DISCLAIMER: It is with great honour and joy that I get to host in this blog @weirdymcweirder‘s (my personal editor/proofreader and my dear friend) first meta-analysis on Hannibal. I hope you ‘ll all enjoy it as much as I did.
When I first watched “Aperitif”, I had a feeling there was something wrong. I loved the visuals and the premise and the acting, sure, but there was just something “off” about it. A need to pinpoint what was wrong, rather than a desire to enjoy what was right, drove me to watch the episode again. As a fan of Fuller’s previous work, I was shocked to discover that the problem was the dialogue. It was the language that was “wrong”. However, this second time around, I also remembered that I had had this feeling before: after watching the first episodes of Deadwood and Justified, two of my favourite shows. And it dawned on me.
The language wasn’t wrong. The language was just right. It was my perception of what language should sound like on television that was wrong. For all the excellent shows on TV this past decade, very few have their own distinctive voice. And they stand out. And they surprise. And they confuse. Because we are not used to brothel owners delivering soliloquies while getting a blow-job, or miners quoting literature before they shoot, and, of course, we have never seen a psychiatrist and a profiler lock horns in a battle of similes before.
This has nothing to do with general eloquence. This is not about crafting beautiful turns of phrase. It is about giving each character an individual voice and arranging these voices on the page, like a choir singing, sometimes in unison, others in counterpoint. For example, both Hannibal and Will use figurative language masterfully, and never more so than when they speak to each other. What I would like to point out is that they don’t do it for the same reasons, as becomes evident by this exchange in “Sorbet”:
Hannibal: Sum up the Ripper in so many words?
Will: Choose them wisely.
Hannibal: Oh, I always do. Words are living things. They have personality, point of view, agenda.
Will: They’re pack hunters.
For Hannibal, the use of language is an aesthetic endeavor, like cooking or music. But even as he strives for beauty, his language is calculated, methodical, insidious. Hannibal’s words are contract killers. In contrast, Will’s words are pack hunters. They are wolves (or dogs) hunting for food. They need the sustenance to stay alive. His words are always running after a truth so elusive, that literal language would be too heavy and too slow to catch up with it.
So, I believe that the use of figurative language in Hannibal is not just a vacuous exercise in aesthetics. The extensive use of excerpts from “Red Dragon” has informed the rest of the dialogue and Harris’s tone of heightened realism has spilt over and blended with Fuller’s obvious love for language, making Hannibal, not just a visual, but a literary experience. It has also made it very difficult to follow.
This is why – and I know I might be alone in this – I love captions. Apart from the practical considerations for us, non-native speakers of English, captions help visualize the language. They clearly divide the screen in two: the top part is a visual landscape, shaped by mise-en-scene, cinematography, production design. The bottom part is a verbal landscape, inhabited by verbs, nouns, adjectives and lined with imagery and metaphor. In Hannibal the two landscapes exist parallel to each other, in a symbiotic relationship where image feeds off language and vice-versa.
There are two episodes where this symbiosis is clear. The first one is “Fromage”. On the top part of the screen, a dead body becomes a cello. On the bottom part, a brutal murder becomes a serenade. On the top part, stringed instruments line the interior of Tobias’s shop. On the bottom part, a profiler is played like a fiddle by a free-form psychiatrist who plays between conventional notes. On the top, the notes from a perfectly-tuned harpsichord mark the end of a killer’s quest for companionship. On the bottom, some people’s lives are pieces of music not worth hearing again. The second episode is “Roti”. On the screen, a man sees a tidal wave wash a totem of bodies away. He then sees his own body turn into water. In the captions, he feels fluid, like he’s spilling. On the screen, a sweating, melting man is trapped in a thicket of antlers. In the captions, his psychiatrist wants to contain his madness like an oil spill. But apart from these two episodes, the two landscapes, the visual and the verbal, exist in parallel throughout the season.
Bryan Fuller must love animals. They dominate the screen and roam the captions. A stag struts around Will’s nightmares in the visual landscape. Jack Crawford keeps a broken pony in his stable in the verbal. Dogs jump around happily waiting for more sausage, as a madness-smelling bloodhound is being groomed to catch killers. Maggots eat away at a family’s last supper and Hobbs is just a swarm of black flies, temporarily assuming the shape of a man. Ravens peck at dead bodies, while screams are perched under chins. And a lion is in every room that Hannibal enters.
