How 'Hannibal' was 'The Sopranos'
The Sopranos and Hannibal. On the surface, I’ll grant you: Not a lot in common.
The Sopranos: A dark comedy epic sprawling across six and a half seasons, set in the scuzzy strip clubs and scuzzier McMansions of eternal Jersey, starring screwball mobsters struggling through end-of-empire decline. The Sopranos is James Gandolfini: The deep breaths, the real-dad girth, that way he had of dramatizing every man’s worst instinct into something funny and sad and scary.
Hannibal: A dark horror fantasia ending (for now) with three seasons, set in some neo-Edwardian corner of Baltimore where every dinner party is a lost level from Myst, starring brainiac polysexual aesthetes killing toward messianic singularity. Hannibal is Mads Mikkelsen: The bemused smile, the pocket squares, that way he has of looking at another human being like he’s reading the menu.
It’s wrong to reduce either show to some bare components. (You can’t explain The White Album in two songs.) But pick a random episode from each, and you feel the difference. Sopranos creator David Chase loved ’70s cinema and maybe hated television. He created an intensely personal family saga drawn from his own life. He didn’t like the tropes of TV — and whenever there was an option for a cathartic climax, Chase opted for an aggressive anticlimax. (Godard probably loves him for the same reasons most people hate Godard.) Characters on The Sopranos lived in something like the real world: In season 2, Tony talks about mobster-goes-to-therapy movie Analyze This.
Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller has talked his cinematic influences — Kubrick and Lynch, heard of them? — but Hannibal‘s influence is more obvious and direct. It is a reboot — the kind of miserable Hollywood word you imagine Christopher Moltisanti yelling gleefully while Tony sighs. And it rebooted off considerable history: Two great books, two crazy books, two and a half great movies, two bad movies, and at least 25 percent of what the mainstream population loves about Anthony Hopkins. Fuller’s solution was to embrace the tropes of TV’s tropiest genre. Hannibal started off as a procedural: Fuller has called the crimesolving a “gateway drug,” but it’s more like a stealth missile. This makes Hannibal sound, in theory, like something Tony Soprano would watch on television. (In practice, Hannibal is the show you would get if The Sopranos was only Tony’s dreams.)
Maybe it’s enough that they are both great; maybe the only thing that unites them is how their radical disparity demonstrates the possible breadth of TV-as-entertainment-art. But as we reach the end of Hannibal‘s brilliant run — or as we reach the point when Hannibal transforms from a TV show into a hopeful hashtag, #HannibalSeason4, #HannibalMovie, #HannibalWhatever — I remember The Sopranos. Because as different as the TV shows are, they have the same inciting incident: A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office.
On The Sopranos, it’s Tony, a lovable bear of a suburban dad who’s also a rising mob boss. The Sopranos doesn’t necessarily read as a meta-anything. At this point, we’re more used to things like Kill Bill or Community or Adventure Time or everything Marvel Comics is doing right now: over-the-top genre mash-ups existing in a universe built from pop culture detritus. But The Sopranos was always a self-aware product. Tony is both a mobster and some Platonic Ideal of Mobster, and the central joke of the show is: What happens when a mobster archetype goes to see a psychiatrist?
On The Sopranos, that psychiatrist is Dr. Jennifer Melfi. She is both the most important or least important character on the show. She lives in a silo’d corner of the Sopranos universe. Whenever the show follows her away from the office, we’re in a different world: The people are educated, they drink wine, they speak with all the psychological fluency of people who have had their worst instincts defined by science. Dr. Melfi is never really important to the “plot” of the show — although compared to most shows today, The Sopranos is nigh-plotless. But the scenes in Melfi’s office are central to the series. Her role varies. Sometimes, she’s the audience surrogate. Sometimes, she’s the only person who can call Tony out — the only person with power over him. Sometimes, on this most Catholic of TV shows, she is Tony’s confessor.
Hannibal initially flips the script in a few ways. Will Graham isn’t a mobster: He’s a good guy, a “criminal profiler,” the kind abstract occupation that TV cop shows love. Tony is the kind of guy who has never thought much about his psychological perspective on the world. Will is the superego opposite of that: He is a man drowning in his own psychological empathy; he’s entirely too good at seeing the world from the perspective of freak psycho murderers. So we’re already beginning where The Sopranos ends. Dr. Melfi spent close to a decade trying to get into the mind of a killer — and Will is already there in Hannibal‘s first scene.
He needs some help, Will. So his boss sends him to see a psychiatrist. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is unquestionably the most important character on the show, although the nature of that importance shifts the more you watch the show: It’s difficult to tell if he is a puppetmaster or just a hilariously reactive improvisation artist, suggestively “Yes, And”-ing everyone around him toward madness. You could argue that Hannibal is just a simple script-flip from The Sopranos: This time, the psychiatrist is the killer.
