Saturday, July 4, 2015

What's going on with Hannibal this season?

Season two of Hannibal was a rip-roaring run of television, one that confirmed the show's status as one of the best things airing.  It all culminated in the shocking bloodbath of "Mizumono," a finale that left the audience with a collective feeling of breathless anticipation for season three, just to see what creator Bryan Fuller and his team of writers would come up with next.  Naturally, these early stages of the show's third season have been about reckoning with the events from last year, putting the pieces of this world back together after Hannibal Lecter so thoroughly shattered it.

Fuller reintroduced everyone back into the mix slowly, teasing fans with a hypnotic and tense premiere episode that only featured Hannibal and his partner-in-crime/hostage Bedelia Du Maurier.  After a year of waiting to see who made it out of "Mizumono" alive, Fuller cleverly (or cruelly, however you prefer to think of it) made us wait another week.  Episode two flipped things with a mostly Will and Abigail affair, only the latter was revealed to be a figment of the former's imagination.  Jack's survival gets confirmed in "Secondo," the following episode, and by episode four we learned the fates of everyone involved in the season two finale, as we saw that Alana lived, but not without significant emotional and physical damage.

In these episodes, the show moved at a dreamy, leisurely pace, and the visuals had a woozy look to match.  The first three installments were all directed by the great Canadian director Vincenzo Natali, who amped up the beauty on what was already unquestionably one of TV's most gorgeous shows.  This wasn't his first time in the saddle -- you might remember him from his two directorial efforts last season, where he was able to deliver some imagery that deviated from the show's usual style without feeling completely alien (see: his truly mesmerizing, amorphous sex scene in "Naka-Choko").  Natali is less interested in the grotesque tableaus established by David Slade in the pilot than he is in gauzy scenes that dissolve together and layer over one another.  I love his half-lucid approach to visualizing scenes, and his work in "Antipasto," "Primavera," and "Secondo" resulted in some of the most stunning shots in Hannibal history, which is saying something.

Brian Reitzell's score seems to have found another gear too.  He has a way of finding clashing, abrasive sounds and blending them together for a wild and hair-raising effect.  Hannibal is hardly a scary show, but you wouldn't know it from just listening to Reitzell's score.  Just a few notes are enough to make you leap out of your seat.  His sonic wizardry couples with the stable of directors' haunting imagery to create a wholly original aesthetic value that makes you wonder just how this show ended up on TV, let alone NBC.  It feels like watching an hour long avant-garde film every week.

If only the story felt as satisfying.  While it's nice to bathe in the show's sumptuous style, the narrative has no forward momentum so far this year.  A little breather post-"Mizumono" was probably necessary, but these first few episodes have felt less like a change of pace and more like outright stalling in search of a plot.  Things are proceeding in a circular motion, as the story continually doubles back on itself.  We've gotten numerous flashbacks to the second season (as if anyone could ever forget it), and even the new material will do something like present Will in Florence, but then shift into reverse, spending two whole episodes showing the process that lead he and everyone else to that point.  There's elliptical and then there's just plain dithering.

I had a thought while watching this week's "Cotorno": Is this show just not as interesting now that everybody knows what Hannibal is up to?  The first two seasons wrung buckets of tension from dramatic irony.  Everyone watching knows Hannibal's true nature, and we're just waiting for the characters on the show to catch up.  Season two raised the stakes even more, presenting Will as the only one convinced of Hannibal's evil for the majority of the episodes, and introducing a new level of gamesmanship between the two.  Now that everybody is aware of Hannibal's murderous ways, it's just a straightforward race to get him, rather than the mystery it was in season one or the cat-and-mouse game that existed between he and Will in season two.  Because the show can't move too quickly and have Hannibal get caught, it runs the risk of turning him into a supervillain, always two steps ahead even when it seems like he isn't, and somehow scampering off just in the nick of time.

Really, the problem boils down to structure more than anything.  Season two was breathlessly paced, constantly lunging forward with reckless abandon.  Even the trial episode near the beginning, which seemed to be most people's least favorite episode last year, moved the story forward much more than anything we've gotten so far this year.  Season three probably couldn't ever match that, but the first season didn't have a bullet train narrative either, and it worked out fine.  What it did have was the underlying structure of its cases of the week to hold everything together.  We live in an age where the word "procedural" gets a reaction similar to a baby being forced to eat vegetables, but it's awfully valuable in giving episodes a structure while you play around with longer narratives in the spaces between.  Without that, season three is waffling under the weight of its own intense serialization.  After all, even season two had a case of the week in over half of its episodes.

These complaints aren't show-killing ones though.  Season three may be a step down from its first two seasons, but a limping Hannibal is still stronger than almost everything else on television.  Plus, there has been some compelling material amidst the sluggishness.  As mentioned before, "Antipasto" was a great premiere, and this season has continued to explore its most fascinating theme: the idea that it's both terrifying and liberating for somebody else to truly know you.  If nothing else, season three has emphasized just how brilliantly laid out season two was, giving so many characters different motivations for wanting to seek vengeance against Hannibal Lecter.  We're only five episodes in, so things could come together eventually and render all of these points moot.  I just hope it happens sooner than later, especially given that this season could very well be its last, if nobody else picks it up after NBC cancelled it.  So get it together, Fuller and crew -- stop stalling and show us your design.


  1. I have had similar thoughts about this season (having constantly found myself thinking that the dialogue this year has gotten significantly more sophisticated than in previous years).

    The premiere was slow, but had some beautiful moments throughout.

    The second episode was also slow, but I loved the moment when Will is revealed to be sitting alone without Abigail (but the climax for that episode was ruined in the trailer for this year).

    The third episode was beautiful artistically, but VERY sluggish and heavy on the sophisticated dialogue.

    The fourth episode was a step up, finally catching us up with where everyone is up to this point and adding some variety with Raul Esparza.

    The fifth episode was slow at first, but picked up and the ending was very satisfying.

    I agree that it seems like without the visually interesting murders that the show has fallen into a languid pace without almost any sense of forward momentum. However, I have confidence that the second half of the season will fix that issue, though Bryan Fuller's advisements that we should look to the first half of this season to know what to expect from Season 4 has me troubled with what he has planned for the (possible) future.

    Who knows if we're even gonna get that though because the cast has apparently been released from their contracts...(though maybe we'll learn more about the validity of this rumor next week at Comic Con).

    1. Yeah, I think the second half will pick things up too. I suspect part of the problem (I forgot to put this in my piece) is that Fuller knew he wanted to do the Hannibal in Europe stuff in the first half of the season and get to the Red Dragon story in the second half, but he couldn't come up with a way to make them cohere together, which is why this first half has felt so meandering.

      The third episode of this season was one I made my brother, who's never seen the show before, sit down and watch with me just so he could see what it's like. lol bad choice for a first episode. He was like "I stopped paying attention by the first commercial break."

      I heard about the cast being released from their contracts too. Not a good sign if it's true.

  2. If this season is going to be segmented as you say it will be, I speculate that these last five episodes when connected to the remaining ones within this arc will be very disproportionate. I was initially impressed with how ambitious Hannibal was willing to be this season (what network show would remove a key piece of episodic structure when it already had waning viewership?), but on the precedent that it built something as savory as the first two episodes all season long. I'm afraid Hannibal is turning into what its detractors have said of it: overly pretentious and only surface deep by just wading around in the luscious allure it's given Europe, with minimal action involved.

    1. Exactly, I thought the removal of episodic structure was ambitious at first too, but it hasn't proved to be sustainable, since the show has just filled the space with more pseudo-philosophical musings.