Monday, August 03, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 35: "And the Woman Clothed with the Sun..."

In which he needs a family to escape what’s inside of him.

Hannibal: Abigail Hobbs is dead.
Abigail: Long Live Abigail Hobbs.”

“Click, click….boom.” (Hannibal)

It’s all been there since the beginning.  Much like the way in which Hannibal Lecter himself managed to hide in plain sight for so long, so too has what could be summed up as the real main thrust of Bryan Fuller’s reinvention of the Lecterverse sat dead center in the eye of the psychological hurricane that has engulfed the lives of the show’s characters.  Sat there as the nominative saving grace amidst the turmoil, the unwavering light in the darkness.  Hannibal’s radical, mature take on the fluidity of sexuality might evoke the frisson that drives Hannigram worshippers into a state of frenzy, but it’s rooted in something much deeper: the twisted sense of familial connection that has bound these star-crossed players together. 

Season 1’s “Amuse-Bouche” (you can read my thoughts on it here), established Fuller’s fascination with symbiosis of all levels (personal, societal, biological, metafictional) early on.  Its tale of Eldon Stammets and his mushroom and fungus inspired social experiments (ah, remember the days of killers of the week and routine comic relief) served as the breeding ground for those much larger matters of family, establishing the deep yet dysfunctional connections that cast Jack and Hannibal as Will’s dueling father figures, Alana as his concerned sister, and Abigail Hobbs as the surrogate child for Hannibal and him.  And throughout all of the grotesque murder tableaus, psychological mind games, multi-layered betrayals, and headlong dives into insanity, the yearning for familial bonds has remained of paramount concern for all of involved.  Indeed, the show’s central dramatic force, the relationship between Hannibal and Will, is at heart the story of two outsiders who can seemingly only find deeper solace in each other, in the family they form to replace the ones that were torn from them years before.

“And the Woman Clothed with the Sun…” brings these familial matters back to the forefront in a major way.  Trapped in the plastic comfort of his cell/observation room, Hannibal is rebuked three times by members of his family.  In their first meeting since his surrender, Will refuses to address him in anything less than formal terms, chastising him for his haughty taunts in a nice bit of meta-commentary on the Lecter archetype (“I expected more of you Dr. Lecter.  That routine is so old hat.”)  Alana, now financially set in her relationship with Margot Verger, defends surrogate brother Will by threatening her former lover with the indignity of removing his books; in the family structure metaphor, it’s almost as if the daughter has turned the tables on the abusive father, lording over him in the nursing home.  And Jack, the man who for so long served as Hannibal’s co-father figure, now only sees him as a tool with which to catch the Tooth Fairy.

All three times, Hannibal finds solace in his memory palace, and all three times with his surrogate daughter Abigail.  In flashbacks to the period between the end of Seasons 1 and 2, we finally see the mechanics of her complicity in his plot, as she assists him in faking her death, all in the name of her spiritual rebirth into the surrogate family which he planned on constructing with Will.  As with all of their previous scenes together, there’s an electric charge between Mads Mikkelsen and Kacey Rohl, a tenderness that also borders on the sexual.  She’s both his daughter and disciple; when she manipulates her artificial arterial spray, her eyes dance with glee in the aftermath.  When he advises her to “Never be ashamed of who you are, Abigail”, prodding her into slitting her father’s corpse’s embalming fluid-spewing neck, she’s terrified but also thrilled.  Of all the new additions to the Lecterverse canon that Fuller has created, Abigail might be the most resolutely intriguing.  For a character who essentially died at the end of Season1, she’s served as the ghost that has haunted both Hannibal and Will, as the totemic symbol of dark, complex human desire and frailty.  As Hannibal reminds Will in the opening scene, she’s the child the he gave to him, only for Will to betray him to Freddie Lounds (although Will’s motivations were still hazy at best in the events of “Mizumono.”)  It’s interesting to note the returning Freddie’s words to Will later in this episode, when she reminds him “We’re co-conspirators, Will.  I died for you and your cause.”  Will might blame Hannibal for Abigail’s ultimate fate (although he shoulders some of that himself), but both men enlisted a younger woman to fake their own death for the furtherance of their philosophy.

