(S P O I L E R S)
In which here we are: a bunch of psychopaths helping each other out.
For all of the ways in which Bryan Fuller successfully reinvents the Lecterverse in Hannibal, the long shadow of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs inevitably hangs heavy over this world. Which is completely understandable. Few films of the modern era have so resolutely embedded themselves in the pop consciousness like that Oscar-sweeping behemoth. Think about it objectively for a second, how unlikely its success was, especially by 1991’s standards. Here was a mid-budget drama featuring an Oscar-winning former child actress playing an FBI agent advised by a cannibal (portrayed by a Welsh actor with minimal stateside renown) in her pursuit of a psychopath assembling a skin suit. Oh, and it features some of the more brutally violent scenes in then-mainstream cinema, including a climactic orgy of annihilation in which the cannibal doctor beats a guard to death with his baton and then, in one of my personal favorite reveals, is shown to have used his sliced-off face as a mask for his escape.
Titanic, this ain’t kids.
But with twenty years hindsight, it’s easy to see how Silence of the Lambs arrived at the perfect time in which to capture the zeitgeist. The political conservatism of the Reagan ‘80s was about to give way to the more progressive bent of the Clinton ‘90s, and the film’s explorations of deviant subcultures dovetails with the emergence of much of the underground into mainstream culture (to use the title of the famous Nirvana/Sonic Youth documentary of the time, it was 1991: The Year Punk Broke…in all the permutations of that word.) Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger might have been the nightmare lords of ‘80s horror cinema, but by the end of the decade they were more amusing ghouls than agents of fright. The Hannibal Lecter of Silence is a truly transgressive figure, the end product of ten years of corporate power run wild: a suave, urbane man in a three piece suit who also happens to eat people. And a medical figure, someone in whom you place your full psychological trust, who will betray and manipulate that confidence in ways far beyond your wildest dreams. Add the second wave feminism that was bubbling up in the cultural conversation, and how aptly Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling embodies a new wave of strong women heroes, and the portrait of the film’s crossover success becomes complete.
Fuller has always been upfront with his debt to the classic Lecterverse, and part of the enjoyment to be derived from watching this show is in spotting the often sly references he makes to it. In the essay for “Coquilles”, I mentioned the allusions to Francis Dolarhyde and his eventual Red Dragon persona (in his audio commentary for the series pilot, Fuller notes that the opening Marlow murder scene is intended to be Dolarhyde’s first.) “Entrée” is easily the most-Silence festooned episode yet, with the introduction of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, its infamous maximum security wing/dungeon, and smarmy general administrator Frederick Chilton (Raul Esparza). At his dinner with Chilton and Alana Bloom, Hannibal even drops in the oft-quoted final Lecter line from Silence (“It’s nice to have an old friend for dinner.”)
But Hannibal’s references to its progenitors aren’t merely winking namechecks. As “Entrée” shows, it often uses that rich mythology as an echo chamber in which its characters journey, while also subverting its audience’s expectations. And some callbacks fundamentally alter the Lecterverse in often fascinating ways.
So ingrained in the cultural consciousness is Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Hannibal Lecter, that Mads Mikkelsen’s task in reinterpreting the good doctor seemed daunting, to say the least. Hopkins brings a theatrical flair and an aesthete’s decadent leanings to Hannibal’s persona. By the time Clarice Starling meets him, he’s become acclimated to life in the confines of the State Hospital, and to playing the role of the monster hidden in the depths of the castle. Once he’s escaped to Italy in the sequel, he’s free to indulge the outer limits of his psyche; if the film version of Silence is formally tailored toward the hard, incisive perspective of Starling, the filmed Hannibal is a stylistic outgrowth of the operatic sensibilities of its title cannibal.
