Last week, I touched upon how Hannibal had the audacity to go straight-up pretentious art film when it comes to its visual stylings and elliptical narrative storytelling. For the most part, this approach greatly benefits the show, as it distinguishes itself from literally everything else on TV (cable or otherwise). Unfortunately, “Secondo” may represent the show finally hitting the limit in regards to its unorthodox tendencies. That’s not to say the episode is not without its exceptional moments (that’s a given), but there are long stretches where the intense imagery feels like a cover-up for some deficiencies in the writing.
Not helping matters is the fact that the episode originally teases itself as being an exciting look into Hannibal’s childhood. Will Graham arrives at an appropriately creepy castle in Lithuania whose yard is littered with snails and fireflies. Once here, he happens upon a young Japanese woman named Chiyoh. She stands guard over a disheveled, half-crazed prisoner who looks as though he has not seen the sun in quite some time. Chiyoh claims that this is the man responsible for eating Hannibal’s sister, Mischa, thus—if Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Rising is to be taken as canon—setting the stage for the monster we know today. However, what begins as a page out of Harris’ work (Hannibal’s sister was eaten by hungry soldiers) quickly gets beautifully subverted.
During a later scene where Hannibal helps wash Bedelia, she casually comments to him, “how did your sister taste?” While the episode does not offer much in the way of clarification, it becomes abundantly clear that Fuller and his writers are not looking to replicate Harris’ vision—nor should they since that project was very much a rushed cash-grab. Here, Hannibal is presented not as a misunderstood monster with a tragic backstory; rather, he is what he always appeared to be—a deeply warped individual who has settled upon cannibalism as an appropriate means of taking down those that have wronged him. Though we have yet to learn what offense Mischa committed that resulted in her being Hannibal’s dinner, this revelation certainly helps crystallize his strange connection with Will Graham. People such as Will and Chiyoh, it seems, represent Hannibal’s attempt to replicate whatever love and affection he may have once had with Mischa. Unfortunately for Will, the only way for Hannibal to truly overcome his feelings is to eat him.
All of this no doubt sounds incredibly fascinating and, indeed, it very much is. That being said, the good material is bogged down by a lethargic pacing that feels like what would happen if Terrence Malick suddenly became obsessed with horror imagery. And that’s not nearly as awesome as it sounds. Indeed, long stretches of the episode feature detailed close-ups of snails milling about. Considering how slowly this episode appears to unfold, you can sense the obvious metaphor there.
What’s more, a good portion of the episode centers on Will engaging in super cryptic exchanges with Chiyoh about Hannibal. And while I’ve always admired this unique brand of Hannibal-speak in the past, here you just want to scream at each character, “give a direct answer, dammit!” By the end, despite spending an entire episode with her, we know very little about Chiyoh behind that fact that she’s a maid of Hannibal’s Aunt Murasaki and yet another victim of Hannibal’s brilliantly effective manipulation techniques. Moreover, Will’s decision to set her captive free in order to see what transpires feels like a very ill-conceived attempt to break her out of her hypnotic daze, especially given that the man nearly kills her before she takes him down. Adding to the confusion, his decision to leave a kind of calling card by stringing the dead man up in firefly attire seems less driven by character and more of an attempt to maintain the series’ creepy tableau quota. This may all very well make sense in the long run, but it results in a frustrating present-day viewing experience.
Despite the less-than-stellar main storyline, however, the episode certainly picks up steam with the Hannibal-Bedelia subplot. During a dinner party with one of his colleagues, Hannibal ends up brutally stabbing the man in the temple with an ice picker. For a few horrifying moments, the man sits wide-eyed and confused, his face a grotesque mixture of laughter and tears. Bedelia finally takes mercy on him by removing the ice pick, therefore allowing him to bleed out. In one of the series’ great macabre moments, Hannibal calmly claims that, technically, she was the one who killed him. Good stuff.
Meanwhile, in another area of Florence, we find Jack Crawford—bearded but alive—conversing with Inspector Pazzi. Their conversation reveals that Jack is on a quest to reclaim Will from his path of vengeance/reconciliation with Hannibal. Jack still unquestionably feels guilty about pushing his friend over the edge and straight into Hannibal’s influence. As such, he claims that he does not care a bit about taking down Hannibal. He just wants to save Will from self-destruction. It’s certainly great to have Laurence Fishburne back and here’s hoping, despite his character’s stated motive, Jack and Hannibal do manage to come to blows later this season.
Overall, “Secondo” is an episode with a lot of promise, but little pay-off. Again, the information presented here could all prove to be essential down the line, but—between the glacial pacing and awkward character dynamics—it comes across as little more than a beautifully crafted fodder entry. Of course, like the majority of latter day Hannibal episodes, there may very well be dense layers of meaning that will become clearer after a second viewing. As of now, it hopefully represents the odd ball in a season that has, so far, proven to be exceptional.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.