The Strangling Fruit

There are many elements of “Aperitif” that resonate with me. Having watched and re-watched the pilot a half a dozen times (if not more), I’m always surprised at whatever new insight I’ve gained despite having viewed the same handful of scenes over and over. It’s a sentiment you’ll probably see me express over the course of this blog, the fact that multiple watches have not left me satisfied. There’s just always more to see. 

Certain aspects of the pilot, however, stand out more starkly than others, especially in light of further rewatches of the show in its entirety. Certain images, concepts, and metaphors happen again and again across episodes and across seasons, building and expanding in their varied contexts until they’ve blurred into something that is more readily identified with feeling than with logic. Observing the small beginnings of these big picture notions is gratifying. Because though it’s easy to read into a show that revels in ambiguity, metaphor, and contradiction, there are still those themes that ring throughout the series with an almost oppressive clarity. 

My blogging partner-in-crime, Katharine, will be exploring many of those in her pilot reflections, but the one that continues to catch my imagination almost six years later (and, good god, can you believe it’s been that long since the pilot first aired?) is the idea of becoming trapped or corrupted by a taste of Hannibal’s unconventional food. 

The idea of corruption as a result of consumption is one that permeates many well-known myths, folktales, and stories. Perhaps the most well-known is the tale of Eve and the apple. Eating the apple gave Eve, and then Adam, a great and terrible knowledge that corrupted their purity and resulted in their exile from the Garden of Eden. Eve fell for the Serpent’s trap, and paid a very steep price for it. It’s a narrative that I think very clearly has echoes in the clinking of cutlery at Hannibal’s table. Those that have eaten there, after all, have certainly sacrificed a part of themselves in the process of consuming, and later understanding, Hannibal’s feasts. 

There are also the many stories of the fae that insist if a human enters a fairy realm, one of the worst things they can do is eat any food presented to them, no matter how tempting. To eat the food is to become trapped forever in the land of the fae. To be more easily lulled into their dancing circles, to give up free will to become the playthings of a cleverer species. Willfully eating at Hannibal’s table runs a similar risk. What part of yourself do you lose when playing his games? Is escape from that reality ever truly attainable once the dance has begun?

And, of course, there is the classic myth of Hades and Persephone, perhaps the most immediately relevant to the show and the scene I will be talking about shortly. The myth of the Rape of Persephone very easily and thoroughly grabbed the interest of viewers, if the abundance of Hades/Persephone-inspired fanworks are anything to go by. In the story, Persephone was whisked away by the lord of the Underworld, Hades, to his domain underground. After much heartache and negotiation on behalf of Persephone’s mother, Demeter, Persephone was allowed to return to the surface. But before she left, Hades had her eat a few pomegranate seeds, which forced her to return to the underworld after a certain amount of time with her mother. Eating the food forever chained Persephone to Hades. Tricked into eating that which forever changes and compels you? That doesn’t seem familiar at all

What each of these three examples show is a preoccupation in our culture with idea of, “You are what you eat.” To eat from the fruit of knowledge (which in some versions is considered to not have been an apple, but a pomegranate) is to gain knowledge–for better or worse. To eat from the table of the fae is to become part of their land regardless of your desire to be so. And to consume a piece of the underworld is to always have it inside you, leashing you to its presence. We know that Hannibal as a figure often approaches cannibalism from this perspective. To eat Mischa was to keep her with him. To consume Will was to love Will, and to forgive him. While Hannibal often eats people because he feels they are below him, there are instances of him consuming others because he doesn’t want to lose them, an approach to eating we see explored in the above cultural stories and myths. 

So, where do we see this in the pilot? Where do we see the first seed of this particular tree being planted?

This is our first introduction to Hannibal Lecter. In the scene immediately preceding this moment, Will has just realized the man who took Elise Nichols is eating his victims. He says as much, “He’s, um…he’s eating them.” The scene then cuts to the black of Hannibal’s dining room, Bach playing in the background giving us our first musical cue for Hannibal, and then we focus—not on the pomegranate itself—but on its reflection. If our first musical cue for Hannibal is Bach’s Goldberg Variations, then our first visual cue is the reflection of the pomegranate, and then the pomegranate itself. 

There’s a lot going on in this brief introduction. I could have talked about the reflection or the music. About how a show so focused on masks and faces and eyes chooses instead to shroud Hannibal’s own gaze in shadow. But what is most interesting to me is that our first moment with Hannibal is marked by the pomegranate. As discussed above, pomegranates carry a lot of symbolic weight, and the use of this pomegranate was very intentional, according to Bryan Fuller.

Hades and Lucifer are both rulers of their own personal underworlds, and given Lucifer as the serpent was the one who tempted Eve with the forbidden fruit while Hades tricked Persephone with his seeds, the associations here resonate loud and clear. This singular, wordless scene thus sets the stage for all the ways this show further develops the idea of corruption through consumption, with all the heavy lifting accomplished through the use of a single image–an open pomegranate sitting at Hannibal’s table.

Further Reading

  • Ovid – Metamorphoses
  • Edith Hamilton – Mythology
  • Theresa Sanders – Approaching Eden
  • Michael Pollan – The Botany of Desire
  • Katherine Briggs – The Fairies in Tradition and Literature

Post title taken from Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation

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