(S P O I L E R S)
In which you are wearing a very well-tailored person suit.
The beauty of Hannibal Lecter as a character, the allure of his anti-heroic charisma, is founded in a deep sense of theatricality. It’s no surprise that his status as a pop culture icon didn’t occur until Anthony Hopkins brought an arch-melodramatic flair to the role (even though he famously only has 16 minutes of screen time in The Silence of the Lambs, not that much more than Brian Cox had in his more reserved take on Lecter in Manhunter.) Despite the continuing influence of the naturalistic school of serious acting, there’s always enjoyment to be had in watching a performance that’s larger than life, especially when it flowers in the confines of a verite world (note the legion of Lecter-esque anti-heroes that has proliferated in film and television since 1991.) And in a universal sense, there’s an undeniable pleasure we derive from watching a master performer at work; it’s the old codependent dynamic between a magician and their audience, the art of the con taken to quasi-theatrical heights.
As I’ve mentioned before, Mads Mikkelsen’s take on Hannibal is a fascinating hybrid of the icy sociopathy of Cox and the refined, cultured theatricality of Hopkins. He’s often an emotional cypher, and yet the control of his physicality he shows is almost like that of a mime, graceful and dancerly, imbuing even the most subtle of gestures and reactions with diamond bullet power. As a result, the rare instances of brutality he displays early in the show’s run take on a shattering force, like a leopard pouncing on its prey.
Following the plot-heavy machinations of “Entrée”, “Sorbet” (true to its name) offers a narrative palate cleanser before the final descent into madness that awaits in the final stretch of episodes. And in true Hannibal fashion, it’s an interlude that is the most overtly operatic one so far, a trenchant analysis of the performative impulse and all of its complications.
The production design of Will’s lecture hall at Quantico has always been tailored toward the theatrical nature of his lectures (and of the historically theatrical nature of teaching), so it’s appropriate that “Sorbet” opens on his class discussion of the Chesapeake Ripper’s history. Will is such an odd case when it comes to the pedagogical model; his wildly anti-social tendencies run counter to the traditional model of the charismatic professor, and yet in his lecture scenes he’s a consistently compelling figure, the darkness within him creating an electric stage presence. As he notes that “there is a distinctive brutality” in the Ripper’s crimes, the camera focuses on his POV of Jack, one half of the father figure duo which has so brutalized his psyche in the first half of the season. When the camera cuts back to Will, the image of Miriam Lass immediately pops up on the screen behind him. Now it’s Jack’s POV of these two proteges, one seemingly dead, one seemingly doomed, both playing a role whose tragic nature seems utterly circumscribed in its fabric. The point is driven home with blunt force at the end of the episode, when he envisions Will’s corpse rising from the morgue table, his missing left arm forever fusing him with Miriam.
The scene that follows (at the slyly titled Concert for Hunger Relief), fully immerses the viewer in Hannibal’s classical opera leanings, so much so that the camera begins in the featured singer’s throat. After all, the performance of our lives may be convincing, but behind it all we’re still all just a collection of slimy interior organs and muscles joining together to portray humanity. Hannibal never forgets this, as he ultimately reduces his victims to their base nature: pieces that are meant to be absorbed into the remaining players. But still, the collaborative efforts of these dancing bags of flesh aren’t without their moments of transcendence, as the camera shows when it gradually pulls back from the singer, up into the audience, and then spirals into Hannibal’s right ear. The effect is an invocation of the hypnotic, seductive nature of music, but also a reminder of the spiritual vortex that lies at the heart of this man.
Hannibal’s performative nature is referred to several times throughout this episode. When she asks him why he hasn’t cooked for her and her friends for so long, Mrs. Komeda notes “Have you seen him cook? It’s an entire performance”, to which Hannibal replies “You cannot force a feast. A feast must present itself” and that he’ll resume his parties “when inspiration strikes” (the classic, romantic motivator for the artistic mind.) Will diagnoses the Chesapeake Ripper as being a performer at heart, whose graphic dissections serve as public shamings of his victims, while hiding “the true nature of his crimes.” During their later therapy session, Franklin and Hannibal debate his ability to be a friend, Hannibal insisting that the only role he can play is that of doctor. They also discuss Franklin’s dream of befriending Michael Jackson, a pop icon who seemed to only be comfortable in his skin when performing.