And this is why the emergence of Francis Dolarhyde into this world of fractured families provides such an interesting spin on things (and a possibly fitting endgame to the series as a whole.)  Thought it’s only hinted at in this episode, Francis’s history of emotional abandonment built the foundation for the psycho-physical transformation that he pursues so lustily.  Though he might not consciously realize it, his search for connection plays right into the desires of both Hannibal and Will.  It’s no mistake that Hannibal’s first direct contact with Francis comes at the end of the episode, immediately after his final flashback to his dead surrogate daughter.  The prospective Red Dragon is a fitting replacement figure for her, another damaged soul trying to come to terms with what they perceive as their natural state of being (Hannibal even refers to him as a “shy boy.”)  Like Abigail, he also resembles so many of Hannibal’s old borderline patients from earlier seasons, a raw nerve ripe for manipulation.  It’s a comforting proposition for a man who has steadily been stripped of his old support system.

But, of course, Hannibal isn’t the only side of the psychological equation seeking a return to his old ways.  Fully recruited back into the FBI’s cause, Will now suffers once again from the psychotic visions and night sweats that he once tried so hard to escape.  In the show’s surrogate family dynamic, he’s also beginning to see his new prey as a kindred soul to the young woman he couldn’t save from herself.  But he also holds a special affinity with Francis as a fellow traveler along the road to madness, a hyper-sensitive man plagued by visions seemingly beyond his control (as I detailed in last week’s essay.)  Which raises the question: how much will Hannibal view Francis as the new Abigail, and how much will he view him as a fitting replacement for Will?  After all, the last few interactions with his former friend/soulmate/lover have ended in something just south of acrimony.  And a caged Hannibal, one who despite his original motivations is beginning to see the limitations of his current state, will do anything to return to the luxury of a life that now only exists in that memory palace.

Yet the conflict that might drive him to recruit Francis Dolarhyde into the fold might also be one whose moral and ethical boundaries aren’t quite as clearly defined as they might seem.  In crafting the Red Dragon paintings that would inspire Francis (and this story), William Blake established an iconic dichotomy between the Satanic titular monster and the woman clothed with the sun, the mother of a child who would spread the word of God.  But he also intended his work to be a deeper commentary on the necessary duality of good and evil in forming the existence of the recognizable world.  Taken in this context, this episode offers up a series of one on one confrontations between characters who seem to be on the opposite ends of the moral spectrum, but who need each other for balance.  Thus Hannibal and his three visitors give each other meaning, even in this advanced state of relational decay.  Will and Freddie return to their antagonistic ways, but still rest in a mutually beneficial quid pro quo status.  And when Francis shares a piece of pie with blind film technician Reba, the murderer and the innocent find a connection that goes beyond their proscribed places in society.  Such moral and ethical ambiguity is perfectly in line with the show’s complex view of the world.  It’s also perfectly in line with the God’s eye view of the world that Hannibal holds, one in which the divine kills with the same power that he heals.  And just as that God can seem to be an absentee deity, so too does Hannibal seem to be disappeared from the world at large, even as he still holds power from deep within the recesses of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

To the leftovers we go:

*During his nightmare vision of himself lording over the dead body of Mrs. Leeds, Will gradually begins to see her as an oil painting, echoing the transfigurative power of the previous seasons’ murder tableaus (in which ordinary people achieved transcendence by being turned into works of art by their deaths.)  It also reminds us of the reversal of this motif that Francis enacts, a man who tries to appropriate a work of art into the living world by transforming himself into it.

*This episode marks the long-awaited return of Lara Jean Chorostecki as Freddie Lounds.  We’ve already been teased with the flaming wheelchair death that her original male version suffered in the previous incarnations of Red Dragon, so it’ll be interesting to see if she still meets the ultimate fate of her predecessors.

*When Hannibal notes to Will (during their shared vision of Francis’ murders) that blood does indeed appear to be black in the moonlight, it’s a nice visual callback to the rivers of black liquid that engulfed so many of the characters in some of the show’s more surreal nightmare sequences.

