03rd Jul2015

‘Hannibal 3×05: Contorno’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“To the misfortune of the snail.”

“Birds eat thousands of snails every day,” Chiyo tells us at the episode’s opening.  “Some of those snails survive digestion, and they emerge to find they’ve traveled the world.” It’s an unearthly image, a story of mindless astronauts propelled into a boundless unknown, and it bears similarities to Will’s symbolic descent into death in pursuit of Hannibal. It even layers the simple act of consuming snails as food with the mythic idea that those snails could survive, that they are edible stories unto themselves. But great television doesn’t live just in a journey’s outwardly incredible qualities. The interior, the rules of the world, should reflect and amplify the exterior, the flow of events and actions constituting the story. ‘Contorno’ is a misfortune of snails, a beautiful thing achieved by confusing and sometimes awkward means.

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Even in a show increasingly driven by atmosphere and symbolism, some measure of logic is necessary for the story to remain immersive. ‘Contorno’ is, in that regard, an uneven hour of television suffering under the weight of events paced and introduced more to space out plot resolutions than to make any kind of narrative sense. Will gets sidetracked after an inert train ride, Jack inexplicably watches a battered and limping Hannibal escape after administering a ruthless beating, and Mason Verger demands a pointless and nonsensical piece of proof (a fingerprint, unlifted) to signify that Pazzi knows where Hannibal is. Any one of these events might have squeaked past on its own under the radar, but to place all three in the same episode gives ‘Contorno’ a clunky, arbitrary feel at times.

That’s not to say it has nothing in the tank. Contrarily, the season’s 5th episode delivers moving grief, sick jokes, gorgeous fades, sets, and food, a quietly excellent farewell by the literally but not figuratively gutless inspector Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino, a crumbling piece of Florentine obscura both physically and within the show’s world), and the most cathartic beatdown this side of watching Anton Chigurh get hit by a car. It’s worth remembering that even when it’s pitching an off night, Hannibal could still sneak up on and chloroform most anything else on television. It’s also a thoughtful hour of people looking deep within themselves to determine what, exactly, they’re capable of.

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The musing starts with, and is most intensely symbolized within the framework of, Pazzi. The man’s death is sealed the minute he commits himself to taking Verger’s bounty. The about-face in his motivation for pursuing Hannibal, from regaining his honor to setting his pretty young wife up in luxury, is a weird choice, but the things surrounding it are the show at its best. Pazzi literally grabbing a knife by the blade in a context totally unrelated to violent usage (until about half a second later when he’s being choked out by the man himself) as he tries to trap Hannibal is a gasp-out-loud moment of symbolist TV. The stories about the ancient Pazzi family, divided between a resemblance shared by the inspector and a sainted ancestor’s statue and a meditation on a madman who tried to strangle a bishop and wound up gnawed on, disemboweled, and hanged, are the kind of curio-driven moral framing at which Hannibal excels.

Watching Pazzi make his decision is a great showcase for a guy who ends the hour swinging at the end of an extension cord noose.  Its heft, I think, is undercut by replacing his desire for glory with a desire for money, but Fortunato Cerlino makes the most of every second as Pazzi drifts in daydreams, contemplates the truly odious man (Verger) with whom he’s dealing, and dances closer and closer to the void. His evaluation of his own capabilities, of his willingness to defile his morals by taking blood money, is accomplished with a light touch. His moment of disassociation while on the phone with Verger’s man, his evident fear at returning to Hannibal’s beautiful, implement-of-torture-bedecked lair at the museum, and other little flourishes give an appropriate mosaic feel to his final hours.

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Jack’s farewell to Bella (“Ciao, Bella”) is a warm release, a letting go he clings to even as Hannibal taunts him with the (correct) assumption that Jack euthanized Bella at the end. Jack’s assessment of his own qualities is in his emptiness, his sacrifice of his wife’s remains, of his wedding ring, of everything that bound him to the world. His and Hannibal’s encounter in the museum is breathless, coming right on the heels of Pazzi’s execution. Jack turns the tables on Hannibal in overwhelming fashion, using the same music with which Hannibal disoriented Pazzi and copying his patented stocking-footed approach and surprise attack to catch the doctor off his guard. (Like Omar, Jack knows that he who comes at the king had best come correct). What follows, set to Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie,’ is a balletic display of violence as Jack hurls Hannibal through glass display cases and turns the museum’s medieval torture implements against him. The energy crescendos when Hannibal, bloodied and framed by the Florentine night outside the window, asks Jack “How will you feel when I’m gone?”, and then it rapidly tails off as Jack allows Hannibal to escape for reasons beggaring comprehension.

Hannibal is acceptable as a larger than life, almost superhuman presence in the show’s narrative. He pulls things off no unassisted human being ever could(those murder exhibitions would take theater crews to stage), he appears and disappears at will, and that’s fine. It’s part of the show’s mystique. But when he’s on screen and in conflict with another person, some version of logic needs to apply or else immersion breaks down. Jack’s letting him walk away, slowly, even, is baffling and frustrating in a way that’s usually seen on much, much sloppier shows than HannibalAgain, though: I cannot stress enough how satisfying it is to watch Mads Mikkelsen go through plate glass like a brick with exquisite cheekbones.

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The rest of the hour is odds and ends. Will and Chiyoh’s train trip is outright dull, taking the murky ground of whatever Will’s going through right now and putting it up against yet another halting retread of Chiyoh’s past. We don’t really know anything about this character, and her hucking Will off a train reads more as the show treading water by keeping Will and Hannibal apart than it does as a meaningful twist. Sure, a bloodied Will following the stag along the railroad tracks and into the darkness of the Italian countryside is a hell of an image, but it would be a better one with something besides hot air behind it. Will ponders his fear of becoming Hannibal, a vicious aesthete, but aside from a dream of an antler-impaled Chiyoh there isn’t much at play there.

Alana, meanwhile, finds not only her own limits (she’s unable to let Pazzi walk into the lion’s den without trying to warn him off) but the key to finding Hannibal. Her locating him by his tastes, her breakdown of his place settings and his favorite wines and truffles, is beautiful and clever, but it feels superfluous when every other character on the show already knows exactly where he is and is making a beeline right for his superb wardrobe and unthinkably smug penchant for cannibalism puns. Hannibal sometimes has trouble blending its more procedural, mystery-driven elements with its dreamy oeuvre; ‘Contorno’ is one of those times, though far from fatally so.

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