“You have to convince yourself the lion is not in the room. When it is, I assure you, you will know it.”
-Hannibal Lecter, Episode 1.1, “Aperitif”
There is a common misconception that Hannibal Lecter is human. That he has human emotions and human reason, that he loves and laughs like a human, that is all a lie that we have been taught over years of misdirection. Up until Lecter gutted Will, killed Abigail, maimed Jack and turned Alana Bloom into Clarice Starling, we only ever saw him in his person suit, with quick glimpses through the seams. Now that’s stepped out of that metaphysical clothing it turns out that, rather than a human, Hannibal Lecter is much more like a man-eating cat.
All of season three, when he’s been featured in an episode, we have gotten to see who Hannibal Lecter really is, and though it’s tempting to impose human-like features on him, he is truly separate from us. He has certain traits that we can understand: he is curious for one, and finds amusement in things, but Hannibal is so high above the rest of us that we can only really understand him through the personification we normally reserve for animals.
In “Contorno” we get to see the lion that draped itself in so many a plaid person suit, thanks in part to his interacting with two of his recent survivors. The hour, which I’m tempted to call the show’s best yet, is a profile of Hannibal Lecter writ on a grand scale. This is who Hannibal is to his predators, his prey and his proverbial pride.
The alien nature of Hannibal’s mind is perhaps best illustrated by the methods through which Mason Verger and Alana Bloom are hunting him. Dr. Lecter is a creature of habit, and though he’s notoriously dangerous to approach, he’s incredibly predictable from a behavioral standpoint. At least that’s what Bloom sought to prove by recreating his dinner table at Muskrat Farms, and sure enough it lead her to a pile of receipts from Bedelia’s Florentine grocery trips, pinning a location on the fugitive cannibal.
The idea behind the scheme is that Hannibal is a slave to his base senses — specifically taste, smell and hearing — the very ones he uses as predatory weapons. By setting her table, Alana hopes to get into the apex predator’s mind. It’s the best possible way to approach knowing Hannibal: by conceding that you do not see the world the same as he does, a concession that Bloom’s partner in crime is incapable of making.
If Hannibal is the pinnacle of the un-human, his nemesis Mason Verger is a grotesque caricature of our species. His fixation on Alana’s sexual relationship with Hannibal, expressed this week through his prime time TV standards-pushing dialogue about not being a quitter, traps Verger in his human frame of mind. Mason can’t understand a man who isn’t motivated by sex, despite Alana’s insistence that Hannibal’s behavior has never been motivated out of carnal gratification.
Mason is often referred to as The Joker to Hannibal’s Batman, and this dissonance in world views is why. Mason is all of our worst qualities, and Hannibal exemplifies us at our horrifically unattainable best. We, like Mason, are crude swineherds, and Hannibal is the great consumer: a predator that has a taste for longer pigs that walk upright and are ruled by sex.
It is appropriate then, that “Contorno” subverted the usual TV expectation that Will and Chiyo would trauma-bond and become lovers on their train ride to Florence. The two are, at this point, practically Hannibal’s abandoned family, each with their own inner Manstag that could complete their transformation into the Cannibal Doctor’s progeny.
As they ride the rails from Lithuania to Italy, Will and Chiyo speak of transformation and survival while framed in a hyper-stylized manner. Their scenes are like a dissonant music video for spoken poetry. Darkness is given weight, and both characters are framed in a way that makes them seem more like landscape paintings than people. It would seem out of place, the strange beauty of these scenes in comparison to the slightly more realistic action of the rest of the episode, if it weren’t for what the style change represents. Will and Chiyo are trapped in empathy mode, understanding Hannibal better than they ever have before.
The heightened reality on the train in “Contorno” is evoked by the same visual language and heavy dialogue that characterized Will’s crime scene investigations in seasons one and two. Without a procedural element, in season three we aren’t given a chance to watch Will do his metronome trick, but the integral ingredients are still present. The first half of this season has been one giant case of the week: the case of the handsome runaway cannibal.
With Will and Chiyo trapped in a weird demimonde between reality and Hannibal’s memory palace, it therefore makes sense that their final confrontation uses the symbols of love as weapons. Staring into the night from the train’s caboose, they talk about the different ways of compelling people, finally conceding that Will only knows violence. Chiyo kisses Graham and throws him over the back of the train. There’s just about nothing more Lecter-esque than feigning love and then sticking the knife in.
Will, betrayed by what remains of his humanity, is nudged awake by his ravenstag, which he follows along the tracks. The time in Hannibal’s mind, allowed by the feedback loop created between him and Chiyo, has allowed Will to once again feel the possibility of wholeness. And of course, the wholeness Will experiences with Hannibal is on of separation from his humanity. Will’s great power is to feel and think like the predators that have transcended humanity through grisly transformation, and Hannibal is the greatest of them all.
