Katharine Isabelle talks NBC’s Hannibal

“It’s my favorite show ever. It’s my favorite character.”

I sat down with Katharine Isabelle recently to talk to her about her role as Margot Verger on the TV show, HANNIBAL.

The character of Margot Verger, despite playing a significant role in Thomas Harris’s book, HANNIBAL, does not appear in the movie version. So this is the first time we’re seeing this character on screen. And based on her performance in Season 2, I think Katharine Isabelle has created the defining version of Margot, and I hope we get to see more of the Vergers in Season 3.

While I would have loved to have asked her about other roles like Ginger from GINGER SNAPS or Mary from AMERICAN MARY, I focused our conversation on the joys and challenges of portraying such an interesting and complex character on HANNIBAL.

Question: I’m a huge fan of the show, and I’ve read that you’re also a fan. Is that right?

Katharine Isabelle: I am a big fan of the show. I’m a huge fan of [Hannibal star] Mads Mikkelsen, who I originally saw at the Ritz in a Danish film called GREEN BUTCHERS. He played my favorite character ever, named Svend “Sweat,” and I totally fan-girled all over him when I saw him for the first time, while in the back of my head telling myself to shut up because I sound like a raging dork and psycho [laughs]. But, yeah, I binged-watched the whole first season [of HANNIBAL] they gave me when I arrived in my hotel the night before. It psychologically affected me enough to the point where at 3 AM when the fire alarm went off, I looked out the window and saw a cop car, and I thought I saw in the reflection of an open window an eviscerated body in my lobby. And I started thinking, “Oh my God, if someone has been murdered in the lobby, why would the cops turn on the fire alarm? Unless it was the killer who turned on fire alarm to get all of us running down the stairs so he could fucking murder us.” And I looked around and thought maybe I’d watched too much Hannibal. It’s an amazing show. Something that could psychologically affect me, it’s pretty good.

We were invited by Bryan Fuller [the creator and showrunner] to go watch the first two episodes of the second season in a theater he had rented, and it’s probably one of the only TV shows you can watch on a feature-sized screen and just be absolutely captivated. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully written, it’s smart, it’s dark, it’s scary. It has everything I love.

Question: Margot’s backstory is that she’s been abused by her brother for years. I can imagine it would have been an easy choice to play her as a victim, but instead you brought a complexity to her — a toughness that she’s presumably developed just to survive; plus a vulnerability that arouses the sympathy of both Will and Hannibal. How difficult was it to strike the right balance?

Katharine: Fortunately, it’s so well written that I didn’t have to fill in a lot of the blanks myself. I had a couple conversations with Bryan Fuller before my very first day where he talked about what his feelings and his thoughts about the character were. And not necessarily any direct commandments, but the overall gist of it. When something is so well written and someone takes the time to tell you themselves how they feel about it, there’s just an amalgamation that happens along the way. I’m not the kind of actor who sits and overanalyzes because I find that if I do that I just second-guess everything, I second-guess any natural instincts. So to have it be well-written and to be given an overall feeling from Bryan Fuller, they did the work for me and I just have to show up. And working across from Mads, he’ll get things out of you that you didn’t see coming.

We definitely wanted Margot to not be victim-y. She has a strength and a patience, like a sociopathic sort of patience, biding her time until she can really get even with her brother, which is what I think is so exciting about the end of the second season. It leaves this window of opportunity in the third season for her to have the upper hand, to be a power player in that relationship. And I’m glad for that. I play a lot of characters that could be viewed as victims but had strength and ended up not being too much a victim.

Question: How did you approach that final scene between Margot and Mason?

Katharine: They have such an interesting relationship. And I think they really do have some kind of deep fucked-up connection because otherwise I don’t think Margot would stick around so much. I don’t know if she tried to flee and he just finds her every time or whatever, but I couldn’t see her finding him in that physical predicament and then just be like, “Okay, awesome I’m free and I’m going to live my life now.” She’s not. She’s going to stick around and make sure that she either gets her revenge or has the power or the control. I don’t see her just running away from this situation. I think it was thrilling and scary and challenging for Margot all at once to find herself in that position. I don’t think in that scene that she’s really even decided how she’s going to approach this new phase in their life together. I think she was just sort of tickled at the idea that there would be a switch in power. Or maybe there won’t be, who knows? Maybe he’s got such a psychological line on her, who knows? I have no idea what they have planned for the third season or what’s happened to their relationship.

Question: You mentioned acting with Mads, and you also got to work closely with Hugh Dancy. Are you guys given the room to experiment from take to take or does the shooting schedule move too quickly for that?

Katharine: They’re very, very generous with the time that they allow actors to have, which they have to be because it’s so intense, such deep subtle shit. It’s so well shot that there are five or six or seven set-ups for every scene, even if it’s just two people. And by the time you get around to it, you do a few takes the way that you see it in the morning, and you do a few the way the director has seen it when he was thinking about it the night before, and then something that you do or something that he says inspires a new thought and you do it again a couple of other different ways. It’s always interesting to see what [takes they use] when they edit it. Like on the first and second episode I was in, I was really trying to suss out Margot for myself. It’s not like I’m there and in the clothes on the day and I’m like, “I got this, I got her locked now.” It takes a little while. And hopefully people don’t find out what scenes I’m still trying to figure her out in [laughs]. But I definitely threw down a lot of different ways to go with her the first couple days, and when I got to see finally which ones [the editor] had used, that informed my decisions going forward with the character. Once you see what they’re all putting together and how it comes across, you go, “Oh, okay, okay, I get it.” Seeing it objectively after the fact and looking at it, you get the gist and the feeling of what they’re going for, and that informs me going ahead.

Question: It’s like this really interesting unspoken creative collaboration with the editors.

Katharine: Yeah, the editor and I never talk but something happens along the line that definitely solidifies choices that I’ve made.

