept of the wolf at the door (Hannibal being the most obvious example.) It also parallels Will’s home in Wolf Trap, Virginia, and his long term goal of catching Hannibal in his own trap.
*After putting it off for a year, I steamrolled through the first season of Hannibal in a week on Amazon Video. When I next saw my friend, I let her know by drawing her Will’s clock, and telling her my name and that I knew I was in this room. She was quite pleased.