Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What Else I'm Watching: Hannibal S2

(The first part of this review contains no spoilers; I'll let you know when they begin.)
Sadly there is no Game of Thrones episode this week (although the trailers for it have been KILLER so I'm dying for this week's episode!) So to fill the space, I thought this week I'd talk about a couple of other shows I'm watching but just don't find the time to write about. The first is Hannibal. I wrote about it last year in a post telling people they really should be watching this show.

Created by Bryan Fuller, the mastermind behind such shows as Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, Hannibal would seem like strange territory for Fuller to be dabbling in, considering his shows tend to be quirky comedies. Dead Like Me, a series he created but left a few episodes in over creative differences, tended to mine a darker side of Fuller's sensibility, but it still maintained that over-the-top goofiness that pervades his other shows.

Hannibal, on the other hand, is the goriest, darkest series on television right now. The humour is dark and backstabby, not at all what it is on his other shows. And yet... it's a Fuller show through and through. One of my favourite things about Pushing Daisies was the look of the show: the brightly coloured dresses and paint on the walls; the wildly decorated house that the sisters lived in; the way the camera would pull back to reveal a fairy-tale-like world that was bursting with magic realism. In one episode, we see how the two sisters once performed a mermaid act underwater, and the act is shown to us using little paper dolls slowly swimming under the water. It was breathtaking, like nothing I'd ever seen on TV before. And it was classic Fuller. Somehow, without sacrificing the writing or the acting, his shows manage to focus on the direction, specifically the art direction, and they become these perfect little jewels to look at. Pushing Daisies is a show that is so funny and sweet and sad, yet you could put it on mute and just marvel at the very look of it.

Hannibal is one part superb acting, one part fantastic writing, one part Mads Mikkelsen (YES HE GETS HIS OWN PART), and three parts art direction. There is nothing — nothing — on television that looks like this show. Not even close. The food that Hannibal prepares is shown from strange angles, as we watch it sizzle in the pan, veggies being diced as their colours fly across the screen, and then sumptuously laid out on the table in Hannibal's sublime dining room for the guest hungrily awaiting... the one who doesn't realize that like soylent green, Hannibal's food IS PEOPLE. We know it's people, and yet... it looks so good. (Although I can't help but wonder how two people will eat a platter of food that looks like it was made for a dinner party of 30, but I digress...)

If you haven't watched the show yet, give it a shot. It's meant as the prequel to the first novel in Harris's series, Red Dragon, and next season the show will be moving in that direction to coincide with the events in the book. If you are a fan of the books and movies, there are several nods to both already, and they've also played with some of the story lines, with some characters having a very different trajectory than they did in the books.

A couple of weeks ago Entertainment Weekly featured a column that complained about the gore on TV, saying it wasn't scary. That for all the blood and guts on Hannibal and The Walking Dead, sometimes not showing it is far scarier and these shows are missing the point of what horror really is. I think the columnist was the one missing the point. "Horror" is defined as an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust. That last one applies beautifully to Hannibal in every episode. But what Fuller has created isn't just horror; it's an examination of human psychology. The writers aren't concerned with why Hannibal is the way he is, but how he can manipulate others, and whether or not he, in turn, can be manipulated. What makes him tick? If he's impermeable, then how could Will Graham reach him and influence him in some way. The best part of the series is the cat-and-dog chase between Will and Hannibal, watching who has the upper hand and why. The horror generated by this show is a very real horror, a horror at how the human mind works, how our morals can be overcome, and how they can be manipulated.

For those who HAVE watched the show, and just watched the season 2 finale this past weekend, let's talk. (spoilers begin here)

Just when you think that you've seen everything on television there is to see, a horse is opened up and a dead woman's body slides out. And when you've pushed the popcorn to one side because that was so horrific you can't even think of food, they open up her chest cavity and a bird flies out. Good GOD. I've never EVER seen anything like that on, well, anything. Move aside, movies — you've been trumped once again.

And, of course, that scene followed the one where we saw Beverly's body sliced like a hardboiled egg, standing upright but in 7 or 8 different pieces. Followed by Hannibal putting her kidney through a meat grinder. AAAHHH!! OH... and THAT followed the scene of the guy waking up as part of the colour palette tableau and ripping himself out of it, as his sewn body parts ooze off his face and arms because he's ripping himself apart out of desperation. Or how about the time when he feeds Eddie Izzard his own leg as his last supper?

This has been a helluva season for gore.