Which makes Mikkelsen’s performance as the pre-committal Hannibal so compelling. His unconventional good looks, almost reptilian in their nature, give him the appearance of a perpetually inquisitive predator, yet a predator whose seductive presence reels in most of those in his orbit. He’s not afraid to underplay many aspects of Hannibal’s persona, turning him into a blank slate upon which the other characters project themselves. This can be an alienating concept for some viewers; it’s easy to root for Hopkins as the larger than life anti-hero, but the Machiavellian calculations that Mikkelsen’s Hannibal displays throughout the first two seasons make him both fascinating and deeply frustrating (he’s always that far ahead of everyone else.) It’s a testament to his underplaying that when he reads Freddie Lounds’s FBI-approved article on Gideon’s supposed Ripper status, the annoyed clicking of his fingers feels like an explosion of rage.
“Entrée” seems to be keenly aware of the Hopkins legacy, as it serves up Eddie Izzard in the role of Dr. Abel Gideon, a most Hopkins-like villain. When Alana makes her initial descent into the max security wing, it recalls Clarice Starling’s first visit with Hannibal, and Gideon’s demeanor is very much in keeping with the slightly arch and taunting tone that Hopkins takes in his portrayal. Izzard’s casting is intriguing on several levels, with his combination of comedic and dramatic chops allowing him to project menace mingled with mirth. His long history of helping to mainstream cross-dressing and his frankness about his own transgenderism also plays into the complex and mutable sexuality of the Lecterverse on a meta-level.
And the introduction of Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky) as the albatross around the guilt-ridden Jack Crawford’s neck certainly pays tribute to his future recruitment of the similarly green Clarice Starling. Lass has the same plucky determination and slight naivety that defines the Starling of Silence. She also trumps her more veteran superiors by having the wits and wherewithal to ferret out the Chesapeake Ripper (much like Starling’s insight helps her nab Buffalo Bill, as she literally shows up at the house that no one else figured out.) But Hannibal Lecter is no Jame Gumb, and his advanced level of awareness spells doom for the young FBI trainee.
In the first five episodes of Season 1, Jack often comes across as an angry, stern figure. Even as he’s humanized with the introduction of Bella’s cancer diagnosis, he’s simultaneously compared to an absentee god who’s abandoned his creation in Will. This episode’s inclusion of the Miriam Lass storyline gives much greater weight to the motivation factor for much of his stern nature (well, that and the nature of the job, the emotional toll of which he lectures Lass on.) It also forges a strong connection between Will and him, as we now see that both men are haunted by a crushing guilt for the human cost of their work.
On a meta-level, the inclusion of these references to the classic Lecterverse also creates a world which suggests that Will’s philosophy of futility is more correct than he knows. Establishing Miriam as the Clarice precursor gives the narrative arc a sense of doomed repetition, and Gideon’s foreshadowing of the future Hannibal’s demeanor (albeit filtered through Hopkins’s role) can make the audience feel as if this role of the charismatic uber-maniac is one which must be filled by one person or another. Will’s greatest fear is that the paralysis of his vision will allow events to repeat themselves, and that with each one he’ll lose more of himself. The expansion of this version of the Lecterverse is often seen through his eyes, so it would only make sense (especially as his mental state deteriorates) that he would see those fears growing more powerful all around him.
Time for the leftovers:
*We’ve seen several of Hannibal’s ritualistic murders (even though at this point of the season, they haven’t been explicitly attributed to him), their Bosch-like tableau nature creating works of art out of the victims. The Chesapeake Ripper murders on display in “Entrée” (one by Lecter, one by copycat Gideon) are chaotic counterpoints to the aforementioned crime scenes, almost cubist works of violence in their perversion of sleek medicinal metal into human skewers.
*”Not to snap bubblegum and crack wise, but what’s my angle?” (Freddie, to the FBI trio.)
*Speaking of Ms. Lounds, Lara Jean Chorostecki and Raul Esparza (as Chilton) really get to chew the scenery in this episode. I’ll always have a soft spot for Anthony Heald’s Chilton in the earlier Lecter films, but Esparza brings an arch contempt for everyone around him to his entertaining take on the role.
*Note that the Chesapeake Ripper copycat murder (and, by implication, the previous ones as well) involves the removal of his victim’s eyes, a visual echo of Garret Jacob Hobbs’s final words to Will (“See? “See?”)