University of New Mexico, PhD student
Television's Response to Tragedy: A Case Study of Hannibal’s "Oeuf/Ceuf"
Fictional media rarely responds to tragedy quickly. On of the barriers to discussing reactions to trauma in media has to do with expediency. First, there is the fact that television and film often take time to produce a response that can be read as representing a certain trauma. Second, is the nature of scholarship itself. Let’s say a traumatic event happens in January, a television show addresses it in April, you write an article about it soon after seeing it, and it is the next Spring before it appears in print.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing on 15 April 2013, Bryan Fuller, the executive producer of the television show Hannibal, announced that he had decided to pull episode #4, “Oeuf” which was supposed to air on 25 April. He only pulled the episode in the U.S, and instead "cannibalized" it (his words) to create six web episodes that were available on http://www.nbc.com/hannibal/video/ceuf-part-1/n35825/. for several months (they are no longer available for viewing). Each episode was about three minutes long, and focused on Hannibal Lecter's interactions with Abigail Hobbs. The character of Will Graham doesn't appear much, due to the fact that his storyline was the offending one (children are brainwashed into killing their parents). While television and movies have responded to tragedies in the past, it is usually in the form of self-censorship: pulling problematic episodes to air a separate time, rather than altering the content itself.
In 1999, Buffy the Vampire Slayer chose to delay two episodes: "Earshot" which featured a student with a rifle in a bell tower, and "Graduation", which featured a high body count Sunnydale-style, in the wake of the Columbine shootings. In 2006, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, the Bones' episode "Player Under Pressure" was delayed over a year because the plot focused on a death on a college campus. In 2012, Haven delayed one of their last Season 3 episodes a month after the Newtown school shootings.
Each of these television shows stated in one form or another that they were delaying their episodes because it was not appropriate, or tasteful, to air them in light of the recent tragedy. So, why would Fuller choose to not air the episode in the US, but still release it online? Did he feel the story was so important that fans must see it in order to understand the 25 April episode? Was it a dedication to the storytelling? Or is it a combination of smart marketing research and lip service to the tragedy? I'm cynical, so I would argue the last. By releasing the cut episode online, and prefacing it with a personal intro by Bryan Fuller, I believe he was cashing in on fan interest (perhaps morbid interest) in an episode that was banned.
There is only one other example of media that can be read as an immediate creative response to a tragedy, and not self-censorship, the 3 October 2001 The West Wing episode “Issac and Ishmael”. The episode is prefaced by the cast directly addressing the audience as they describe the episode as not fitting into the timeline of the show. Both they, and creator/writer Aaron Sorkin refer to it as a “play”. The episode’s description reads:
In the episode, the White House is "crashed" due to a staff member having the same name as a known alias of a person on a terrorist watch list. The lockdown leaves a group of students selected for Presidential Classroom stuck in the mess hall with Josh while other staffers—and the President and First Lady—drop in to join the discussion about terrorism. Meanwhile, Leo and Ron Butterfield interrogate the staff member. The episode tackles issues of race, religion, and intolerance, with characters explaining to the students that Muslim terrorists are a small minority with an extreme interpretation of their religion and with the interrogated staff member angrily responding to Leo's racist comments by reminding him that it had been white supremacists who fired on the presidential party, not Islamic terrorists.
According to Sorkin, the episode was not his choice. He wanted to delay the season premiere for six months, but is quoted as saying that wasn’t an option the network gave him. He says that instead, he decided to write an episode “that somehow recreated the conversations that we were all having at our kitchen tables, at our offices, and in our schools” (Fahy 14). It was the first response from any television show although shows such as Rescue Me, Law and Order, and Third Watch went on to integrate the event into their plotlines.
Fuller’s response with Hannibal is similar, in that it is a creative response to a tragedy, and not simply an executive decision to pull or delay the airing of an episode. Fuller’s "cannibalized" episode reads as a complete story- and if viewed out of context, or without knowledge of the Boston Marathon bombing connection, there are no gaps in the narrative.
