The fifth episode of Hannibal–the fourth hasn’t aired, was pulled prior to broadcast because of the Boston bombing–continues the trend that began with “Potage” by treating “police procedural” genre as a skin suit that can be worn or pulled away as needed.
Now, while “Potage” turned away from the killer-of-the-week format to delve into Abigail Hobbs, “Coquilles” retains the usual format but treats the Angel-Maker, this week’s monster, almost as a secondary concern–the camera pulls back to focus instead of Jack Crawford (played by Laurence Fishburne), ostensibly the leader of the investigation team, and his relationship with his wife Bella, who has been hiding cancer from him.
Bella is played by Fisburne’s real life wife Gina Torres, and her presence is noteworthy because of how Bella is written. Thus far, Hannibal has had strange echoes from other TV shows spearheaded by series show-runner Bryan Fuller, but Torres brings with her the intertextual weight of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which is important for two reasons.
First of all, Bella’s dialogue mimics the rhythms and sentence structure of Torres’s character from Firefly, Zoe Washburne–the same clipped, utilitarian dropping of words, the functionality of a warrior’s speech. Her delivery, while similar, veers away from Zoe in its tone, however–Bella is exhausted and scraped away. The effect is quite eerie, because it’s hard to wipe away the earlier and much stronger association between Torres and Zoe.
The other reason is that a major component to Firefly is the Reavers, a disparate group of murderous, cannibalistic rapists (hmm) who were for a long time believed to be the result of space-faring people reaching the edge of the void and being driven mad in the process. Which brings us back to our hero, Will Graham, because that’s exactly his problem: repeatedly forcing himself to empathize with and explore the minds of serial killers threatens to push him into the darkness. And, much like Firefly‘s Reavers, the “looking into the void” explanation is a lie–the Reavers were the result of government experimentation, much like how Will’s decline is being manipulated directly by Hannibal Lecter from the sidelines, ensuring that Will is put into harmful terrain.
Meanwhile, someone is killing people in a ridiculously over-the-top way. It goes a little like this: man suffers from inoperable, devastating brain cancer and the tumor drives him to transform people into angels–flaying the skin from their backs to construct wings–to watch over him while he sleeps, slowly making peace that he will die as well. The problem with Hannibal Lecter is that he’s traditionally been more or less the Joker, and filling Will’s rogues’ gallery with other equally ostentatious killers is a way of establishing his madness as a baseline, elemental rather than cartoonish; it certainly helps that the “angel-making” gimmick is something out of an old Hawkman comic book.
As well, honestly–and excuse me while I drift back to Fuller’s previous works–it’s easy to see the epicurean tenor of the killings in Hannibal as reflecting the increasingly slapstick and gonzo deaths on Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies.
Luckily, “Coquilles” doesn’t treat the murders as the A-plot. It’s the current investigation, it’s the immediate concern, but there’s a certain casualness to how the plot is delivered, how it plays out, existing really only as a means to give Jack an epiphany about Bella’s behaviour. They track down the killer’s estranged wife and she talks about the breakdown of the marriage, the way her husband pushed her away when he started to fall into the throes of the disease; all of this pushes Jack, who has struggled to understand his wife’s distance on top of everything else in his life, to make the connections (to get inside Bella’s mind, much like Will does with the killer-of-the-week). I liked the way they handled it, treating the police procedural as more of a means to reveal character, something almost unheard of on most shows of the genre.
And Torres remains an significant choice. I know, of course, because I’m behind in watching the series that they introduce characters played by Gillian Anderson and Ellen Muth, and I can’t help but see the use of–what? Stunt-casting? The use of actresses known for prominent and interesting genre roles strikes me as a method of undercutting the “prequelness” of the series, simply because thus far they’ve let intertextuality apply pressure to the basic set-up, the Thomas Harris Backstory Machine, causing it to deform into something potentially more interesting.