The Disturbing Scene That Succession And Hannibal Have In Common

Since antiheroes and morally corrupt protagonists reign supreme on TV, we're all getting pretty desensitized to the horrors of humanity. At least, until a character casually does something so depraved that it brings us crashing back to Earth.

Multiple TV series have taken it upon themselves to remind us just how bleak the world can get by spotlighting a french delicacy known as the ortolan. If you aren't familiar with ortolans, then my apologies for what you're about to learn. These European songbirds are best known for being a coveted delicacy with a controversial history. The procedure for prepping the dish includes blinding the tiny birds, gouging them on grains, plucking their feathers, and throwing them into a vat of Armagnac brandy, all while they're still alive. After the brandy drowns and marinates the ortolan, the bird is roasted and served. The dish is so bleak that diners typically eat it whole, while hiding their faces under a napkin.

Too dark? If it makes you feel any better, ortolan hunting is now illegal in France. Not that it really helps, since a thriving black market assures that the macabre dish is still served to this day. Contrary to what we'd all like to believe, the horror of its creation has not stopped the ortolan from being served. In fact, that horror is exactly why the dish has gotten more visibility in recent years. The concept of someone drowning and eating a songbird is so overwhelmingly damning that it's become the perfect metaphor to serve an audience when they're dealing with a collection of morally reprehensible characters. 

And there are two particular shows that have fully embraced damnation and the ortolan both: "Succession" and "Hannibal."

TV's ortolan obsession

Ah yes, NBC's procedural about a cannibal serial killer and HBO's drama about power-obsessed one percenters. Indeed, both of these are shows where men should sit in dark rooms, shrouding their faces from God and swallowing down the gruesome nature of the heinous acts they've committed. So it's only fitting that we see them do it in a very literal sense. But what's even more fitting is the way that each show approaches the act: "Succession" with satirical bite, and "Hannibal" with erotic reverence.

On both occasions, ortolan is revealed to be a wonderful date night dish for couples who have unconventional bonds and a tendency to commit crimes together (aka couples who don't realize that they're in a relationship). If you're familiar with either series, then you can probably guess which duos I'm referring to: Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will (Hugh Dancy) and their "Succession" counterparts, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun). In some ways, these two sets of characters couldn't be more different. But it's no mistake that they share this very memorable meal in common.

Dinner with a cannibal

Unsurprisingly, Hannibal is the one to introduce the ortolan to Will. Dishes cooked by the renowned psychiatrist and foodie are often lavish and succulent, but slightly off-putting since we know how he sources his meat. The episode "Kō No Mono" marks a rare occasion where Hannibal serves a bird in place of a human, but even this has its own horrifying twist.

"Among gourmands, ortolan bunting is considered a rare but debauched delicacy," Hannibal introduces. "A rite of passage, if you will." He explains the preparation — the drowning, roasting, and consumption — and even mentions the tradition of eating the bird beneath the shroud. But has no intention of doing so himself. "I don't hide from God," he tells Will.

After that, the way that Will and Hannibal consume the ortolan is borderline pornographic. Of course they skip the bit where you hide beneath the sheet, because otherwise how could Hannibal intensely observe Will's ecstasy as sinks his teeth into the tender songbird? For them, the dish becomes a shortcut for communicating how their relationship has evolved. Watching Will eat the bird, Hannibal is basking in the joy of having corrupted him. He's also confirming that the corruption is true. After all, eating the songbird is so damning that people typically choose to hide their shame. But for these two, committing this horrible act in the presence of the other doesn't require a shroud: instead, they just stare meaningfully into each other's eyes.

Would you like some sexual subtext with that?

The intensity of their ortolan scene wasn't lost on series creator Bryan Fuller, who thought of it as their own personal communion wafer, marking their union and showcasing the depths of their relationship. In 2014, he told The AVClub:

"The scene has a very bizarre sexuality to it, because it's all of these close-up shots of things going in men's mouths and then swallowing and eye-rolling, so it's hard not to think of the sexual subtext of what's happening between these two guys at the same time. It felt like a lot was going on in the scene, not only just the communion but the exchange of body fluids, in a way, and swallowing for God's sake. [Laughs.] So we can't claim innocence on that scene."

