Thursday, November 19, 2015

With Voyeuristic Intention, Well Secluded, I See All: The Head Games of EXPERIMENTER

In the wake of last weekend’s terrorist attacks in Paris, I was mulling over the events with a friend when they mentioned the by now ubiquitous Facebook feature which allows users to apply a flag filter to their profile picture. The feature first came to prominence earlier this year when, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality decision, users were given the option to superimpose the gay pride flag over said pictures. Less than 24 hours after the Paris attacks, both my friend and I saw our feeds become inundated with displays of Francophile solidarity via the new French flag filter, and while both of us are fairly agnostic when it comes to such a practice, we’ve also never felt the need to participate. But just as we reiterated these feelings, my friend decided to drape their profile picture in the now standard blue, white, and red. They still didn’t really believe in the practice, but since almost all of their friends were doing it…

It was a perfect segue into that night’s screening of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, a wry and incisive examination of the life of controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Experimenter is a film that most of you probably won’t see during its theatrical run. It belongs to that increasingly endangered species of the low to mid-range indie film that doesn’t traffic in nostalgia or the sentimental narrative. So its commercial chances outside of major cities are likely to be limited. And that’s a shame, because it’s quite possibly one of the finest American features of the year, and a work of art with a strong sense of relevance.

Experimenter belongs, of course, to that hoariest of filmic genres: the biopic. Even the great films in this field tend to suffer from the same rote expositional pattern: the formative experiences that help to shape the protagonist, the rise to glory, the inevitable conflict and fall from grace, the moment of redemption or arrival at manageable stasis. That redemptive moment has been especially key in the modern biopic, which seems to strive for the catharsis that comes with the sentimental narrative. The death of the commercially viable low budget indie certainly hasn’t helped; throw any substantial money or star power behind a biopic and the prospects of a challenging narrative or dark conclusion become a gamble that most studios shy away from.

It’s these popular strictures that make what the artistically peripatetic Almereyda does with the form so interesting. Take the casting of Peter Sarsgaard as the prickly Milgram. Though he’s dabbled in mainstream fare like Jarhead and Flightplan, Sarsgaard’s career path has wound mainly through less commercial films and theater work. There’s a certain flatness of affect that pervades much of his acting that can be off-putting at first. It’s what made him so good as the skeptical sourpuss editor in Shatttered Glass and as the war-ravaged Troy in Jarhead, but it also denies the audience the standard frisson that a classic leading man brings to most biopics, the Seduce and Destroy method as Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey might put it (fellow theater vet Edward Norton also fits into this category.) In Experimenter, that flatness gives him a dark, wickedly compelling charisma, his permanent slouch lending him the air of an observant vulture, his prominent brow and penetrating eyes creating an almost hypnotic effect as he breaks the fourth wall throughout the film. He and Almereyda aren’t really concerned with making Milgram that likeable (at least in a modern sense…more on that later), but the sum total of the patter he shares with the audience is deeply seductive. You’re being let in on his secrets, and from the safety of your cushioned seat you can agree that of course not, you’d never be as easily influenced as the subjects of his experiments.

But subject you are, like it or not, because of the shrewd manner in which Almereyda further subverts the formal aspects of the genre. Once an elephant appears behind Milgram as he lays out his methods to the audience, you know that this isn’t a narrative overly concerned with straight definitions of reality. Almereyda has said that he aimed to give the impression of a film that Milgram might make about his own life, an approach borne out by the stylistic devices employed as the story progresses. One of the most formally daring gambits occurs when Milgram and his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder, in a compelling, subdued turn) visit his mentor Solomon Asch (Ned Eisenberg). The initial shot of their car ride to his home, with black and white rear projection of the background, seems to be a sly nod to the film language of yore (much as Quentin Tarantino did so in the Butch/Esmerelda cab ride in Pulp Fiction.) But the rest of the scene plays out in the same manner, with the bulk of the Asch home presented in similarly flat black and white projected relief. This Brechtian method is applied in several other scenes; it’s a fitting psychological representation of a man whose life was dominated by the observational imperative, and whose emotional life could often seem stunted by an analytical drive.

