As I’m particularly interested in the series as it relates to the original books, I think the Fuller walkthrough is a useful reference point, and whilst we’re on the AV Club website, we might as well dip into their reviews too! Although, as a caveat, my reviews come after I have seen the whole series once before, whereas the AV Club’s respond as the show unfolds.
In brief: a strong start (barring some exaggerated characterisation) that declares the series’ strong commitment to the novels whilst also differentiating its world from theirs.
The cold open is good (barring the exceptionally irritating catchphrase, “This is my design”). It presents Will at work, simply doing his job, no explanations. He seems masterful and in control, demanding reports and sending apparent subordinates to check his theories (the tapped phone) with apparent rapidity. Nevertheless, the early part of the episode suffers from an overt preoccupation with defining and asserting Will’s “differentness”.
Some of the mannerisms that Hugh Dancy gives to Will (such as his aversion to eye-contact) in this episode are “autistic” in a very obvious way, giving the initial portrayal beyond the cold open an exaggerated feeling, particularly in the rewatching. The baldly informational dialogue also seems clunky, like we are being rushed into the characterisation. Discussions of “the spectrum”, “disorders”, and FBI screening for instability all push at us inelegantly. Fortunately, while Will’s mental state remains a preoccupation of the entire series, this is a temporary hitch.
It is worth exploring in more detail, however, because the episode’s jargon-heavy discussions emphasise the show’s confusion about what Will “is”, beyond “disordered” or atypical. Fuller has spoken about how many viewers have assumed Will has Asperger’s when, in fact, he “has the opposite” (e.g. in interview with Ryan Turek), although Will terms himself close (relatively) to autistics, avoids eye-contact, and expresses his difficulty at “being social”. Will expressly distances himself from any of the “personality disorders” in this first episode, citing instead an “active imagination” as the root of his gift for empathising with psychopaths (Will is obviously sensitive about this ability leading to the perception that he is one). This assessment objectively supported by Alana Bloom’s focus on Will’s imagination in her discussion with Crawford about Will’s ability and possible weaknesses, and by the show’s own focus on representing in dramatic detail Will’s imaginings (and later his hallucinations).
It might be tempting, then, to agree with Charlie You Are A Genius’ post about the fact that an “empathy disorder” is only explicitly on-the-table as an explanation for Will’s gift when Will and Hannibal are talking alone, suggesting it is a detail of Hannibal’s broader gaslighting approach to Will. However, in the interview with Ryan Turek, Fuller expressly refers to Will having an “empathy disorder”. With this in mind about the intended portrayal of the character, it becomes difficult to reconcile some of the details of the show’s discussions about Will’s thinking.
The focus of the episode is the Minnesota Shrike case, formative for Will Graham as his first major case according to the novels. In this series, it also serves as an excuse for boss Jack Crawford (and Dr Alana Bloom) to pathologise Will and draw into almost immediate question his competence or capacity for field work. The formative case thus also becomes key to Will’s relationship with Hannibal, brought in to assess his mental health and capacity.
There are also some important elements of Hannibal’s character from the books that this first episode draws out: his curiosity, and his skills as a therapist. Throughout the series, Will is subjected to both these key characteristics, to both his benefit and his detriment.
Their first encounter sees a bout of verbal sparring (again emphasising Will’s atypical response to eye-contact), and Hannibal, at least, detects resonances between their two characters, which he draws into focus. This is a focus of Hannibal’s conversation with Will in their second meeting, when he invites Will to “socialise like adults” with him, pushing Will away from the knee-jerk revulsion towards “being social”. Curious about Will (as his discussions with Jack Crawford suggest), Hannibal challenges Will to confront his aversion to socialising by providing himself as a ‘kindred spirit’ who Will will eventually find interesting; exactly what we would expect of a good therapist, even though his methods are a little unconventional!
Hannibal’s intellectual curiosity is shown in at its extreme extent when towards the end of the episode when he phones Garrett Jacob Hobbs to warn him that “they know”. We might wish to think of this as a sort of ‘professional courtesy’, one cannibal to another, but it has such significant ramifications in the context of the series that we cannot help but see it as a crucial first step in Hannibal’s endeavours to test, stretch, and manipulate Will Graham’s mind.
Hannibal’s psychopathy — his murderous nature and his disregard for the ethics of toying with Will in this way — nevertheless enables his positive impact as a therapist. For example, having sized up Garrett Jacob Hobbs’ crimes whilst Will struggles, Hannibal provides him with a “negative” image in order to clarify the key features of Hobbs’ crimes, allowing Will to empathise and understand him finally. Hannibal’s “darkness” is therefore employed in the service of “light”, enabling law enforcement and aiding his patient, Will, whose mind (and “empathy disorder”) clearly holds a fascination for Hannibal. Throughout the series, Hannibal’s relationship with Will (and the FBI more broadly) is sustained by his ability to use his skills in an apparently positive, ‘productive’ way.
However, this is not a given. Instead, the relationships develop as a result of purposeful choices that Mads Mikklesen’s nuanced performance allows us to see taking place. For example, in the Hobbs’ kitchen, we can see Hannibal deciding whether to assist Will and save Abigail’s life. He is too still for too long, his head cocked, his stride purposeful when he finally approaches her, a sharp contrast to Will’s shaking. There is too much control in Hannibal’s behaviour to allow of the explanation that the shock of the scene paralyses him (although certainly we feel as though this explanation would satisfy Jack or Will, if they ever sought it).
The end of the episode indicates why Hannibal makes the choice that he does in that moment: Will finds Hannibal asleep at the side of Abigail’s bed, the spot that he himself hoped to occupy. Sitting on either side of her hospital bed, the doubling of their characters is visually reinforced not only in our minds, but in Will’s. An apparently shared emotional connection with Abigail crucially cements their relationship in later episodes, whilst also offering Hannibal another intriguing mind with which to play: Abigail, a potential accessory to her father’s killings, and now a survivor.
As a final thought, I’d comment on the show’s visuals, where I also think we can see Hannibal-as-puppet-master in action. In general, the show goes out of it way to be attractive. In the novels, Hannibal has a preoccupation with the beautiful, decorating his cell with his own intricate sketches of beautiful architecture, preparing overflowing flower arrangements for dinner, keying wine choices to guests’ birthdays, etc. The TV series takes the same approach, indulging the eyes with beautiful sets (Hannibal’s office is a delight, as is his kitchen) and aestheticising much of the horror that is present throughout the series. This gruesome attractiveness allows us further access into the minds of both Will and Hannibal, another of their shared characteristics; we are reminded of their early exchange: many of their thoughts are not “tasty”.