“Before we begin, just a reminder. Nothing here is vegetarian. Bon Appetite”
There are a lot of ways to describe tonight’s episode of “Hannibal”, ranging from “gross and sickening” to “beautiful and aspirational”. It was frighteningly tense while also being soothingly classical. It was each of those things, all at once.
But perhaps the best place to start with ‘Sorbet’, the seventh episode of the first season of “Hannibal,” is that it wasn’t about anything. Not really.
Oh sure, there was a case, of sorts. The episode opens with a gruesome body laid in a bathtub, missing a kidney. The FBI is quick to attribute it to the Chesapeake Ripper, but Will immediately comes to a different conclusion. This was the work of an amateur surgeon, someone who made a mistake and who is certainly not displaying the body as a work for the whole world to see. Later in the hour, the team narrows it down to a private ambulance driver, who they catch in the act. Lecter steps in and saves the last victim, the harvester is apprehended, and the Chesapeake Ripper is still at large.
The key to “Sorbet” is not that this story was told, but how little it actually factored in to the hour as a whole.
Only a small portion of this episode was actually spent on policework, far less screen time than you would ever see on a network crime show. We took long detours that had nothing to do with this or any case, and that had no distinguishable beginning, middle, or end. So much of this hour was spent just watching our characters interact in ways that didn’t directly advance any story, but that served the greater purpose of slowly unraveling who Hannibal Lecter is and what his intentions are. This episode was not about the process of solving crimes; it was about soaring classical music juxtaposed with human kidneys being sauteed. It was about discussions of cheese platters and the insincerity of friendship. It was ethereal. It was a fever dream.
In other words, “Sorbet” was about everything that ‘Hannibal’ aspires to be, while simultaneously being about, mostly, nothing.
‘Mad Men’ is the reigning champion of crafting episodes about nothing, tying together a string of disparate scenes through thematic subtext rather than any kind of unifying plot. “Sorbet” wasn’t exactly that. Rather than unifying through themes, ‘Hannibal’ unifies through its distinct visual and audio aesthetic. Jack is haunted by visions of a mutilated Will rising from the operating table; Will is haunted by the ever-present spirit stag. Hannibal begins the episode by taking in an opera that drives him to tears, then proceeds to cook human organs for Alanna and then for an entire dinner party as operatic music rings out.
These scenes are not accomplishing something tangible, like providing clues for a murder mystery. They are establishing a style and a world, a setting for future murder mysteries to occur in.
All serious serial dramas have episodes like this; they’re normally called “table setters” or something similar. It is to the tremendous credit of ‘Hannibal,’ then, that “Sorbet” felt less like a table setter, and more like art.