I have two thoughts about “Buffet Froid,” the tenth episode of the first (and thankfully, as we found out today, not last) season of ‘Hannibal’. The first is short and obvious, while the second takes some unpacking because it explains why even though this was still a very good hour of television, it’s the first time I’ve taken real issue with anything on this fantastic series.
So first, this was clearly a horror movie. From the legitimately terrifying opening sequence to the shocking and gruesome twist at the end, everything from the structure of the episode to the frequent use of menacing, understated music indicated that the intention of “Buffet Froid” was to scare, and it very much accomplished that goal. I continue to be floored by the way ‘Hannibal’ transforms its look and feel on a near-weekly basis without losing whatever property makes it so distinct. Some weeks it’s blaring orchestras and pulse-pounding action, others its a darkly subtle score with a heavy focus on character interaction. This week skewed towards the latter category, with both the “monster under the bed” case and Will’s rapidly declining mental state creating a truly frightening and surreal experience.
The more substantial point, though, is this: I think ‘Hannibal’ got a little too cute.
Not “cute” with what’s happening on screen, of course, because Good Lord. But cute with its storytelling and writing. ‘Hannibal’ is generally an excellently written and acted show, with one of its most notable traits being the way characters directly address the subtext of scenes. When Will and Alana are flirting prior to their kiss, the topic of their relationship is immediately introduced. Pretty much every time Bev is working with Will, she directly references his mental state. Characters can hide their intentions (the entire show is built on this), but when a topic is put on the table, it is rarely danced around.
Part of this bluntness is explained by basically (literally?) every major character on the show being a genius, so having them withhold subtext from one another would put the characters at risk. If Will had been hopelessly ignorant of Alana’s interest in him, for example, that would not have tracked with what we know about Will.
But with the series starting to dip its toes into doing serious thematic work, that trademark bluntness becomes a potential liability.
Most notably, “Buffet Froid” sets up two stories that are very clearly parrallel in Georgia Madchen’s dementia vs. Will Graham’s dementia. This is ambitious stuff, particularly for network TV; it’s a smaller-scale version of the kind of setup you see on ‘Mad Men’ episodes. Unfortunately, while ‘Mad Men’ receives its share of criticism for occasionally painting its themes with too thick a brush, this went to an entirely different level in that regard.
I’m specifically thinking of the scene with Will reacting to Georgia’s mother talking about her mental problem. This scene was brutal (and not in a good way) on multiple levels. It showed a lack of trust in us the audience to connect the two plots on our own. The frequent cuts to Will’s reactions – as if they connection needed to be driven home EVEN MORE – were cringe-worthy. And the content of what the mother was saying read more like a meticulously-written screed against the mental health system in the United States than something a real human would say in that situation. Not saying I agree or disagree with the message, but for a character to be wheeled in for the express purpose of delivering a monologue that overtly connects the episode’s two stories is cheap and sloppy storytelling (two adjectives that I DO NOT use lightly with a show as impeccably-presented as ‘Hannibal’).
That led to the resolution, with Will confronting Georgia and using the reality-checking trick he learned in therapy and calming her down. To me, this kind of warm-fuzzy resolution wasn’t earned by the content of the story. The episode is about Will sliding into dementia while Hannibal withholds information that could be used for his treatment. I can tentatively buy Will being able to pull it together enough to talk Georgia down, but thematically it’s a mess. Will wasn’t getting better in therapy – the entire episode is about him getting worse. He still can’t draw a clock, and he’s losing hours at the most critical times. Why did he so cleanly solve the case, then? Why did the episode’s two stories diverge at the most critical juncture? I don’t understand what point the episode is making, from a thematic perspective (Will’s able to solve other’s problems but not his own, maybe? But given how much of this episode’s subtext was flatly explained, I hesitate to believe that the ultimate message went entirely unmentioned).
‘Hannibal’ transcends the traditional network drama in every way, and the series’ overwhelming ambition to create something different is a big reason why it’s such a treat. I’m definitely not advocating that ‘Hannibal’ move away from doing thematic work. I’m simply saying that when you swing for the fences every week, it’s not always going to result in a home run.
Still, despite my criticisms, “Buffet Froid” had enough amazing stuff (the beginning, the therapy scenes, and the twist at the end were all phenomenal) to be an enjoyable and exceptionally scary hour.