Upon hearing this week’s news of Hannibal’s cancellation, I’d fantasized about an episode which would make NBC regret their decision. The previous three weeks had brought the series in a different direction, with languorous pacing and gorgeous dream logic that justified the “pretentious art film” label that showrunner Bryan Fuller had described as his goal for directors, and I’d hoped that “Aperitivo” would pick up on the groundwork the episodes had laid.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite what we got. This week’s hour was the first of the season not directed by Vincenzo Natali, and his aesthetic sensibility/attention to detail feels missing throughout the episode. It starts in the teaser, where Dr. Chilton and Mason’s game of competing facial disfigurations ends with neither being particularly impressive. I don’t think of myself as a gore-hound, but part of the power of Hannibal has stemmed from its ability to be overwhelmingly gross in a way that builds its alternate, serial killer-dominated universe, and neither man’s countenance ranks amongst its most appalling or powerful sights. Even worse, the images are introduced by a lame gay joke (Mason’s “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine”) which makes the show’s homoerotic subtext explicit in a way that feels sophomoric.
Mason’s crude, juvenile language carries over into his later conversation with Alana, where his comment about her relations with Hannibal feels out of place and unnecessary. Fuller’s commitment to not depicting sexual violence on the show is admirable, and Mason’s creepiness is far from glorified, but the verbal sexual harassment here undermines the showrunner’s good intentions. As many have argued about the rape scenes on Game of Thrones, it doesn’t add anything to the drama, and it brings a mode of thinking into the public discussion which would be better left unexpressed. To bring up one more negative Game of Thrones connection, the words Mason uses are reminiscent of the “bad pussy” line from that show’s (otherwise strong) season five finale: they’re cringeworthy and extraneous, and they feel extracted from a lesser show.
However, beyond the immature sexual politics of “Aperitivo,” the episode is ultimately most burdened by its connection to the past. The flashbacks in the season opener (“Antipasto”) seemed a bit excessive, but they didn’t dominate the episode nearly as much as they did this week. They’re not totally out of place, since the most ostensible arc in “Aperitivo” concerns Alana and Mason taking revenge on Hannibal for his past treatment of them, but the visual reminders of why they want their vengeance feel a bit too explicit.
Stylistically, “Aperitivo” also feels too weighed down by Hannibal’s aesthetic past. In my recap of the premiere, I praised the ornate Italian architecture which gave the series a welcome sense of setting, but this week returns to the indeterminate dreariness that characterized the first two seasons. As effective as the earlier style was for divorcing the show’s world from reality, the gorgeous backdrop of the third season had been a welcome addition, and this week’s episode sorely misses it.
Ultimately, though, what most burdens “Aperitivo” is the absence of the show’s title character. Even though Will has taken center stage for much of the series, Mads Mikkelsen’s captivating performance has always been at the core. Although Jack and Alana are likable enough, neither the tales of him killing Bella or her seeking revenge are as compelling as anything we’ve seen from Hannibal. In fact, his dominance over season three’s early hours were a big part of what made them interesting.
That being said, Hannibal is sure to return in the not-too-distant future, and the promise of his presence certainly has the potential to lift up the dreariness which bogs down “Aperitivo.” In the nine episodes Hannibal has left on NBC, perhaps the intersection of these characters will show the network what they’re missing.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.