*Credit to Mads Mikkelsen for deftly portraying the subtleties of Hannibal’s evolution into a more malevolent character.  In particular, the barbs that he throws his old friends’ way are tinged with just enough humor, compared to his previously dry tone, that they seem like they should be followed by rim shots on the soundtrack.  When he chides Alana for coming “to wag her finger” (to which she naughtily replies “I love a good finger wagging”), the mild ribaldry of his response (“Yes you do”) forms the comic highlight of the episode.  Mikkelsen’s interpretation of the character will likely never enter into the realm of operatic villainy where Anthony Hopkins once tread, but this episode shows how a cool psychopath caged for this many years can start to be forced to find his entertainment in the smallest shots he can take.

*The Will/Francis montage that occurs as they view their respective copies of the Leeds family footage (Will’s on a tablet, Francis’ on 16mm film) reminded me of something that hasn’t been that obvious until now: how much of an analog show Hannibal is at heart.  Aside from cell phones, the presence of digital technology is assumed, and yet pushed into the background.  So much of the drama and plot progression stems from flesh and blood analysis and psychological tension, people interacting with people, and not machines.
*Two weeks into the Red Dragon story, I’ve been struck by the background windows of Francis’s workplace, and the prominent reverse image letters on them (which work part of the center’s Gateway title.)  Then I finally remembered one of the novel (and film’s) signature line, in which Francis tells Freddie that “You owe me awe!”  And there it is in the background: a warped version of the awe that he will soon demand.

Monday, July 27, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 34: "The Great Red Dragon"

In which it’s dark on the other side, and madness is waiting.

“One small event, which occurs in everyone, told the seed in his skull it was Time: Standing by the north window, examining some film, he noticed aging in his hands.  It was if thought his hands, holding the film, had suddenly appeared before him and he saw in the good north light that the skin had slackened over the bones and tendons and his hands were creased in diamonds as small as lizard scales…..Now in his forties, he was seized by a fantasy life with a brilliance and freshness and immediacy of childhood.  It took him a step beyond Alone.”
(Red Dragon/Thomas Harris)

It’s such a simple occurrence, this genesis of the Red Dragon into the life of Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage).  The two previously filmed version of the Tooth Fairy’s reign of terror have their disturbing charms, but they’ve both downplayed the power of this brief moment out of time.  The manner in which DP James Hawkinson opens “The Great Red Dragon”, with a tight close-up of Francis’s hands, their mildly aging crevices, like those aforementioned Harris-ian lizardly diamonds, bathed in stark Cobalt blue, offers a precise study of the utter banality from whence such monstrous impulses can spring.  So trained have we become to expect logical progression of trauma as motivator for psychosis (especially in the serial killer mythos of literature and film), that it’s easy to forget what a potent trigger something as innocuous as a magazine article can be.  Of course, we know from his previous incarnations that Francis Dolarhyde comes packed with decades of trauma and repression which act as the tinder for his fiery transformation.  But in the moment, in that moment, Harris (and now Bryan Fuller) paints a portrait of the twin universal impulses that are the recognition of age and the fantasy of regeneration.

Or maybe revelation would be the more operative word here, laden as it is with the Biblical overtones that first drove William Blake to commit his apocalyptic visions of that legendary Satanic beast to the canvas.  Like the mad prophets and shamans before him, Francis is merely a common man opening himself up as a vessel for the divine message that seemingly has been waiting for him his entire life.  Of course, Travis Bickle also opened himself up for a message.  But that sense of purpose, that drive to transcend a pedestrian life, is not merely the provenance of the deranged.  It’s at the heart of the American Dream, the ability to reinvent oneself at any time and from any strata.  The Dream that (as Frederick Chilton notes later on…more on him in a bit) Francis will commit himself so assiduously to shattering with his ritual annihilation of the family unit.