Question: HANNIBAL has such a great sense of humor. How important do you think it is to bring humor to such a dark show?

Katharine: I think you have to otherwise this dark material is just so over-the-top. I mean, every single person in the city of Baltimore is a serial killer [laughs]. You have to have a little bit of dark humor when you’re dealing with eating people. I think the character of Hannibal played by Mads Mikkelsen is fucking funny. I think that sort of intense sociopathic nature also involves a little bit of a sense of absurdity with the world, and I think that comes across. Like when Michael Pitt is cutting his face off and eating it and he goes, “I’m full of myself,” I literally fell on the floor laughing. It’s this sick, twisted, fucked-up scene, and I’m laughing because it’s hilarious. I think you need these moments once in a while otherwise your stomach is in such a knot and you won’t be able to eat. And Bryan Fuller who created it is such a genius. Like WONDERFALLS and DEAD LIKE ME and all these other shows he’s done that have dark material but have this levity and this absurdity and a sort of magic to them. That’s the same reason why WILLY WONKA, the original movie, is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s dark and fucked up that he’s murdering bad children, but it’s hilarious and fun. I think when you’re going to make people see the world and how terrible everything is, if you can add a little bit of levity and the absurdity of the human experience, people are going to connect with that.

Question: You worked with Bryan Fuller on the TV movie, CARRIE. Had you guys stayed in touch, and how did you come to get involved with HANNIBAL?

Katharine: After CARRIE I did go and screen test for [Bryan’s show] WONDERFALLS. There were three girls that went in, and Caroline Dhavernas [who plays Alana Bloom on HANNIBAL] ended up getting it. And Bryan Fuller is known to be very loyal to people he likes. I was astonished. I got the audition [for HANNIBAL] and I thought, “Oh Bryan Fuller, oh I know him and I worked with him and I love him and he’s great.” And the network looked at my tape and went, “I don’t know if she’s strong enough.” So Bryan Fuller, who had somehow seen AMERICAN MARY, sent them a copy of it and they went, “Yup, she’s strong enough. Book her.” And I was so incredibly grateful to Bryan for remembering me.

And also, one of the directors of the first couple episodes, Vincenzo [Natali], he worked on GINGER SNAPS, and I think [he and Bryan] had a conversation or my name came up or something, and he was like “Oh yeah, she’d be great for this.” And they sent me a request for an audition and it just came to me like anything else does. And I realized a little bit later that Bryan thought about me and remembered me and pushed me for it, and I was so grateful and very honored to have been thought about for this. I was incredibly tickled. When you work with somebody who’s so amazing and they actually remember you and call you up like ten years later, that’s like, “I feel pretty good about myself today!” [She laughs.]

Question: You can sense that loyalty even from Bryan’s tweets as he’s talking about all these actors he wants to bring back for Season 3. Do you know for sure that Margot will be back next season?

Katharine: I only know from conversations I’ve had with Bryan and other people that Margot would definitely be coming back at some point. I don’t know how much or how little, I have no idea where the character’s going. He did do an interview with AfterEllen — that was tweeted at me and I read it and was like, “Oh my God that was awesome” — and he said something about a BOUND-inspired storyline and a love interest for Margot, and I think there’s going to be some really cool stuff for her, which makes me just so happy because it’s my favorite show ever. It’s my favorite character and I’m super-excited to see what they come up with. But basically I’m the last one to know. And I only get the scripts of the actual episodes I’m in so I don’t even know what’s going on at all. I’m totally in the dark until I show up on set.

Question: Since you’re a fan of the show, is there anything you think other fans would find especially interesting about your experience working on HANNIBAL?

Katharine: As an actor, I’m not privy to all the ins and outs of stuff. My experience is like I’ve won some kind of contest and I got to do a walk-on part [laughs]. I’m so thrilled to have anything to do with it at all. Walking into Hannibal Lecter’s office is quite something. And sitting down across from him is… it takes you a while to get over. You leave and you’re like all jittery and “I can’t believe that happened,” and you run it through your head like a million times. But I think everyone there, the whole crew, they know they’re making something different. They know they’re making something unique and special, and everyone really cares. No one wants to let down their peers and their co-workers and Bryan Fuller. I think everyone feels pretty special to be a part of it, I know I do.

As far as anecdotes, there was one day I got to wear a $25,000 Alexander McQueen and wear 6-inch stilettos and drive a Tesla. And there was a day we called “Orgy Monday” where the very first thing up was the sex scene between Hugh and I, which turns into being about Hannibal and Alana and then the Stag-man, and we were like, “Okay, let’s have a good orgy, guys. Who’s going to tag in? You, go.” That’s the absurdity, like, “What are we doing? Oh, we’re having an orgy? Okay cool.” I think most of us know we’re making something special and are happy to be a part of it.

Question: Hopefully it will continue for a very long run. I know as a fan I would love to see HANNIBAL continue for many more seasons, and I hope that Margot comes back.

Katharine: Yeah, me too!

The HANNIBAL Season 2 Blu-ray and DVD comes out Tuesday, September 16. Season 3 will air on NBC early next year.

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Hannibal Review: “Mizumono” (season 2, episode 13)

“A bloodbath that leaves no one unscarred”

There comes a moment in watching a television show when you go from being a fan to being… well, an avid fan. Let’s call it a becoming of sorts. It’s at that point the show takes on an abnormal importance in your life. I discovered that was true for me when I sat down to watch the Season 2 finale of Hannibal. To my dismay and horror, I found myself staring dumbfoundedly at a baseball game in its seventh inning. After a bit of Internet scurrying, I was able to watch the episode, and holy crap. Without exaggeration, I think I’m ready to declare this the most gut-punchingly amazing non-series-ending season finale I’ve ever seen.

