“You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal. You have aesthetic ones.”
“Ethics become aesthetics.”
For a show so determined to distance itself from reality, Hannibal got meta-textual with this brief exchange in its Season 3 premiere, “Antipasto.” Bedelia (Gillian Anderson), former therapist to Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and his traveling companion as he hides out in Italy, challenges Hannibal on his modus operandi. She questions the fact that he prioritizes beauty over reason, feeling over thinking. To Hannibal, the things we think inevitably lead to the things that we feel and make others feel, so eliminating concern for ethics is just cutting out the middleman. But Hannibal’s retort that “ethics become aesthetics” is not only a statement of his personal philosophy—it’s a statement of the show’s, as well.
Hannibal is more devoted to its aesthetic qualities than any other show I can think of, and that devotion has always superseded traditional narrative concerns. One of its favorite tricks is to cut away from a scene to a visual metaphor for whatever’s going on in that scene. The “ethics” of the scene (the thoughts and motivations of the characters, their dialogue and actions, etc.) are translated into aesthetic languae. Hannibal fully committed itself to its aesthetic qualities long ago, and this episode makes that abundantly clear.
Like its titular character, this show is driven more by feeling than thinking. The finale of Season 2 left Will (Hugh Dancy), Jack (Laurence Fishburne), Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) and Abigail (Kacey Rohl) bleeding to death in Hannibal’s home, their fates unresolved. Rather than picking back up with its most pressing narrative concern, the show spends its return episode entirely focused on Hannibal and Bedelia in Italy. Schrödinger’s Cast doesn’t appear at all and there’s no mention of whether any of them survived. This likely and justifiably frustrated some viewers, but the show takes pains to defend this choice.
You can feel it in the editing. Scenes flow into each other, flashing backwards and forwards, in and out of black-and-white memories. The editing within scenes is non-linear—one scene begins with a shot of Bedelia lying on the ground, and then cuts to the thing she did immediately beforehand. And then there are the black-and-white fantasy sequences, which change the aspect ratio to the wider 2.35:1 from the standard 1.85:1.
In these moments, we see Hannibal and the deceased Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) engage in Tom Stoppard-esque dialogue about why Hannibal does what he does. It’s unclear where these scenes are coming from. They couldn’t have occurred in the time when Abel was Hannibal’s captive, although they seem to. Instead they seem to be visual representations of Hannibal’s rationalization process, wherein Abel becomes a mental projection of Hannibal’s conscience.
This gives new metaphorical significance to the image we’ve seen of Abel being forced to eat his own limbs; Hannibal’s conscience is devouring itself. Again, these interludes have no explicit connection to the surrounding narrative, but they inform the rest of the episode by allowing us a glimpse at the way Hannibal thinks. The episode’s construction has a stream-of-consciousness quality. Its flow has no obvious or literal motivation. It resembles a dream more than anything, letting go of connective tissue and asking the audience to get on board with that pace.
“Antipasto” isn’t void of narrative concerns, though. It does answer the mysteries behind Bedelia and Hannibal’s relationship to some extent. We see a flashback to the oft-mentioned moment when Hannibal saved her from a violent patient. In a startling twist, we learn that she in fact killed the patient (whose corpse is played by Zachary Quinto, perhaps indicating that we’ll get to see more of this person in future flashbacks) and that Hannibal covered it up.
We even see a continuation of a scene from Season 2 which completely changes its context. We were previously led to believe that Hannibal found Bedelia’s house empty because she fled, but we see her come home not long afterwards to find Hannibal in the shower. At gunpoint, she engages him in a twisted sort of therapy session, and we get a sense of why she made the bizarre choice to travel with him. She’s as fascinated by Hannibal as she is horrified by him, and she can’t help herself from getting more intimate with her subject.
Anderson plays these scenes with the dark poeticism that nearly every performer on this show does, but there’s a clinical quality to her as well, as if she’s mirroring Hannibal’s persona as a way of getting inside his head. She makes a poor substitute for Will in this regard, and Hannibal tells her as much. Later in the episode, he presents her with the choice to either “observe or participate” in a murder, which recalls Will’s dilemma over whether or not his constant observation of violence and evil was shifting him toward the darkness. That dilemma is what drove him to Hannibal in the first place, and it’s as though Hannibal is trying to force Will’s neuroses onto Bedelia. Yet Hannibal also admits that Will himself “was a poor substitute for therapy.” He’s still crushed by Will’s betrayal of his trust last season, unable to cope with having opened up to someone under false pretenses, and Bedelia isn’t sufficiently filling the hole in his heart.
Even though he doesn’t appear in the episode, Will hangs over every scene. His relationship with Hannibal has always been the core of the show, and their connection is strong enough that it can influence Hannibal even when Will is halfway around the world. A more eager replacement than Bedelia presents himself in the form of Anthony Dimmond (Tom Wisdom), a man who hides his true nature under a “person suit” just like Hannibal does. He and Hannibal sense this about each other and Anthony tries to initiate a relationship on those grounds. “I’m here to set you free,” he tells Hannibal, not knowing that Hannibal shed his “person suit” a long time ago.
In a delicious bit of irony, he does end up setting Hannibal free—although not in the way he intended when Hannibal decides to murder him. Perhaps he was offended at Anthony’s presumption that they were kindred spirits, or perhaps he’s too attached to Will to allow himself to start anew.
Previously, we saw Will’s fixation with Hannibal lead Will astray. Now it seems that Hannibal’s fixation with Will will do the same to him. As Abel ominously puts it to Hannibal near the end of the episode over a dinner of cooked leg, “I’m wondering how you’ll feel when all this happens to you.” If that is indeed where this season is going, “Antipasto” does a superb job of setting it up. It is the Italian word for “appetizer,” after all.