Reinvention and rebirth are key to much of what “The Great Red Dragon” offers up on its menu.  Having sacrificed himself at the altar of his twisted relationship with Will, Hannibal now resides, some three years later, in a designer cell inside Chilton’s Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  It’s a wry rethinking of Lecter’s iconic dungeon cell from the Silence of the Lambs cycle (after all, we’ve already covered that ground with Eddie Izzard’s Anthony Hopkins-channeling Abel Gideon) which recasts Hannibal as almost a zoo animal on display, today’s refined cannibal in his natural habitat.  On his Twitter account, Fuller notes that the inspiration for the cell is the sterile hotel room/apartment at the conclusion of 2001’s stargate sequence, another venue which symbolizes a profound sense of rebirth.  And after all, isn’t there just a bit of Stanley Kubrick in Hannibal Lecter’s extravagant, yet clinical worldview?

Not that such a worldview ensures lasting notoriety, at least in this version of the Lecterverse.  One of the great self-reflexive moments of this episode arrives during Hannibal and Chilton’s blood and chocolate suare, when the latter remarks on his new patient’s growing obsolescence:

“Like overused punctuation, the novelty of Hannibal Lecter has waned…The Tooth Fairy.  I find folks are a bit more interested in him.  He is the debutante.  Although he lacks your love of presentation…It is not as snappy as Hannibal the Cannibal, but he does have a much wider demographic than you do.  You, with your fancy allusions and your fussy aesthetics, you will always have niche appeal, but this fellow, there is something so universal about what he does.  Kills whole families—and in their homes.  Strikes at the very core of the American dream.  You might say he’s a four quadrant killer”

In a four quadrant-obsessed entertainment market, Hannibal was always going to be a challenging proposition, especially in the major network setting.  Creating a Hannibal Lecter (and a Will Graham) whose motivations and predilections are so diffuse and hazy offered little support for the prospects of mass acceptance.  But it’s the richness of that character complexity that lends such weight and power to a Red Dragon tale that is drawn so faithfully from its source material.  Indeed, it can be surprising for a longtime Lecterphile watching this episode to realize just how much of it they’ve seen before, so expertly has Bryan Fuller crafted the cinematic universe that forms the foundation for the narrative.

Witness Frederick Chilton himself, who in past versions of this tale claimed his spot as officious prick extraordinaire…and not much else, save for a future item on Hannibal’s plate.  Fuller’s expansion of the character (greatly aided by the arch smugness and dry wit that Raul Esparza brings to the role) gives him room to breathe, to stretch out and become a fully realized human being who the audience actually sympathizes with when he’s framed as the Chesapeake Ripper.  So when he gloats over his ownership of Hannibal during their meal, we laugh with more than condescension.  He’s already gone through his own physical transformation at the hands of the vengeful Miriam Lass (which requires himself to transform himself every morning for presentation to the straight world), so to see him metamorphosize in the context of the story into the redeemed author of the best-selling Hannibal Lecter tome, returned to the throne of his house of horrors….well, it’s a delight.  And he now works alongside Alana Bloom, whose gone through her own complex transformation process from quite possibly the show’s purest advocate for ethics and justice to a much more hardened observer of the human condition (Fuller also notes on Twitter how she’s gradually absorbed Hannibal’s penchant for designer suits.)

But metamorphosis and transformation come most prominently to Will, the character who’s dealt in such matters for most of the series’ run.  As Jack visits his home to bring him back into the fold to investigate the Tooth Fairy killings, he’s firmly ensconced in a world of bucolic domesticity that seems entirely in line with the dream visions of fly fishing into which he retreated during his extended stay at Baltimore State in Season 2.  But just beyond that sense of peace (what does Will do for money, anyway?), the dark world from which he’s retreated still exists.  As he tells his wife Molly after Jack calls the tune, “If I go, I’ll be different when I get back.”  She reassures him that she won’t, but in a way she’s ignoring the most glaring fact of the matter: Will may run from the darkness of his old life, but so much of that darkness resides within him.  He just needs someone, or something, to draw it out.