At the beginning of Season 2, we were teased with a flash-forward of a brutal hand-to-hand combat fight between Hannibal Lecter and Jack Crawford. We rightly assumed that the show would build over the course of the season to this deadly confrontation. But what we didn’t expect was that this seemingly straight-forward fight between two characters would culminate in a bloodbath that leaves no one (including the audience) unscarred.

Last episode closed with Will Graham offering up Crawford to Hannibal as bait. As “Mizumono” opens, we learn that Jack is in on this plan. And in a crafty bit of editing we get two separate conversations (Will and Jack, and Will and Hannibal) juxtaposed. We’re seeing both sides of Will, and while it’s tempting to believe Will is lying to Hannibal (“Will’s the good guy!”), I don’t think it’s that black and white. As the editing shows us, these two sides of Will have merged. Somehow two entirely dissonant beliefs exist side by side in his mind — the belief that serial killer Hannibal must be caught, and the belief that friend Hannibal must be saved. “You were supposed to leave,” Will tells Hannibal in that final scene. That’s when I understood. Will expected Hannibal to run. Despite all his empathy and his gifts for insight, Will wasn’t privy to the flash-forward we saw. He didn’t know this confrontation was inevitable. I think he and Hannibal both believed it could somehow be avoided.

For Hannibal that belief was shattered when he smelled the supposedly dead Freddie Lounds on Will. But Will’s belief lived a little longer, right up until Hannibal gutted him. This gets me to the big surprise of the season: The “resurrection” of Abigail Hobbs. (Which makes me wonder, was it Abigail who Beverly Katz found in Hannibal’s basement? I’d assumed it was Miriam Lass.) In a show where off-screen “deaths” are rarely deaths, some viewers might say they saw this coming. But did you see the I’m-still-alive-and-I’ll-shove-you-out-the-window moment coming? I didn’t think so! Seriously though, whether or not you expected Abigail to return (and for the record, I did NOT), Will’s surprise-confusion-betrayal-love at seeing her alive again was heart-breaking. And then to lose her again, right in front of him… F**k you, Hannibal!

Will’s allegiance to Hannibal, no matter how shaky and complicated it was, cost him dearly. The body count hasn’t been tallied yet, but whatever it is, Will’s guilt at his own complicity will surely birth some major personal demons (as if he didn’t have enough already) while he mourns the violent death of Abigail, et al. The drop of blood in Alana’s tears not only foreshadowed the episode’s bloody and tragic climax, but it’s also the perfect metaphor for Will’s becoming. His folly with Hannibal Lecter cost him blood and tears. And we can count on a lot more blood (and at least a few more tears) on what will likely be Will’s Season 3 rampage for revenge.

Speaking of aesthetics, the cinematography and scoring, while always exceptional, reached a new level of artistry toward the end of this season. In Hannibal, these elements rarely call attention to themselves, yet boldly heighten the emotional resonance of the storyline. And in “Mizumono,” ALL of the ingredients of film production — story, cinematography, score, editing, acting — combined perfectly into a magical witch’s brew that left me by the end both choking on it and wanting more. The bar has been set very high for Season 3 of Hannibal. And for this avid fan, it can’t get here soon enough. Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Tome-Wan” (season 2, episode 12)

“The event horizon of chaos”

There are very few secrets left between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. And “Tome-Wan” begins with a frank conversation that picks up immediately after last week’s final scene. Will “warns” Hannibal he’s set Mason Verger out to kill him because, well, he “was curious what would happen.” Will is playing Hannibal, in both senses of the word: He’s performing a version of Hannibal; and he’s doing so in order to lure Hannibal onto his hook. Hannibal of course is aware of this possibility. From his perspective, it’s irrelevant whether or not Will has actually murdered anyone; Will is dancing so close to that line that Hannibal is sure to be delighting in the effects of his influence.

We are witnessing a psychological game of chicken, as Mason calls it. But with two completely different styles. Hannibal’s “veneer of self-composure” is impenetrable. He’s the rock that you don’t see move until it’s crushed you. Will, on the other hand, is like an old coal-fired train racing at dangerously high speeds. You’re never quite sure if it’s going to stay on the tracks, and when it does, you’re amazed that it didn’t crash. An unstoppable force about to hit an immovable object.

At the end of that opening scene, Hannibal instructs Will to close his eyes and imagine what he would like to happen. And as I watched Will’s fantasy of him feeding Hannibal to Mason’s pigs, it felt incredibly satisfying — a culmination of all of Will’s suffering, a vindication of all of his efforts. And at the same time, I could not help feeling sad (and this is coming from someone who thinks all this “Hannigram” stuff is cray-cray). Their friendship is a fascinating dance on “the event horizon of chaos,” and as much as I want Hannibal to get caught, I don’t want the dance to end. But as Will acknowledges, “This is not sustainable.” [Subtextually, imagine how different that line would have felt had the show been canceled last week instead of being renewed — yikes, I don’t want to even think about that.]

Gillian Anderson returns as Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s former psychiatrist, to finally fill in her backstory and to warn us that Hannibal is still in control, no matter how confident Will and Jack seem. She also prophecies two significant plot developments: One, that Hannibal will persuade Will into thinking the only choice Will has is to kill someone he loves; and two, that Hannibal’s downfall will be the result of “whimsy,” or “self-congratulation at his own exquisite taste and cunning.” Concerning the first prediction, we can make a pretty good guess at whose life Will has chosen to offer up (Jack Crawford), based on the flash-forward from the beginning of this season plus Will’s suggestion to Hannibal in the final scene of this episode. But that second prediction… that’s intriguing, and likely something we will see develop over the course of Season 3.

