Prior to this season of Hannibal, creator Bryan Fuller promised that the first few episodes would serve as mini films designed to reset the series. Last night’s foray into Hannibal (Mads Mikkelson) and Bedelia’s (Gillian Anderson) life on the run in Europe certainly fit the bill as we spent the entire hour with the two and heard not a peep from anyone remotely affiliated with the FBI. The decision to hone in on the couple and their complicated relationship helped to solidify the evolving nature of these two characters while also suggesting that the coming season will upend our expectations as to where the true horror of the series resides. With its hallucegenic quality and its languid plotting, “Antipasto” is easily one of the show’s finest hours.
A popular theme in the Fullerverse is the way in which aesthetics extend the narrative. In Hannibal, beauty is a requirement of the titular character and so every element of his environment, from the physical pieces of his living space to the physical bodies of the people with whom he is intimate, are carefully curated so as to present the most appealing aesthetic possible. There is not a television show, either on network or cable, which utilizes its lush cinematography in such an evocative way. Every detail in the frame is accounted for and results in a visual masterpiece that creates a sensory experience in its audience while it also works to push the narrative forward.
It is impossible to discount the role fashion plays in the world of Hannibal. Much like on Mad Men, clothing functions as a powerful visual metaphor that helps to situate the assumed identities of our known characters. The looks, carefully constructed by costume designer Christopher Hargadon, advance the narrative in a way that dialogue cannot. Trading in his sophisticated plaid suits for leather jackets and staid two-piece suits, Hannibal uses his clothing to effectively hide in plain sight. He is still fashionable but he doesn’t stand out. In many respects, he and Bedelia have traded outward appearances. Gone are her classically tailored suits replaced by a much more distinctive and flashy style. Considering that Hannibal is likely funding these ensembles, it isn’t too far off to assume, given their seemingly unequal power dynamic, that he is dressing her to his tastes. And in Hannibal, it is all about taste.
Food in horror traditionally functions as a means of creating a sense of revulsion within the audience. From the maggot encrusted steak in Poltergeist to the pea soup vomit in The Exorcist, food is a powerful means to trigger violent physiological reactions because it is so intimately tied to the human experience. To survive we need to eat and we need to trust that those preparing our food have our best interests at heart. When that assumption is twisted and used against us, there is a betrayal in our expectation that works especially well in horror because it primes us to mentally accept an array of atrocities that would normally cause us to simply look away. Cannibalism, in particular, has a storied history of perverting food in a way that emphasizes the grotesque. What Hannibal does so brilliantly is to take that expectation of revulsion and morph it into something that is beautiful and, at times, even desirable.
In one of last night’s flashback scenes, we see snails feeding upon the severed limb of Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) while Gideon looks on. The limb has been carefully bathed in wine by Hannibal so as to increase the snails’ flavor. Certainly that scene fits all the parameters of food in horror that we’ve come to expect. It is confrontational and disgusting, with an added level of perversion courtesy of Gideon being forced to feed upon his own flesh. Yet, when the meal is actually prepared and served, it is a mouth-watering creation that is refined and shockingly appealing. We know what it is but the presentation is such that we simply do not care. That these meals are created from less than appealing, and likely human, ingredients but remain appealing is a testament to Hannibal’s aesthetic.
The show’s almost compulsive attention to detail worked especially well in this episode as its focus was all about character development. By using flashbacks sequences, presented in stark black and white, we got a sense of the complicated relationship that exists between Bedelia and Hannibal as well as more insight into the psychology of the famed cannibal. For Bedelia, “Antipasto” is a coming out of sorts. While we still don’t have a clear understanding of her overall game plan, she does successfully establish herself as Hannibal’s equal. Her subtle attempts to capture the attention of a train platform camera as well as her disappearance from Hannibal’s presentation at the Palazzo Capponi indicate that Bedelia is not someone who is passive in their relationship and it is likely this ability to surprise Hannibal that has kept her from ending up on his plate.
A flashback sequence shines more light on this tumultuous relationship by showing Bedelia with her arm down her patient’s throat. Hannibal walks in on the scene and offers his assistance, which marks the first time Bedelia consents to an unethical relationship with Hannibal. And as the man himself notes later in the episode, “ethics become aesthetics” and certainly that is reflected in the way Bedelia seems to have morphed into Hannibal’s appendage. She is presented as his equal in public and yet, her growing doubts prevent her from fulfilling that role in private. In one fantastic scene, Bedelia is being fed oysters and dates at the bequest of Hannibal. Their dinner companion, the ill-fated Anthony Dimmond (Tom Wisdom) notes that this is a meal that was once fed to animals to increase the flavor of their meat. While we see Bedelia’s growing awareness of Hannibal’s intentions in feeding her this meal repeatedly, she does manage to redirect the focus of the conversation via sexual innuendo. Hannibal is markedly surprised and it is obvious that the power in this relationship is far more fluid than we’ve been led to believe.
Certainly one reason for Bedelia’s agreeing to be with Hannibal is the unique opportunity to observe a psychopath in his natural surroundings. She is, first and foremost, a doctor of psychology and this would be a professional coup too irresistible to pass up. But where she fits within his world is still unclear. At the episode’s conclusion, Hannibal remarks that you are either an observer in the game or a participant. Bedelia’s belief that she is merely an observer is spectacularly upended and casts her in a role that she may not be entirely prepared to handle.
For his part, Hannibal has tried to recast his life but finds that he is unable to recreate the emotional bond he shared with Will (Hugh Dancy). In another well-placed flashback, Gideon remarks pointedly that the person Hannibal truly wishes to consume is not Gideon, but Will. And so the image of Dimmon’s heart left on view in the Palazzo Capponi serves as a love letter of sorts to the only man Hannibal considers his equal. It is also a pointed decision on Hannibal’s part to give up pretense and this decision sets the stage for a delicious game of cat and mouse.