It's almost difficult to watch: the intensity of their connection during this moment begs for privacy. Plus, "Hannibal" never shies away from letting us see the cooked creature up close, and never lets us forget all that it represents. As Hannibal puts it, the songbird is "a stimulating reminder of our power over life and death."

Tom and Greg's first date

And then there's the way that "Succession" tackles ortolan consumption — with Tom and Greg, two outsiders playing at wealth and privilege. Speaking of rites of passage, that's exactly what Tom is trying to do for Greg. They come to eat the bird in the season 1 episode "Which Side Are You On?" when Tom promises to bring his protegé to "one of the most exclusive pop-ups in the city" as a way to welcome him into the elite club of the one percent. But regardless of what's in his bank account or the woman he's set to marry, Tom is not a member of that club, not really. Ironically, Greg has a better claim than him (as an actual member of the Roy family), but let's be real: neither of them fit in with people who were born and bred in wealth.

For Tom and Greg, eating the ortolan is a reminder of what absolute frauds they are in this world. But it's rather touching that they get to share this moment, where neither of them belongs despite desperately trying to keep up.

"Look, here's the thing about being rich: it's f****** great," Tom says, so earnestly you can't possibly forget that he's an interloper. "It's like being a superhero, only better: You get to do what you want, the authorities can't really touch you, you get to wear a costume, but it's designed by Armani, and it doesn't make you look like a prick." In fact, the only thing more embarrassing than this ridiculous speech from Tom (who later puts a towel over his head and does in fact look like a prick) is Greg's wide-eyed stare as he eats up every word that his boss says.

Rite of passage

Greg's rite of passage is nothing like Will's. There's no reverence or candlelit atmosphere. He doesn't even get the benefit of an insightful speech to introduce the ortolan. Tom, who barely knows what he's talking about, simply says, "It is a deep-fried songbird. You eat it whole." Then he adds the only detail that he ever really cared about and tells Greg that eating the ortolan is "a rare privilege and it's also kind of illegal."

Ah, what a wonderful summation of Tom and Greg's existence. They'll jump at any opportunity to boast about a privilege, even if it has the potential to land them in prison. At this point in their relationship, they just covered up a series of horrific abuses on board the family's cruise line — a thankless job that could quite possibly lead to their arrest. But if that's the price they have to pay to join the Roys, why the hell not?

It makes sense then that they opt to engage with the napkin shroud. Where Hannibal and Will wanted to see each other laid bare, searching one another for truth, these two have more to hide. From the world and from each other. "Some say it's to mask the shame; others, to heighten the pleasure," Tom says, re: napkin shrouds. He emphasizes the last part but body language and tone tell us everything we need to know. If we could see beneath the napkins, we'd see the horror on both their faces as they eat the songbirds, feeling neither ecstasy nor euphoria, but faking it to different degrees of success. Greg's review of the dish? "If I eat any more songbirds, I think I'm gonna hurl."

'We have a bond.'

"Hannibal" gives the horrific dish a warm glow. Even though they are shrouded by darkness, when Will crunches down it's slow and meaningful. When Greg does it, it's mortifying. What "Hannibal" drapes in reverence, "Succession" portrays this as utterly embarrassing. Those differences aside, both of these shows make eating the ortolan ritualistic. Will and Greg are being taken under someone's wing (no pun intended) and welcomed into a life of exclusivity. And Tom and Hannibal are just pleased to have someone else in their inner circle. Serving this dish is how they reach out for a connection and prove that they're really met their match.

"We have a bond," Tom tells Greg after they've crunched down the bird. "I was an outsider once." Subtextually, that's exactly what Hannibal is saying to Will. I understand you. We belong together. Even though one of these series has already met its complicated ending, I still can't tell which of these relationships is more doomed. Because they're both right — they have so much in common. All logic begs for Greg and Will to get some distance from their manipulative corruptors, but out of morbid curiosity and a desire to keep the relationship strong, they still eat the poor ortolan.

The moral of the story? If your significant other tries to get you to eat a drowned songbird with them, then you might be in a toxic relationship.