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 … until now.

Let’s say I have two ‘students’ in the guise of TV shows: Sherlock and Hannibal. They have a lot in common: ‘prestige’ TV that uses cinematic aesthetics and complex storytelling, featuring a complicated male friendship (or ‘friendship’, in the case of Hannibal), and both feature men who have suffered a trauma of some sort 

Sherlock, "A Study in Pink" (2010)
Hannibal "Apéritif" (2013)

(“John” and “Will,” respectively) who are introduced by a mutual acquaintance to a disturbingly – and intriguingly – perceptive man.

Sherlock, “A Study in Pink” (2010)

Hannibal, “Apéritif” (2013)

Throughout the term, these two students submit assignments that reveal that slowly unfolding friendship between the two men, using each to bolster the emotional effect of the two pairs becoming estranged as a result of the bone-headed manipulations of the titular characters.

Sherlock, "The Reichenbach Fall" (2013)
Hannibal, "Savoureux" (2013)

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

Now, Sherlock 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 the series. It also establishes its evidence for the empty chair assignment consistently, with John claiming his seat in Sherlock’s flat early in the series and Sherlock sitting opposite him through to their estrangement by marriage.

Sherlock, "A Study in Pink" (2010)

In particular, Sherlock does two things that make for especially good evidence going forward to the final project:

The first is a musical motif that’s been used throughout the series as a kind of shorthand for John’s character and, specifically, his loneliness. It’s played from the first episode, when he wakes from his war-flashback nightmare, and again after Sherlock falls from the top of St. Bart’s Hospital and John thinks he’s dead:

Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall” (2012)

Sherlock‘s consistent use of these two things – John’s and Sherlock’s respective chairs, and John’s loneliness musical motif – effectively sets the stage for the final project; to the extent that, when it comes, it’s imbued with a certain degree of melancholic gravitas that really foregrounds well Sherlock’s feelings losing John to marriage.

Sherlock, “The Sign of Three” (2014)

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. It’s also pretty much what I expected Sherlock to do. What it’s done, it’s done well. It’s fine.

Hannibal, too, has spent many, many episodes establishing who sits in which chair – almost to the point of excess. 


Hannibal, "Oeuf" (2013)
Hannibal, "Buffet Froid" (2013)
Hannibal, "Releves" (2013)
Hannibal, "Savoureux" (2013)

we get it already. If anything, it seems like overkill, and I wonder if the final project, when it comes, will be as emotionally resonant as that of Sherlock when the time comes. And, indeed, the final project does play on Will and Hannibal’s established seating arrangement much as we see in Sherlock:

Hannibal, “Kaiseki” (2014)

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. In other words, the chair is there, but it’s not our only – or even first – clue that Hannibal is thinking about Will, who he happens to have framed for his own murders, like you do.

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.


But here…


everything is just a little bit off.


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. Moreover, it adds something to our understanding of Hannibal that Sherlock doesn’t: in Sherlock, we know he’s going to miss John, Sherlock knows he’s going to miss John, and so his sad reaction is entirely expected – emotionally resonant, but expected. 

In contrast, not only are we never entirely sure how Hannibal feels about Will at any given moment (we know he’s obsessed with him, but that takes a lot of different shapes), but Hannibal himself is also wonderfully obtuse about his own feelings. Hannibal here looks bored; at most, he seems to be rethinking his bright idea to frame Will. But the canted frame shows us what Hannibal himself won’t acknowledge – that his entire world has been thrown off. That’s rich stuff.

In the end, then, while both students/shows complete the assignment well and effectively, Hannibal tries a little harder and takes more chances – it goes a bit further and demonstrates just how much thought it’s been giving the assignment, 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.”

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