There is hope for humanity in the face of the lion though, and his name is Jack Crawford. We see Jack become whole again too, but in a heroic way. He scatters Bella’s ashes in a river from a bridge and throws away his wedding ring. It’s touching and painful, and while there is a human anger in Jack when he does this, the transformation that occurs in him is great. He has emerged from a trail, once and man now a hero and fully human, emotions and all.
Jack’s strength of character is juxtaposed with Pazzi, who succumbs to his human weakness. Crawford’s strength then brings him into conflict with Hannibal in the show’s first true moment of victory. Inspector Pazzi discloses that he has been disgraced, that he wants to give his new wife a lovely life, and that he wants Il Mostro out of his city. He sees opportunity in the three million dollar bounty on Hannibal’s head and arranges to deliver Lecter to Mason Verger alive over a Google Hangout. The catch is that Mason requires a fingerprint in situ as proof of Lecter’s identity.
Succumbing to his human pride, Pazzi commits hubris by going solo, aiming to collect a fingerprint off of a family heirloom torture device used on his ancestor. Hannibal cleverly circumvents the attempt with the strategic application of examining gloves, and then proceeds to use the Pazzi family history on Rinaldo himself. Lecter chloroforms Pazzi, taunts him, interrogates him, and answers his ringing phone to share a few words with Alana before executing him. Rinaldo Pazzi is disemboweled and hung from the balcony of the Palazzo Capponi in the same way his ancestor, Francesco Pazzi, was killed hundreds of years ago.
In Hannibal’s taunting we see again the traits through which we like to humanize Hannibal. There is a humour he displays, and he uses words like fun to describe toying with Mason Verger with prank calls, but underneath it all is a tone of performance and imitation. It is play, but its is an animal’s play. He interacts to learn and to feed, but nothing much else.
Pazzi’s guts land at Jack Crawford’s feet (Jack was going to check up on Pazzi on behalf of his concerned wife) and the hero races into the Palazzo Capponi to confront Lecter. The ensuing confrontation is the most gratifying moment of the series, and stands to show that there is still a place for the human spirit in the nightmare world of Hannibal.
Lecter uses his words to go for Crawford’s heart. In exacting detail he stands to humiliate Jack by describing what his final days with Bella must have been like, asking if he practiced injecting medicine on an orange before graduating to her skin. But Jack has come through the cancerous fire that destroyed his family and emerged a paragon of righteous human love and retribution, all but beating a lion to death with his bare hands and a 16th century meat hook.
The confrontation ends with Hannibal’s escape, descending the hanged husk of Pazzi after Jack tossed him from a window. Rather than giving pursuit, Crawford exercises that most human of all traits, mercy, and let’s the predator return home to lick his wounds. Misunderstanding, it seems, is a two way street. Just as the predator relies on surprise to snatch its prey, so does the hunter.
Bowels Out- The death of Rinaldo Pazzi is among the most iconic deaths in the Thomas Harris canon. I was wondering if, like the Freddie Lounds burning wheelchair of season two, Bryan Fuller would in some way avoid murdering Pazzi while still using the image. In the end, while I will dearly miss Fortunato Cerlino, I’m happy this scene remained fully intact.
It’s worth noting that, since Jack isn’t ever in Florence in the book, Hannibal gets off nearly scott-free. He still gets an opportunity to mock Mason Verger though, waving at a tourist who catches the murder on tape, Hannibal knowing the video will eventually find it’s way to the hands of his faceless nemesis.
A Movable Feast- Continuing her turn as dark-reality Clarice Starling, Alana Bloom employs the same trick used in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal to get into the head of Dr. Lecter. By recreating his table, Clarice and Alana both successfully come to better understand the man they’re hunting. In both scenarios, Mason Verger is incapable of getting over the idea that Hannibal must be a sexual being.
Self Editing- One of the most eye rolling lines in all of the Hannibal Lecter series was revised in “Contorno”, and I am ecstatic about it. In both the book and the movie versions of Hannibal, Lecter’s final words before chloroforming Pazzi are, “I’ve been giving serious thought to eating your wife.” I normally think the Anthony Hopkins creep-factor of the Hannibal films is really unfortunate, and for me this line has always stood as a stain on the franchise’s reputation. It’s just so fucking dumb.
Thankfully, inn “Contorno” Hannibal instead turns it to a direct threat against Pazzi himself, saying: “ I have been giving very serious thought to doing the same.” Referencing the Archbishop that sunk his teeth into Francesco Pazzi’s shoulder.. Count this as yet another victory for Bryan Fuller’s revisionism.