Though Milgram’s most famous, and controversial, experiments tested obedience to authority through a staged series of escalating electrical shocks, his further work expanded out into other corners of social norms and the herd mentality. One of his later studies involved the analysis of how a camera could transform from being a passive observer and recorder of images to an influence on behavior (a thread which continues to be parsed in the documentary field.) This section of his career is given relatively brief notice late in the film, but it ultimately serves as the guiding principle behind Almereyda’s approach, which combines a cool, Kubrickian formalism with a dry, humorous, playfulness that leavens even some of the darker moments. When Milgram interviews three female test subjects almost a year after their participation (in order to determine any long-term trauma they might have suffered), each professes that she would never consciously perform the acts she executed during the tests. When they’re offered coffee, the latter two women follow the first one’s lead when she asks for two sugars, and framed in staggered close-up, they all sip from their Styrofoam cups at the same time.

For most of the film, DP Ryan Samul’s camera views Milgram with the same sense of cool rigor that he views his subject, even as his fourth wall breaking feigns at a sense of intimacy with the audience (of course, it’s the controlled intimacy of a man speaking to an audience that isn’t even present.) The psychologist spends much of the narrative observing others through two-way mirrors or through the psychological barriers which he erects in his head. When he meets with a CBS executive to discuss adapting Obedience to Authority into a Playhouse 90 episode, he’s finally forced to be the man in the glass box when the exec surreptitiously abandons him for the day. The suddenly powerless psychologist’s only recourse is to observe those in the waiting room outside of the clear-walled office, but as the camera frames him in long shot, the setting that has usually provided him with security now encloses him in a trap that shuts him off from the rest of the world.

The appearance of John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Anthony Edwards, and Dennis Haysbert (among others) in small supporting roles also enhances the film’s meta-narrative sense of distancing, all while maintaining a twinge of humor. The scenes of Haysbert (as Ossie Davis) and Kellan Lutz (as William Shatner) in the melodramatic Playhouse 90 episode, in particular, send the proceedings deep into the narrative rabbit hole, as Milgram is forced to defend his experimental methods and philosophy to the vain actor portraying a stylized version of himself. And, of course, we’re always aware that we’re watching a recreation of a recreation. Just as we realize that this is a film that, in part, deals with the camera’s power to influence reality while also subverting reality in its representation of it, so too does Milgram ultimately end up trapped deep within a narrative construct in which the boundaries of reality and his self-made fictions begin to blur. Even the real life dramatic high point of the story (the mid-class announcement of the Kennedy assassination in Milgram’s Harvard class) is exploded when the first reaction of two students is that this is just another one of the doctor’s experiments.

George Orwell’s name is invoked several times in Experimenter, most notably in twin commuter rail scenes in which a statuesque blonde is seen first reading a copy of Animal Farm and then 1984. Those two classic works on behavioralism are natural touchstones for a film of this subject matter, but Almereyda might also have been feinting toward another lesser known Orwell work with his invocation of the elephant imagery at the beginning and climax of the film. In his short story/essay “Shooting an Elephant”, Orwell reflects on his time serving as a police officer in Burma, and how when a rampaging elephant is finally subdued, he refuses to kill it. But the will of the village’s populace is too strong, and against his own better instincts he carries out the act. It’s one of the great critiques of the failures of the British empire, but it also serves as a timeless reminder of the power of the crowd.

Which, in turn, is why even though it depicts psychological experiments from over 50 years ago, Experimenter remains a cautionary tale for our time. Almereyda makes this point explicit in Milgram’s closing narration from beyond the grave when he notes the repeated efficacy of his obedience to authority methodology and tests decades later. And in this culture of the like, in which building and maintaining a personal brand in all matters and venues often trumps individuality, and where the social media philosophy emphasizes a common collective response or a harsh collective ostracization, the film is a reminder that considering the herd mentality to be a stock cliché is a dangerous underestimation. In 1984, George Orwell understood that the true malignant power of the surveillance state wasn’t in the camera eye, but in the self-censorship that formed within when one knew that they were always being observed. It’s not that far of a jump from Oceania to the Panopticon to Milgram’s studies to the Stanford Prison Experiment. We live in a culture explicitly tailored to individual experiences, tastes, and needs, but too often we’re still looking over our shoulder. Or pushing that next electroshock button, even though we know that no, we’d never do that, not us.   

