Every week of its second season, series showrunner and developer Bryan Fuller will be talking with The A.V. Club about that week’s episode of Hannibal, in a more spread-out version of our Walkthrough feature. This week, we’re talking with him about the second season’s 12th episode, “Tome-wan.”
The A.V. Club: As a showrunner, how do you talk to Standards And Practices about a scene where a guy cuts off his own face and eats his own nose?
Bryan Fuller: [Laughs.] There was a heads-up that we called in, and Joanna Jameson, who is our executive that covers Hannibal, has been incredible for teaching us how we can get away with what we want to get away with, while still coloring within the lines of Standards And Practices. It started with an email to her about how we have this nasty bit of business where somebody’s going to cut off their face and continue to have a conversation about it in the process, and we want to make sure we are vivid and true to the source material, which all happened in a bit of a flashback, so I knew, creatively, that we were going to be doing something slightly different than how it was presented in the novel, because circumstances were slightly different. She basically advised us that darkness is our friend, and as much as we wanted to show could be shown as long as it was in silhouette. For me, I knew that I didn’t want to have Michael Pitt with half of his face hanging off for most of the scene, because then it kind of loses its value. So, it became the negotiation of why not have him doing most of this stuff in the shadow and then step forward into illumination where you can just see the staggering level of damage that he’s done to himself.
When we submitted it, I don’t think we got dinged on that scene. The scene that we got dinged on in that episode was when Will Graham cuts Hannibal’s throat in the fantasy sequence, when he’s thinking about what he wants to have happen from telling Mason Verger that Hannibal wants to kill him. We had one shot in there that went on too long, in terms of the wave of arterial spray that was coming out of Hannibal’s neck. That was the one we got bumped on in that episode, but not any of the face carving.
AVC: Now that we’ve seen Mason’s whole arc, what made this the right season for that story?
BF: Well, we knew very much from the source material that Hannibal and Mason Verger had a complex, challenging relationship as doctor and patient that, in the novel, resulted in Mason, essentially, seducing Hannibal to come over to his home, answering the door in full leather regalia to try to seduce Hannibal, and then Hannibal saying, “Nice outfit. Do you want some poppers?” Then the poppers were, of course, much more than amyl nitrate. We knew that we had to kind of clear the game board for the finale, so it was focused on Alana and Will and Hannibal and Jack Crawford and how their story all boils to a head. So we had to clear the debris of the Verger story by episode 12, and it felt like this was the time to do it and make it our penultimate episode. For me, this is one of our funniest episodes. [Laughs.] It was really about clearing the field for the final play between the major players.
AVC: Thematically, what links did you see between Mason and Margot’s relationship and Hannibal and Will’s?
BF: Well, it’s very much a relationship where two people are drawn to each other for various reasons. With Mason and Margot, it is family ties; with Hannibal and Will, it is a deeper understanding that no one else can provide either of those men in their lives. Each of them is trapped with the other who understands them implicitly and also wants them to be the only thing they have in their lives. Margot says to Hannibal and Will that Mason, essentially, conceived of events to trap her, so that he would be all that she has left in the world, and then we hear that sentiment echoed by Will to Hannibal later that, “You wanted to make sure you were the only thing I have in the world,” and Hannibal kind of retorts, “Well, as your doctor, I only want the best for you.” It’s kind of a humorous comment, because he’s like, “Well, of course I only want the best for you, so that means I am the only good thing in your life.” That’s how they parallel each other: Mason wants Margot completely dependent on him, and Hannibal, in his own way, wants Will completely dependent on him.
AVC: The end of the story flips it, where Margot is now caring for Mason, which is similar to the book. Is that as something you will go back to in future seasons?
BF: I would love for Mason and Margot to be a big part of season three.
AVC: There’s a healthy dose of surrealism in this episode, especially when Mason is on the drugs Hannibal gives him. How did you conceptualize those scenes?
BF: We knew from the book that Hannibal drugs Mason Verger, and then convinces him to cut off his face with very little effort after the drugging. Because of the nature of the show, being a psychological thriller, it was important to pull the reality out from underneath Mason, and one of the reasons that I find him to be so charming and likable, despite his atrocities, is that even in that vulnerable position where he has his power completely taken away from him, there is a sense of, “I am so curious where this is going to go.” He even says, “I am enchanted and terrified,” and I think that not many characters can have the capacity for both of those emotions simultaneously. And Mason Verger, who does have the capacity to be charmed and does have the capacity to be terrified, to have those things happening in the same moment while he is growing and learning about his own humanity and what Hannibal Lecter has in store for him, gave the scene a certain levity to it that I needed as an audience member in order to enjoy the mutilation. I really wanted to enjoy the mutilation. I wanted the audience to enjoy the mutilation on one front, because you have Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham standing over this guy who is eviscerating his face, and they are quite calm about the whole thing.
