Tuesday, May 26, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 17: "Takiawase"

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In which that would suggest a radically unorthodox form of therapy.

As I wrote about in my essay for Season 1’s “Roti”, Hannibal has dealt extensively with the subject of authority and protectorship, and all the attendant responsibilities that are so often abdicated therein.  Will has been the most notable victim of manipulation at the hands of authority figures, but the roll call of damaged subordinates is lengthy.  “Takiawase” touches on this subject once again, but in this case it offers a portrait of people trying desperately to be good protectors, albeit with their own interesting motivations.

With her cancer progressing to its end stages, Bella Crawford only wants to control the means of her death.  But she still acquiesces to Jack’s desire for her to take chemotherapy, if only to give him some sense of peace (thereby protecting what’s left of his guilt-ridden psyche.)  At the same time, she sees Hannibal as the one person in whom she can confide her real feelings.  The interactions between Gina Torres and Mads Mikkelsen are always fascinating.  Bella is portrayed as such a no bullshit person that her connection with Hannibal seems either very odd or an exercise in high dramatic irony.  But at heart, this relationship is another example of the moral and ethical complexity that Bryan Fuller brings to the Lecter character.  There’s a genuine desire to serve as protector and confessor in Hannibal’s demeanor around her, yet that old sense of amoral curiosity never quite dissipates.  In the key moment when she honors him by choosing to conclude her Morphine overdose in his office, he seems to accept it as a mantle of the humanity he claims to seek.  And yet a moment later, he’s flipping the Gold French Rooster coin that she’s given him as thanks for being her guide into the afterlife, channeling a bit of Two-Face in letting chance decide whether he brings her back from the dead.  Her rage at him in the post-revival hospital scene marks Hannibal as still not prepared to assume the role of protector that he covets.

This rooster motif also plays into the side story of Katherine Pimms, the acupuncturist/mercy killer.  Played by the always delightful Amanda Plummer, she also fancies herself to be a protector of the suffering (“I protected these people from hopelessness”), while also using their exit from this world as a connection to the greater consciousness, in this case by turning one of them into a honey comb.  It’s shades of “Amuse-Bouche”’s  Eldon Stammets once again, a serial killer with a conscience.  It’s also a direct reference to the death throes of Socrates, who (after self-administering his hemlock poison death sentence) was asked by an attendant about the gradual loss of feeling in his body (just as Katherine asks her patient about the gradual loss of feeling from her needles.)  As Hannibal notes to Bella, Socrates’s dying gift of the rooster serves as confirmation of his belief in death as a gateway to another world.

Of course, Hannibal’s pseudo-mythological portrayal of gateways to and from other worlds (spiritual and mental) is a hallmark of the narrative thrust.  In “Hassun”, Hannibal tells Jack that “The magic door is always attractive.  Step through, and leave all your burdens behind.”  Will fears the world of his visions crossing through the gateway of reality (even as he finds bittersweet comfort in his opening fly fishing fantasy of trying to serve as protector to Abigail Hobbs), and Hannibal’s long game involves drawing Will through the gateway of insanity and into a partnership with him.  But it’s not Lecter who offers the imprisoned profiler his most important gateway yet in this episode.

Leave that duty to that most unlikeliest of protector figures, Frederick Chilton.  Raul Esparza hams it up so wonderfully as the smarmy Chilton that it comes as a nice reversal when Will asks him to be his psychiatrist in order to block out Hannibal.  And to access a bit of information that provides the key to the locked gateway inside his mind.  Only by being injected with truth serum for a narcoanalytic interview is he able to discover the truth about Hannibal’s long term manipulation of him via hypnosis and psychic driving.  It’s a stunning sequence, the culmination of Will’s long psychological wandering and a psychedelic fever dream of the inner recesses of his damaged psyche crossed with a religious epiphany (Will once again gazing to a light in the sky, much like with Season 1’s Angel Maker murders.)  Even when Chilton seems to be giving up the game in his subsequent conversation with Hannibal, it’s actually a sly attempt at bonding him in silence over the Abel Gideon case.  Truly, sometimes you find your allies in the strangest places.

