“Madness can be a medicine for the modern world,” Dr. Hannibal Lecter confidently declares to his psychiatrist at the end of this hour. Madness can also, however, mean the destruction of an individual’s own world.
“Rôti” was a spellbinding hour of television, not for soaring orchestras or immaculate dinner spreads, but because of good old-fashioned character work.
As a longtime watcher of network crime dramas, ‘Hannibal’ stands out for a lot of reasons, most of them so immediately obvious that comparing and contrasting this series to anything else on a network is pointless. But the boldness that defines the show’s eye-popping visuals manifests itself in a subtler way in the series’ storytelling.
In particular, what the show has done with Will Graham this season is not only fascinating, it’s impressive and courageous.
Network crime dramas tend to be regarded most for their watchability not on the night they air, but on random afternoons when you’re flipping channels and stumble across one on TNT. This is of course because the episodes are for the most part self-contained, but it’s equally because the characters are always familiar. Gil Grissom on ‘CSI’ season 2 was the same as Gil Grissom on ‘CSI’ season 9. Patrick Jane is the ‘Mentalist’ now as he was a few seasons ago. The cast of ‘Law and Order’ might turn over, but the characters themselves remain steady.
This is done not just to make series more digestable in reruns, but because messing with the main protganist is frankly scary. It’s hard enough to create a hero that the audience wants to watch, why would a series risk sending him or her on a long-term, transformative journey?
Which is all to say: ‘Hannibal’ could have been the same show it is now – same visuals, same violence, same intensity – and kept Will as the brilliant-but-troubled investigator who uses his greatest flaw as a sort of superpower to solve cases. I suspect the show would still be hailed as brilliant, there would still be “Fannibals”, and so on.
But that’s not what this show wants.
Turns out, the ambition of ‘Hannibal’ is not a faucet that can be turned on and off; it’s a pervasive condition that dictates every decision the show makes. It’s part of the very premise of the series.
In “Rôti” we see Will at his most damaged, his sickness unchecked thanks to Hannibal hiding the diagnosis from him for reasons that are still tantalizingly vague. He’s barely functional, offering shaky assistance in processing the gruesome scene involving Dr. Gideon escaping from a prison transport.
The major story elements of this episode – Will falls deeper into his madness, Alana is put at risk – could have easily been crafted around a single-episode nemesis, like our friend the vocal cord cello guy or the mushroom man. But again, ‘Hannibal’ chooses the more ambitious path, bringing back Gideon and Chilton.
Last we saw these two, Chilton had convinced Gideon that he was the Chesapeake Ripper causing Gideon to murder a nurse. Following his escape, Gideon, feeling like his mind has been messed with, goes on a spree to get revenge on all the psychologists who talked to him, including Chilton and Alana. The former is dealt with in the series’ most gruesome scene to date; the latter escapes a similar fate thanks to Will, at the devious urging of Hannibal, killing Gideon as he stares into Alana’s window.
The scene with Gideon, Freddie, and Chilton will probably be what’s talked about most, because it’s not every day you see a living person have their kidney removed. Already, I see some people on Twitter calling it too much, with others praising the series for showing it. I don’t really fall into either camp, but I hate the fact that this is the discussion people are having. Whether you are comfortable with the level of violence and brutality on ‘Hannibal’ or not, that’s just one aspect of the series’ ambition, and I would argue it’s not a defining aspect.
This hour featured a wealth of beautifully-constructed character work, exceptional acting performances, and moments of great suspense. To condemn it for a single scene OR to focus your praise on that one scene is to miss the point. This is not a series that plays it safe, in ANY regard. When given the choice, ‘Hannibal’ has proven it will always choose ambition. And thank goodness for that.