And in Francis Dolarhyde he finds it, unwittingly or not.  Both men fear the dark avatars of transformation/possession that stalk them (a dragon, a nightmare stag), yet both are also inherently drawn toward the possibility of embracing their primal instincts.  We see Will’s happiness with his married life, but we’ve also seen two and a half seasons before this in which he’s found such sustenance and meaning in the embrace of his twin outcast Hannibal.  The classic story of Will Graham: Tortured Profiler hunting the Tooth Fairy is compelling in its own right, but having witnessed Will’s fantasies of becoming the nightmare stag adds an entirely different and deeper heft to the proceedings.  And in a brilliant sequence in this episode, Francis gains another thread of connection with his profiler, as he’s portrayed being consumed by the 16mm film he watches before eventually merging with the projector itself.  What is Will, after all, but a similar projector of dead images from the past, who also projects himself into them.  Their shared sense of vision (remember Garret Jacob Hobbs’s “See? See?” that plagued Will) places them both outside of society.  Francis’s placement of mirrors in his victims’ orifices embeds him in their view.  And what does Will see when he gazes deep within the reflective abyss?  Himself.  James Hawkinson’s beautiful, haunting framing of him against the blood splatter analyst’s crimson threads (the image that opens this essay) cements him as brother in pain to the lowly film developer, the Red Dragon’s wings fitting him as well as his disturbed counterpart.

If Hannibal is indeed doomed to oblivion following this season, then the Red Dragon story serves as a fitting epitaph for much of the show’s obsessions.  For two and a half seasons, Hannibal and Will have debated the nature of God, his vengeful tendencies, his divine view from on high (one which Hannibal figuratively assumes, and once literally does), his theodicical existence.  Leave it to the Revelations via Blake-inspired Francis Dolarhyde to bring this debate to a nihilistic conclusion.  It’s interesting to note that after so many philosophical conversations between Will and Hannibal, it’s the virtually mute Francis (Armitage utters only a tortured yawp in this episode, no lines) who arrives to serve as the show’s possible final leveler of worlds, a silence that ushers in a void to match the darkest depths of Hannibal’s abyss.         

Monday, July 20, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 33: "Digestivo"

In which when it comes to you and me, there can be no decisive victory.

And so it ends.  Or begins.  Maybe this is the end of the beginning, the climax of the prequel to the life of Hannibal Lecter: Incarcerated Mastermind.  King of Chilton’s House of Horrors.  Maybe it’s the beginning of the end (literally in this case, considering NBC’s cancellation of Hannibal.)  Of course, Bryan Fuller’s view of time, chronology, and all things orbiting such states of measurement has always been as vastly fungible as his takes on identity and sexuality.  This series began drifting away from such concrete notions of linear judgment as soon as Will Graham investigated the murder scene at the Marlow house back in the pilot episode.  Even as the real life clock continues to tick away toward potential obsolescence for this incarnation of the Lecterverse, Hannibal itself refuses to yield to standard definitions of

Witness “Digestivo”’s much-discussed climactic scene, in which Will effectively severs his wildly complex relationship with Hannibal.  As Fuller noted on Twitter during the episode’s airing, the equations that we briefly see in Hannibal’s notebook represent his attempts to reverse time, a natural continuation of he and Will’s ongoing conversation about the shattering of a teacup and the realities/dreams of reconstructing it (a metaphor that has been extensively applied to the fractured psyche of everyone’s favorite FBI profiler.)  Will might be putting a button on this thing of theirs, but even his attempt at finality echoes his previous stabs at such.  Just as his near-death in the Lecter House Massacre of “Mizumono” painfully brought his story full circle, back to the initial trauma at Hobbs House, so too does he still seem trapped in this relationship cycle.

Hannibal’s ultimate decision to turn himself in to Jack Crawford and the FBI ensures this.  We know from the established Thomas Harris universe that the rise of Francis Dolarhyde and the Red Dragon will necessitate the deployment of Lecter’s deductive skills.  But all the previous versions of that story gave Lecter a clear, unambiguous motivator for his existence: rage.  The Will Graham of Manhunter and Red Dragon (and the source novel) was wily and insightful enough to finally capture Hannibal the Cannibal, but only by surviving his nemesis’s attempted murder gambit.  Held captive in his cell, the classic version of Lecter brooded and plotted away, trying to destroy the man who took his freedom. 

