Does anyone remember “Hannibal Rising”? The 2007 film from director Peter Webber (based on a screenplay from the character’s creator, Thomas Harris), was an origin story for the erudite, cannibalistc serial killer, giving us everything from Nazi nemeses to a tortured love story (and even an unfortunate visual callback to the iconic mask from “Silence of the Lambs” because how could they not).
“Hannibal Rising” represented all of the worst instincts of a prequel: the need to over-explain, the strip all mystery of mystique away from a character until you’re left with the detailed scribblings in the margins of a writer’s notebook (“and here’s where the character learns to love fava beans”). It’s the same instinct that gives us an unnecessary explanation for Superman’s “S” shield and tortured noodling about in the first two-thirds of the “Halloween” remake where we learn that Michael Meyers had what could be called a troubled home life.
Which is what makes NBC’s “Hannibal” not only refreshing, but quite smart: it never seeks to “explain” this enigmatic and charming monster–well, not directly, at least.
****Spoilers to follow****
Thanks to a coldly funny and engaging performance by Mads Mikkelsen as its titular lead, “Hannibal” observes the character, revealing him through his actions and the observations of FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) without boring us with protracted backstory about his need to consume the rude and “unnecessary” people of the world as the Chesapeake Bay Ripper.
Take a step back, though: this isn’t the origin story of Anthony Hopkins’ iconic and flamboyant take on the character in “Silence of the Lambs.” By the time Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” came around, Hopkins’ version was a quipping, snapping madman–a fun one, but a different character than what’s being conveyed here by Mikkelsen. Instead, showrunner Bryan Fuller has taken much of his inspiration, it seems from Bryan Cox’s turn as Dr. Lecter in “Manhunter” (in fact, much of “Hannibal” the series borrows from Michael Mann’s aesthetic and tone of that TV movie). Fuller has said that he has plans to see Hannibal through at least the events of “Silence of the Lambs,” a promise which fills me with anticipation given how perfectly realized the character is here.
With this week’s episode, “Sorbet,” we’re at the halfway point for the series, and we’ve finally gotten to see the bad doctor in action, finally struck by the inspiration (or compulsion) to prepare one of his legendary feasts (in the fiction of the show, his dinner parties are beloved by his unsuspecting high society guests). After six (well, the five that aired here in the U.S.) episodes, we finally get to see Dr. Lecter’s process, from his process of selecting his victims, to the darkly funny preparation montage late in the episode intercut with the FBI’s hunt for a red herring second Ripper performing illegal organ harvesting.
But let me touch on the finest touch of “Sorbet,” which frames the whole series as a masterful piece of TV about a charismatic monster: the brief scene between psychiatrist Dr. Lecter and his own therapist, the icy Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) who’s tasked with delivering the most on-the-nose assessment of our anti-hero (and it still works). She accuses Dr. Lecter of wearing a “person suit,” hiding something monstrous behind his facade of civility. In any other prequel or reboot or whatever, we’d get some extended dialog, maybe an expression of concern, but this week’s script (by Fuller and Jesse Alexander) lets the moment reveal Hannibal’s loneliness and illuminates his relationship with Will.
In that moment, we see it’s not just curiosity that attracts Hannibal to the emotionally damaged profiler, it’s the excitement of someone who can articulate “what” Hannibal is and why he acts. Up until this point, I would have said that beyond trying to keep himself out of a cell, Dr. Lecter was assisting Graham and the FBI in its investigation out of a mix of curiosity and devilish playfulness (the show explores the idea of Hannibal as corrupter throughout), but this moment makes the series and the character richer, all without telling us that he was unloved as a child. One of the smartest moves by Fuller and company is to keep Hannibal’s actions and motivations as a killer in the foreground thanks to Will’s hyper-accurate profiles–we know they’re often accurate, but it’s a slow revelation that doesn’t spoil the character because it’s at a remove. We don’t hear this motivation from Dr. Lecter directly and therefore even as we trust Will’s instincts, there’s still room for doubt.
“Sorbet” offers one limited scene of backstory where Dr. Lecter alludes to his time as a surgeon, and cleverly, his answer to why he quit cutting into people professionally (“I killed someone”) offers more questions and mystery rather than closing a door and explaining away one more element of the character.
I’m still in the anti-prequel/reboot crowd. I still dread the prospect of exploring the “why” of a character and having to break down every element of their origins and motivations while ultimately stripping away their mythology. Thankfully, “Hannibal” is an antidote to that and maybe one of the best shows on TV right now. We’re just crossing the halfway point, and of course, there’s still room for me to be disappointed, but as it stands, I’m loving the way the show is observing its monster.