“Are you, in this very moment, observing or participating?”
– The New Dr. Fell
We love to observe Hannibal Lecter. Setting aside that for the past three years the demented doctor has been portrayed by the heart-eatingly handsome Mads Mikkelsen on television’s most beautiful show, Lecter has a history of attracting a praising audience. He was voted the American Film Institute’s number one all-time cinematic villain in 2003, beating out Darth Vader, and has enough of a popular reputation that his name alone has kept the squeamish from enjoying Hannibal.
In the universe of the show, Hannibal is under near constant scrutiny. The reason given is always one of noble intent or an appeal to sympathy – that the observer is watching out of a need to catch Hannibal in the act of killing or out of a fear that she will be the next one on his dinner plate – but in the season three premiere we come to understand that this is a facade. We watch Hannibal Lecter do those things he does for the same reason that his would-be captors do: because we are curious about what comes next.
“Antipasto,” an episode that is masterfully restrained in its scope, uses our curiosity against us. We left season two with four main characters bleeding to death in and around Lecter’s West Virginia home after a dinner party gone terribly awry. Not one of those characters is shown in this episode outside of a flashback, with series protagonist Will Graham only receiving lip service. We don’t know when the episode is taking place and we don’t know who’s still alive (in the narrative, at least). All we know is where we are and who we’re observing.
After a cold open killing of arts scholar Roman Fell in Paris, Hannibal assumes the man’s identity and establishes himself in Florence. Some time later, as the new Dr. Fell, he charms his way into a prominent curatorship at the Palazzo Capponi despite friction from the nepotist Dr. Sogliato. The job comes with a sweet residence and great artistic license, which Hannibal immediately puts to use in organizing an exhibition of torture instruments.
A mutual acquaintance of the both the original doctor Fell and the new one (which Hannibal wears in place of his old person suit) shows up in Florence and is only mildly perturbed by the identity swap. It’s suspicious that this Anthony Dimmond is so willing to play along, but it doesn’t matter too much because by the end of the episode, the procrastinating poet is transformed into an artscape for the bleeding hearts he leaves behind.
All the while, Bedelia DuMaurier is playing the role of Mrs. Fell. She dances with him, entertains his conversation, dines on foods that don’t have central nervous systems, and entertains the thought that he hasn’t penetrated her consciousness, as is Hannibal Lecter’s MO with housemates.
Gillian Anderson takes up the role of main protagonist in “Antipasto,” and she carries the episode with mastery. Bedelia has been a guest star until now, and hardly a sympathetic character, but this most recent hour of Hannibal has shifted the balance. Hannibal Lecter needs to be observed to be effective. It is where he gets his alien aspect, through the gaze of others curiously and fearfully beholding him.
Anderson is only given English dialogue in the presence of Hannibal in “Antipasto” (with the exception of a single flashback scene in an FBI interrogation room), so her internal choices need to be signified through subtext or scenes in which she’s walking alone, taking a bath or buying white truffles in Italian. The moment during dinner with Dimmond, when the odd guest comments that her diet is the same as what Romans would feed animals to make them taste better, rests so much on Anderson’s abilities and she just nails it. At once we understand that she understands her own danger and we feel her fear, diffused just barely by a super-sexual and hilarious deflection.
Bedelia’s plight wouldn’t work either, if she weren’t a capable character in her own right. Hannibal gets its tension through a gnostic kind of conflict, pitting the best human specimens against a force so huge and misanthropic he might as well be a Hurricane with a medical license. There is a sense that Bedelia could make it out alive if only she was fighting a man and not the devil himself.
In fact, we finally see, through the episode’s flashbacks, that Bedelia is fully capable of murder in self defense. The infamous encounter with a violent patient was given screen time this week, with Anderson finding herself elbow deep in Zachary Quinto’s esophagus. Though the agency behind the act is purposefully blurry (the scene is reminiscent of Will’s regurgitating Abigail’s ear in season one), it’s clear that she believes she could have punched Spock in the stomach lining all on her own.
