The second installment of NBC's new horror-thriller Hannibal is written by series producer (and Pushing Daisies writer) Jim D. Gray. The D stands for Danger. No, really. That's his name. He and show creator Bryan Fuller have also just sold a pilot to Syfy called High Moon that sounds very interesting as well. While he doesn't have a huge writing resume, it's a solid one.
Anyway, this episode marks what seems to me like another subtle incursion of Japanese horror elements into the American marketplace (standing alongside the extreme blood-spray and body mutilation that worked its way into the new Evil Dead). After only two episodes, Hannibal is taking on a feel very similar to Takashi Miike's adaptation of M.P.D. Psycho and while I'm sure we won't be diving into the deep end of insane sci-fantasy horror that both the manga and television series did, some of the imagery in this week's Hannibal is very reminiscent.
And that's a good thing.
It doesn't hurt that director Michael Rymer is an excellent choice to helm this installment. He's a director who has spent the last decade focusing on television work that pushes the boundaries of realistic science fiction and horror – specifically directing 22 episodes of Battlestar Galactica over all four of its seasons (including one of my favorites, the series opener "33").
So, just as with the pilot, we have a very solid and dependable creative team bringing the developing bromance of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter to NBC's Thursday night lineup. It's up against ABC's lawyer drama Scandal and CBS's Sherlock Holmes redo Elementary and after not faring all that well last week against first-run episodes, "Amuse-Bouche" saw a slight uptick in numbers and won the night against reruns.
The good news though, is that it's on NBC, so even if it loses the night, it's still doing better than most other shows on the network, and this time out gave NBC its best result for a Thursday night at 10 in over a year. If it can continue to build an audience (and it looks like next week's episode is up against reruns again), I have high hopes for seeing this show go the distance. Given its 13-episode season structure, it doesn't have run a marathon. Sprinting should do it just fine.
But what the hell is an amuse-bouche, anyway?
Well, in your higher-quality restaurants, an amuse-bouche is a small, one-to-two bite mini-course served between main courses free of charge and designed as a glimpse into the artistry and showmanship of the chef. It's a metaphor that works on many different levels with this episode, much like the title "Apéritif" did with the pilot (although we didn't go into that last week).
There's a new serial killer on display with our second installment: rogue pharmacist and mushroom enthusiast, Eldon Stammets (Aidan Devine). He's not a major character or even a real threat once his activities are discovered (unless you're diabetic or a cop who's been laid off and just not paying attention). What he is, however, is a small bite between the main narrative courses of Garret Jacob Hobbes (Vladimir Jon Cubrt) and his daughter Abigail (Kacey Rohl), as we explore the impact killing Hobbes is having on our good Will (Hugh Dancy).
The grotesque beauty of Stammets' victims – images that will stick in the minds of viewers and probably cause a great deal of distress for more sensitive types – is a vivid contrast to the clean precision of Hobbes' kill room with its chaos of sharp lines created by the hundreds of mounted antlers. It is clean and deadly while Stammets' work is an organic mass of fungal blooms transforming his prey from individual people into an ecosystem of interconnected mushrooms colonies.
Colonies is probably the wrong word, as they are essentially turned into connections in the pseudo-neural network of the mushroom organism. That connection is what drives Stammets to do what he does. It also drives him to confront Will, since only Will can really empathize and connect with him. It's a creepily disturbing concept (especially once you start reading up on mushrooms – did you know that mushrooms are as uniquely different from plants as plants are from animals? Fungi and animals are both classified as part of the same super-kingdom, Opisthokonta! Freaky!).This directly leads to another metaphorical reading of that title.
The episode serves as a brief glimpse into the artistry and approach of the creators of the show. It is a masterfully crafted episode that st
ands entirely on its own as a small bite, but serves to illuminate the real thematic focus of the season: Will's engagement with power. In fact, for a show called Hannibal, Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is so far working only on the fringes, circling Will and drawing him out of his shell, inhabiting only the negative space of Will's awakening.
And that's a good thing, I think. Hannibal Lecter has become a horror icon, identifiable alongside Dracula, Frankenstein, Freddy, Jason, and Michael. And if we've learnt anything from pop-culture prequels, it's that showing our monsters before they become monsters is rarely a good thing (Star Wars Episodes I-III, or Hell's bells, Hannibal Rising, anyone?). We don't need to see why he's become a monster. We just need to see him before anyone knew he was a monster.
That's fucking fascinating, right there.
But back to Will and his PTSD response to killing Hobbes at the climax of the first episode. Only it's not PTSD, is it? The wonderful thing about the relationship between Will and Hannibal is how emotionally isolated Will is and how Hannibal's "therapy" sessions are helping him form connections to the world around him. Or rather, to identify and embrace connections with the world around him. And Hannibal facilitates this by doing to Will what Will does to serial killers; empathizing with him.
He is crafting a performance that mirrors Will, saying the things that Will is afraid to say, expressing the things Will is afraid to express. This culminates in the chilling final scene where Hannibal is able to draw out that Will feels tormented not for killing Hobbes, but for enjoying killing Hobbes. Lecter then pushes it a step further, suggesting that it isn't about feeling good for killing someone who "deserves" killing, but is about feeling powerful.
And power is the one thing that Will Graham is completely lacking in his life.
The performances this week were strong across the board again, with the pleasant surprise that is former Kid in the Hall, Scott Thompson getting more spotlight as agent Jimmy Price. We are also introduced to a new character, tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki) who is not nearly as clever as she thinks she is and it appears she may not be long for this world as a result (although if you're familiar with the source materials, you may think differently).
The scene where she attempts to pump Hannibal for information is one of the tensest in the show so far. Mikkelsen plays the undercurrent of deadly threat so subtly that he almost appears to be doing nothing, but his body language and tone of voice make it clear that a burst of violence is just beneath the surface. The scene is then cut in a way that makes it unclear as to whether Lounds has been murdered and is being fed to Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) or if it's just the creators messing with our expectations.
And when it is made obvious that it wasn't her loin that Hannibal fed Crawford, we're still left with that nagging question: if it wasn't her, was it someone else? It's an excellent use of audience expectation to amp up the suspense in a scene where someone unfamiliar with Hannibal would see nothing.
From start to finish, this show is a master-class of technique. It's beautifully shot with cinematography by James Hawkinson, who has made his name shooting sit-coms and is really cutting loose with the look and feel of Hannibal. The music is orchestrated by Brian Reitzell and utilizes a wide range of ambient sounds, disconcerting noises, and odd rhythms that would be comfortably at home in Tom Waits' more eclectic productions. And there are wonderful little visual flourishes throughout – one of my favorites this week was the small spattering of paper that burst from each gunshot wound during Will's dream shooting of Hobbes on the FBI firing range. This firing on all cylinders helps elevate Hannibal above most of the cliché police procedurals that litter the airwaves.
I know we're only two episodes in, but so far each installment has been lovingly crafted to disturb. Every episode is a total package. I can't imagine a reason for that to change over the next few weeks.
My only concern at this point is that Caroline Dhavernas is not going to be given the opportunity to play Dr. Alana Bloom with any great detail. So far she's been relegated to showing concern for Will's well-being and hanging back while the big boys talk. Although this week's short bit where she identifies with Flannery O'Connor was a step in the right direction. Especially her reading from "A Good Man is Hard to Find." That was a nice thematic touch that I'll leave for the more literary minded to unpack.
By the way, if you missed this week's episode, you can watch it here:
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now forKindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories,Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at@PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.