Beverly Katz, on the other hand, has been a voice of measured reason throughout her run on the show, so no surprise that she’s been willing to listen to Will and begin to serve as the protector of his legacy.  His second major revelation of the episode, that Hannibal is eating the souvenirs of his victims (and that he’s been fed some of those souvenirs), comes after she’s once again provided him with pictures of the body spiral murders.  And after so many accusations of his instability, it’s Beverly that finally agrees to pursue Will’s leads and investigate Hannibal’s house.  Of all the would-be protector figures in this episode, her motivations are arguably the purest.  So it’s only appropriate, in the twisted ethical landscape of the show, that her nobility is rewarded with death in Lecter’s lair.  Her downfall is captured in one of the great shots in the series, as the sub-basement’s power methodically clicks on in layers, first with the unseen bodies she discovers, then with the rear of the room where Hannibal awaits.  It’s a stark metaphor for his ability to hide in plain sight, as well as a visual callback to the moments in Season 1 when he would be framed as a blurry figure influencing Will and other characters in the foreground.  And it also shows how dangerous slightly adjusting one’s vision of reality to take in his darkness can be.

To the leftovers:

*During his aforementioned fantasy sequence with Abigail, Will repeats their conversation from Season 1, in which they debate the difference between fishing and hunting (“one you catch, the other you shoot.”)  It takes on added resonance now that Will has attempted to shoot Hannibal, only to realize that he’ll have to catch him to gain any sense of justice.

*I’ve mentioned before how Hannibal’s machinations sometimes take on an almost supervillain-esque grandeur.  But when you step back and look at his character’s path, you realize that so much of his foresight is gained simply by staying quiet and listening to those around him (who are often all too willing to divulge key bits of information.)

*A note of advisory: if you ever find yourself a character in the Lecterverse, STAY OUT OF BASMENTS!  Nothing good can come from them.

Monday, May 25, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 16: "Hassun"

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In which the boundaries of what’s considered normal are getting narrower.

“Ours a love I held tightly
Feeling the rapture grow
Like a flame burning brightly
But when she left, gone was the glow of
Blue Velvet”
(“Blue Velvet”/Bobby Vinton)

For an episode that deals so heavily in one of the most well-worn motifs in televisual crime fiction (the trial of a main character), “Hassun” presents a distinct unravelling of the world for the characters surrounding this most stable of plot devices.  The encroaching surrealism that will soon dominate this season begins to steadily flood the various corners of the plot (much like Will’s madness took the form of visions of water at the end of Season 1.)  Just as the Japanese course of Hassun serves as the main event of the Kaiseki feast (which is then followed by dishes that slowly conclude things), so too does this episode of the same name serve as an early peak of relative normalcy in the season before the gradual descent into a fever dream of insanity. 

But there’s also another reference point for “Hassun”, one that explores similar power relationships and themes of the darkness at the edge of the psyche.  One that also centers heavily around the presence of a severed ear.  And a submerged sense of homoerotic intrigue between two men, one seemingly a hero and one seemingly a villain.

Indeed, if Bryan Fuller isn’t explicity referencing David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in this episode, then at the very least he’s psychologically channeling it.  That film famously sends All-American boy Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) into a world of psychosexual trauma, predicated on his discovery of a severed human ear.  In the key scene that truly begins his descent, Jeffrey walks the idyllic nighttime streets of Lumberton, only for the romantic dark of night to crossfade into the camera spiraling into that mysterious ear.  Abigail Hobbs’s ear might’ve been the smoking gun in framing Will last season, but the ear of bailiff Andrew Sykes (meant to throw suspicion away from him mid-trial) is the focal point of “Hassun”’s plot twist, and the camera spiraling out of it as Jack and the forensics team study the evidence recalls Lynch’s imagery.  If the descent into the ear in Blue Velvet is meant to symbolize the entrance into madness (and the subsequent dollying out of Jeffrey’s ear at the conclusion symbolizing a mild return to sanity), perhaps Hannibal’s spiral out of the ear in this scene is a further reference to the Hannibal Lecter’s viral infection of these characters’ worlds, or another visual callback to Will’s fear of the netherworld of his visions breaking into the real world.