We also get the conclusion (for now, that is) of the beautifully bizarre Verger storyline. Margot Verger has become the surrogate surrogate daughter (redundancy intended) for Will and Hannibal, taking the place of Abigail Hobbs. This complicates their plans for Mason. Both Will and Hannibal know that by killing Mason, they will be hurting Margot, which neither wants to do. How fitting then that Hannibal finds a solution to humiliate Mason by “eating” him (not literally but by proxy), but without killing him. And in a clever twist on the book, Mason feeds his face not to his own dogs, but to Will’s dogs!

Small changes like this remind us of how skillfully Bryan Fuller and his creative team are building on Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter mythology. It’s rare that a derivative work outshines its source material. But I think that’s what we’re witnessing with Fuller’s Hannibal. Fuller has found a way to honor and respect the spirit of the original while shaping his Hannibal into something that’s different — transcendent even. And with just one episode left in Season 2, I can’t wait to see how he pays off that tantalizing flash-forward that began the season and sets up Hannibal’s downfall in Season 3. Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Ko No Mono” (season 2, episode 11)

“Every creative act has its destructive consequence”

Aside from the normal risks associated with being friends with a serial killer, being friends with Hannibal Lecter means being friends with someone who will happily set into motion a series of events that are likely to (and in fact do) result in the forced abortion of the child you were tricked into fathering. This is not an otherwise “good guy” who happens to murder people; this is a monster. And all you fans with a Hannibal fetish (the man, not the show) may want to get your heads checked.

After their relatively slow introduction over the past few episodes, “Ko No Mono” brings sister and brother Verger front and center into the plot. They’ve become additional pieces on Hannibal’s chessboard that he can use in his game with/against Will. Having encouraged Margot last episode to find someone (Will) with the right parts to give her a child, Hannibal reveals her intentions to her brother, Mason, who is none too happy about it. What follows is probably the most horrifying scene you could watch on television this Mother’s Day weekend — Mason mutilates his sister and eliminates his competition for the Verger fortune once and for all. And when Will (still haunted by the death of “daughter” Abigail) learns the fate of his unborn child, he goes after Mason.

It’s tempting to view Will’s relationship to Hannibal in one of two ways: He’s either Hannibal’s opponent in this twisted game of chess; or he, too, is a piece on Hannibal’s chess board. But I think he’s both. Will is like the chess piece that’s self-aware. He’s the play-thing that’s playing the player. It reminds me of the album cover for Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast, which shows the devil pulling the strings of their mascot, Eddie, who’s also pulling the strings of the devil himself. Will is not free of Hannibal’s influence, but neither is Hannibal free of Will’s.

Alana Bloom, who’s been relegated to the background for several episodes, steps forward to do some emotionally moving and teary-eyed (where’s Mason Verger with his tissues?) psychological detecting. She’s becoming less and less certain of Will’s guilt, just as she is of Hannibal’s innocence. By the end of “Ko No Mono,” it’s clear to the viewer that Will is playing Hannibal. But what’s not clear is why is he playing Alana? He tells her, “I told everyone Hannibal was a killer, and no one believed me. Just like no one would believe you if you said I was a killer.” Is it just revenge for her doubting him? That would be my reason if I was Will. I would want to see her suffer in her wrongness about me (yes, I should probably get my head checked too). But I suspect as with anything on this show, it’s a bit more complicated. Ever since Will’s incarceration for murders he did not commit, he’s seemed content to let others wallow in their uncertainty. It’s enough that he knows the truth. Others, like Alana and Jack Crawford before her, can find their way to it at their own pace.

This is one of the things I love most about Hannibal. Even in the midst of unrealistic events, characters behave the way real people do. They don’t over-explain their motivations for the sake of the narrative. They have their own agenda, their own resentments, their own perspective that they obscure from the rest of the world — and often from themselves too.

The most moving scenes of all were the two in which Will and Hannibal discuss the death of Abigail Hobbs, as directly as they can anyway. This has been a long time coming. In life and death, Abigail has been at the center of their relationship: she was Hannibal’s first test for Will (when Will saved her life after Hannibal warned Abigail’s father Will was coming for him); she was the catalyst for their emotional connection (when they bonded over their mutual father-like protection of her); and she was the wedge between them (when Hannibal murdered her and framed Will).

Hannibal all but confesses to Will, expressing as much regret as a monster is capable of. He intellectualizes his emotion as a wish that time could reverse itself, that “teacups [could] come together.” We even get a visual of a shattered teacup reassembling itself; and I may be mistaken, but the musical cue and maybe even the shot itself were from the episode in which Abigail dropped a teacup in Hannibal’s kitchen.

But as we know, and as Will knows, time will not reverse itself. Abigail is gone forever. And Will is no longer content to simply kill Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, who loves to humiliate his victims by eating them, deserves to be humiliated too. As Will tells Mason Verger, “Dr. Lecter’s the one you want to be feeding to your pigs.”

Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Naka-Choko” (season 2, episode 10)

“Greatness… and some rough edges”

I didn’t appreciate “Naka-Choko” on first viewing. It felt like a jumble of really tasty ingredients that didn’t know what it wanted to be. After viewing it a second time, I like it a lot more, but still have some gripes.

Right off the bat, I felt the opening scene of Will’s confrontation with Tier/Hannibal/Ravenstag was unnecessary. Hannibal has always been a show where things happen off-screen. This is often done to enhance the dramatic tension and mystery — as seen at the end of the previous episode. Not showing us the fight between Randall Tier and Will made that final reveal in Hannibal’s dining room all the more powerful. So why revisit it now? All of the information we get from that fight scene (Will fantasizing that he’s beating Hannibal to death) is covered in dialogue in the very next scene. Aesthetically, something felt off to me as well. For example, the percussive score unintentionally (I hope) recalls Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and jarred me right out of the episode every time I heard it.

