Welcome to the Tournament Of Episodes, an unending game of bloodsport between some of the best episodes of the 2013-14 TV season, inspired by The Morning News’ Tournament Of Books. To learn more and see the schedule, go here.
It’s our second semifinal here at the Tournament Of Episodes, pitting The Good Wife (which got here by beating Bob’s Burgers and The Americans) against Hannibal (which beat Broad City and Rick And Morty). Sonia Saraiya has the call.
The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan” vs. Hannibal, “Takiawase”
Sonia Saraiya: What first strikes me about these episodes—and both of these shows, which are the only two network dramas on our bracket—is how each demands you watch it on the show’s terms, and only that show’s terms. It makes “Takiawase” and “Hitting The Fan” very different episodes in some ways, and very similar in others. Hannibal and The Good Wife differ in tone and topic—where the former is a near-allegorical, psychological horror story, the latter is a matter-of-fact, deconstructed legal procedural. But neither wastes any time yanking viewers into its own particular worldview—even for a new viewer, the stakes are set clearly and quickly, though both episodes come in the middle of action-packed seasons. (And both shows have their Will—one named Gardner, the other Graham.) Though these two incredible and confident episodes are essentially impossible to compare—as they’re both masterpieces in their own right—it’s also fitting that they’re placed side-by-side here. This is a primer in demonstrating how a season of television introduces The Next Big Thing, no matter how different those shows are.
This isn’t going to be pretty. My spot in the bracket puts one of my favorite shows—a show I review weekly—against a show that I have publicly stated I have trouble getting into. Before this, I’d seen three to four episodes of Hannibal and turned away largely because the gore was more than I could stomach. Meanwhile, “Hitting The Fan” came to me after five years of watching The Good Wife with interest, so the way that show hit me is entirely different from the way I watched “Takiawase.”
That being said, my first watch of “Hitting The Fan” wasn’t as a critic, it was as a fan—David Sims had the task of reviewing that episode, while I mostly just fangirled about Alicia and Will talking to each other. Meanwhile, Hannibal had already impressed me with its visuals and performances, perhaps because it is such a graphic show. So no, it was hardly a fair matchup. But I gave Hannibal as much of a chance as I could muster—I watched “Takiawase” with a few friends who are also longtime Hannibal fans—who not only explained to me all my questions but also offered their own takes on why they loved the show.
And what I was reminded while watching “Takiawase” is that it’s not just the gore that makes Hannibal hard to watch—it’s how goddamn intense it is. Every conversation seems balanced on the edge of a knife (and too often, that isn’t just a turn of phrase). Life and death are always hanging in the balance. And as scary as it is to watch Amanda Plummer hammer an orbitoclast into a sedated patient’s brain, it’s far more terrifying to listen to Mads Mikkelsen’s seductive voice as Hannibal Lecter.
The thing is, Hannibal, and specifically “Takiawase,” is truly beautiful. The show’s greatest strength, in my mind, is implicating the viewer into Hannibal’s perspective—so we see death as fascinating and beautiful, instead of merely repulsive or unwanted. We appreciate the lush colors of the blood and the art made with flesh, despite our better instincts. And that is present in full force in “Takiawase,” which offers us honeycombs made of dead people, death as a form of deliverance, and fishing with a ghost—horrible things, depicted beautifully. “Takiawase” also stands out for being the moment when the penny drops—not just in Hannibal’s callous coin-flip that decides Bella’s fate, but in Will’s head, when he realizes just what Hannibal has been doing with his victims.
And yet, it loses.
The Good Wife’s “Hitting The Fan” is such a taut hour of television that it makes “Takiawase” look dreamy and meandering. And though Hannibal is sometimes quite deliberately that, “Hitting The Fan” makes it look like a mistake. Because while “Takiawase” explores terrible beauty and gorgeous death, the first 15 minutes of “Hitting The Fan” are more suspenseful than anything “Takiawase” offers, and The Good Wife episode is literally about a business decision. Hannibal offers a compelling allegory of love, death, and the devil. The Good Wife offers the bitter, overflowing cup of reality—of thwarted efforts, missed connections, misunderstandings, and a terrible, empty sense of anticlimax. Not the episode itself—which is one of the most suspenseful episodes the show has ever done, considering it is usually a staid character drama that spends a lot of time in courtrooms—but the eventual emptiness it leaves in the characters, who are busy destroying their lives in socially acceptable forms. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies, in another role of a lifetime) can’t abide the idea of true intimacy with her sometime-lover, current boss—so she initiates a businesslike betrayal, conspiring to start her own firm and steal his clients in the process. As Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham would understand—hatred is still a kind of intimacy.
Where The Good Wife surpasses Hannibal, in this episode at least, is how it brings the drama of the characters front and center, without necessarily naming it. “Hitting The Fan” is not distracted by side characters or subplots—it is literally about one critical thing, start to finish, and it launches into its characters’ perspectives only to tell this story. “Takiawase” is beautiful, but struck me as scattered. Its powerful moments were undercut by characters without clear purpose. Perhaps, because The Good Wife (famously) has a much longer season than other prestige television shows, its showrunners Robert and Michelle King felt that they could take the time necessary to solely focus on this moment.
Indeed, that is the primary difference. Both episodes deal with memory, loss, and the show’s central relationship being rent and remade. Both episodes continue much longer stories, while introducing a knot in the grain that the rest of the season will have to work around. But where Hannibal takes us to the land of dreams, to wander with Abigail in fantasy and confront the man who pretends to be The Minnesota Shrike in memory, The Good Wife is a bracing pull of one crazy day—complete with overlapping cell phone calls, mixed messages, and a quickie in the bathroom. It’s hardly as beautiful. But its run-of-the-mill tragedy—suppressed tears in the elevator, casual betrayal before lunch, and a friendship ruined forever—hurts so much more.
Winner: The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan”
Disagree? Agree? Vote either way in our poll.
Tomorrow: Think our semifinal victors are done? Think again, as they head on to face your Readers’ Choice picks. First: Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” goes up against Community’s “Cooperative Polygraphy,” in the match judge Erik Adams dubbed “The A.V. Club Sophie’s Choice.” Check out the full bracket below.