The episode is worth analysis both for the unique space it occupies because of it's timeliness, but also as a microcosm of the show itself. Hannibal is a reimagining of the characters from Thomas Harris’ book Red Dragon and focuses on the relationship between Will Graham, a profiler for the FBI, who suffers from psychological issues due to identifying with the killers he tracks, and Hannibal Lecter, who in this narrative is still a practicing psychiatrist and is not yet known to the world as the serial killer seen in Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is called in by Special Agent in Charge, Jack Crawford, played by Laurence Fishburne, in order to keep Will Graham sane enough to continue to track serial killers for the FBI.
The cutting of Will Graham's part in “Oeuf” offers a closer look at Hannibal. The webisodes are each roughly 3 minutes and change, with six of them, that's around twenty minutes, or half of a normal 42 minute hour drama minus commercials. This math is worth noting, because while the title of the show is Hannibal, at least the first few episodes ("Apéritif", "Amuse-Bouche", and"Potage") have focused strictly mainly on Will, and Hannibal has been a secondary character, although there are hints, that "Oeuf" definitely points to, that Lecter is growing in influence, which is proven with the rest of the episodes in season 1.
Fuller states, in an interview in Variety that he “phoned NBC and told the net that, “given the cultural climate right now in the U.S., I think we shouldn’t air the episode in its entirety.”
He goes on to say:
“I didn’t want to have anyone come to the show and have a negative experience,” ... “Whenever you [write] a story and look at the sensational aspects of storytelling, you think, ‘This is interesting metaphorically, and this is interesting as social commentary.’ With this episode, it wasn’t about the graphic imagery or violence. It was the associations that came with the subject matter that I felt would inhibit the enjoyment of the overall episode. … It was my own sensitivity.”
According to Variety, Fuller cited the Sandy Hook shooting in December and the Boston Marathon bombings as the root of this sensitivity issue (Marechal).
When the episode originally aired, misprints of the French “Oeuf” resulted in the episode being titled as “Ceuf” which added a layer of confusion about the episode. “Oeuf” in fact means “egg” and this understanding leads the viewer to wonder who is the egg that will soon mature or come into his/her own- is it Hannibal Lecter as a burgeoning serial killer, Will Graham as the man who stops him or Abigail Hobbs who is set up as a protege to Lecter?
The webisodes took the sections of the episode that focused on the interaction between Hannibal Lecter and Abigail Hobbs, while editing out all references to Will Graham and his current case. For the purposes of analysis, even though these scenes are interspersed in the complete episode, I will discuss them separately so that the two narratives are clear.
The two narratives, while intersecting in some scenes between Will and Hannibal, are clearly delineated between Hannibal’s interactions with Abigail Hobbs, whose father was a serial killer Will tracked, and killed in a previous episode, and Will’s current hunt, that involves children disappearing from their families, only to appear a year later to kill them.
Hannibal became known during it’s first season for its artistic presentation of murder. This aspect is enhanced by the fact that Will is shown as the killer in each episode as he imagines, and sees how the murders took place. The show is extremely graphic, and this episode is no different, as it begins with Will remembering shooting Abigail’s father, Garrett Jacob Hobbs , as Hobbs slits his wife throat. Will is shown covered in blood splatter, with his hands covered in blood as he tries to save Hobbs’ wife. The scene then jumps to a dining room where a family, father, mother, and two daughters are dead. Maggots are shown on food, and blood soaks the tablecloth. The scene is shown, after the murders, but through Will’s eyes, the audience watches the scene of the murders in reverse, and then played forward, with Will as the killer. The next time the audience sees Will, it is at the crime scene, and Will says that the scene and the murders are about “family values”, setting up the parallel between family and trauma that runs throughout the episode. Will comes to the conclusion that the son, Jesse, who went missing a year earlier, is somehow tied to the murders. The concept of these murders centered on family is reinforced with a later scene in the morgue, and when Jack Crawford comes to inform Will about another crime scene. Will and the FBI walk into a Christmas decorated scene, where again, an entire family is murdered, with a body burned in the fireplace. Back in the lab/morgue, Will and the agents discuss that the scene is the same M.O.
