The title of last night’s episode of Hannibal, “Aperitivo,” is a reference to an alcoholic drink served at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the appetite. Correspondingly, the episode functions as a tone-setter and palette cleanser, sketching in the events that immediately transpired in the wake of the titular character’s rampage at the end of the last season. Conventionally, this should have been the first episode of this season, but what fun would that be? Up until now, creator Bryan Fuller and his collaborators have cast a disorienting pall over the series by pointedly refusing to provide us the American context of the events following last season’s finale, leaving us feeling as estranged and uprooted as Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen), Will (Hugh Dancy), and Jack (Laurence Fishburne). Resisting a chronological structure, shunning a typical “procedural” narrative in which events cleanly flow into one another, Hannibal captures the irrationally circular nature of grief, which inspires the mind to go searching about randomly, looking at events of both great and seemingly minor consequence, replaying them and recasting them in sheens that serve to accommodate emotional realms in constant flux.
Most shows use the act of murder as a plot device, barely able to disguise their callous indifference to fallout that might not advance a tidy three-act procession. We’re now nearly a third of the way into this season of Hannibal and we’re still wrestling with the antagonist’s (or is it protagonist’s?) escape from America after killing Abigail (Kacey Rohl) and nearly doing the same to Will, Jack, and Alana (Caroline Dhavernas), the latter having been finally revealed to have survived, after this season’s prolonged, cryptic refusal to address the particulars of her fate. After “Aperitivo,” I almost wish that Alana had remained presumably dead in our minds. She’s often been Hannibal’s trickiest regular character, a trusting follower in a series that understands the world as a rigged game sorted by pecking order. Alana’s earnestness can be irritating, even narratively conveniently so, such as when she adamantly refused to see what Hannibal was capable of last season. But that earnestness was also a wellspring that served as a wonderful contrast from the despair that emanates from the male characters like a fog; she was an idealist, and she’s paid dearly for that. “Aperitivo” implies that Alana has joined the broken boy’s club, and her makeover into a chilly avenger is distinctly heartbreaking.
Dhavernas is an attractive woman, but that’s often been played down in Hannibal for the sake of establishing Alana as a brain who’s poignantly uncomfortable in her body. In “Aperitivo,” she resurfaces clad in white makeup that accentuates her paleness, offset by bright red lipstick and a rather fetching red coat. This look is striking as well as comely in a certain Tim Burton-y “death warmed over” fashion (there are a number of parallels between Alana and Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer’s version of Catwoman from Batman Returns), but also intentionally disappointing. We miss the old Alana, whose vulnerability is now consigned to a singular flourish: a cane on which she only periodically relies. Is Dhavernas an inconsistent actor, forgetting that her character is now marked by the damage of bones that were shattered from her tumble out of Hannibal’s window? That’s an unsatisfying interpretation. More likely, Alana’s understood by Dhavernas as attempting to hide her pain, and only partially succeeding. Blooming in the gulf between this ambition and its merely sporadic realization is rage, grief’s most reliable accomplice. It’s this rage—at Hannibal’s betrayal, at Will’s perpetual lost-ness, at Jack’s catastrophic failure to manage the moving parts of last season’s grand scheme to net Hannibal, at her own naïveté—that’s implicatively driven Alana into collusion with Mason Verger (Joe Anderson, stepping in for Michael Pitt), in the aim of Hannibal’s capture and prolonged murder.
Mason, perhaps the grossest, most ludicrous character in the canon of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, finally makes a kind of poetic sense that’s complemented by Anderson’s performance, which, in just a few scenes, already serves as an elegantly understated relief from Pitt’s insufferable mugging last year. (Pitt bracketed the character in elitist quotation marks while shamelessly stealing the vocal cadences of Heath Ledger’s the Joker.) “Aperitivo” is so obsessively concerned with everyone’s unending, undulating pain that we recognize Mason as the manifestation of the collective damage Hannibal’s wrought (he’s scar tissue personified). His face mottled from Hannibal’s manipulation of him last season, Mason’s look is subtler than it was in Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of the Harris book that lends this series its title. Here, his visage visually suggests a cross between a turtle head that’s been fashioned out of silly putty and a pig person from one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Eye of the Beholder.” The last reference might not be coincidental, as Mason is a pig breeder who intends, per the novel, to feed Hannibal alive to his prize boars, plotting a theatrical revenge with Alana, his thuggish doctor, Cordell (Glenn Fleshler), and Dr. Chilton (Raúl Esparza), who also managed to survive an elaborate Hannibal-orchestrated character assassination-slash-indirect murder attempt, as he was framed, if you recall, for the Chesapeake Ripper’s murders with the body of Abel Gideon.
This all sounds terribly plotty, but “Aperitivo” progresses in the deliberate, ironically rapturous manner that distinguishes all of Hannibal’s very best episodes. You’re not aware of plot as you watch it, but of the moods that are conjured by the reliably astonishing visuals and by Brian Retzell’s score, which is composed of abstract soundscapes that appear to be emanating from the deepest recesses of the characters’ frazzled psyches. This episode once again reminds us of the ingeniousness of the show’s recurring duet structure, which allows Fuller and company to process a lot of narrative without appearing to. There are rarely more than two characters in a frame, which typically abounds in open, foreboding space. This motif is most touchingly apparent when Jack witnesses (incites? Tough to tell based on the deliberately vague staging) the death of his cancer-stricken wife, Bella (Gina Torres), as she fades into his arms, which is represented by close-ups of their heads surrounded by shadows.
This image parallels an earlier flashback in which we see Jack recovering from Hannibal’s assault, surprised to find that he’s still alive and now next to dying Bella. In perhaps the most moving moment in the show’s history, Jack tells Bella he called her during the attack, knowing if he could hear her voice he wouldn’t die alone. Startlingly, Bella refuses to grant Jack this self-pity, resenting his inability to savor his comparative stay of execution, telling him that, unlike her, he can cut what’s killing him out of his body. More startlingly, Hannibal sends Jack a letter of condolence when Bella dies, as the former is the kind of man who can love you while trying to kill you, embodying our great inability to fathom our deepest, most significant emotional reverberations.
Jack’s narrative evinces the episode’s most casually ingenious bending of time. In a brilliant moment, Bella’s funeral and her wedding to Jack converge; though, at the wedding, they’re the age they are at the time of Bella’s death. In these moments, one’s treated to a suggestion of what a Dario Argento adaptation of Faulkner might look like. When Jack kisses his bride, the camera tilts gradually to reveal Bella, not standing up in a wedding dress, but lying dead in a coffin, her face restored to an illusion of its pre-cancerous beauty by morticians, whose brushes were previously glimpsed in brief, operatic close-up. Earlier, a similar juxtaposition is achieved, when Jack pictures Alana (who’s holding a dress out to him to use for Bella’s display at her funeral) as his wife, her hair, youth, and optimism returned to her. Jack is as haunted by ghosts as Will, who converses with his memory of Abigail here as he crouches in the corner of Hannibal’s former American home, where the bloodletting occurred last year, meeting Alana briefly again, the two having little to say to one another. Everyone’s a crusader of their own private dimension now, a hero of their own show—a conceit that’s also affirmed by the frequent duets, which are often, tellingly, revealed to be solos, as one of the parties are shown to be the figure of the other’s imagination. Hannibal is so crushingly, daringly, beautifully lonely, exuding the same sense of idiosyncratic discovery that marked the best episodes of Twin Peaks.
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