My biggest criticism, however, did NOT survive my second viewing. In serialized storytelling, you want a good mix of paying off previously posed questions and setting up new mysteries and ambiguities. “Naka-Choko” felt skewed too far to the asking side. Is Jack Crawford in on Will’s game or completely in the dark? Why is Mason Verger breeding killer pigs? Why did Margot seduce Will? What happened to Freddie Lounds? And most importantly, is Will really becoming a serial killer or faking it to catch Hannibal? But to my surprise, many of these questions are in fact answered — if we look closely. And those that aren’t, are teased in dramatically satisfying ways.

Much of the mystery in Hannibal (and in life) lies between the lines of what a person’s true intentions are and what they present their intentions to be. As viewers we’re always looking for solid ground to stand on — what can we trust as true? I suggest that we can trust most of what we see in Will’s dreams and visions. For example, when Will does his empathy thing (on himself) at the Tier crime scene, we witness his vision of himself conversing with his victim. Tier says, “This is my becoming. And yours.” Will shakes his head and corrects him, “This is my DESIGN.” I think it’s safe to conclude that a part of Will (as represented by Tier) acknowledges the joy he’s taking in the violence, and as a result, the risk of him becoming the very thing he’s chasing (Hannibal). But there’s another part of him that’s in control (for the moment, that is) — the fisherman — that has designed a person suit for himself to carefully lure Hannibal onto his hook.

Contrast this to Will’s words when he comes out of his vision and back into the room with Jack and Hannibal; his words are no longer truth but bait. He tells Jack and Hannibal that Tier’s killer ENVIED him. “Randall Tier came into his own much easier than whoever killed him.” This is Will’s way of baiting Hannibal, essentially saying to him “It may be hard for me to admit, but you and I are the same.” No they aren’t. Not yet anyway.

So… Is Will really becoming a serial killer? I would say at this point it’s like asking whether Schödinger’s cat is alive or dead. There’s potential for either answer to be true, and we will not know until we open the box. Will has formed an alliance with Hannibal that is both alive and dead, both true and not true. It’s a dangerous game for him to play — as dangerous as its ever been, a tightrope walk without a net.

What happened to Freddie Lounds? My guess is that Will and Freddie have found common ground over their inability to help and save Abigail Hobbs. The confrontation between them at Will’s house was clearly real, but I’m pretty sure Freddie is alive and either willingly helping Will deceive Hannibal, or tied up somewhere. Or possibly in FBI custody — which leads us to…

Is Jack in on it with Will or is he clueless? Jack’s question to Will at the crime scene, “His killer EMPATHIZED with him?” is very interesting. If Jack is not in on it, this is a sign he might be getting suspicious of Will again. If he is in on it, it was a clever way to throw Hannibal off the scent. Makes me wonder if he in fact responded to Freddie’s call and took her (willingly or otherwise) into custody to prevent her from posting those incriminating photos online.

Why did Margot seduce Will? Quite simply, to leave a legacy, as Hannibal suggested in her therapy session. Of course, she needed someone with the “right parts” to help her with that. Enter Will Graham (pun intended). How ironic then are her words when she shows up at his door with a bottle of whiskey and says, “I’ve come to replenish your stores.”

And finally… Why is Mason breeding killer pigs? This question will likely not be answered too soon. Is it to torment his sister and/or keep her in line? Seems pretty elaborate for just that. Or is Mason a burgeoning serial killer too? If that’s the case, I expect we’ll get a lot more of him in Season 3.

Despite its flaws, I expect “Naka-Choko” will rise in my estimation within the larger context of this season as a whole. I think when storytelling dares to reach for greatness, it’s bound to have some rough edges from time to time. Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Shiizakana” (season 2, episode 9)

“What we desire most is the same thing we most fear”

With “Shiizakana” Hannibal gets a minor dose of The X-Files. I’ll admit, at first I was thrown off quite a bit by the pre-credits “monster” attack at the snowy truck stop. Oh no, my greatest fear second only to my own death — Hannibal has jumped the shark! As the camera slowly panned away from the bloody violence and the screen went black, in my head I heard Mark Snow’s “doo duh duh, doo duh duh, doo” opening theme music. But my fears were unwarranted; this is indeed Hannibal, where the monsters are all human and “man is the only creature that kills to kill.”

As the pace of Will’s becoming rapidly accelerates and the “Willdigo” (the name Bryan Fuller has given to the Wendigo aspect of Will’s personality) in him finally emerges, we meet a new serial-killer-of-the-week that has evolved himself into an animal predator, too, but much more tangibly so. Randall Tier has fashioned himself an animal suit equipped with a prehistoric jaw and claws powered by “pull ratchets and pneumatics” that allow him to literally tear his victims to pieces. It’s an animal version of the “person suit” that Hannibal and his psychiatrist so often discussed in Season 1. And it mirrors back to Will the dangerous transformation he is allowing (even encouraging) in himself, under the supervision of his “trusted” psychiatrist, of course. As it turns out, the good Dr. Lecter ALSO treated Randall Tier many years ago. And so Hannibal sees an opportunity to encourage the homicidal evolution of both patients by arranging for a deadly confrontation between them. Even murderers need personal empowerment, right?

We also get more great scenes with the creepy Margot Verger. For those unfamiliar with the source material, she’s the sister of Mason Verger, who plays a prominent part in the third book. (And on a related note, who else caught the glorious Manhunter homage when the killer leaps through Will’s window in the climactic scene?) This week, Margot leaves Hannibal’s office and meets Will. I absolutely loved when Margot and Will, while sipping whiskey together, each confess their “private carnage.” I tried to murder my brother, she says. Well, I’ve got that one beat, he retorts. I tried to murder my friend, our mutual psychiatrist. If you’ve ever wondered “What would happen if Hannibal’s patients started talking to one another?” you got your answer.