Friday, November 13, 2015

Travis Bickle Has A Posse: Backwards and Forwards in the Cinema of Spectacle

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

“There is a lot of sex in it (Salò), rather towards Sado-Masochism, which has a very specific function - that is to reduce the human body to a saleable commodity. It represents what power does to the human being, to the human body.” Pier Paolo Pasolini, on the set of SALO: THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM

“I didn’t intend for Bond to be likable. He’s a blunt instrument in the hands of the government. He’s got vices and few perceptible virtues.” (Ian Fleming)

“Camera got them images
Camera got them all
Nothing's shocking…”
(“Ted, Just Admit It”/Jane’s Addiction)

A louche American student cum film student. A hard-drinking, womanizing assassin. A former child star turned blasphemer of the celebrity industrial complex. All three of them different versions of that guy. And the eyes. The wide-open, always gazing, always consuming, always questing eyes of the audience.

Two of those eyes, of course, being mine. For my viewing week began late last Friday morning with a stereoscopic bout of mutual masturbation and ended with a high-def streaming close-up of a bearded guy intermittently grinning during the climax of a performance art act of cinematic onanism. What transpired in between this larger than life episode of sexy time and this ultimate act of Internet voyeurism says a lot about our search for spectacle in a culture both starved for and gorged on the concept.

And to think, all it took was Shia LaBeouf to pull all these concepts together for me. Or maybe all it took was the excuse of gazing at him gazing at himself as other gazed at both.

One year ago, I penned anextended essay for this literary journal in which I travelled through the career of Christopher Nolan (in the context of the release of Interstellar). A major focal point of that retrospective sprung from the concept that in the modern era, spectacle has lost much of its luster, and that Nolan’s films (particularly Interstellar) have sought to recapture what it feels like to stand in awe of something greater than ourselves. So one year later, it seems appropriate that spectacle is on my mind again after this week’s cinematic offerings. And that each of the works I viewed once again, like Nolan’s canon, entwined the concept of modern spectacle with the specter of the past.

If the Internet has dulled the frisson of modern spectacle (or at least democratized it so much as to achieve the same end), if the post-9/11 dream state that we all reside in has lessened the impact of the cinematic sturm und drang, then how indeed does an audience get its kicks when The Avengers saving the world from alien annihilation is merely the prelude to the next film? For half a decade, Hollywood has preached the good gospel of 3D as the saving grace of a spectacle-saturated populace. Remember all of those industry prognostications about how after multiple periods of past faddish flirtations, 3D was finally ready to claim its place as the next great revolution in cinematic storytelling? And now, five years later, how stale do those predictions seem? It’s a long way from the release of Avatar, which was trumpeted for its ground-breaking integration of 3D into the shooting process, albeit a process which dealt so heavily in the already artificial. Since then, the top-grossing 3D films have almost exclusively been pre-sold crowd-pleasers that would hovered near the top of the box office charts no matter what.

But 3D pornography! Now there’s a hook that was predicted as the true bull market for the concept since the beginning. Leave it to arch provocateur Gaspar Noe to delve into this realm with his newest film Love. Noe’s bad boy reputation makes stereoscopic nookie seem like the next logical move in a career already defined by transgression. The nihilistic brutality of I Stand Alone. The extended rape scene in Irreversible. The head-spinning, graphic hurdle into the netherworld of Enter the Void. All these moments offer a shorthand definition of an artist for a soundbite culture. But look back on these works and you can also see Noe the showman: the William Castle-inspired fright break at the climax of I Stand Alone, the single-shot scenes in the latter two films, the three-hour first-person POV in Void. Love flashes its ballyhoo roots in the opening credits, as a 3D warning to the audience about what they are about to see is eventually shown to be a direct homage to the same line from a poster for Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, one of the great excursions into three-dimensional erotic horror. And following that warning with an extended opening salvo in which doomed lovers Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock) graphically bring each other to climax in a single, static shot seems to fulfill the wet dreams of those who saw the NSFW teaser posters and images.  