Blue Velvet resonated so strongly in the culture upon its release because of its taboo subject matter, but also because of the very recognizable plot and character structure off of which it so deftly riffed.  Lynch once described the film as “the Hardy Boys go to Hell”, and its indebtedness to the world of Film Noir also offers a series of archetypical subversions that go far beyond the Code-restricted subterfuge of those crime melodramas.  “Hassun” plays similar games with its more easily recognizable aspects.  During her courtroom testimony, Freddie Lounds is shot in stark chiaroscuro lighting, her tilted hat and steamy delivery adding to the sense that she’s playing the femme fatale (Brian Reitzell also includes subtle saxophone intonations in the soundtrack that underscores her appearance.)  And Will, of course, is the classic Hitchcockian wrong man, caught in the web of a force greater and more maniacal than him (which itself is a nod to a major Noir motif.)  His opening dream, in which time stutters back and forth before he ultimately throws the switch on his own electrocution, uses an execution method that is still widely recognized, yet which has also been illegal in Maryland for years (Martin O’Malley actually banned the death penalty in 2013, a year before the airing of this episode.)  But Will is a long way off from Henry Fonda, his anti-social demeanor and dalliances with chaos making him a far more complex figure.

Beyond its Noir trappings, Blue Velvet also offers a disturbing portrait of how deeply psychosexual perversion penetrates the human psyche, its central three characters forming a sadomasochistic love triangle for the ages.  Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) might ostensibly be the heavy, but there’s a childlike longing at the heart of his sexual enslavement of Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rosselini).  Jeffrey wants to save Dorothy, but he first finds sexual attraction to her when spying from her closet (and then again when he witnesses Frank raping her).  Jeffrey and Dorothy’s violence-ridden sexual coupling is her warped attempt to reenact Frank’s abuse, but Jeffrey also finds a modicum of sick pleasure in hurting her.  And the film’s main love story is the Oedipal struggle between Frank and Jeffrey, the hero and villain finding much unexpected common ground, the detective character/son drawn to replace the criminal/father.

By this point of Hannibal’s run, the relationship between Will and Hannibal has taken on similar leanings.  Like Jeffrey, Will thrives on voyeurism, even though he claims to want to pull himself away from the damage of his visions.  Hannibal holds more respect in the world at large than Frank, but like him he’s also the dark manipulator/Minotaur at the heart of the protagonist’s mental labyrinth.  Alana might not match up perfectly with Dorothy, but the love triangle that will soon ensue between these three has similar overtones of manipulation and submerged violence (especially in Will’s subconscious resentment of her romantic rejection of him.)  And the pseudo-romantic nature of Hannibal’s relationship with Will is much in keeping with the uncomfortably close one that Frank and Jeffrey hold.  Hannibal’s assault of Will is more subtle than Frank’s, but his attempt to seduce him into his darkness is right in line with Hopper’s psychopath.  Memorably, Frank (to the tune of Patti Page’s “Love Letters) threatens to send a love letter straight to Jeffrey’s heart in the form of a bullet; when he discusses Will’s apparent fan with him, Hannibal notes that “This killer wrote you a poem.  Are you going to let his love go to waste?” 