A similar parallel can be drawn between other themes in the series. As Will looks at his little house from a distance, seeing a floating boat and feeling safe, a certain psychiatrist becomes a paddle and a gauge, eager to steer him through troubled waters. Will fishes, but it is a young girl who is used as a lure. Hobbs hunts, but so do words. On the screen, a cannibal cooks human flesh and serves it on fancy china. In the captions, a good man kills a bad one with a sprig of zest and is treated like a fragile little teacup, but feels like an old mug. And for all the well-tailored suits Hannibal wears in the visual landscape, the most meticulously constructed one is the person-suit he wears in the verbal landscape. In contrast, Will considers the concept of family to be an ill-fitting suit. On the screen, it is the concept of suit that is ill-fitting for him.
Hannibal is a feast for the senses. But it is also a show about the senses. Vision haunts Will. Taste drives Hannibal. Images of Will taking off his glasses to “see” a crime scene and of Hannibal indulging in a meal run through the whole season “like a thread through pearls”. One episode is dedicated to each of the other senses. “Coquilles” is the episode of smell where Hannibal exhibits his almost supernatural olfactory abilities by smelling disease on Bella and Will. “Fromage” is the episode of hearing, where people are killed to make music and their killer ends up with half his ear shot off. It is also the episode where Will’s hearing is impaired, both by auditory hallucinations and the noise of a gun. “Trou Normand” is the episode of touch where Hannibal ensures confidence and establishes trust by touching Will and Abigail.
In the captions, senses are less like threads and more like neurons, diverging, intersecting, or firing all at once. Seeing might be terrifying for Will, but so is being blind – especially because someone has moved all the furniture around. And when the scales fall from his eyes, that’s when he truly sees who he is – and who Hannibal is. In this verbal landscape, senses are the chemical elements that nightmares are made of. Spaces speak with noise, serenades are heard behind closed eyes and nerves make clicking sounds. Thoughts are not tasty, bloodhounds smell madness and screams are smeared on the air. Through the season, this sensory attack sandblasts Will, causing the light and colour that make him alive to fade.
This loss of light, this dimming is evident in both the visual landscape and the verbal. The three scenes set in Hobbs’s kitchen become progressively darker. In “Aperitif”, when Will enters the kitchen, it’s early morning, it’s sunny and light is coming in through the curtains. Everything is clear, everything is open and there is not much to say, but a lot of things to do. In “Potage”, it’s an early autumn evening and everything is darker. Still, there is enough light in the kitchen for Will to talk to a shadow suspended on dust. There can’t be shadow without light. Unless, of course, your world is made of shadow. By the time Will enters Hobbs’s kitchen for a third time in “Savoureux”, his world has been overrun by the shadows of Hannibal’s crimes. In the world of images, it is right before dawn and everything is dark. Appropriately, in the world of words, Hobbs has also become darker: a shape made of swarming flies, black and vibrant and crawling with life. How else would we be able to see him now that the light everywhere has dimmed?
Parallel to these two landscapes, the visual and the verbal, runs a third one: an auditory landscape or “soundscape”, as Fuller called it in an interview. Much has been written about Brian Reitzell’s work in the show by people a lot savvier than me. The sounds coming from the screen are an integral part of the feel of the show and add texture and depth to the images and the characters. But there’s also a soundscape in the caption world, eager to be discovered, sometimes shouting in assonance (the repetition of vowels) and other times whispering in consonance (the repetition of consonants).
When the mongoose under the house sees the snakes slither by, we hear their threatening hisses. When Will talks to shadows suspended on dust, we hear the shadows speaking softly in his ear. When a killer finds peace in the pieces disassembled, we hear them fall into place, flesh on flesh, bone on bone. When Will hears his heart dim but fast, like footsteps fleeing into silence, we hear it too, fluttering with fear. Of course, in moderation, madness can be a medicine for the modern world, but all we hear is Hannibal’s madness humming in the background like an old fridge in the silence of the night.
There is one last instance of “verbal soundscaping” I would like to mention and it comes, rather fittingly, from the season finale, “Savoureux”. Will is standing in the kitchen where he killed Hobbs and looks at the wall, reliving the moment when he shot him. He sees the space opposite him assume Hobbs’s shape, filled with black and swarming flies. And then he shoots him. Not with a gun, but with a word. By spitting out hard and fast the strong syllable of the word “scattered”, while essentially eliminating the weak syllable, Will shoots Hobbs οne last time; not with a gun, but with a word.
I would like to close with a line from this excellent article on the season four finale of Justified: “If television aspires to act like literature, then it shouldn’t be afraid to sound like literature”. It’s a good thing Hannibal appears fearless in this respect.