Hannibal’s plot is occasionally difficult to detect, cloaked as it often is in compelling but resolution-deficient character interactions, lovingly-shot murders, and dream elk. It’s most evident in the most recent episode, “Sorbet”, in which we look at what Hannibal Lecter’s life is like, and not much else.
All right, yes, there’s a killer this week. But he’s a med student organ harvester, and isn’t even as psychologically interesting as last week’s Dr. Abel Gideon. After a body turns up in a hotel room with some Chesapeake Ripper-style mutilations and organ removals, Will Graham gets pulled out of his classroom to do that empathy thing. His and Jack Crawford’s exchange in the drive to the scene highlight the macabre nature of this “talent” that the show sometimes glosses over: “I’ve had the room sealed. You’ll get it fresh.”, to which Will replies “Fresh as a daisy.” As much as Hannibal likes to shock its viewers with tasteful gore, it’s easy to forget that its protagonist’s special ability is pretending to be a serial killer. Little comments like that bring the viewer back to the reality of what it is most people do on the show beyond the veil of dreamlike imagery.
The show’s dark, subdued sense of humour also serves it well in “Sorbet”s ostensible A-plot. FBI-people Beverly Katz (Hetienne Park) and Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) are on the scene before Will, and after Katz lets him know that she touched the body and her impressions, Zeller chimes in, saying “I, uh, also did a little bit of touching.” The mutilated body not ten feet away makes his sheepish delivery far funnier than it should be, allowing a small moment of humour to precede one of Will’s empathic crime scene investigations. This one was as interesting as the rest, featuring an elk so as to remind the audience that, yes, the spectre of the Hobbs family is still around.
Hannibal is sometimes a straightforward procedural, and, unfortunately, this week’s case is pretty uninteresting. It had a similar progression to “Amuse-Bouche”; the breakthrough came in the last couple minutes after the case took back seat for most of the episode, and the killer was subdued without much difficulty. However, “Amuse-Bouche”s Mushroom Guy was much more interesting psychologically than “Sorbet”s Devon Silvestri, who had a single appearance and not much in the way of motive.
I’d complain more, but “Sorbet” did something the show hasn’t done since it began: actually focused on Hannibal Lecter as a character for the majority of an episode. We get an idea of his social life: he goes to the opera, visits his own therapist (Gillian Anderson!), and puts on elaborate cooking shows with what is definitely human meat this time, for sure. This seems fairly standard fare for a character we’ve been conditioned to have certain expectations about. What’s unexpected is that all these, even the human meat, are indicators of profound loneliness. Hannibal Lecter is lonely.
Giving the man an inner life and vulnerable emotions didn’t work out so well last time someone tried it: see Hannibal Rising, but the subtleties in “Sorbet” convey his state without diminishing any of his menace. The episode opens with one of Hannibal’s patients fumbling to form a connection with him, and the audience is given the impression that as a professional he’s above that sort of thing. Later, however, Hannibal’s own therapist sees right through him, accusing him as wearing a “person suit” and asking him if it’s lonely presenting a meticulously-constructed persona. He protests, almost weakly, that “I have friends, and the opportunities for friends. You and I are friendly.” But while she likes him, Hannibal’s therapist isn’t his friend, and you can see in Mikkelsen’s performance that he’s almost imperceptibly let down by this. His “person suit” barely wavers, but it does slip.
In his subsequent session with Will, Hannibal asks, seeking reassurance, “Am I your psychiatrist or are we simply having conversations?” In context, it sounds like a psychiatrist’s leading question, but it disguises that he really wants an answer; are he and Will friends? He asks a similar question while cooking eating dinner with Alana Bloom, “Why didn’t we [have an affair]?” Bloom changes the subject, but Will engages with Hannibal, obliquely implying that they are in fact friends. In three short interactions, Hannibal Lecter is more convincingly humanised than he’s ever been. He wants a connection to an equal, and he’s frustrated that no-one can understand him.
The show’s most interesting juxtaposition is multi-scene montage where we see Hannibal take business cards from his collection, match them to recipes, and then cut to preparing some sort of organ for consumption. It’s a beautiful bit of cinematography, like all Hannibal’s dinner scenes, but it differs in that this time, it’s pretty obvious that, yes, it’s human meat this time. And now that we know, Hannibal goes all-out, crafting a frankly delicious-looking table full of meat dishes, and then commenting as the episode ends, “Nothing here is vegetarian.”
This is delightful not only for the macabre sensibilities it displays, but how it ties in with the feeling of loneliness that pervades the episode. This round of killings for the “Chesapeake Ripper” is the result of pent-up frustration; everyone but Will has rejected his overtures at companionship, so he’s reaching out the only other way he knows how: ritualistic murder and cooking. In a sense, he forms a connection with his victims; he keeps everyone’s business card in a stylish rotating holder and clearly respects the results of the killing if not the subjects. It’s also quite telling that Will shows up for a few minutes at the beginning of Hannibal’s dinner party/food performance art piece, but leaves after delivering a bottle of wine and a short conversation. The rest of the guests are barely pictured, having one short shot of their faces. They’re Hannibal’s world, that he’s evidently tired of, representing a group who admire him but can’t possibly understand him. Will is outside the world of cannibalistic dinner parties, but he’s the only character who Hannibal ever relates to and isn’t rebuffed by.
Oh, and Jack gets a dream sequence that rather obviously compares his current protégé, Will, to his dead protégé, Miriam Lass. It’s a good reminder of his mental state, as he doesn’t get many scenes this week, but it’s a tad obvious, especially when the show garnishes a dead-eyed, stitched-up Will with a missing arm. It really isn’t necessary to emphasise how emotionally fragile Will is and how Jack’s reliance on him is dangerous every two to three scenes, especially where we know both of them are going to live through the full series.
This week, Hannibal recognised that its characters are sometimes more important than its plot, and gave its title character almost the full episode to showcase his inner life. Even stranger, this worked, giving him some quite interesting depth. The episode’s supposed main plot wasn’t enormously interesting, but the show does sometimes need to pretend it’s a procedural and not a human drama.