Story elements aside, “Shiizakana” exemplifies what I love most about this show: Hannibal is a show of paradoxes. It’s a show where characters never say exactly what they mean, yet somehow ALWAYS say exactly what they mean. It’s a show where the violence is both horrific and beautiful. It’s a show were best friends try to murder each other. And it’s a show that explores one of the most fundamental psychological paradoxes we experience as human beings: What we desire most is so often the same thing we most fear — to be seen by another as who we really are.

Hannibal desires a friend worthy of knowing him, but he fears that by revealing himself he’ll be locked up in a dark cage in the basement of a psychiatric hospital. So he dons a carefully constructed person suit to keep people at a distance. Will desires human connection with someone who can help him understand who he is, but he fears the pain of extreme empathy and risk of betrayal that comes with getting too close. But unlike Hannibal, Will doesn’t don a person suit to keep people at a distance. He keeps them at a distance to avoid donning THEIR person suits.

Before Hannibal’s framing of Will, I think each believed the other could “save” him. Much of this season has been about them each trying to reconcile their own paradoxical feelings since then. In “Shiizakana,” Will and Hannibal seem to have reached an equilibrium — for a moment at least. Both have found their match yet on opposite sides of right and wrong. Another paradox, or is it the perfect marriage, like matter and antimatter gravitating towards an inevitable explosion? Even though they are at odds and they know it, there’s a respect for what they recognize of themselves in the other. In Will’s dream, Hannibal tells him, “No one can be fully aware of another human being unless we love them.” They’re peers — intellectually, in terms of understanding human behavior, and in their isolation from the rest of society.

In other words, they’re even-steven. Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Su-zakana” (season 2, episode 8)

“Is your social worker in that horse?”

Following Miriam Lass’s identification, judgment, and execution of Gideon as the Chesapeake Ripper at the end of last week’s episode, Hannibal slows down a bit this week and takes a well-deserved deep breath. “Su-zakana” seems to signal a return to form: The Ripper case moves into the background as the FBI consults Will Graham to help catch the serial killer of the week.

On lesser shows episodes like this would be frustrating — even maddening — as if the creators pressed the reset button and undid all the events and relationships we’d invested with so much emotion and attention. (Cough, cough, X-Files.) But this is play pretend. Will, Hannibal, and Crawford are only acting like everything’s back to normal; below the surface there’s a rot than cannot be fixed.

The show itself is playing with us in the very same way. This may look like a season one episode, but it’s not. Take the killer of the week storyline: Certainly the most bizarre crime scene we’ve encountered so far. Not only is a dead woman found inside a dead horse, but then a live bird is found inside the dead woman… “What the f–k???” And those were just two of the half dozen delicious WTF? moments in this episode, including a man clawing his way out of a dead horse only to be greeted by Hannibal with a, “Might want to crawl back in there if you know what’s good for you.” The only line better than that was when Will, moments before, finds the dude sewing up the dead animal and asks, “Is your social worker in that horse?

But it’s not just new levels of bizarre. The writing seems to have gotten more sophisticated, too — if that’s even possible. The killer of the week storyline is typically used to comment on the larger storyline of Will’s pursuit of Hannibal, but this week it’s on the level of exegesis by metaphor. Plus, they somehow perfectly timed this bloody story of rebirth with Good Friday, a bloody story of rebirth. (I can hear Bryan Fuller’s whisper in my ear, “You owe me awe.”)

Will sees himself in brain-damaged Peter, whose serial killer social worker took advantage of his vulnerability. Just like Hannibal did to Will. Despite that fact, or more accurately BECAUSE of it, Will resumes his “therapy” with Hannibal. Both are playing a dangerous game. As Alana puts it, “The only thing stranger than finding a woman inside a horse is seeing you [Hannibal] back in therapy with Will Graham.” Will and Hannibal both know this is temporary so they seem to be relishing these moments together. We appreciate the dance more when we know that the magic will all vanish at the stroke of midnight.

Ironically, Hannibal is truly Will Graham’s story. Hannibal as a character is fascinating because of his paradoxical nature — intelligent and well-mannered yet homicidal and cannibalistic. But Hannibal is Hannibal; we wouldn’t want him to change, so there’s not much of a story to be told. No, this is the story of Will’s becoming. What exactly, we don’t know yet. But where the investigative work used to torture him, he seems to truly enjoy the hunt now. No longer the reluctant savant, he’s embraced his gift. He’s learned that doing bad things to bad people makes him feel good. That scares Alana, who wants the whole world to fit into her box (um, phrasing?); it emboldens Crawford who’s just happy he’s got his Will Graham tool back in his toolbox; and it excites Hannibal who relishes uncertainty and chaos as the natural order of things.

Will’s conflicted, though. He seems to be talking to himself as much as to Peter when he tells him, “He [the social worker serial killer] deserves to die, but you don’t deserve to kill him.” But then Will takes that burden upon himself, and at the moment of murder, Hannibal stops him from shooting the social worker. This is now Will’s second overt attempt at murder. I wonder if we’re seeing Will’s newest lure to catch Hannibal. Will is acting as both fisherman and bait, a seemingly impossible trick to pull off. Is he exploring this murderous part of his own nature to draw Hannibal close enough to hook him? If so, it seems to be working.

Hannibal all but confesses to Will (punctuated by timpani that sent shivers up my back), “With all my knowledge and intrusion I could never entirely predict you. I can feed the caterpillar, I can whisper through the chrysalis, but what hatches follows its own nature and is beyond me.”

Just like the rest of us, Hannibal can’t wait to tune in next week. Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Yakimono” (season 2, episode 7)

“It’s theater”

It was inevitable. A subpar episode. Instead of taking a step forward with the story, it felt like the show took a step sideways — a relatively interesting and entertaining step, but a misstep nonetheless. The biggest problem with “Yakimono” is that very little changed for the main characters and much of what did happen felt like we’d seen it before.