This reference to the deceased King of Pop is one of the funniest moments of “Sorbet”, and yet it’s also one of the most instructive, especially as it pertains to the introduction of Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s retired colleague and personal psychiatrist. For after six episodes of watching the good doctor masterfully manipulate all those around him in a grand, amoral experiment, this is the first time that the audience sees the lost soul within him. Franklin may seem pathetic when he begs Hannibal to be his friend, but he plays that same role when he desires Bedelia’s friendship. She’s the first character in the show to see straight through his performance, telling him “I have conversations with a version of you” and nailing his inhumanity with the famous quote that leads off this essay. The way that Hannibal claims to have friends isn’t too far removed from his usual reserved delivery, but it carries with it a deep sadness…or, more accurately, his yearning to feel sadness at his state, a feeling that he can only portray. Later in the episode, after his second session with Franklin (who mentions that “being alone always comes with a hurting, a dull ache”), he opens his office door for the first time to an empty waiting room (Will has forgotten his appointment.) Again, the subtleties of Mikkelsen’s performance stand out; the slight look of disappointment on his face, proof of his inherent loneliness, is devastating.
The casting of Gillian Anderson as Bedelia is a stroke of genius. In many ways, she’ll always be Dana Scully, the hard pragmatist trying to rein in Fox Mulder’s eccentric instincts on The X-Files. But she also brings that same sense of cool, analytical rigor to her role in Hannibal as well, her elegant, almost porcelain beauty a complement to her ability to underplay the part. Over two seasons, she’ll prove to be one of the most complex characters on the show, oscillating between a slot on Hannibal’s kill list to playing the role of his accomplice and romantic confidante. But more on her as this season progresses…
Hannibal might be the main performative force in this episode, but Will matches him in the depth of performance, with an outward intensity all his own. For what is Hugh Dancy’s version of the tortured FBI profiler but the ultimate example of a method actor lost in the part, the logical endgame of the De Niro, Pacino, Day-Lewis era of total immersion in another personality (which I guess makes Jack the bad stage parent?) Hannibal might have the finely tailored person suit, but Will can hardly maintain his, even though he has the vibrant inner humanity that Lecter so desires. But even that’s in peril, as Will continues to fear the performance that will finally overtake his soul, once and for all (which, this episode once again implies in his nightmare vision, is that of homicidal father to Abigail Hobbs.)
The climactic moments of “Sorbet” initially seem to be a bit off kilter, as the hunt for the organ harvester’s kill truck plays as this episode’s requisite killer of the week being shoehorned into the plot. But these final measures are a further reinforcement of the dominant theme of performance. Hannibal saves the unnamed ambulance victim’s life by playing his old role of surgeon, and it’s here that his true nature finally begins to dawn on Will, the coalescing of the Chesapeake Ripper profile he’s been forming all episode long with the reality of the man in front of him (who has also used several of his murders to perform as the organ harvester, in an attempt to throw suspicion off of his deeds.) When he declines to stay for dinner, Hannibal sees through his performance as well. In the end, our favorite cannibal is left entirely in his element, hosting the long-requested dinner party, serving pilfered human flesh back to his friends, reveling in the role of the bon vivant. His introductory words to the guests are perfectly synched with the beats of the Vivaldi piece on the soundtrack, and in the moment it seems like he’s utterly fulfilled. But as “Sorbet” has shown, there’s a great chasm of longing that lies beneath the veneer of this perfect performance, a work of theatrical exactitude that is also a cage.
Leftovers ahoy! :
*Hannibal may ultimately find romance with Bedelia, but it’s in this episode that his seduction of Alana begins to accelerate, even as he uses her to glean information about Jack’s motivations. Their relationship will form one of the key dramatic barriers to Will during Season 2.
*Though classical and operatic works feature prominently in this episode, Brian Reitzell’s score is still a work of dark beauty. In particular, the throbbing ambient soundscapes that he composes for Will’s sessions with Hannibal form a low level hum of dread and paranoia.
*”Who the hell gets a spleen transplant?” (Jimmy Price)
*”Surgery was performed, and then unperformed.” (Beverly)
*Mark down another Bryan Fuller homage to The Shining, as the hotel room organ harvesting crime scene is a direct nod to Kubrick’s film (the layout and design of the bathroom, the seating position of the victim in the tub, the diagonal framing of the bathroom door in the distance.)