AVC: You use humor a lot that way in the show—when things push too far toward darkness or toward outright horror, you bring in humor to undercut that tension. Is that a useful way to deal with that?
BF: Absolutely. Because the show is so heightened and because it is psychological. There is so much about human psychology that is ridiculous and absurd and tethered to ego in ways that make decision-making incredibly flawed, so it’s to bring in a, not necessarily a humorous angle to it, but an honest interpretation of events that acknowledges fully how ridiculous they are. [Laughs.]
AVC: Bedelia returns in this episode. You said in one of our earlier interviews you had a part of this story you wanted her to play out. What was important to you about getting her back in to the last section of this season?
BF: We had set up this whole storyline with Bedelia that we were going to do in this episode, and it is only due to Gillian Anderson’s absolute dedication to the show, because she was doing Crisis and The Fall concurrently with this. We had no business getting her back at all, and the way it worked out is that she had one day between finishing Crisis before starting The Fall, so she literally wrapped production on Crisis Saturday morning at, like, 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., got on a 9 a.m. flight from Chicago to Toronto, landed in Toronto at 10, and was on stage, in front of the camera, by noon. And we had her for six hours before she had to catch her next plane, so she could arrive in Ireland to get her wardrobe fitting on Sunday before she started shooting The Fall on Monday. It was crazy that we got her, and it was only because she was like, “I love this character. I love working on this show. I’m treated very well on this show. I want to come back and continue to be Hannibal Lecter’s therapist, because it’s a ball.”
We had a much bigger story originally conceived where Will Graham was going to go into that case of her patient, who was Hannibal Lecter’s former patient, who attacked her and ended up dying mysteriously halfway through the attack, which saved her life. That was all going to be this very elaborate kind of Extremities-esque episode where Will Graham was going to be decriminalizing those events, essentially portraying the patient who attacked her and figuring it all out, that she, in fact, killed him. It wasn’t Hannibal Lecter. And the reason she had been keeping secrets all along and Hannibal painted her into this corner where she was complicit in his crimes to keep her silent was because she actually killed a person. It was going to be a much bigger story, and it became a game of Name That Tune in six notes, two notes. Can you name that tune in two scenes? It was originally going to be a full episode. We boiled it down to two scenes and were only able to get those two scenes because Gillian Anderson broke her back to give them to us.
AVC: There are many moments here where the music gets a little more melodic, with piano lines and so on. Were you hoping to indicate anything with those music choices?
BF: In these last couple of episodes, there’s a growing sense of the relationship between Hannibal and Will getting stronger and stronger and also indicating to the audience that they don’t know what Will is thinking. Even we as the storytellers can see how Will swings both ways: He can betray Jack; he can betray Hannibal; he can betray everybody and save himself. So we wanted to make sure that the audience had enough information on both sides of that argument in terms of which way Will would be turning in order to more clearly confuse them [Laughs.] and make it hard to say with certainty what Will’s agenda was. Because the music took on this much more emotional, simpler, melodic flavor, it did a lot of work in carrying the weight of that sentiment, as opposed to the traditional, kind of Brian Reitzell, very psychological, very tonal, percussive hitch to the scoring, this became slightly more traditional in wanting to deliver a clearer indication of what Will was going through.
AVC: In episode 11, you answered, “Here is something Will and Jack have been up to.” But then in this episode you once again raise the specter of Will perhaps turning to Hannibal’s side. Is there a concern in your head about how many times you can play that particular note?
BF: Well, I think what was specific about Will and his relationship with both Mason and Margot was it was one of those situations where we understand that Will has been trying to get Hannibal to commit some sort of actionable crime that he can then take to the FBI and say, unequivocally, “Hannibal is guilty, now arrest him.” And that was going to be Mason Verger, and then as Mason became more deplorable, Will became more aligned with Hannibal’s punishment of this guy, that he should get what’s coming to him, regardless of what is legal or illegal in terms of their entrapment. So it’s less a case about Will waffling again and more about Will saying, “Mason Verger is a bad guy who deserves bad things.”
AVC: So much of this episode is about setting that trap for Hannibal. Is there anything we should be looking at in this episode to prepare us for the finale?
BF: Oh God... I think the big thing to prepare yourself for is, you need to come to the finale as though you were attending a Gallagher concert. Wear your slickers because the blood is going to flow.
It’s fascinating to see the slow boil of the next episode, because all of these pieces are in place, and then we kind of start to ground some things in an interesting way. You might be asking yourself, “How the hell are they doing this?” and those questions get raised in a realistic way in the finale.
Come back next week for thoughts on the season finale.