Will continues to accuse Hannibal despite evidence to the contrary, and no one but Chilton believes him. Alana Bloom again tells Will he was wrong to try to murder Hannibal. Not heeding her advice, Will sets out to murder Hannibal a second time but is unsuccessful once again. Hannibal frames another person for his own crimes. Crawford again bites and pursues Hannibal’s latest red herring. And by the end, Hannibal is no more in danger of being caught by Crawford or killed by Will (or vindicated by Alana) than he was at the end of last episode.

So what did happen that was new or different? Well, Will gets released from the hospital and pets his dogs. Miriam cleans herself up and gets a new arm. Crawford realizes that he gives up on his colleagues too soon. And Hannibal murders some more people.

Most of the entertainment of the episode — the sidestep I referred to earlier — concerns the framing of Dr. Chilton. As to the question posed last week (Why did Hannibal allow Crawford to find Miriam Lass alive?), the answer seems to be: To point the finger at poor Frederick. Not content with a mere finger, Hannibal, a master of the theatrical, then stages a second act in which he murders Gideon and two FBI agents in Chilton’s home, leaving the weaselly psychiatrist to wake up there… covered in blood, gun in one hand, knife in the other. After a brief cat-and-mouse with Crawford, Chilton is “recognized” by Miriam as the Ripper and she shoots him.

And here’s where things get really interesting for avid fan of this series: With the apparent killing of Dr. Chilton, Hannibal has gone “off book,” literally. Not that this is the first time the television series has strayed from the source material. I mean, given that Will’s entire pre-capture relationship with Hannibal Lecter in the books consisted of a single conversation, the whole premise of the show is a deviation. But, presuming a bullet to Chilton’s face does in fact mean death in this fictional world, this is the first time a character significant to the plot of the books has been killed off early, and it means that those of us who thought we knew where this story was going DON’T.

So what else did the episode get right? I liked how Crawford’s guilt over the discovery that Miriam was alive acted as a mirror for him to see how he’d given up on Will, too. I loved the “red” on white kitchen décor when Chilton wakes to find the dead FBI agents. It was interesting to see how uncomfortable Will was to be out in the world again. Hugh Dancy skillfully turned up the volume on his facial ticks and eye contact avoidance. And speaking of great acting, Mads Mikkelsen was amazing in that final scene. When Will tells Hannibal, “I’d like to resume my therapy,” I don’t think we’ve seen Hannibal happier. Which goes to Mikkelsen’s credit because the change in his facial expression was almost imperceptible, yet conveyed so much.

And maybe it’s because the plotting was less interesting this episode, but I appreciated the score a lot more. It’s so deftly crafted to NOT call attention to itself that it’s easy to overlook the subtle brilliance of Brian Reitzell’s compositions when the story takes front stage. (One note for those who enjoy the music as much as I do: When you watch the episodes on NBC.com, the music over the end credits plays uninterrupted, unlike the television broadcast that overlays a preview of next week’s episode.)

The low point of “Yakimono” was Chilton’s bumbling attempt to escape Crawford through the snow. The whole tone of that sequence felt off, like I was suddenly watching a different show. But as “bad” as it was, the worst episode of Hannibal is still better than most other shows on television. Because what’s great about Hannibal is that even when things go wrong — the story goes awry, some of the acting is melodramatic, and the CGI is a bit goofy — there’s still so much to appreciate.

When Will tells Crawford “It’s theater,” he’s talking to us, too. Because like the titular character’s crimes, the show itself is theater. It’s both beautiful and horrifying — sometimes confounding — especially when the crime is a subpar episode and not murder. Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Futamono” (season 2, episode 6)

Hannibal the cannibal”

Dear god, please spare me “friends” like Alana Bloom. I’d prefer a cannibal who frames me for multiple murders than a psychologist who thinks friendship is trying to convince me I’m crazy enough to have murdered people and then when I act that way, she discards me like the condom she used to screw the cannibal who framed me. Poor Will Graham.

The silver lining for Will, of course, is that Jack Crawford is starting to get suspicious about Hannibal Lecter. In Dr. Chilton’s words, yes, Will is delusional but “that doesn’t mean he is not right.” As the bodies pile up and Hannibal’s dinner party approaches, Crawford’s suspicions grow. But Hannibal’s far too crafty to let Crawford’s suspicions or Will’s homicidal intent slow him down. It comes as no real surprise that the big dinner party was a ploy by Hannibal to increase suspicion of his cannibalism only to subvert that suspicion when the meat is tested. Take that Crawford! Psych!

The true surprise of the hour was Crawford’s discovery of Miriam Lass… alive! You’ll remember that Miriam was the FBI trainee a la Clarice Starling sent by Crawford two years earlier to investigate a lead in the Chesapeake Ripper case; in a callback to the novel Red Dragon, she is attacked by Hannibal in his office after seeing the Wound Man sketch, which matched injuries of one of the Ripper’s victims. I’ll confess, with the recent deaths of both Abigail Hobbs and Beverly Katz, it was a relief to discover that Miriam is not dead. Though I’m curious why Hannibal kept her alive and allowed her to be found. What’s that crazy cannibal up to?

Composing music, for one thing. It’s fitting that Hannibal composes for the harpsichord. Unlike the piano, the harpsichord is limited in dynamics — in other words, playing the keys harder or softer does not change the volume of the strings. Hannibal’s murders seem also to be carefully constructed compositions that have only one volume: loud and extravagant grotesqueries. With this latest merging of man and tree, I find myself fully accepting, appreciating, and even enjoying the hyper-reality of his murder set-pieces. This is gothic horror — in a modern day setting, yes — but gothic none-the-less. I can no longer criticize Hannibal’s otherworldly designs because, no matter how unrealistic they may be, they are entirely consistent with the atmosphere of this fictional world.

“Futamono” is a solid, smart, entertaining episode from a creative team that’s set the bar very high. It suffers slightly from following one of the best episodes of the series to date. The actions Will set into motion last week had consequences that are only just beginning to reveal themselves. It makes sense to slow things down a little to allow those consequences to develop.

