NBC’s new television series Hannibal opens with a stylistic reenactment of a double murder. Music pounds, time reverses and speeds forward, and deep red splatters white walls. The audience watches criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) put himself in the mind of a killer. We literally see him shoot two people. The scene hints at what is to come: intense visuals, Grand Guignol violence, and heavy-handed direction.
Viewers will recognize Will Graham from the movies Red Dragon and Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris’s crime novels. At the beginning of the pilot, Will already appears to be falling apart. Dancy plays him with twitchy intensity, too much so, as one wonders where he will go from here. While Will is lecturing a class about empathizing with murderers, FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, apparently bored) approaches him about a string of abductions. Women have disappeared, but no bodies have been found. Jack wonders about Will’s methods, but Will assures him that he is more autistic than sociopathic.
The show tells us over and over that Will is special, a savant on the edge of madness. Minor characters exchange glances and comment on how “different” he sees things. Will reluctantly joins Jack and interviews the latest victim’s parents at their home. With his powerful skills of perception—his ability stretches credulity, as we hardly see his process—he divines that this young woman was taken from her home. He asks to see her bedroom, and, lo and behold, there she is! The kidnapper tucked her corpse back into bed.
Once again, Will reenacts her death. The scenes of violence are artful and purposefully gratuitous. How many times are we going to watch as a woman is graphically murdered? A fibers specialist (Hettienne Park, mostly subtle) interrupts his intense reverie and eventually asks if he is unstable.
Burdened by his gift, Will drives home alone. He spots a dog on the side of the road, which he slowly woos, takes home, cleans up, and introduces to his other dogs. It’s a nice way of showing how Will has a hard time connecting with people, but, like anyone, needs some form of comfort. At night, his dreams make him sweat so much, he sleeps on towels.
In a bathroom at work (he yells that a fellow employee should use the ladies’ room), Jack confronts Will about the case. Since their explosive conversation takes place about a third into the episode, it feels rather unearned. Will tells Jack that the culprit might not be a psychopath because he appears to feel empathy for at least one of his victims. He kills them “mercifully.” The way Elise was put back in her bed makes Will think that she was an apology. In fact, he may have even tried to heal her.
At the lab, the same forensic scientist who spoke with Will finds a metal shaving on the body. Cut to: a young girl who resembles Elise (slender, brown hair) waves at a construction worker.
Jack speaks to Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Will’s psychologist colleague. Jack wants her to keep an eye on Will, but she states that she never studied him because she wants to remain his friend. She makes Jack promise that he won’t let Will get too close to the case as Will, interestingly, is driven by fear, which comes from having a good imagination.
Back in the lab, the scientists conclude that the young woman was pierced by antlers (of all things) post mortem. Her liver was also removed and sewn back in. Will correctly gauges that there was something wrong with the “meat;” it turns out, she had liver cancer. Why “meat,” you ask? Well, our killer is a cannibal! Cut to a certain someone delicately eating a scrumptious looking meal. In the episode’s most meta moment so far, this dimly illuminated man looks straight at the camera. While over-the-top, the scene is a welcome surprise.
Not surprising is that this is our titular Hannibal Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), most famously played by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, also based on Harris’s novel. His character is the poster child of a monster with a human mask, as intellectual and cultured as men get, but as savage and heartless, too. Though I couldn’t catch every word from Mikkelsen’s mouth, his calm, urbane presence is a blessed relief from the more blunt minor characters.
Dr. Lecter advises a client about his anxiety, telling him that there is no lion in the room—and if there is, he will know. (Lecter has some of the stranger but more original lines.) As the client leaves, Jack visits Lecter’s immaculate office and expresses great admiration for his work. Jack asks if he can use his expertise to help with a psychological profile. Apparently, Alana Bloom recommended him. Lecter’s face is impassive. Everyone must assume his uncanny suaveness is due to being European.
He and Jack meet Will to discuss the investigation. Lecter initially asks about confessions but soon begins to size Will up, prodding him about eye contact, dreams, and barriers. Will walks out when he realizes that he is the one being psychoanalyzed here. Lecter tells Jack that Will has “pure empathy.” Jack asks for a more delicate approach next time.
In blazing daylight, in the middle of a field, a naked woman’s body is mounted on antlers in the middle of a field. Will arrives and avows that this is completely different from the others. The man they’ve been seeking is, in his mind, “loving.” He tries to consume women, not destroy them. This copycat is mocking everyone involved. He viewed the woman as a pig. Will miraculously deduces that the original killer has a daughter who looks like the victims and is leaving home. The murderer wants to connect with women. (Never heard of a serial killer like that before, but I guess that’s why this is fiction.)
He doesn’t have hope for finding the copycat. Her lungs were cut out when she was alive. This man is an intelligent sadist. He is motiveless and probably traceless. Meanwhile, Lecter is at home, slicing up and flambéing some lungs. He eats them with amusing smugness. They actually look pretty tasty.
The next morning, Lecter visits Will, bringing him eggs and… lung sausage? Over breakfast, Will tells him that the recent murder was a twisted gift because it showed him everything the first killer was not. On another note (supposedly), Lecter wonders if they’ll be friends, but Will replies that he doesn’t find him that interesting. “You will,” Lecter replies. He says that Jack views Will as a delicate tea cup, but he views Will as a mongoose that hides under the house while snakes slither by. Will is initially amused, but then puzzled and possibly disturbed.
The two of them visit a construction site that uses the same kind of metal which was found Elise. They go through employee records. One didn’t leave his address and missed several days of work at a time. While Will is preoccupied, Lecter calls that employee and warns him: “they know.”
The secretary manages to dig up an address, and our duo finds the killer. Unfortunately, he cuts his wife’s throat right on his front steps and retreats to the kitchen to cut his daughter’s throat. Will riddles him with bullets. Horrified by the turn of events, Will ends up covered in blood trying to save the wife and daughter, who is taken by an ambulance. Lecter watches everything with cool detachment. Er, was Will just too distraught to notice Lecter’s lack of reaction?
Elsewhere, Alana scolds Jack for letting Will get too close. Will visits the daughter in the hospital. Lecter appears to have been there all night, as he dozes next to her, holding her hand. How comforting.
Hannibal is dreamlike and visually interesting, but somewhat slow and awkwardly paced. The dialogue is occasionally poetic but mostly clumsy. Its graphic violence diffuses the tension, drawing attention away from the plot to the beauty of bloodshed. While the pilot feels off kilter, the cast is strong, particularly Mikkelsen as the seductive Lecter. Hopefully the story will fall into a rhythm, and the relationship between the impenetrable Lecter and the perceptive Will can build into something truly intriguing. Though it might bore and repulse many viewers, the series will likely delight fans of aesthetic carnage and of the notorious and memorable Hannibal Lector.
Bryan Fuller’s (Dead Like Me, Pushing the Daisies) Hannibal airs on Thursday nights at 10 on NBC.