The next scene flashes to a diner, where a woman sits with three boys. Their dialogue references that they are “making a family” and the mother figure, played by Molly Shannon explains that the boys had to leave their own families behind in order for them to have this one. The next scene is Will, in his empty classroom at the FBI, where an agent ties three more murders to this group of boys. Will calls them “the lost boys”. While looking at the crime board, Jack Crawford asks, “What kind of kid does this?” The audience later sees one of the boys, Chris, the one who seems not completely under Shannon’s kidnapper mother control, return home and knock on the door which his mother answers- the son returned home. The next scene shows Shannon, and all three boys on one side of a patio, guns pointed at Chris’ family on the other side. The FBI tactical squad breaks in, shoots one of the boys, and Chris runs off which results in a showdown between Chris, Shannon’s kidnapper, and Will. Another FBI agent shoots Shannon’s kidnapper, and the stand off is resolved.
As Jack Crawford interviews Chris later in the car, the parallels between family and trauma are again underscored when Chris asks if he can go home and Crawford replies “You’re going to have to talk to a lot of people about it and those people will help you understand what you were trying to do”. If as Kaplan states “the reader or viewer of stories or films about traumatic situations may be constituted through vicarious or secondary trauma” (39), what are we to make of this episode which discusses family and trauma as though they are the same thing? Is the vicarious trauma the audience experiences viewing this episode through the lens of Sandy Hook and Boston? Or is it the concept of family as trauma? When Chris asks Crawford if he has any family, and Crawford tells him he doesn’t have any children Chris’ response is “Then you don’t understand”. Is Fuller arguing that vicarious experience of trauma is not the same thing as primary experience of trauma? That the audience, is just an audience, not a participant in the traumatic experience. The webisode edit argues a different story, implicating the audience as a participant in the trauma.
This binary of insider and outsider experience is foregrounded in the scenes that formed the webisodes between Hannibal and Abigail. The first scene is Abigail talking to Dr. Bloom, a psychiatrist called in to help her deal with the trauma, not only of her parents’ deaths, but also with the fact that her father was a serial killer who kills, gutted, and displayed young women who looked like her on antler racks. Dr. Bloom assures Abigail that she will get through this, and that she needs to “find someone to relate to”. This scene immediately cuts to Hannibal Lecter, the camera edit implying that Hannibal is who Abigail can relate to.
Whether Fuller edited this episode in relation to the Sandy Hook shootings, or the Boston Marathon bombings is inconsequential, the connecting theme is trauma, and Fuller’s edited webisodes focus on Abigail’s reaction to trauma. When Hannibal tells Dr. Bloom that Abigail “spending each day immersed in tragedy may be doing more harm than good”, he may as well be speaking to the audience, who as Kaplan argues may have blurred the lines between the news images of Sandy Hook and the Marathon bombing and the fictional images of the show (89). It’s a common reaction, in the wake of tragic events for people to feel as though they have to stay glued to their televisions and computers, relieving, and prolonging the trauma of the event. When Hannibal states that Abigail is in “no condition to tackle real world issues” Fuller seems to be offering the show, and this episode as a surrogate for processing the violent, real images the audience is also seeing on their television screens.
When Hannibal goes to visit Abigail in the psychiatric hospital, the focus is on how Abigail is haunted, by witnessing her father’s murder, and the knowledge of what he did. She tells Hannibal that she has bad dreams, and she wonders “how can I live with myself”. Kaplan argues “these works position the viewer as a “witness” to trauma in an elusive, disturbing, perhaps haunting way that nevertheless provokes in the viewer a need to take responsibility” (124). In this case, the audience, through Abigail, has become a witness to atrocity, and struggles with how responsible we are for the horrors we have witnessed. When Abigail asks if these events have made her a sociopath, Hannibal’s answer seems directed at the audience and Abigail, “No, it makes you a survivor”. If we’re to read Fuller’s edits of the webisodes as a mini-lesson on trauma, then Abigail is the stand in for the audience, and Hannibal is the guide offering advice for how she/we can deal with the trauma. As Hannibal cooks dinner for Abigail later, he stresses that when dealing with grief and trauma, “it’s important to know when to turn the page”. He tells her that he’s recreating the last dinner she had with her family in order to create positive associations, implying that relieving the traumatic event through a different lens is the key to overcoming it. This approach is not dissimilar to post 9/11 responses that argued to continue with everyday lives- go shopping, go to work, “so the terrorists don’t win”.