That said, there’s still plenty going on. At the same time that Hannibal is fabricating evidence of his own innocence, he’s also purposely leaving evidence that exonerates Will. Fishing lures constructed from hairs, bone fragments, and other body parts of Will’s supposed victims are found at a new murder scene. Drs. Gideon and Chilton continue to one-up each other, culminating in Gideon’s back being broken by two hospital guards in retaliation for Gideon’s murder of one of their colleagues last season. (What’s up with this hospital’s hiring practices? Sadistic security guards? Psycho nurses?) Hannibal then abducts Gideon from the hospital, and in a clever callback to the novel Hannibal, the good Dr. Gideon is fed his own leg as his last supper.

What I find most compelling about this episode (and this whole season) is Will’s transformation, his journey from the light to the dark. In a brilliantly scripted bit of double-talk, Will tells Hannibal, “I’m no more guilty of what you’ve accused me of than you are of what I’ve accused you of.” The show is raising some very interesting questions about empathy. If one can feel the feelings and think the thoughts of a killer, then what if anything distinguishes him from the killer? Is good or bad simply defined by one’s actions? If so, it seems the aphorism is false; it’s not the thought that counts after all.

Season 2’s driving question seems to be this: Is Will’s transformation a mutation or a metamorphosis? In other words, is the profiling work he’s done for the FBI distorting his nature from good to bad or simply revealing the moth that was hidden inside the caterpillar from the start? Continue reading

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Hannibal Review: “Mukozuke” (season 2, episode 5)

“Every permutation of crazy”

Confession: If Hannibal cooked it, I’d eat it. No matter what (or who) the “it” was. “Hi, my name is Curtis, and I’m a cannibal.” That kidney pâté de Beverly looked dee-lish.

So, yes, what we all feared is true. Beverly Katz did not survive her visit to Hannibal’s house of horrors. The reveal of her corpse is wonderfully paced, set to such beautifully jarring yet somehow perfectly poignant percussion. The presentation of her “body” (as it were) is as poetic as we’ve come to expect. Hannibal dissects her “layer by layer like she would a crime scene.” Though, I have to admit, his elaborate murder set-pieces are really starting to strain believability. The amount of glass and specialty hardware needed for such a presentation would surely leave a trail the FBI could trace. I mean, my local WalMart doesn’t sell Body Worlds display cases, does yours?

The writers’ decision to kill off a strong Asian female character has caused quite a stir on the Internet, attracting accusations like “racist” and “sexist.” Hettience Park, the actor who portrayed Beverly Katz, has even weighed in on the debate. I, for one, think she WAS the right character to sacrifice. Price or Zeller wouldn’t have evoked the same emotional resonance, nor would their deaths have recalled the death of Abigail Hobbs the way Beverly’s did. You could feel how big a blow this was to all of the characters who cared about her, not the least of which is Will, who in effect got her killed by enlisting her as his agent against Hannibal.

And as a direct result of her death, we get one of the biggest dramatic turns of the season, maybe even the whole show: Will turns to the dark side and commissions his homicidal “admirer” to kill Hannibal. For those familiar with the source material, you’ll recognize this as a clever spin on Hannibal’s attempt to use his own “avid fan” (the Tooth Fairy) to kill Will and his family. This episode offers another delicious reversal with Will in the face mask and straight-jacket being wheeled around on a hand truck a la Silence of the Lambs. (And did you catch the “face mask” on Hannibal’s dinner plate later in the episode?)

The actual path to murder for Will Graham is comprised of a series of one-on-one conversations between the various characters, like carefully crafted wine and cheese pairings. To put it another way, we get every permutation of crazy:

Will plays to Chilton’s vanity to get a face-to-face with Dr. Gideon, who you remember from last season was the wife-murderer that Chilton brainwashed into believing he was the Chesapeake Ripper and who Will shot in a drama orchestrated by Hannibal. Will then tries to cajole Gideon into revealing the Ripper’s identity, but it’s Gideon who plays to Will’s murderous impulse. Hannibal and Chilton play their games with each other, but as in the scene with Will, it always seems like Chilton is bringing checkers to a chess game, and he agrees to let Hannibal meet with Gideon. Amidst some verbal sparring soaked in subtext, Gideon all but warns Hannibal that Will’s primed for his murder. Next, Will makes another devil’s bargain, this time with Freddy Lounds, offering her exclusive rights to his story if she’ll help him contact his “admirer” through her tabloid website. And it works: Nurse Brown, his admirer, reveals himself, culminating in a line of dialogue from Will that had me giggling with glee, “I want you to kill Hannibal Lecter.”

And so it is. Will becomes what everyone has been wrongly accusing him of all season — a murderer. But Hannibal didn’t die, you say? Therefore Will didn’t actually murder anyone, you say? A technicality. Will pulled the trigger with murderous intent. The fact that the gun misfired does not undo the intent. Will knows this, as demonstrated by his delusion of metamorphosis into the stag.

The episode climaxes with Nurse Brown shooting Hannibal with a tranquilizer and stringing him up in mock crucifixion. Here we see Hannibal truly vulnerable for the first time. It’s an interesting glimpse into a complicated character that also holds the key to understanding what he really is. Not a sociopath or psychopath, Hannibal in my opinion can best be understood as a pure philosopher. Earlier, when Jack Crawford thanks him for saving Bella’s life, Hannibal responds, “As a doctor I had no choice; as a philosopher I had too many.” And then in this climactic scene, he confesses to his would-be killer, “Life is precious.” This is truly revelatory: Hannibal’s choices, including his choices to murder, are driven by his philosophical need to answer the question, “What would happen if…?”

Which is the same question that drives a writer. No wonder this show is so fascinating. Continue reading

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