In both narratives, we’re forced to confront the fluid lines between protagonist and antagonist, and between good and evil.  In “Hassun”’s opening, both men are shown dressing for the trial in parallel form (ending with Will’s handcuff and Hannibal’s cufflink, the latter almost as much of a social binding as the former.)  When they meet in Baltimore State’s private room, the closeups of their faces form a shot/countershot pattern in which the darkness at the edge of each man’s visage complements the other.  In the climactic montage of Jack, Hannibal, and Will in various states of despair, Hannibal’s longing for Will’s presence is once again represented by the empty chair he stares at in his office.  It’s a great evocation of the climactic verse of Bobby Vinton’s song “Blue Velvet” (quoted at the top of this essay).  After all, Hannibal’s affection for Will reaches a high point when he “sets his mind on fire” near the end of Season 1.  But for now, all he has are the memories of that time, the afterglow of the fire.

To call the following leftovers might be a misnomer.  But they’re far enough outside of the Lynch-Fuller main thrust that I’ll include them as such:

*When Jack refers to he and Kade Purnell as the clowns in the ever-growing circus that Will’s case is becoming, he once again taps into the deep feelings of futility that plagues him.  Kade warns him not to spend his time lamenting those he left behind (lest he become the next one), but the impotence he feels in trying to help his dying wife, compounded with his guilt over Will being the latest in a string of supervisory/fatherly failures, has him trapped.  In many ways, Jack’s journey from unwitting enabler of Will’s framing to co-conspirator in the stealth hunt for Hannibal is the backbone of this season, a good man trying to atone for what seems to him like a lifetime of sacrificing his life to stalking death.

*On the verge of her romantic fling with Hannibal, we get one of the last glances of Alan trying to reestablish her bond with Will, climaxing in a final handclasp that could be a nod to Bresson’s Pickpocket, in which another criminal found spiritual redemption through a woman.

*Will’s empathic vision of Andrew Sykes’s murder marks the return of his trademark mental pendulum and skittering sound field. 

*The greatest refutation of the classic courtroom milieu comes with the ritual murder of the judge.  It also allows Hannibal to bring the funny once again with “Not only is justice blind, it’s also mindless and heartless.”     

Saturday, May 23, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 15: "Sakizuke"

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In which I am fixed and unseeing.  Unless someone else sees me.

The psychological echo chamber that Hannibal (and Hannibal) builds throughout the first season is one that entraps many a character, and drives Will into a complete breakdown.  In a meta-narrative sense, it also draws in the viewer, with plot points, themes, and motifs repeating themselves throughout the extended story to create a hypnotic, ambient buzz of dread (most notably in “Releves”, which I discuss here.)  So it’s only appropriate that in a second season in which the power dynamic between Will and Hannibal is flipped, there would be an episode like “Sakizuke” that mirrors its counterpart from Season 1.

“Amuse-Bouche” was the second episode of Hannibal’s maiden voyage, and it famously dealt with rogue pharmacist Eldon Stammets, who drugged and planted diabetics in order to give them a more profound connection to the world, which then extends to the almost fungal connections that form between the main players of the show.  “Sakizuke” similarly explores the symbiotic connections between these characters, and their varying states of decay.  As I alluded to in the essay for “Kaiseki”, Bryan Fuller includes some of Hannibal’s Japanese background in Season 2, primarily in Brian Reitzell’s sound design and with the episode titles.   Sakizuke is the Japanese culinary version of Amuse-Bouche, so this episode of the same name also deals with a mad artist assembling humans into a giant performance piece meant to connect them with a greater purpose.  This time, it’s the wheel (or spiral) of bodies that the unnamed killer crafts inside a secluded grain silo.  It’s one of the most memorable grotesqueries in the show’s run, a Hieronymous Bosch nightmarescape invading the waking world. 

