Hannibal Rewatch Diary: Empathy and Aria in 'Apéritif'
(Welcome to my Hannibal rewatch diary. Some personal news: I have been neglecting this website as I’ve been working on a top secret, super fun horror project. And alas, I feel like an absent god. I love this blog, and I love you readers (even those of you who tell me I’m going to Hell). So, because there is a Hannibal aspect to this secret project and I need to rewatch the series, I’ve decided to publish some of my notes in mini-blog format. By their nature, these will be a bit more casual and unfinished than my usual posts, and I hope that’s OK. Let’s all talk about this great show again!)
Going into this Hannibal rewatch I had expectations I wanted to subvert. During the show’s airing I wrote episode-by-episode recap reviews, thought pieces, and eventually a feature about the title sequence, so the show is a thoroughly explored piece of entertainment for me. I have all my own pet theories and favourite corporeal ruins, I know all the parts in the series that make me cringe, laugh, and cry, and how it all connects to the novels and films that came before it. So this time I’m trying to let the show affect me in a new way, with only one specific idea in mind: this is a show about the terrible and beautiful power of empathy, which I think is true of all good horror.
In ‘Apéritif,’ the first episode of the series, empathy is served from the opening moments to the final shot. Almost every line of dialogue and every frame is positioned to highlight protagonist Will Graham’s empathy disorder, how it makes him lonely and special (almost to a supernatural degree), and the existential danger it puts him in. Even the sound is composed to emphasize the power of empathy in the Hannibal world, and it’s thanks to Brian Reitzell’s score that I came to find the seed of the show that grows into an horrific emotional and romantic tree over the course of the series’ 36 hours.
The anchor of Hannibal’s first hour is the titular character’s introduction. One of the biggest challenges the production team must have faced in undertaking this project was depicting a villain so thoroughly owned by the image of Anthony Hopkins in the three Hannibal Lecter films he appeared in over the course of 1991 through 2002. The Hopkins Lecter is iconic and, honestly, kind of hammy. He’s so ingrained in popular culture he ceases to be frightening, and his famous lines of dialogue have been parodied to the point where passing reference to them seems like a joke. In short: Hannibal Lecter wasn’t scary in 2013, until this episode aired.
In presenting Hannibal Lecter for the first time, showrunner Bryan Fuller and director David Slade stripped him down to essential imagery. He is a cannibal, he has refined taste in culture, and he fucking can’t get enough of Glenn Gould’s rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The first movement of that performance, Aria, is the Hannibal Lecter theme song. It’s mentioned in the novels, it’s played in the movies, and here in the cannibal’s very first televised appearance, it’s straining under his meal for one.
Aria is the most important part of Hannibal’s introduction because it ties the empathetic thesis of the series together. Initially I found the scene, while a fun act break, to be misplaced narratively in a way that makes it feel like cheap misdirection. The procedural element of the first episode focuses on Will Graham trying to understand a serial cannibal known as the Minnesota Shrike, and his powers of radical empathy drag him to the conclusion that the killer is eating his victims right before the aforementioned Lecter reveal. “He’s eating them,” Will says, grimacing, before we cut to Hannibal piercing human flesh with his fork. But the human he’s eating is not the Shrike’s victim, and he’s not the Shrike. It’s a different pig on a different plate, all unrelated outside the fact they’re both abominable acts. And at this point in the story, we as new viewers don’t have enough information to conclude Hannibal isn’t the killer Will’s after. This is Hannibal, after all, not Hannibals. We only expect one cannibal. Aria, however, remedies this dissonance on repeat viewings, revealing deeper meaning to the placement of Lecter’s solo entree.
Prior to Lecter’s introduction, the show’s soundtrack is dissonant and distorted. When we see Will alone for the first time, rescuing a stray dog before he’s made the emotional discovery of empathy for cannibals, the tonal aspects of the score are referential to Bach’s Goldberg Aria. It’s incomplete, something broken that if made whole could be elegant. So, later, as Will writhes in the existential possibility of understanding what it means to kill and eat young women, when we are shown Hannibal committing cannibalism to the sounds of the perfect ideal from which Graham’s life is derived, we can emotionally understand the two men’s relationship: Hannibal is the completing factor to Will’s wincing dread. If Will can empathize with a cannibal, then he can begin to understand Hannibal Lecter. The score tells us Hannibal is a perfect being, and the position of the scene shows us the refined horror Graham will one day come to comprehend. Once empathy is fully explored we come to the border of emulation – of becoming what we fully understand. As Lecter famously tells Will in every iteration of this story, echoing throughout time and across media: “We’re just alike.”
(Up next: what mushroom people can teach us about the extent of empathy.)