But Love proves to be so much more, and so much less, than titillation. On a meta-performative level, it’s a film that causes the audience itself to gauge their compliance in the summoning of these images. Despite the loosening of content restrictions in the digital age, it’s still considered to be somewhat taboo to see hardcore sex in a theatrical setting (the raincoat crowd has definitely moved online.) And yes, dear reader, I generally find graphic pornography to be pretty damn boring. So when the only other person to share the theater with me popped into the tiny screening room two minutes before Love sprang to life, we both immediately became part of the show. He turned out to be an innocuous presence (we exchanged a brief word when I had to retreat to the lobby to implore the theater staff to fix the projection), but like it or not, my level of self-awareness was still heightened throughout the showing. Which is natural when you’re sitting in a 50 seat room with one other stranger watching a 3D penis ejaculate straight into the camera.

In and of itself, Love is ultimately a meta-narrative examination of intimacy, or at least the perception of intimacy and what happens when it collides with reality. It’s telling that the no holds barred opening is immediately followed by scenes of domestic routine, as Murphy and Omi (Klara Kristin), the mother of his child, mechanically begin their day. And it’s here that Noe’s longtime DP Benoit Debie actually fulfills the promise of those aforementioned Hollywood insiders by using the 3D format as a genuine dramatic storytelling device, the tool of high spectacle bringing the concept down to a level most personal. Throughout the film, Debie frames Murphy in close-up at the foreground of a deep focus field of vision; such a tactic takes advantage of the often artificial multi-plane effect that 3D tends to lend to some images, as Murphy is often literally separated from other characters in the spatial realm.

And that makes total sense, as Murphy is most definitely that guy, in this case that film fanatic guy, the so very archetypical young male of the post-70s Golden Age of Hollywood era who lusts after the filmic icons of male isolation and emotional remove. Posters from Taxi Driver, M, and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom adorn the walls of his apartment, the latter positioned directly over his bed (directly adjacent to that Frankenstein poster.) At first blush, he can be a deeply off-putting protagonist, his dialogue a pastiche of dumbass clichés and cod-philosophical ramblings. Murphy makes much of identifying himself to others as an American, and it seems at times as if he’s absorbed a bit too much Travis Bickle into his system. But that all seems to be Noe’s point, for as Nick Carraway once noted “the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” It can often be easy to confuse inarticulateness with dramatic inertia, but in this empathy-impaired era that we live in, sometimes it’s only through attempting to identify with boring characters that we can reach a greater understanding of ourselves.

“But what about the sex?” you might say. “After all, that is a big part of the film, right?” Absolutely, and it further complicates Murphy’s worship of his cinematic antecedents. For as opposed to those isolated males, he is, in fact, the cocksman that they all aspire to be, grinding away with the molten hot Electra in all sorts of fantasy positions, culminating in their mutual admission of a three-way fantasy that introduces Omi to the proceedings. Again, the ghost of Travis Bickle is invoked: Omi is just on the edge of 17, the innocent looking blonde counterpart to Electra’s tawdry and exotic sexual veteran. But even though Travis deifies Jodie Foster’s Iris, his sexual fulfillment is expressed through his climactic whorehouse slaughter, not through physical union with her. Murphy fulfills that verboten fantasy (“I love Europe!” he exclaims when he discovers Omi’s age) in the extended tryst with Electra and her that, in many ways, forms the nexus point of the film.

