If this were any other show, I would probably have declared “Sorbet” to be filler and cried foul. I hate filler, and filler is the bread and butter of network television. In serialized TV, filler stretches the story out until it’s thin and flimsy, with writers struggling to figure out how to tell their tight and well-outlined story over the course of too many episodes (Walking Dead anyone?).
But “Sorbet” was so masterfully-crafted, beautifully-shot and elegantly acted filler that I didn’t even notice that the plot didn’t advance much. What I’m realizing is that Hannibal isn’t a very plot-heavy show, it’s more of a long form character study (or studies) and I think that’s why episodes like this work so well. The writing and acting is also so consistently good, that the viewer just gets swept up in the artistry of it all. On a show like LOST, which always tried to pretend like it was character study first, story second but never was, filler episodes were disastrous. And there were SOOOOO many of them. Characters would stand around doing nothing and delivering terribly-written cryptic lines at one another as the actors portraying them struggled to give good performances. Such is not the case on Hannibal.
If there’s one thing to take away from “Sorbet” it’s that Hannibal is the best-shot show on television. Too often cinematography takes a backseat in TV production, and back when we were all watching shows on tiny 4:3 boxes it’s understandable that DPs wouldn’t exactly give 110%. But now that we all consume our stories on hi-def 16:9 monster screens (at least those of us who don’t just steal shows and then un-ironically tell our friends, “oh, I don’t watch TV”), cinematography has started to improve. Not everyone’s gotten the memo, and I’m often taken aback by how blasé the lighting and framing can be on shows that are otherwise fantastic. Take Person of Interest for example, which aired its season finale last night. It’s a great action/thriller procedural that’s very well-written, but lacks the visual flair of its creators’ feature films (J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, brother of Chris). Hannibal on the other hand matches its big screen rivals if not exceeds them, and is certainly on par with the haunting muted tones of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.
Good cinematography is integral to the success of Hannibal because without it the show’s taboo subject matter would come off as crass or uncouth. If Hannibal were harvesting organs in a dank, dirty basement in sepia-toned 16mm a la an Eli Roth torture porn flick, it would be lambasted by critics for glorifying cannibalism and murder. It’s the dichotomy of Hannibal’s perversions and his human mask, as guest star Gillian Anderson (Scully!!) puts it, that makes him such an interesting and unique character. He’s a horrible serial killer, but Bryan Fuller doesn’t let the audience off easy by having him be some archetypal monster like Leatherface or any other slasher icon. Compared to Mads Mikkelsen’s performance, Anthony Hopkin’s take on the character is borderline caricature. In contrast, Fuller and Mikkelsen present us with a man whose crimes force us to ask difficult questions: what is the true nature of evil, of insanity? If Hannibal is neither psychotic nor a sociopath, then how do we qualify or quantify his evil?
“His mutilations hide the true nature of his crime,” Will says in “Sorbet.” He’s the only one who seems to unwittingly understand Hannibal- Jack and the annoying cadre of unnecessary lab tech characters still analyze the Chesapeake Ripper under normal serial killer rules, not realizing that the theatricality of Hannibal’s murders are not only part of his fetish, but also a tool to throw the bloodhounds off the trail. If the FBI thinks he’s nothing more than your dime a dozen serial killer, they’ll treat him as such. Hannibal obviously takes pleasure in mutilating his victims and humiliating them- Will tells his class that the Ripper views his victims as pigs- his real pleasure is in the long cons I mentioned before- toying with Jack and Will and of course, feeding his victims to unwitting “friends.”
The cooking montage was definitely my favorite moment of the ep. Set to Mozart’s “Lacrimosa,” the scene had a decidedly operatic feel (harkening back to the literal opera scene from the beginning of the episode) and is a great example of how Fuller plays with his dark subject matter to make it more fun. Hannibal grabs a recipe, then a business card, then starts to butcher a poor bastard’s organ before freezing it for the impending feast. Rinse, repeat. No murder is ever shown- in fact, in general that’s something that sets Hannibal apart from other serial killer shows- but we know Hannibal is racking up a sizable body count. It’s beautiful and that beauty unsettles us because we shouldn’t find anything that gruesome to be aesthetically pleasing, but it is.
This scene also illustrated how Hannibal chooses his victims and how he’s managed to evade capture for so long. Originally I thought Hannibal was toying with Jack and Bella because he planned to eat one of them, but that’s too brash for him. Hannibal selects victims he only had a passing interaction with- an insurance agent for example- then saves their business cards for later. This makes it practically impossible to trace the victims back to him unless an investigator already suspects him, which is why it was such a miracle that Miriam Lass found him, and why Will posits, he killed her differently than his other victims. Hannibal respected Miriam’s effort, and never really humiliated her like he does his other “pigs.” Sure he left her severed arm lying out, but that was more to humiliate Jack and remind him of his failure to protect her.
“Nothing is vegetarian.” Man, you really do have to give a standing ovation to Bryan Fuller for making something so gross and horrifying so deliciously awesome. Hannibal hunts, kills, butchers and serves the organs of around a dozen people to a whole room of stuffy upper crust dinner guests and they give him a standing ovation. You can read the pride on his face and its this secret humiliation, this long con that is the true crime Hannibal hides with his showmanship. This sort of characterization is so much more effective than the fake plastic caricatures that populate so much of modern horror. The feeling you come away with after watching a Hannibal episode is akin to the brooding, aching and unsettling pang you get in your gut after watching Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. What you saw was mildly horrifying, but it’s what you came away with that sticks with you and haunts your dreams.