Leave it to Hannibal to offer the most compelling analysis of this daisy chain of death.  As he peers into the top of the grain silo after discovering the killer’s lair, the bodies form the iris of an eye, while also reflecting in his eye (in a closeup that tells so much about what lies deep inside the inky vaccum of Dr. Lecter.)  Before arriving at the scene, he asks Jack if the killer is looking at God, and theorizes that “The eye looks beyond this world and into the next.  And sees a reflection of man itself.”  Later, when he’s stitching the killer into his own creation, he comforts him by saying “God gave you purpose, not only to create art, but to become it” (much like classic painters would insert themselves into their pieces.)  It’s easy to read a touch of megalomania into Hannibal’s view, which also ties in with his love for the classical arts (which often invoke a profound sense of transcendent divinity.)  And in Will’s empathic vision of the body spiral, Hannibal repeats one of his famous lines from “Amuse-Bouche” (“Killing must feel good to God too.  He does it all the time. And are we not created in his image?”), furthering the godlike aspirations attached to him.  But a much more brass tacks motivation can also be applied to his fascination.

For despite his status as the FBI’s new Will Graham and a seeming victory in his grand experiment of Season 1, Hannibal is losing much of what really stabilizes him.  His hyper-compartmentalized psyche needs Will to take the blame for the Shrike copycat murders, but it also yearns to save what he perceives as his only real friend in the world.  His loneliness at the end of “Kaiseki” is reflected here in his several meetings with Will, and even though he’s now tight with the FBI, he’s still an outsider (seen in a nice bit of business when he awkwardly pivots between Katz, Zeller, and Price, one of the few examples the series has offered of this graceful man almost tripping over himself.)

And after a period of slowly percolating distrust, Bedelia finally fires Hannibal as a patient, in a scene filled with animal menace and a raw, palpable sense of fear.  Gillian Anderson’s dry, off-kilter portrayal of Bedelia has always matched up well with Mads Mikkelsen’s subdued, hyper-controlled performance.  Just as his motivations are often fascinatingly hard to read, so too does her poker face conceal what seem to be much more complex emotions than she readily allows.  Despite his Machiavellian view of the world (nicely echoed in his comments to Jack, that the killer knows that “those in the world around him are a means to an end”), there’s always an eternally childlike vulnerability to him.  Aside from his attempts at connecting with Will, this can be seen in his continuing offers of friendship to Bedelia.  So when she throws down her final rejection, he’s left without his main ties to human normality.  And his first instinct is to balance things out by turning her into his next meal (in his office and in his later failed attempt at her house.)  It’s telling that when Jack intones that “The killer’s having an existential crisis”, his words are crosscut with Hannibal dining on veal taken from the body spiral killer’s leg, a resetting of his control over the world after the abject rejection he experiences in the first half of the episode.

But in Bryan Fuller’s grand scheme, Hannibal’s view of the body spiral as a connection to the divine might have more resonance than is readily apparent.  Acclaimed mythology scholar Lillian Tyack (also a major Hannibal fanatic, a longtime reader of this blog, and the author of the forthcoming book Echo/Ecco: Theological Mythocryptography in a Post-Navidson World) recently contacted me from her Swiss chalet with the following sage insights:

These past two episodes have featured, albeit briefly, scenes involving pomegranates. The first occurs when Will imagines himself having dinner with the Wendigo and the other is showcased when Hannibal feasts alone on the leg of the man he added to the mural. The image of a pomegranate has existed throughout history as a reminder of the Rape of Persephone, the goddess of Greek mythology who represents the fertility of vegetation. She exists as the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter and the god of thunder, Zeus. Persephone is best known for her role as the Queen of the Underworld alongside her husband Hades. She was brought there as a girl when Hades and Zeus transpired her kidnapping. This caused Demeter great grief and once she realized that the father of her child betrayed her, she vowed to inhibit the growth of all agriculture until Persephone was returned. Hades conceded to let his wife go, but before her release he tricked her into eating the seeds of a pomegranate, thus forever tying her to the Underworld and forcing her to return for one third of every year.
In Hannibal, the Underworld isn’t so much a tangible place as it is a state of mind. This Underworld is represented by the darkness of the psyche, how far someone can go until they finally tumble into the psychotic, horrific and distinctly evil. Hannibal Lecter rules this mindset; he is a cannibalistic psychopath yet he is able to float through the world with charming ease. Will, on the other hand, is pulled into this horrific darkness by the two men he trusts the most. Hannibal, like Hades, believes that brining Will into his own domain is the best for both of them while Jack, like Zeus, pushes Will to madness for his own benefit. Alana serves as the role of Demeter, who is much distraught by what became of a man who was once so close to her. Jack and Alana have both served as semi-parental figures to Will throughout the first season, but it is not till this episode where the audience is able to see how much he relies and clings to them. When Alana determines that Jack is partially to blame for Will’s predicament, she prevents the FBI from flourishing by calling an inside investigation and even serves as a possible threat to the livelihood of the establishment. She persists in her efforts to retrieve Will from the Underworld, and slowly but surely he makes his way back. He sometimes experiences moments of clarity, and even his act of making himself seem in need of Hannibal’s attention as a means of manipulation serves as evidence that he is becoming more lucid as each day passes. Even when Will breaks out of the physical and metaphorical prison that he is trapped in, he is still intrinsically tied to Hannibal Lecter. This respite then ends and as the season progresses, Will gradually re-enters his Underworld to rule alongside Hannibal as he aids him in creating unconventional works of human art. Then, he serves as the cannibal’s other half, gaining his trust and establishing himself as a member of the psychotic. During the killer/veal dinner scene, as Hannibal sits across from an empty seat with only a pomegranate as a placeholder, it is evident that he awaits Will’s return as the Queen of his own personal Underworld. 

The cursed nature that Will might carry extends into the flights of altered perception that he experiences throughout this season.  Hugh Dancy walks such a fine line with his acting, as much like Hannibal in Season 1, he’s required to play a character who’s often playing a character.  Or two.  Or three.  His breakdown in front of Alana and Hannibal at the open of this episode is revealed to be an elaborate emotional con when he returns to his basement cell.  When he pleads with Beverly for help (in a mirror of Anthony Hopkins’s quid pro quo speech in Silence of the Lambs), he seems sincere.  But in the episodes to come, his descent back into Lecter’s psychological dungeon calls much of that sincerity into question.  It’s a disorienting ride for the character and the audience, yet another symbiotic connection fraught with peril.  

Leftovers ahoy:

*Now that he’s incarcerated, the tenor of Will’s empathic visions has changed.  Instead of the classic image of the gold pendulum erasing the crime scene and placing him into a fugue state, he’s now instantly transported into the photographs that he examines.  At the same time, we get our first glimpse of Hannibal’s version of Will’s visions, his highly attuned sense of smell placing him firmly within the golden cornfield that will lead him to the body spiral.

*And speaking of visions, the extensive eyeball motif in this episode can also be interpreted as yet another callback to Garret Hobbs’s “See!  See!” (itself another echo of similar lines by Francis Dolarhyde.)

*In another echo of “Amuse-Bouche”, we see Jack pouring out his guilt over Will to his psychiatrist (played by the great Martin Donovan), just as Will began to pour out his guilt over killing Garret Jacob Hobbs to Hannibal in that earlier episode.  The irony of Jack’s feelings is that he later essentially gives implicit consent for Beverly to continue picking Will’s brain for help, thus once again inadvertently dooming a subordinate of his to Hannibal’s murderous advances.

*Bedelia’s visit to Will at episode’s end (and her confirmation that she believes him) will prove to be the thread of sanity that Will clings to the most as he formulates his plan against Hannibal.  But it also becomes a much more complicated matter in view of her eventual siding with her former patient.

*I failed to mention it in the “Kaiseki” essay, but I love the cage that Will sits in at Baltimore State during his interviews.  That line of individual pens is such a striking image, fully in keeping with the show’s Gothic sensibilities while also emphasizing the medieval cruelty of Frederick Chilton’s house of horrors.