Noe’s films are known for the extremes to which they go, but they’re all ultimately built on painful emotions, not sensory shock. Monica Belucci’s harrowing rape in Irreversible is truly devastating because of what the reverse chronology of the narrative finally tells us about her life before this event, the sexual assault thus forming a center from which the past and future spiral out of control (the film begins and ends with the camera whirling around.) The Murphy/Electra/Omi three-way ends up serving a similar purpose. True, it features just about every explicit sexual variation that you can imagine, but it’s also scored by Funkdelic’s “Maggot Brain”, the Eddie Hazel guitar lament supposedly inspired by George Clinton telling him to think of his mother’s death (Hazel, another man consumed by his solitary demons.) The politics of eroticism dictate such grand stimulation from the scene, but soundtrack laces the proceedings with the tragedy that we know is coming. It arrives in the next scene, when Murphy accidentally impregnates Omi during a weekend tryst while Electra is away, a scene that is scored by John Frusciante’s “Maggot Brain”-inspired “Before the Beginning”; this attempt to recapture the eroticism of the three-way can only approximate the original experience, both in real life and on the soundtrack. His search for that lost sexual spectacle is doomed to come up short. And as he laments partway through the film, he becomes more of a dick with a brain than an actual person, rampant sex becoming more dehumanizing than fulfilling.

That same sense of lost opportunities and frustrated spectacle is also on full display in the film I saw the following afternoon: Sam Mendes’s Spectre. After all, James Bond is the guy who Murphy longs to be, male isolation elevated to the status of uber-cool. In this society of the spectacle, the Daniel Craig Bond films have striven to hew closely to a gruff, post-9/11 realism, while also dealing in the larger than life thrills that are part and parcel of such a film. A huge part of the broad appeal of the Bond films has always been based in the escapism they provide, 007’s cool, ironic misogyny presented at a vicarious, safe remove. As time has passed, the series has delved into its own bit of meta-commentary on Bond’s tomcatting ways, especially in the wake of 2006’s Casino Royale. He might still bed the requisite 2-3 bombshells per film, but Daniel Craig is steadily confronted by questions about his relevance, sexual and otherwise. And what film series is more haunted by its own legacy than this one, each subsequent lead actor forever chasing after the unattainable template that Sean Connery established decades ago. What really marks the Craig Bond films as creations of this era is their underlying obsession with the past. Spectre looks to bring that obsession to the forefront with the introduction of Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld, a man who killed off his own past in order to serve as grand persecutor and perpetrator of Bond’s long-standing angst. Following an opening credits sequence in which the dead souls of the previous three Craig films shimmer across the screen, 007 is forced to deal once again with all that he has lost. Just as Murphy pines away for Electra (who has possibly/probably committed suicide after a descent back into her bad old ways), so too does Bond still hold the luminous Vesper Lynd as the ultimate One Who Got Away.

Like Love, Spectre opens with its own money shot, albeit a family-friendly one: a single take of rooftop intrigue that culminates in a Mexico City building collapsing, Bond upping the ante with a mid-air helicopter stunt. It might seem to be at a remove from Murphy and Electra’s opening scene, but sex and violence have always intermingled in the Bond series; his abandonment of a hotel tryst to pursue an assassination is its own version of erotic fulfillment. Indeed, the most passionate sex scene of the film is directly inspired by violence, as Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) is finally turned on by Bond’s protracted throwdown on the train with Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Seydoux, of course, made her international mark in the erotic epic Blue is the Warmest Color…and Lucia Sciarra, who Bond seduces earlier in the film, is portrayed by Monica Belucci! For such a virtual cavalcade of screen sex symbols to live in a narrative that ultimately preaches the benefits of fidelity is an intriguing concept. For again Spectre and Love come together in their depictions of what fulfillment might mean. Just as both open with tableaus of overt stimulation, so too do both close with their protagonists in a state of romantic reconciliation, Bond driving off with Madeleine in his retooled Aston-Martin (the literal embodiment of his past housing the potential vehicle for a better future), Murphy realizing that only now that she is gone can he appreciate the love he held with Electra.

3D pornography and widescreen chases and explosions might define opposite ends of the politics of spectacle, but it was Shia LaBeouf’s embarking upon a reverse chronology marathon of his filmic career that provided the most fascinating viewing of my week. If you haven’t already perused the details, the former child star turned much-derided big budget action hero turned meta-prankster occupied the smallest screen at New York’s Angelika Film Center this past Tuesday at noon for a three day, non-stop screening of his career from end to beginning. The catch? Anyone was allowed to join him for free, while he live streamed himself watching all of the films. On the surface, this was the least spectacle-filled viewing of the week.

