July 2, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), NBC
Season three of Hannibal has, to date, operated more as a waking nightmare than anything directly literal, an exploration of ongoing trauma that dances back and forth, lightly interfacing with reality amid long stretches where it steeps us in the internal lives of our central characters. Yet that has left this stretch of episodes with a series of problems as it tries to shift gears into a more conventional suspense narrative in the back half of this segment of the season (which will soon shift gears in a more meaningful sense). For one thing, it has left the goals of characters like Will and Chiyo slightly muddled, or perhaps a bit too conventional. By splitting all of the characters up and playing some of the same basic beats about the ways trauma and time spent in the presence (or absence) of Hannibal has affected them, we are left at this point with nuanced characters playing out a conventional logline: everyone is trying to catch Hannibal in their own way and for their own ends.
“Contorno” has an explosive finale, but somehow is the first installment this season to amount to less than the sum of its parts. The episode attempts to show us each character and what draws them to Hannibal, but we have seen all of that already, in detail, over the past four episodes, and so time that might have been better spent building up to the confrontation at the Palazzo is instead given over to retreads. Will seeks out Hannibal because he wants companionship and understanding. Alana seeks out Hannibal because she wants to feel vindicated for all of her pain and suffering. Chiyo seeks out Hannibal for reasons that remain somewhat unclear. And Jack seeks out Hannibal once he knows that his former friend has widowed Pazzi’s young wife. The pain of that loss is fresh for a Jack who has just scattered Bella’s ashes and dramatically hurled his wedding ring into the canals, and his fury feels tinged with a righteousness he seemed to have lost as he beats Hannibal across a room full of antiquated implements of torture.
Bryan Fuller has been open about the fact that, while breaking season three, he discovered it needed some serious condensing (the forthcoming storyline adapting Red Dragon was initially slated, in his plan, to be the fourth season, but was moved up when he discovered this current material could not sustain the show for a full season), and while I have thoroughly enjoyed everything so far, I can definitely see why this storyline needed to be condensed a bit. While I loved luxuriating in Hannibal and Bedelia’s life in Florence and following Will to Hannibal’s ancestral home, the show has struggled a bit more as it has attempted to shoehorn many of the events of Hannibal the novel into what it clearly prefers to be a more languorous examination of the pains of separation and the scars we all leave in those we love. Pazzi could have tied into this theme more elegantly, but instead he exists largely to play the role he did in the book, finding Hannibal, attempting to sell him to Verger, and then being disemboweled just like his ancestor. It all feels a little pat in a season that has otherwise seemed like anything but.
And for all of the success of that fight scene, Jack showing up to catch Hannibal the moment after he kills Pazzi, and then deciding to knock Hannibal out of the window, allowing him to escape (somewhat inexplicably, given how easy it would have been for Jack to chase him down) doesn’t really work like it should. We get why Jack is angry at Hannibal, and why his “live and let live” mentality is broken by Pazzi’s death, but it doesn’t explain how he would know exactly where to find Hannibal and exactly when, nor does it account for his baffling decision to let Lecter escape. A lot of this would work if “Contorno” had the dreamlike pacing and logic of the previous episodes this season, but it feels more grounded, and thus, more frustrating for the shortcuts it takes. And while next week may explain Jack’s thinking here, for the moment it simply feels like a stall so that Hannibal can menace Florence for a few more weeks. The same is true of Chiyo’s decision to throw Will from the train, a moment that would likely have worked very well in the longer version of this season, but which feels like another narrative stall in this context.
All of this is soon coming to a head, and I have largely been quite taken with the more experimental early episodes of this season. Yet “Contorno” is evidence that the condensing Fuller did left a lot of the show’s stylistic and thematic audacity in place, while taking some thematic shortcuts that rely too heavily on the undergirding he has only somewhat lifted from the novels. Hannibal is a wildly uneven book to begin with, and has proved to be a somewhat uncomfortable fit with the world of the show. Some aspects, like Mason Verger’s revenge plan and Hannibal’s new life among the elite of Italy, work because they feel rooted in what we know about these characters in this context. Others, like Pazzi’s arc, fall short because they feel too bound to the source material and the beats it requires to be played out. I have great faith that Fuller’s skill at adaptation will be in finer form in the Red Dragon arc, but there are narrative weaknesses to this Italian sojourn. Whatever the flaws of “Contorno,” though, it still includes some iconic and explosive moments and seems to be moving this story to an explosive conclusion. With pretty much everyone converging in Florence with designs on Hannibal’s capture, the next two episodes could be something truly wondrous. And if not, this season still has plenty of excellence in store when things return to domestic shores.
- “Some of those snails survive digestion, and they emerge to find they’ve traveled the world.” “In the belly of the beast.”
- “Fireflies live very brief lives.” “Better to live true to yourself for an instant than never know it.”
- “Almost anything can be trained to resist its instinct. A shepherd dog doesn’t savage the sheep.” “But it wants to.”
- “The first step in the development of taste is being willing to credit your own opinion.”
- “There are means of influence other than violence. But violence is what you understand.”
“Contorno” has an explosive finale, but somehow is the first installment this season to amount to less than the sum of its parts.