The version of this endgame that Fuller presents in “Digestivo” is a different beast indeed…and entirely in keeping with the tone of the show, and of the Will/Hannibal relationship.  Gone is the life-changing standoff between these two men; that happened at the end of last season, a lovers’ separation bathed in blood, yet lacking in the finality of Hannibal’s imprisonment.  With Will left to wander the underworld in search of his oppressor/obsession, the path to revenge seemed to be fairly clear.  But even that was obscured in the events of “Dolce”, when hesitation and negotiation took over their museum confrontation.  The two men who strode out into the courtyard were more deeply bonded soulmates obligated once again to play pre-assigned roles than bitter adversaries.  Not that that stopped Hannibal from attempting to eat Will’s brain after he nursed him back to life from Chiyoh’s assassin’s bullet.  After all, in the empathy-stunted ethical landscape of his mind, the calculus of survival rules all.  And even his soulmate stood in the way of his freedom.

Which, when Hannibal surrenders to Jack, makes his real endgame all the more powerful. And devious.  And touching.  (You wouldn’t expect anything less complex in this show, now would you?)  His final words as a free man (“I want you to know exactly where I am, and where you can always find me.”) are a clear refutation of Will’s stated desire to never see him again, the spurned friend/lover/confidante striking back in a nod to the classic literary Lecter’s vengeance.  But he’s also realized that his only real fulfillment comes with Will’s participation in his life.  And in a purely Machiavellian way, chess master Hannibal also has to realize that this lateral move temporarily grants him more power in captivity.  Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins played the caged Hannibal as a sly and powerful man deprived of any meaning in his life.  Mads Mikkelsen has spent two and a half seasons establishing his version of the character as always being several steps ahead of everyone else, always deftly playing the long game, always testing the dialectical results of his sociological experiments.  Confinement for this Hannibal can’t be the crushing blow that it was for his predecessors, right?

Maybe it’s because he dealt confinement of all sorts to others with such great aplomb.  Hence the end of Mason Verger, the paralyzed plutocrat trapped in the prison of his own body.  Mason has always been an acid commentary on the gaudy, perverse excesses of the social elite.  Looking back now, his repositioning in the pre-Red Dragon storyline (he’s post-Silence of the Lambs in the books) makes him the final extension of a long series of stabs at the wealthy and privileged.  After all, much is made in the first two seasons of how seamlessly Hannibal navigates the world of the rich.  Think back to the opera scene and subsequent dinner party in Season 1’s “Sorbet”, in which the privileged patrons and associates fawn over his charms, only to be fed harvested organs at the episode’s conclusion.  Hannibal’s rarified tastes might play well in the dens of the Baltimore brahmins, but his enduring connections come with the mostly middle-class (at least in demeanor, if not entirely income) characters surrounding the FBI.  With the upper class portrayed as self-absorbed and foolish (think also of the vainglorious Frederick Chilton), it seems only natural to have Mason serve as their ultimate avatar, a grotesque parody of the power of money.

So when, in a truly horrifying moment, Margot realizes that the child he’s promised her as payback for her loyalty has been stillborn inside the womb of a giant pig, it all makes sense in the twisted logic of a man who’s lived a life of unbridled power and privilege.  I’ve noted this before, but in his limited run on the show Mason has been one of the few characters to make Hannibal smile and laugh.  This surely is somewhat based in condescension, but there might also be a bit of knowing recognition in his reactions.  For if Hannibal is an empathy-bereft, childlike predator, then Mason’s total lack of moral and ethical grounding must serve as some sort of funhouse mirror reflection.  There, but for the grace of God, goes Hannibal?

From a purely entertainment-based perspective, it’s sad to see Mason meet his demise.  As portrayed by both Michael Pitt and Joe Anderson, he was one of the show’s great levelers, his riches allowing him to cut the Gordian knot in ways both decisive and terrifying.  And just as Hannibal’s personality infected the show in meta-stylistic fashion, so too did Mason’s perverse desires serve as a competing virus.  “Digestivo” must have set an unofficial record for most primetime references to dining on penises, and Mason’s death by drowning/asphyxiation via eel (Chekhov’s eel?) is a stomach churning moment and a metaphorical feminist deathblow enabled by two women who’ve been traumatized by men.  Now the real question is what happened to his harvested sperm, especially with the time constraints of this episode’s rapid plot movement?  But maybe that’s a question best left for later.  For now, the Red Dragon awaits.