And yet, it proved to be an fascinating experience, even if I only experienced bits and pieces of it. Legions of YouTube celebrities and vloggers have threatened to turn webcam experiences into mundane simulacra of real life, but watching LaBeouf watch his own representative life running backwards, while the 7-8 audience members you could see in the frame watched the screen (and him), brought a life and an unpredictability to this extended art project. So much of LaBeouf’s portrayal involved a steely gaze at the screen that when he scratched his head, sighed, or laughed, the impact was like that of Bond’s Mexico City building collapsing. I knew what would (or wouldn’t) probably happen next, but hanging around to witness his level of commitment to what could be a massive act of self-effacement provided more satisfying spectacle than some of the more bombastic moments in Spectre. And much like Murphy and James Bond, Shia too was the man haunted by his past, his reactions growing notably more enthusiastic as his age regressed into childhood before his very eyes. His Andy Kaufman-esque stabs at performance art over the past few years have been met with derision, but the deeper truths he’s touched upon and the relentless deconstruction of his celebrity sheen have been fascinating. All too often, we only accept cultural challenges from those whom we’ve appointed as guardians of good taste, but when an actor who’s been widely mocked is the one doing the questioning, we’re forced to confront our definitions of good, bad, and everything in between.       

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 39: "The Wrath of the Lamb"

In which I don’t know if I can save myself. Maybe that’s just fine.

“... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”(Nietzsche)

How in the world can I wish for this?
Never to be torn apart till the last beat
Till the last fleeting beat of my heart
(“The Last Beat of My Heart”/Siouxsie and the Banshees)

It was always about falling, wasn’t it? If there was one recurring image that haunted the run of Bryan Fuller’s radical reinvention of Thomas Harris’s Lecterverse, even above the nightmare stag, even above the elaborate death tableau, it was that of characters in freefall. From the beginning, in those first grotesque strains of this symphony of gothic horror that echoed through “Apertif”, it was there in Will’s dream vision of Elise Nichols’s floating corpse, which would fall into impalement by those ever-present stag horns. Bedelia’s attempts to escape from her life as Lydia Fell took the form of visions of unfettered descent into an ocean of black liquid. Will found the most concrete view of his mental destruction through imagining himself as a falling teacup, shattering on some far away floor. And after all, what was Will’s grand plot to ingratiate himself into Hannibal’s world in order to capture him but a prolonged plunge into the abyss…one from which he never really emerged.

So it only makes sense that the final image of the NBC run of Hannibal (or, at least, the final pre-credits image) would be Will and Hannibal plummeting over the edge of a cliff, star-crossed soulmates freefalling to their potential annihilation. This phantasmagoric fugue state of a show, which so expertly traced the glories and horrors of giving oneself over to the darkest recesses of the heart, could really find no better resolution for the psychological long game in which its players participated. Or one that was more honest to its grand intent.

Because, as became so apparent early on in that maiden season, Bryan Fuller’s focus was never on the limitations of the procedural format against which the show often strained. And it was never about merely perpetuating the pop culture boogeyman trappings that Hannibal Lecter so stylishly wore in the hands of Anthony Hopkins. What he and his collaborators would form over three seasons was, instead, one of the most complex, mature, avant-garde narratives in television history (and, it could be argued, in cinematic history.) In its NBC run, it wielded the freedom bestowed upon it by its foreign financing with great aplomb, relentlessly subverting the conventions of the major network drama format. And along the way, it displayed an uncompromising willingness and determination to let its freak flag fly, to explore the outer reaches of the form. To not only gaze deeply into the abyss, but to dive right into it.

