Last night’s episode of Hannibal, “Contorno,” is both conveniently and poetically ludicrous. Repetition has inescapably set into this season’s Italian sojourn, which partially accounts for why last week’s superb American flashback episode, “Aperitivo,” felt so sharp. It’s beyond time for Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) to be caught in Florence by Will (Hugh Dancy) or Jack (Laurence Fishburne), or even Mason (Joe Anderson), and returned to America to face his sins while presumably counseling a variety of enforcers on the behavior of other ingenious master killers. The show’s dream logic has nearly reached a breaking point, as certain visual motifs are coming dangerously close to courting self-parody, such as when Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino) uses a payphone and the audience is treated to a rapturous, slow-mo sequence of the quarter tumbling down the change slot. When Jack spreads Bella’s ashes in a canal, the visual device makes emotional sense, but this is…a quarter. One awaits the pornographic opening of a Sprite bottle.
This impression of showrunner Bryan Fuller and his collaborators marking time is more pronounced than usual because the duet structure of “Contorno,” which is traditional to Hannibal, uncharacteristically falters. In early scenes, Hannibal and Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) bat around variations of the transformation metaphor that’s been a key ingredient of the show’s symbolic bread and butter for three seasons now. Hannibal mentions that, as a boy, he kept a garden to attract fireflies, whose larvae would devour many times their body weight’s worth of snails as fuel for their metamorphoses. Will and Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto) have essentially the same conversation while traveling by train to Florence, the latter explaining to the former that birds eat thousands of snails every day, some of which survive digestion to discover that they’ve traveled the world. Will, not missing a beat, says they were “in the belly of the beast.”
At this point, even this devout Hannibal fan thought, “Yes, we get it. Will and Hannibal are spiritual brothers/lovers locked in a game of cat and cat. We’ve done this already.” But the duets between Hannibal and Bedelia and Will and Chiyoh continue to mine this terrain, exhausting a variety of hunted/hunter, virgin/seducer, pupil/teacher, Faust/Mephistopheles symbioses. Hannibal says that stuff he always says about certain creatures, such as insects, being untroubled by conscience, Bedelia complementing his contemplation with a nature/nurture sentiment about sheep dogs who can be trained not to savage the animals they’re supposed to protect. Hannibal counters that the dog always wants to [eat the sheep] however. Meanwhile, Chiyo says that Will wants to kill Hannibal to keep from becoming him, which the attentive viewer will recognize as a desire that parallels Hannibal’s past confession to Bedelia: that he will have to eat Will to get over him emotionally.
The duets between Hannibal and Bedelia still work for the ripe, evolving erotic chemistry between the characters. Represented purely in terms of dialogue, there appears to be little change in this pair’s relationship over the last several episodes, but the physical component of their rapport has grown subtly bolder. Hannibal parades around with his shirt off, massaging Bedelia’s neck or washing her hair. Eating snails, Bedelia snatches one off of a skewer Hannibal’s holding in an oral gesture that unmistakably suggests fellatio. Bedelia doesn’t really seem to be feigning revulsion at her partner anymore, a cold fascination and sensual gratification setting in instead. Helping immeasurably, of course, are Mikkelsen and Anderson, who’re pros at selling this material, imbuing it with a camp element that intensifies, rather than undermines, Hannibal’s atmosphere of arousing, surreal dread.
Will and Chiyoh’s interludes aren’t nearly as satisfying. Will’s a poignantly recessive character who needs a big, bold foil (like Hannibal or Jack) to play off of. Chiyoh, however, is even more internalized than Will, not to mention disastrously uninteresting. She’s a deliverer of repetitive exposition, and Okamoto, rivaling Michael Pitt’s interpretation of Mason Verger for the worst performance in the history of Hannibal, isn’t able to give this material any hint of subtext or element of stylized snap, rendering Chiyoh a tedious wet blanket that’s sewn together from stock, barely coherent emotions. When she drones on about night and day as differing dimensions, Hannibal collapses into inadvertent self-parody, inviting you to nod off into night-land yourself.
