For a lot of TV crime dramas, "case of the week" is a dirty phrase. It's seen as the episodic necessity that makes sure every new installment has a close-ended story for the casual viewers who don't tune in for every hour.
Increasingly, in this age of streaming options and DVR playback, the "case of the week" seems like an anachronism, tied to an era when even the most diehard fans of a program would miss a handful of episodes each season. Open-and-shut stories were a good way to ease these viewers back in after missing an hour, as well as a great way to entice the curious. Even a show like The X-Files, one of TV's earliest experiments in heavy serialization, was 90 percent standalone episodes.
All told, there are good reasons for shows to use cases of the week, and Hannibal's third season is illustrating why it can be so dangerous to go without them. I'm really enjoying season three so far (if not quite as much as the first two seasons just yet), but I'll definitely buy into the growing fan frustration over its slow start. The fifth episode, "Contorno," concludes with a necessary, explosive confrontation between Jack and Hannibal — but it sure feels like it took forever to get there.
So here are a handful of reasons Hannibal might seem a little less adrift if it brought back its cases of the week.
Episodic cases ground the show's nightmare logic
Think about your worst nightmares. Nine times out of 10, those nightmares start in a logical, familiar setting — a classroom or your bedroom or your office. And then something begins to go wrong. Maybe it's something small, but it immediately begins to spiral, and you're soon ripped from the comfortable world you know and dropped into a different one where nothing is as it seems.
Hannibal has always been built atop nightmare logic. It's a series where, say, Will can set out in search of Hannibal's ancestral home and, instead, encounter a woman who's keeping a man in a cage at the serial killer's behest. And then the woman can kill the caged man and Will can turn him into an elaborate tableau of a butterfly, and those are all things we accept as being possible within the show's universe.
But the show's nightmare logic is always, always, always tied, by the most tenuous of threads, to the emotional reality of its world. For the characters, the connection is in their bonds to each other (where Hannibal mostly remains on safe ground), but for the audience, it often stems from the show's roots as a crime procedural. The case-of-the-week stories have often been used to lull the audience into a sort of false sense of security that the show repeatedly shatters.
Granted, the cases of the week have grown less important to the show over time. In season two, they were often shunted to the extreme background. But they were always there, giving the series a very, very small link to something like our reality. Without them, it sometimes feels like Hannibal is very slowly drifting, zeppelin-like, through the sky.
The cases of the week provide a ready-made plot structure
By and large, the main story of "Contorno," with Jack and Pazzi trying to ensnare Hannibal in Florence, works just fine. So does the story of Alana and the Vergers tracking the doctor via his spending habits. Yes, it's slightly implausible that nobody in Florence seemed to be on the lookout for this internationally renowned serial killer, but it's the sort of implausibility you have accept with in a show like this.
Where the episode doesn't work nearly as well is in the scenes with Will and Chiyoh on the train, which mostly serve as a long series of expositional infodumps intended to fill in more of Chiyoh's background and explain that Will is afraid he will turn into a killer like Hannibal if he doesn't catch or kill his would-be mentor.
While that's all good information to have — particularly when it comes to Will — it also lacks bite. It's just two characters telling each other some things about themselves, ending with a sudden, abrupt scene where Chiyoh pushes Will off the train. (Though, okay, that was kind of cool.) As a result, it feels like Hannibal is moving slower than usual, as if this storyline doesn't have a real point.
And to a degree, it doesn't. The plots that work are successful because they involve the characters actually doing something to capture Hannibal. It's clear that Hannibal season three is trying to recast the hunt for Hannibal as an extended case of the week, contrasted with Hannibal's attempts to evade capture for the murders he's committed while in Italy.
But when you try to stretch a case of the week too far, it reveals its seams. That's definitely happening here, with the story seemingly stuck somewhere in the early second act, waiting for the climax. Maybe Jack fighting with Hannibal, then pushing him out a window, will prove to be the catalyst that pushes things forward.
The cases of the week also provide character momentum
What Hannibal has long understood — what all of the best case-of-the-week shows have long understood — is that the case of the week is just an excuse for a show to examine its character relationships in flux. The case isn't there to be solved; it's there to place pressures on various pairings and watch them twist and spin in the wind. On The X-Files, it didn't matter that Mulder and Scully were always going to see that monster slip through their fingers in the end. It mattered that trying to catch the monster would give them an excuse to argue about science versus pseudo-science for another week.
The same has traditionally been true of the cases on Hannibal. In season one, the cases charted the evolution of Will and Hannibal's relationship, even as Jack and Hannibal's relationship was crumbling. Being exposed to so much violence caused Will to fall apart, and Hannibal was there to sweep up the pieces (though he was helped along by some convenient encephalitis). Season two deepened these relationships, pushing them further and further.
The problem with season three, then, has been that the show's writers have forced the characters into new relationship permutations without really taking the time to establish the show's new characters. The stuff with Hannibal and Bedelia works, because we know Bedelia very well. The same goes for Alana hanging out with the Vergers. But it's hard to care about the state of Chiyoh's soul when we just met her two episodes ago. Ditto for Pazzi's death, which mostly seems to have happened on the show simply because it happened in the book.
Without cases of the week to bind these relationships together, the characters often feel as if they're unmoored from the rest of the story. But Jack and Hannibal's fight seems designed to start bringing things together, so here's hoping the next few episodes will start collapsing everyone back toward each other.
Fortunately, there's still plenty of time to turn things around
As mentioned, I'm enjoying this season of Hannibal much more than some fans, and I appreciate the show's attempts to experiment. I have every faith in the world that Hannibal will start to look a little more like the show we came to know and love in just a few weeks' time (and if you doubt me, all you need to do is look at the upcoming episode titles).
But this has definitely been one of the more trying periods in the show's run. Exploring who the characters are in the absence of the things that define them has certainly been interesting, but it has yet to be as satisfying as the show can be. We'll see if future episodes start to make this season make more sense.
A programming note
I'll be on vacation next week, so there will be no Hannibal write-up. In the meantime, enjoy our complete coverage of the show.