But the two shows share a core gravitational pull. The Sopranos always moves into a different gear when Tony sits across from Melfi. It’s a moment for Tony to meditate on what’s happening elsewhere in the show. (You could almost read those scenes as the show intra-recapping itself: Tony and Melfi together, trying to sort out just what it all means.) And it’s a moment for Melfi to dig deep into Tony. We’re trained to think of TV drama now as a serialized straight line, but Sopranos’ line usually pointed inwards. The show’s macro-drama, initially, crystallized in Tony’s relationship with his mother — and his epiphanies about what she was, and what she had made him. But the show’s long run gave the creative team the benefit of free roaming — and there are some moments later in the show when Tony comes perilously close to realizing that his mom might have been a bad person because she wasn’t a good parent, but his dad was also a bad person because he was a mobster who killed people.
Hannibal is everything about those scenes made manifest. Initially, the scenes in the psychiatrist’s office served a similar purpose. Hannibal was a show about crazy crimes; in Dr. Lecter’s office, Will and his wacky shrink could talk about those crimes, what they mean, who would commit them and why. But if Sopranos was always a bit skeptical of its own genre trappings, Hannibal embraced soapy indulgence from the start. It weaponized psychiatry, and eroticized it. In the first season, Hannibal gradually undresses Will’s bruised mentality — or maybe it’s more accurate to call it brain-rape. (There’s a point in season 1 when — because of Hannibal — Will keeps waking up from blackouts, not sure what happened, what he did or with who.) The show keeps transforming the Will-Hannibal stand-off: Will counter-attacks, partially out of self-preservation, but eventually because he wants to understand Hannibal as much as vice versa.
To the extent that there was ever a Dr. Melfi-centric episode of The Sopranos, it was “Employee of the Month,” aka “The Rape Episode.” Always a bleak episode of television, “Employee of the Month” reads weird in the context of right now, in the midst of a sexual assault narrative vogue. (ASIDE: Fuller decided to ban rape from Hannibal — partially, I think, because the whole house of cards of Hannibal‘s erotic murder-as-art psycho-fantasy would collapse if even one of the show’s all-powerful psycho-killers valued banal sex over Chthonic love. END OF ASIDE.) But it’s a devastating hour of television, smart enough to get the act out of the way early and spend most of the running time meditating on what it means for Melfi.
She gets trapped in a bureaucratic law-and-order nightmare — her rapist gets let off on a technicality. She has a dream of murderous vengeful Rottweiler attacking her rapist. She goes to see her own psychiatrist — much like how, years later, Hannibal will psychoanalyze Will and then get psychoanalyzed by his other lover-confessor-victim-avatar Dr. Du Maurier. Melfi figures out that the Rottweiler symbolizes Tony — and the possibility of vengeance, if she tells him what happened.
She won’t, of course: She knows that, if she tells Tony, he will kill the rapist, and two wrongs don’t make a right, and so on. The last scene of the episode, they’re having a session. Tony surprises her. When the episode started, Melfi was suggesting that Tony was making progress in his treatment, and it was time for him to start working with someone else: A behavioral therapist. Tony had acted out — was Melfi handing him off now, abandoning him like so many other people have abandoned him? But now, Tony says she might be right. Maybe he is getting better.
Melfi can’t help herself: She starts crying. Tony has cried so many times in this office, but he’s not prepared for this. The show cuts to a wide shot. Tony stands up, slowly walks across the room, hesitates, and holds her. It is intimate: For a ghost of a second, he runs his hand through her hair.
What a shot! It’s in competition with a few hundred others, but that could be the most resonant single image in the show, for me. (Years later, Tony cradles his suicidal son in his arms, and the camera pays special attention to his hands on AJ’s head.) And you can read the shot so many different ways. Is this a rare moment of emotional intimacy in a relationship that trends toward overintellectualized abstraction? Is this the closest we ever get to a Tony-Melfi love scene? Or should we read Tony’s motion in that shot as insidious — a foul beast slouching towards Melfi, offering her vengeance if she only joins the dark side?
If you’ve watched Sopranos, then you know what happens. (If you haven’t watched Sopranos, who the hell are you?) Tony asks Melfi if she has something to tell him. Melfi: “No.” Cut to black. Maybe Hannibal is the alternate timeline where Melfi said “Yes,” where the come-hither possibilities of a life beyond morality proved impossible to ignore. One of the pleasures of Hannibal is how Fuller and his collaborators have honored the source material and pushed it to a logical extreme. In the Thomas Harris novels and the movies they inspired, Lecter faces off against a lawman-or-woman. You recognize the calculus: They aren’t so different, cop and criminal; sometimes, a good man needs to be a little bad.