It’s been difficult for me to find a proper way to write about what could be the final episode of Hannibal. Watching it provided none of the traditional signifiers associated with a series finale, which is appropriate considering Fuller’s proclivity for making each season’s ultimate act both a potential final statement and a bridge to another chapter of the story. As the story marched toward its bloody climax, I constantly felt that duality; it all just seemed like another step in a narrative that could never really achieve finite resolution. Over the last few months, my epic Hannibal writing project often skewed toward the academic and the analytical. Unlike my journey into Mad Men’s first season, there was only minimal personal narrative from which to draw when metaphors and motifs carried only limited weight. But for all the symbolic weight that Fuller and company attached to the show, for all the flights of stylistic fancy on which they took the narrative, in the end Hannibal ended up being a very personal depiction of its main players.  

And so, Jack Crawford takes part, maybe for one last time, in a scheme that backfired in glorious and tragic fashion. I’ve lauded him here before, but Lawrence Fishburne has brought such gravitas, but also such complexity to this role. Alternately a stoic crusader for justice and an obsessive, irresponsible father figure, he has been a sterling exemplar of how realistically the show has portrayed the ambiguities of the human moral and ethical landscape. If, indeed, this is his final turn as Crawford, it ends as it so often did throughout the series: with the taciturn FBI boss arriving at the scene of the crime too late to stop the carnage that occurred, in part, at his directive. His face is once again a bas-relief of emotional scar tissue. He remains a man driven by justice, but haunted by the cost of that effort.

And so, the seemingly indestructible Frederick Chilton, who gained such richness and life in the able hands of the sublime Raul Esparza, becomes a voice of ethical repudiation, chiding Alana Bloom for serving as the roper for Hannibal’s Machiavellian plot. As I’ve detailed in previous essays (particularly in last week’s entry), the development of Chilton beyond Anthony Heald’s entertaining, yet limited, interpretation in the Hopkins films has been one of my favorite parts of the show. Alana may have served as the idealistic voice of moral concern in the first few seasons, but the psychological damage that she’s suffered since then has hardened her into the would-be guardian of Hannibal’s cage. It’s fascinating to ponder where these two characters, whose arcs have converged at several points, might go if this version of the story ever continues. (Fuller has hinted that a prospective fourth season would feature Alana and Margot looking to right the Verger family’s legacy of brutality. Could Chilton take over Mason’s mantle as deformed pursuer of his cannibal tormentor?)

And so, the Red Dragon saga comes to a fitting conclusion, with Francis Dolarhyde’s raging bull of a man-beast laying siege to Hannibal’s hideaway, only to be taken down by the twin forces of a driven hyper-empath and his mirror image empathy vacuum. All credit again to Richard Armitage for his powerful portrayal of Dolarhyde, which, even in these final gore-soaked moments, elicits a strong sense of sympathy. As he lies bleeding to death on Hannibal’s patio, his life leaking out of him in one final dragon wing pattern, the look on his face is both pained and mildly ecstatic. For this has been a truly tragic final chapter of one man’s life in which, stricken by the sudden accumulation of a lifetime of pain and the realization of his own mortality, he sought to transcend the mundanity of his life, of our life. To become something greater than the human form allowed. As murderous and deranged as that becoming would be, it was still the last resort of a man who felt totally helpless. We’re all fed a steady diet of bromides telling us to rise above our humble means, the Horatio Alger myth still riding strong in the social strata. Francis Dolarhyde followed that philosophy to its logical conclusion. In death, he manages some form of transcendence, as he passes into legend once and for all. As Hannibal tells him “You were seized by a fantasy world, with the brilliance and freshness of childhood. It took you a step beyond alone.” His total embrace of self-annihilation, his abdication of his physical signifiers through burning his house, his absolute commitment to going that one step beyond…it all adds up to the definitive statement on the character.

And so, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter reunite in each other’s arms. Their final exchange (Hannibal: “See, this is all I ever wanted for you Will. For both of us.” Will: “That’s beautiful”) could be an epitaph for the show as a whole. For in the end, Will seemingly comes to terms with his true self, the one that (as he reveals midway through the episode) manipulated Hannibal into turning himself in by giving him a false sense of passive power, the one that joined his cannibal partner in acts of carnage that went beyond mere undercover work. The one that was never quite made for the normal domestic life, as much as he so yearned for it with Molly and Walter. The one who was only fully understood by a serial killing cannibal.