There’s still quite a bit to savor in “Contorno.” The newly formed duet between Mason and Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) is a surprising comic triumph, imbuing the series with a dash of mordant humor that suggests the emergence of a previously under-plumbed genre: the horror buddy comedy. Anderson plays Mason as a brat who’s been weirdly chilled out by Hannibal’s severe violation of him; he’s not kidding when he claimed, in “Aperitivo,” that his trauma last season triggered a rebirth. As I wrote last week, this character finally makes some kind of sense: He represents intentional, controlled self-parody of a decidedly gallows sort, spoofing the deadly earnestness that’s exuded by the other traumatized characters. Mason’s avenging the literal erasure of his face, and he regards this quest as one might an Easter-egg hunt: as something to pass the time. Mason’s reliably lewd remarks to Alana evoke a sicko screwball romance, particularly when he tells her, in a consciously meme-worthy bon mot, “Spitters are quitters, and you don’t strike me as a quitter.” Disregarding that, Alana proceeds to lecture Mason on Hannibal’s haute-cuisine tastes, elaborating on the silverware, which is 19th-century Christofle, or the plates, which are china from Tiffany. Mason, who’s always scanned as a well-moneyed philistine, is unexpectedly, amusingly impressed. The scene is capped with one of the best lines that Alana’s ever had: “The first step in the development of taste is to be willing to credit your own opinion.”
“Contorno” is a slow starter, but it grows confident and chilling as it builds to Hannibal’s face-off with Pazzi, which fans of Thomas Harris’s source novel will recognize as representing a preordained doom for the beleaguered cop, who bonds with Jack in an appealing little wine-and-dinner scene that represents a healthier version of the latter’s old get-togethers with Hannibal. (Speaking of those, it’s striking that Fuller has never included a scene in which Jack, Will, or Alana express disgust at the discovery that they’ve eaten who knows how many people at Hannibal’s old dinner table.) A facet of Hannibal that’s under-examined is how it parodies erudition as a form of social distance. There’s the food-porn element, which is comparatively restrained in “Contorno,” and also the fashion, art, and history slants, which are bluntly flouted this week. Hannibal’s brutal duets with Pazzi are a high point of the entire season, particularly when the two evoke Europe’s troubled, tortured history as a method of aggrandizing their own rivalry. Hannibal grills the inspector, recognizing him as a descendant of “the Pazzi,” who conspired to take over Renaissance Florence, ending in a relative’s disemboweling and hanging, which foreshadows the inspector’s own fate. When Hannibal drugs Pazzi for his inevitable execution, the opera La Gazza Ladra can be heard emanating from a nearby record player. The title translates roughly as “the thieving magpie.”
Pazzi’s execution sets the stage for Jack’s confrontation with Hannibal, which represents a jolting, cathartic relief from deciphering the episode’s dense, elaborate series of in-jokes, cultural reverberations, and dry, nearly private satire. (A “Culture Guide to Hannibal” can’t be far off.) Jack’s battle with Hannibal, involving a variety of Renaissance-era torture instruments, obviously mirrors their fight at the end of last season, with the noted difference being that Jack can now kick Hannibal’s ass, offering a break from the redundancy of the antihero’s seemingly supernatural invincibility. (Most viscerally, Jack hacks into Hannibal’s leg with what appears to be an antique grappling hook.) The stand-off has a disappointing punchline, though, that reminds us that Hannibal is close to spinning its wheels in the figurative mud, dutifully assembling its pieces for the big, full-cast showdown that’s almost certainly just around the corner (the episode’s title means “to surround”). Jack spends months trying to find the man who tried to kill him and his friends, and he just lets him go in a flourish that’s less dreamily eloquent than desperate. It’s time for Hannibal to come home.
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