Hannibal gets his own flashbacks too, which end up being a deliciously self-reflexive series of diners with Eddie Izzard’s Abel Gideon. Sticking with the episode’s theme of observation versus participation, we are privy to the many disturbing dinners between the two psycho doctors. In season two, one of the most upsetting images was Gideon eating his own leg, and here we get to see his other limbs go.
The conversation is illuminating as Abel attempts to get into the greater killer’s mind. We learn Hannibal doesn’t consider what he does cannibalism because the doesn’t see his victims as equals, that he prefers prey that know they are being eaten, and that he would always much rather be eating dinner with Will Graham (a man he does consider his equal).
The series of dinner dates culminates in the most disturbing meal Hannibal has ever shown us: Abel Gideon eating escargot that had been feeding on his dismembered arm. The removal of Gideon proper from the menu while still evoking the abomination of autophilia does two things: it retroactively makes up for those moments in season two when Hannibal served meat that was not identifiable as human by the crime lab, and it demonstrates the horrific power of observation.
Gideon was shown his arm, covered in snails, and watched Lecter pick the little delicacies off. Their power as symbols, in terms of the pretense of dinner, is held in the snails actually being seen absorbing part of Abel himself. Gross. Beautiful.
So, Hannibal Lecter likes to be observed just as others are compelled to observe him. We get off scot-free in this case, because there is a veil of fiction separating us from the nightmare reality of Hannibal, but for the characters in the show (and in the books and movies, too), to watch is to partake.
Hannibal, after having had enough of Dimmond’s prying attention, brings him home just as Bedelia makes good on an attempt to escape. Lecter pulls a Tom Ripley, bashing Dimmond’s head with a bust, and as the nosey poet slowly crawls to the door, Hannibal addresses his audience of one:
“Observe or participate.”
The new Dr. Fell tells his wife, frankly, that to observe this and satiate one’s curiosity is to participate. He breaks Dimmond’s neck, takes his trophies off screen, and then decides to perform for a larger audience. His latest victim is mutilated into the form of a heart and put on prominent display. The ripper is up to his old tricks, and audience participation is no longer optional.
For this season of Hannibal I will be ending each recap with a rundown of some of the more notable nods to the Thomas Harris source material, along with how the show is deviating from established canon. This kind of stuff, buy its nature might venture into spoilery speculation, so devour at your own risk.
The Talented Dr. Fell – “Antipasto” mined Thomas Harris’s third Hannibal Lecter book, Hannibal, for much of its material. Lecter’s Florentine adventure borrows heavily from the page. The conversation between Hannibal and Dr. Sogliato is near verbatim, as is his lecture to the intimidating Studiolo. The torture instrument exhibition plays a major role in the book too, and Hannibal goes on at least one motorcycle ride.
One of the big differences, however, is the context in which this is all happening. Anthony Dimmond is not a character from the canon, but he’s hitting a lot of the character beats normally reserved for Rinaldo Pazzi – a police inspector with Will Graham-ish abilities who attempts to collect the bounty on Hannibal’s head placed there by Mason Verger. In the canon, Pazzi is the one who recognizes Dr. Fell as Hannibal, and it is he who enters the Studiolo lecture late (for poetic reasons I will discuss when more appropriate).
Pazzi has been confirmed for this season, and it’s my guess he will be the one responding to Hannibal’s heart tableau in the next episode.
This Will All Happen To You – Part of what makes the Gideon and Hannibal relationship explored in the flashbacks so delightfully meta is that the former is a collage of the source material. I went into it in greater depth last season, but the gist of it is this: Abel Gideon, having been brainwashed into thinking he was Hannibal Lecter and taken on the affectations of Anthony Hopkins, is a representation of who Hannibal has been up until this point. By having him feed on his own limbs, Mads’s Hannibal is transcending the source material.
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