For a show that’s mostly noted for its graphic violence, Hannibal can sure be talky at times. And while I’m always quick to point out how the show, much like Breaking Bad before it, has developed a dexterous grasp of the slow burn, “Shiizakana” seems to take this low-key, atmospheric quality maybe a step too far.
Whereas last week dealt with the tension-filled relationship between Hannibal and a newly freed Will largely through the prism of the Peter-Clark case, this week finds the two facing each other in a more intimate, head-on way. As such, other characters take a backseat. Jack only makes a few brief appearances, and Alana is nowhere to be found.
In their therapy session, Hannibal asks Will to recall the Clark Ingram incident. Will says his biggest regret was that he let Hannibal prevent him from pulling the trigger. What’s more, he longs to relive the “quiet sense of power” he experienced upon killing Garret Jacob Hobbs and, more recently, ordering Matthew Brown to kill Hannibal. It remains to be seen whether this is a sentiment that comes straight from Will’s heart or if it’s merely a ploy to reel Hannibal in for capture. Either way, it’s unsettling as all hell to watch.
The only other major character that Will interacts with this week is Margot Verger. Like last week, this subplot continues to come across more like necessary seeding for a future plotline than something strong enough to stand on its own. The result, once again, feels tangential to the main story.
But let’s talk about that main story. The FBI’s newest case involves a man named Randall Tier, a former patient of Hannibal with a major identity crisis. Specifically, he believes himself to be an animal. His psychosis has led him to construct a mechanical suit designed after an extinct form of bear. (His job working at a museum lends him the necessary resources.) Strapping the suit on, he runs around attacking poor unfortunate souls. And though, as shot by the very talented TV director Michael Rymer, Randall’s attacks result in some of the most deliciously over-the-top death scenes in the whole series, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the whole thing veering into Ridley Scott’s Hannibal-level campiness. Not gonna lie, upon bearing witness to Randall putting on the suit, the first thing that popped into my head was Al Gore’s ManBearPig disguise from South Park.
Though Randall swears to Will and Jack that he’s reconciled his previous mental issues, a quick visit from Hannibal soon reveals the boy’s murderous nature. Then, in a bit of much delayed payback, Hannibal decides to let animal-Randall loose on Will.
Watching the episode, in particular the Randall scenes, there was a part of me that felt a bit conflicted. Hannibal, like the much, much, much more exploitive Criminal Minds before it, relies on having a mentally unstable individual every few weeks to provide a compelling case for our heroes. It’s an unmistakable part of the entertainment value of the show; yet, such an approach does yield certain questions that probably should be addressed.
You see, as much as I love Hannibal and as much as I defend its mature content as being an organic extension of its artistry, as opposed to, say, The Following or Those Who Kill, there is little question that the show does build its foundation on the darker elements of the human mind. Having viewed Hannibal long enough, it’s hard not to feel that anyone with the slightest bit of a psychological disorder has the capacity to be an Ed Gein/Ted Bundy-esque psychopath. One of the positive elements of Jeremy Davies’ Peter, in my mind, was that the storyline presented a mentally scarred man as a complete innocent. Similarly, Randall begins the episode by talking about how, despite his previous illness, he’s been able to move past his demons. “I know who I am now and I’m doing much better,” he claims. “I’m socializing, I take my medication, I’m employed, and I work very hard. And I’m proof that mental illness is treatable.” We, of course, know that is not the case at all.
Perhaps this just comes from my personal experience knowing and having worked with people who have spent a good portion of their lives struggling for control over their own minds and attempting to become functioning members of society. Nevertheless, the question of “mental disease exploitation” is a question I find myself mulling over with the abundance of “serial killer” shows on the air currently. I can’t pretend to be an expert on these matters but—at a certain point—I do wonder how much these shows, even when they display the phenomenal quality inherent in Hannibal, affect the social stigmatism of severe mental illness.
But this isn’t a Slate essay; this is a TV review. So, what’s the verdict on “Shiizakana” as an hour of entertainment? Unfortunately, for me, it stands as perhaps the weakest entry of the season, hampered by numerous, glacially paced conversation sequences that harp on themes we’ve already seen explored in more compelling ways. It all leads to a (perhaps purposefully) anticlimactic ending where Will dispatches Randall off-screen and brings his body as a warning to Hannibal. “I’d say this makes us even,” he says. “I send someone to kill you; you send someone to kill me. Even Steven.” Maybe the reason my mind veered towards the presentation of mental illness this time around is because the episode just felt a bit slight compared with previous installments.
Indeed, the main purpose of “Shiizakana” appears to be putting Hannibal and Will on the same level in preparation for the upcoming shit storm indicated by the season opener. It’s a stepping-stone episode, for sure, but I’m then forced to judge it on the basis of the show’s other stepping-stone episode (“Hassun”), which felt much more assured in its pacing. Even a slight Hannibal misstep, however, provides more hearty material to chew on than any other network drama. It’s the one downside of making such a consistently excellent show—the good-not-great episodes felt like a major step down in comparison.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.