Previous film incarnations of Will clearly portrayed him as a man troubled by his empathic powers, yet also one with firm connections to the straight world which he inhabited. There can be some debate about his psychological state at the end of those narratives, but he is still resolutely a warrior for the maintenance of the status quo. But Hugh Dancy’s Will only shows fleeting connections to society’s definition of normalcy. It’s what’s likely made him such a tricky character for a mainstream audience, but it’s also what’s made him so compelling. Fuller was willing to suggest that the traditional moral arc of a hero can be as oblique and troublesome as that of his antagonist, and that the definition of those two roles could mix in ways that turned their relationship into a metaphor for friendship and love. The most obvious corollary is Thomas Harris’s Clarice Starling, who eventually abandons her FBI existence to join Hannibal as his lover and fellow cannibal on the lam (a wild, subversive ending that was significantly altered for the film version of that story.) But Fuller maintains the very ambiguous nature of Will’s desires to the end. He may realize the validity of his connection with Hannibal, but he’s still the Lamb of God, the one who must make the sacrifice, the one who realizes that they can’t exist like this, for their own good and for that of the world around them. True, the post-credits sequence, with Bedelia seated at a table with two other place settings, her cooked left leg ready for a feast, suggests that the next chapter of this story might continue Will and Hannibal’s partnership. But in the moment, as Will notes in the quote that begins this essay, he’s willing to accept that there’s no real saving himself. And that the only recourse is to take one final plunge into an abyss both literal and figurative. To give himself up to the freefall with which he’s flirted for so long.

And so, this stunning dreamscape of a show proves, in the end, to be quite the personal story for me after all. Because I form such an emotional connection with the lives of these emotional ciphers. Because I realize that form is often as spiritually enthralling as content. Because the repeated suggestions by a friend to give Hannibal a try leads to it forming another in a long series of deep connections between us, including a stimulating back and forth about this series of essays and their philosophical implications.  Such profound effects for a mere television show to have, especially one that I marginalized for almost a year as being standard network fare. But this is why I watch the show. Because much like Hannibal itself, sometimes the most confounding, strange, challenging, unpredictable, non-traditional things in life are the most rewarding.

For one final time…at least for now…the leftovers:

*These guys! Brian Zeller and Jimmy Price have been a staple of the show since the beginning, and the expert acting chops and comic timing of Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson have helped to raise them above their roots as ministers of exposition. If this is the last that we see of them, their brief dissection of Francis’s faked suicide is a proper sendoff indeed.

*Also worth mentioning one last time is Rutina Wesley, who brought such grace and toughness to the role of Reba. Her interactions with Richard Armitage were always beguiling, and quit often surprising in their complexity.

*During Francis’s sneak attack of the police van that carries Will and Hannibal, Will has a brief subliminal flashback to his first eye to eye meeting with the would be Red Dragon in the museum elevator. It’s easy to miss, but it once again drives home the shock that moment carried, and the power its held over Will ever since.

*“You righteous, wreckless, twitchy little man!” (Bedelia, to Will. Ftw.)

*“I believe that’s what they call a mic drop. You dropped the mic, Will.” (Hannibal, to…well, you know.)

*“You died in my kitchen, Alana, when you chose to be brave. Every moment since is borrowed. Your wife, your child…they belong to me. We made a bargain for Will’s life, and then I spun you gold.” (Hannibal, to Alana. One last chilling moment to remind us that, charming as he may be, this is still a profoundly dangerous man.)

*“There is no advantage. It’s all degrees of disadvantage.” (Will, to Bedelia, in what could be the final word on the world that Hannibal portrayed.)   

*And one last hats off to James Hawkinson, Brian Reitzell, Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, and, of course, Bryan Fuller, for collectively being the heart and soul of this enterprise. I’ve heard other pundits say that we’ll look back one day, far in the future, and say that we were there when the great Hannibal took its too often unheralded bow. So many actors and technicians made Hannibal what it was during its run on NBC, but these primary five helped to reconfigure what we might think about what not just a network television show, but a work of cinematic narrative could be. Truly, this was their design.