But they were always good. In this final stretch, Hannibal has filmed Harris’ novel Red Dragon for the third time. If you’ve read the book, or if you’ve scene Michael Mann’s great Manhunter or Brett Ratner’s disappointingly un-Ratneresque Red Dragon, it’s a kick to see just how different the same scenes play with context. As played by William Petersen and Edward Norton, Will Graham was a psychologically troubled cop and a fundamentally decent person. By now, Hugh Dancy-as-Will feels inhuman, a consciousness floating above the world. In the penultimate episode, Will indirectly sets up a very annoying innocent man for grotesque retribution — and then Will goes to see a psychiatrist, who figures out that there was nothing indirect about Will’s action.
Both shows are fascinated by identity: By what makes people, and by the lies people tell themselves. Hannibal treats this subject matter as melodrama, Sopranos as seriocomedy. The Sopranos could hint at its deeper meanings, usually by misdirection: The show would quote Yeats, but it would also put Yeats in the mouth of a goofball who pronounced it “Yeets.” Hannibal is more explicit. This is not just the kind of show that establishes among its cast of characters a symbolic Christian trinity; this is the kind of show where characters who symbolize the Christian trinity talk about that symbolism openly. Example:
Jack Crawford: He’s not the Dragon. You are. The Devil himself, bound in the pit.
Hannibal Lecter: And that makes you God, Jack.
Jack Crawford: Yes, it does.
But there was a cosmic quality to The Sopranos‘ suburban banality. And there is an intensely personal quality to Hannibal‘s drawing-room-deathmatch absurdity. They always circle back to the same place: Two people in a room, trying to understand each other, struggling at times with how they are similar and at other times with how they are different. In understanding another, the characters seek to understand themselves. Human connection is a selfish act — and/or the only noble thing anyone on either show can ever hope to accomplish.
The Sopranos was a big success for HBO and a transformative moment for television. Creator David Chase had carte blanche to sprawl, to explore, to send Tony into coma dreams. When you have 86 hours of television, you can have a Paulie-centric episode. (Hell, you can have Vito-centric episodes.) Then came the series finale, which I love, but which has altered the meaning of the show, and its place in TV history. It is receding, I think: A natural progression, because old things get replaced by new things. But the show is also a period-piece snapshot of fading notions. The Sopranos begins with Tony bemoaning how he came in at the end. And there’s a read on the show as the first and last truly great Decline of the Old White Straight Male Patriarchy fairy tale. Sopranos was about so much more — but it wasn’t not about that.
Hannibal is a definition-of-cult gem, transformative only in the sense that it offers further evidence of all the weird ways the TV business works now. It never got big ratings for NBC, but the fact of NBC feels tangential to Hannibal. Its production company could sell it around the world, and it lives on Amazon as a streaming experience. The influence of Sopranos is so obvious that it’s become banal to point it out. Who knows what kind of influence Hannibal will have: You hope that it’s the kind of show that has a small audience of TV viewers but a large audience of future TV makers. (You think about Brian Eno talking about the Velvet Underground: How they only sold a thirty thousand copies of their first album, but “everyone who bought one of those thirty thousand copies started a band.”)
Some shows create their zeitgeist, and some shows reflect it. Certainly, Hannibal reflects this moment in television. When the show began, it was a secret-identity fable, with Hannibal secretly cooking people for dinner with his best friends. You think of Don Draper and Dick Whitman, or Walter White and Heisenberg, or of the Americans who aren’t American on The Americans.
And as Hannibal has spiraled into a madness of shifting identities — Will is Hannibal and Hannibal is Jack’s Dark Link and Francis Dolarhyde is to Will as Hannibal is to Jack — you think of this summer’s Mr. Robot and UnReal, two shows which take “the flimsiness of identity in our heavily mediated world” as both a central theme and a weaponized story mode. On UnREAL, the role of “reality TV producer” is basically “psychopath psychiatrist”: The producer helps an emotionally damaged towards an epiphany while forcing them to become their worst self. (Lest we miss the point, the main character on UnREAL was raised by an overbearing psychiatrist.) And the most “normal” character on Mr. Robot — “normal” in the sense that they have nothing to do with plots or counterplots, globo-corporations or anarchtopia hacktivist cells — is the main character’s psychiatrist.
The Sopranos was a fable of decline, with decades of family history piled atop centuries of national history, all pointing towards wreckage. These new shows are more openly dramatic — this could be the golden age of the soap opera — and they’re darker, less funny, weirder, almost apocalyptic. But there’s a core optimism in these shows, and an optimism in Hannibal: A sense of humanity in the act of “becoming.” Interpret that freely, as the rise of internet natives, or the simple fact that plenty of people aren’t nostalgic for the America Tony Soprano fondly remembered.
The Sopranos began at the end of its world. Hannibal ends tomorrow; its world is just beginning.
Already miss Hannibal? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll walk across the office and hug you through the tears.