But like I said above, the gore is like the zombies dying on The Walking Dead — it's horrific, and it's the parts we'll be talking about for ages, but it's there to unsettle us, to let our guards down as they pummel us with the real horror. The true heart of the show is in the psychology of each of the characters. We watch Hannibal manipulate his patients into not getting better, but becoming worse. They have turned to him to try to work out their problems, and he teaches them not to see their mental illnesses as problems, but something to be embraced. We watch, fascinated, as they embrace their dark sides, as a brother cuts out his sister's uterus and then eats his own face as retribution for it. Are the Verger siblings just pawns in the endless game between Hannibal and Will? Since they're in the books, we know we'll be seeing them again.

And yet, for all of the manipulation, the saddest point in the entire season has to be when Bella Crawford comes to Hannibal to free herself from the cancer eating her alive. She wants a witness to tell Jack that his wife died peacefully, and that her last thought was how much she loved Jack. Hannibal watches the life quickly drain from her, sits a moment, and then injects adrenaline into her jugular, snapping her awake and forcing her to live the rest of her days in pain, agony, enduring the sorrowful looks from her husband. In a spectacular twist, Hannibal's worst act of the season isn't killing someone, but giving them life.

And in the midst of an episode where we have the matroyshka dolls of disgusting, as one creature is buried inside another which is buried inside another, what stands out above all of that is the acting of the incomparable Jeremy Davies, who is always asked to play outstandingly loopy, and handles it with aplomb every time. His character in the horse episode makes Daniel Faraday look stable.

Fuller has definitely played with the books a bit. Dr. Chilton, the doctor who haunts Hannibal once he's caught, who makes his life so miserable, and is probably best known to movie fans as the one Hannibal is referring to when he says to Clarice at the end of Silence of the Lambs that he's "having an old friend for dinner," DIES in this series. So... it would appear that Will is going to become that nemesis for him. It was exciting to have Mason Verger show up, although I couldn't help but immediately picture the horrific face he ultimately has in the movie Hannibal after most of his face is gnawed off. They moved that story up considerably into these early days on the TV series, rather than having that be something that happens much later when Hannibal is older. Freddie Lounds is a woman rather than a man, and when she was apparently killed off I was very surprised, because as annoying as I've always found Freddie in the books and movies, he/she is still pretty key to the story. But it turns out that was all a ruse. One that is ultimately Will's undoing in the end.

Hannibal is superb television. In the past few years, there has been a movement among critics to pan anything that's network, to say that television is in a golden age right now (I completely agree) but that the best stuff is over on cable: if it ain't on HBO, Showtime, AMC, or FX, it's not worth watching. For the most part, that really has become the case. But Hannibal, and a handful of other shows, are proving this wrong. People watch cable because it's edgier, because you're allowed sex and swearing without any concerns. Of course, graphic violence apparently isn't something that needs to be hidden over on cable, and network television is allowed to be as graphic, bloody, and horrific as they want to be. Just, you know, don't show a boob. (I think these restrictions really say something about us as a culture, but that's another blog post.)

But as long as Bryan Fuller has a show on network television, you can never say it's not edgy, pushing boundaries at every turn. His examinations of why people do the things they do, and the beauty with which he presents them, are sublime. I was THRILLED when Hannibal got picked up for a third season two weeks ago, and hardcore fans of this show were cheering everywhere. We ended season 2 in such a way that if the show had been cancelled at the end of season 2, we would assume Alana, Will, Abigail, and Jack were all going to die in the house as Hannibal walks away from everything, into a new life. However, season 3 means that at least some of them will survive, and the cat-and-mouse game will begin anew. And I cannot wait for that to happen.


Lisa(UFN) said...

I am just in love with the show. It is the last show I watch all week, because it is my favorite. I hope we get to see more of Gillian Anderson next season. That last scene was mind blowing. Does this mean that she has been in on it all along? I cannot wait for the Chase that is coming this next season.

Unknown said...

Yes! Thanks, Nikki, for writing about this show! I left you a note about it a while ago, so pleased that you did so now! This season was stylistically gorgeous, and so deep and rich that I actually thought it might prove too esoteric for some viewers, causing it to be cancelled. I was also so pleased to hear about the renewal, and I hear they have a plan for seven seasons or so. Here's hoping you make a regular blog out of this show, I'd really look forward to that, almost as much as I looked forward to the ones on Lost every week. Thanks again!


Colleen/redeem147 said...

I think Hugh Dancy should have a part, if Mads does. Hannibal may have the name, but I love and am fascinated by Will.