A Tale of Two Chairs

Or, Why Did My Paper Get a B?

It seems fairly common these days to find an explanation of what letter grades mean on course syllabi, and in my experience the difference between B work and A work is… unclear. It’s clear to the professor, of course (sometimes in that ‘I know an A paper when I see one’ kind of way), but the way it’s typically worded – “a B paper does everything well” vs. “an A paper exceeds expectations” – I mean, what the hell is that supposed to mean? And it’s difficult to explain, especially to irate students, until now.

Let’s say I have two students: we’ll call them Sherlock and Hannibal.* They come from similar backgrounds (literary adaptation, showrunners of comparable age, English-language), although Sherlock is a bit British public school while Hannibal seems to have had a more mixed upbringing in the US, Canada, and Italy.

I give these students a semester-long assignment: tell me the story of a psychologically damaged man with a bit of a dark side, who’s been through hell and has trouble sleeping,

and what happens when he’s introduced through a mutual acquaintance to a singularly, and disturbingly, perceptive man.

Throughout the term, students turn in assignments that reveal a slowly unfolding friendship (or “friendship”) between the two men, and they use these assignments to bolster the emotional effects of the two men becoming estranged from one another entirely as a result of the bone-headed manipulations of the more flamboyantly-named man.

For the final project in the class, students are asked to foreground the absence of the one man in the other’s life, making sure that – however they choose to do this – they include an empty chair.

Now, student 1 – Sherlock – is a really smart kid and I like it a lot. It’s intimately familiar with history,

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has a certain flair for the stylish, and it makes use of its actors in such a way that the characters’ growing emotional closeness is communicated throughout.

It also establishes its evidence for the empty chair assignment consistently, with John claiming his seat early on

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Sherlock “A Study in Pink” (2010)

and Sherlock sitting opposite him through to their estrangement by marriage.

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Sherlock “A Study in Pink” (2010)

And, in particular, it does two things that constitute especially good evidence going forward to the final project.

The first is a musical theme that’s essentially shorthand for John’s loneliness (and later, John himself), played in the opening scenes of John waking from his nightmare and repeated at moments of particular emotional distress. The other is a kind of taste of what’s to come that takes place immediately after Sherlock’s bone-headed fall from St. Bart’s:

The combination of these two things – an empty chair where Sherlock had sat and John’s theme – sets the stage for the final project to the extent that, when it comes, it comes imbued with a certain degree of melancholic gravitas that borrows a bit of emotional heft from the seemingly more permanent feelings of despair John exudes in his empty chair scene.

Which is to say, Sherlock has done everything well. It’s supported its claim to emotional upheaval through strong evidence, it’s layered on meaning through music to augment the visuals – this is really good work.

In contrast, Hannibal is a bit of a smart-ass – the film geek who’s a bit too much in love with its knowledge of film and formal composition,

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Hannibal “Sorbet” (2013)

to the extent that you kind of worry, at first, that all its work is going to be tiresome variations on a Kubrickian theme – and you don’t even like Kubrick much.

And at first, it seems like your fears are being realized. Hannibal, like Sherlock, establishes the seating arrangements between Will and Hannibal early on, and from there it keeps to them almost religiously.

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Hannibal “Buffet Froid” (2013)
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Hannibal “Oeuf” (2013)
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Hannibal “Releves” (2013)
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Hannibal “Savoureux” (2013)

To the extent that you worry – you really do – because this is bordering on form for form’s sake, and you’re wondering if Hannibal is going to be able to imbue anything with real emotional weight when the time comes.

As you expect, when the final project comes in, it plays on this established seating arrangement in the same way Sherlock did.

And, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to do anything particularly different or noteworthy – it also does everything well. But on closer examination, a couple of very subtle things become clear – things that reward an attentive viewer.

One is that, rather than using a now-familiar musical refrain to invoke memories of the estranged man, Hannibal relies on the viewer to remember that Will’s standing appointment with Hannibal is at 7:30 pm – so that when we first see the clock reading 7:35, we know (if we’ve been paying attention) what – or who – is on Hannibal’s mind.

The second, and the thing for which I’d give this one an A, is the scene’s frame composition. In the above frames – and, indeed, throughout the first season – symmetry is the name of the game. Will and Hannibal are always equally balanced in the frame, which is always divided neatly down the middle by either the support beam behind Hannibal’s desk or the wall between his windows.

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But here…

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Hannibal “Kaiseki” (2014)

everything is just a little bit off.

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The frame is canted in the direction of Will’s chair and the support beam is off-center, the cumulative effect of which is to reveal just how much Hannibal’s world is (literally) off-kilter in the wake of Will’s absence.

So that, where both Sherlock and Hannibal establish the chair relationship enough prior to these scenes to allow them each to demonstrate effectively how much one character misses the other through cuts from that character to the empty chair, only Hannibal reinforces this by changing up something that has been strictly consistent throughout – the visual equivalent of showing in addition to telling.

In the process, Hannibal demonstrates, to my teacherly relief, that maybe all of that style it’s been flashing around isn’t just style, but instead serves specific substantive ends – a confident move that, for being successful (and it’s a gamble) I’m inclined to reward.

Both of these students do what they do well – they’re both better than average and both of them stand out in a class. But Hannibal gets the A for going just a bit further and doing something unexpected – for “exceeding expectations.”


*I like Sherlock. A lot. I like Hannibal a lot. This is nothing more than a visual exercise and is in no way intended to say that one show is better than the other. To my mind, while their similarities are really compelling, each one is doing something rather different, and so extensive comparisons would, I think, be pointless. And there are A scenes in Sherlock – I just really like how well these two contrast and what their differences say.