As Abigail watches Hannibal prepare the dinner, she flashbacks to the deaths of her parents. Hannibal justifies giving her a hallucinogen by stating that “Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. I want to give you your power back.” And later, “Let me be your guide”. Again, Hannibal is instructing the audience on how to deal with the trauma of recent events. The last scene with Hannibal and Abigail, and where the webisodes end, is a dinner scene with them, and Dr. Bloom that echoes the dinner crime scene Will observes in the unedited version. As they all sit down to dinner, Abigail sees Hannibal and Dr. Bloom morph into her parents and when Hannibal asks her what she sees, she replies “I see family”. To Abigail, the family is trauma.
Kaplan asserts that “If the story deals with traumatic situations that the viewer may have experienced either directly or indirectly, his or her response to the images may be more powerful than that of another viewer lacking such past associations” (90). Certainly we view this episode of Hannibal differently in light of the events of Sandy Hook and Boston. It is hard not to associate the bloody images on the screen in this episode with the real life images that the news covered. In the webisodes, there is little blood, or gore displayed, as the crime scenes associated with Will have been edited out, but the narrative has been restaged to focus on trauma. The end narrative of the webisodes is not satisfying though, because as Kaplan states, “that art that takes trauma for its topic but does not allow the spectator so easily to “survive” the protagonist's death or wound, refuses the safe closure that melodrama perhaps vainly seeks” (135). At the end of the webisode, there is no resolution. The audience knows that Hannibal Lecter will go on to become the monster we’re familiar with from Silence of the Lambs. In the world of the show, the audience can see Hannibal grooming Abigail to be a killer like himself, as there are repeated references to his paternal instincts towards her and the secrets they will share. While the character of Hannibal seems to be instructing the audience, through Abigail on how to deal with trauma, the audience is left unsettled, because the implication appears to be that dealing with trauma in Hannibal’s way has awful consequences.
In Hannibal, violence is the source of trauma for the characters. However, the key to surviving the trauma, according to the logic of the show, is in an almost sociopathic detachment from the violence. In Froula’s argument about zombies as allegory for 9/11 she states “this visceral portrayal of human violence establishes that to survive the apocalypse and triumph over terror means to kill swiftly and decisively (199). This holds true when applied to Hannibal, as the only character to not suffer from trauma is Hannibal himself, who kills “swiftly and decisively” and without remorse. This is in contrast to Will, who kills only when forced to, and always regrets is; and Abigail, who killed in self defense, and is haunted by the idea that this killing means she is truly her father’s daughter.
Both sets of narrative told in “Oeuf” focus on trauma; in the Will narrative, trauma is equated with family, and the Hannibal/Abigail narrative focuses on how to deal with trauma. Told together, the narrative instructs the audience on how to deal with the trauma associated with family. However, when the webisodes are taken on their own, without the specific connection to family as trauma, it reads more like instructions on how to cope with trauma. In light of the traumatic events that led to the episode being pulled, it is hard for the audience not to identify with Abigail, and her guilt of witnessing horrific events. The general public, viewing the horrific events of Sandy Hook and Boston, became witnesses to horror, and as in the wake of such public tragedies, it is hard not to feel complicit in these events.
There is little scholarship that addresses these traumatic events, or fictional responses to them, in real time. While the technology of Twitter and personal blogs allow scholars to comment on, and interact with, these events and responses, scholarly norms prevent in many ways a discussion about these events until a fair amount of time has passed. There is no way of knowing if the speed with which Fuller edited this episode in reaction to real events is the start of a new way for media to react to such events. Fuller edited and released the webisodes within two weeks of the Boston Marathon bombings. When The West Wing reacted within a month to 9/11, it was considered quick three weeks later. However, there is twelve years between the two, so only time will tell if Fuller’s model becomes the norm, or if media will continue to self-censor rather than creatively respond in real time to traumatic events.
Birkenstein, Jeff and Anna Froula, Karen Randall. Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror”. The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010. Print.
Fahy, Thomas. Considering Aaron Sorkin: Essays on the Politics, Poetics and Sleight of Hand in the Films and Television Series. McFarland & Company, Inc.,January 11, 2005. Print.
“Isaac and Ishmael”. Wikipedia. 4 August 2013. Web. 21 September 2013.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Trauma Culture: The Policitcs of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. Rutgers University Press, 2005. Print.
Marechal, AJ. “NBC Pulls ‘Hannibal’ Episode in Wake of Violent Tragedies”. Variety, 19 April 2013. Web. 21 September 2013.