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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 38: "The Number of the Beast is 666..."

In which this is a child of a nightmare.

“Fate has the habit of not letting us choose our own endings, Frederick.”
(Hannibal, to Chilton)

We’re in the end times, we are. This televisual, cinematic tale of a man cursed with hyper-empathic visions and his doppleganger/partner in crime/soulmate, a charming empathic vacuum, is about to shuffle off this mortal coil. Possibly to be reborn anew in another venue, in another format. In its wake, it leaves a sprawling fever dream fugue state of a narrative, one which gradually abandoned the strictures of its procedural roots to delve into the farthest corners of consciousness, of moral and ethical ambiguity, of the great question of humanity itself. Yet for as far afield as Hannibal trod during this version of its existence, for the ecstatic stylistic heights to which it soared (particularly in the more experimental passages of Season 2 and the first half of Season 3), it has returned to more earthly trappings for its climactic exploration of the Red Dragon’s Becoming. But as easily recognizable as this milieu might be, it has been irrevocably been altered by the channeling of what lies beyond consciousness, in those outer limits of the psyche and the soul. As the Red Dragon takes his inspiration from the Book of Revelation which spawned him, so too have these final episodes built toward the arrival of divine retribution.

And for the arrival of the Lamb of God, in the character of Will Graham. But even as he may bring divine wrath upon the wicked, this Lamb emerges from a realm in which God is not such an easily quantifiable entity. From the beginning, Bryan Fuller has used Hannibal as venue for examining the very concept of God and the God impulse. Season 1 mined a rich vein of commentary on irresponsible father figures, cod-manipulators whose biological and spiritual children were left to suffer as a result of neglect. Hannibal’s affinity with the Old Testament God, the God of theodicy, the one who impartially metes out suffering (or impartially allows it) has allowed him to view the world from a distant, godlike perspective (see his first view of the corpse spiral tableau in Season 2, or his reaching for the circle of light above in him in last week’s episode.) Jack Crawford might call him “the devil himself, bound in the pit” (another quote from Revelation, and more credence to the theory that while Francis Dolarhyde believes himself to be the Great Red Dragon, Hannibal Lecter is the one and only original version), but Hannibal’s response (“Then that makes you God, Jack…all gods demand sacrifices”) casts the purity of the deity from whence came the Lamb in terms most unflattering.

For in this world of moral ambiguity, the godlike figures of authority continually fail those held in their thrall. They’re wildly different shows, but this thematic angle recalls David Simon’s critique of modern institutions in The Wire. Like Fuller, Simon told his tales in a recognizable idiom, but took his inspiration from much more classical sources, notably the tropes of Greek tragedy (but with the failed institutions of Western Civilization, modern America, and the social strata of Baltimore standing in for the vengeful, often petty gods of yore.) And like those Greek myths, mere humans were often the hapless puppets of those deities, cast about by whims they often didn’t understand until death. (Quoth D’Angelo Barksdale “The king stay the king.” Attempt ascendance to the throne at thine own peril.)

“The Number of the Beast is 666…” revisits the puppet-like state of those underneath the gods one last time in capsule form. Its narrative arc is almost exclusively preoccupied with the price of manipulation. Once again, the generally moral Jack stands tall as a manipulator par excellence. His first appearance, in conference with Will and Alana, is centered upon tricking the Tooth Fairy into giving himself up. The scene even opens with Will saying “Got me on the hook, Jack. Now you’re dangling me to catch a bigger fish.” Christ instructed his followers to be fishers of men, but this is taking things to the extreme. For as fond of the straight and narrow as he is, Jack shares Hannibal’s penchant for the zero sum game, for justifying any actions as necessary for a goal’s attainment (see the overlapping of Hannibal’s reflection onto Jack during his visit to his cell.) Thus his drawing back of Will into the sick and sordid world that almost proved to be his undoing once before, but this time with the collateral damage of a wife and child hanging in the balance. As Alana reprimands both he and Will “You once fooled yourselves to believe that you were in control of what was happening. Are you still under that delusion?”

But Alana’s protestations also ring hollow, as she readily throws the Red Dragon’s target onto Frederick Chilton’s back in order to save herself. I’ve discussed this before, but as Chilton, Raul Esparza has taken a character who was a stock villain in previous incarnations and turned him into a smarmy, cynical, hilarious, and often completely sympathetic human being. When he confesses his true fear of Hannibal to Alana in Season 2 (right before being plugged in the eye by Miriam Lass), it’s a moment of raw emotional vulnerability. And he really excels in this episode during his captivity in Francis’s house, glued to a chair and forced to recount the sins that landed him in this spot. Several times, DP James Hawkinson lets the camera linger on Esparza’s face for long, uninterrupted takes, and he really sells the complex mixture of loathing, fear, and panic that is coursing through Chilton’s head. Resident punching bad that he is, he’s finally burned alive in the famous wheelchair sentence that destroyed Freddie Lounds in previous incarnations of this story (and which served as the basis for the faking of Freddie’s death in this one.) But death will not come easily for Frederick Chilton, as he’s left alive as a burnt, blackened husk of a person, his lipless mouth left to wail in agony as he throws responsibility for his state back at Will.

Such responsibility is well-warranted for our intrepid FBI profiler. James Hawkinson’s cinematography has provided a gorgeous, often surreal sheen to Hannibal’s visual palate. but one of the most underrated aspects of it has been his mastery of framing, and the power dynamics expressed therein. And so it’s no surprise that when Freddie interviews Chilton for the Tattlecrime bait piece, Will is pictured directly behind him from a low angle, shaping his words for maximum shock effect, the puppetmaster through and through (note the dragon or snakelike rattling that Brain Reitzell utilizes on the soundtrack as Will pushes his vision of the diagnosis…and that Jack literally directs Freddie on how to shoot the two men by standing behind her.) This same blocking is repeated when Francis holds Chilton in captivity, albeit from an even more extreme low angle. Will and Francis become mirror images once again, the men with the vision looking to turn a mere mortal into the vessel for their message. And at the conclusion of the episode, after Chilton’s purpose has been achieved, Francis enlists Reba to be the new vessel for his gospel, the witness for the final act of his Becoming.

Before his untimely flaming wheelchair ride, Chilton does provide Will with one last, haunting bit of insight, as amidst his taunting of the Tooth Fairy to Freddie he plants the idea that opens this essay: that this homicidal monster is the child of a nightmare. The stunned look on Will’s face clearly shows that this concept hits home. Later on with Bedelia, he might slightly revel in his lack of surprise at Chilton’s fate, but these words from his old sparring partner/caretaker are a concise, perfect summary of the central fears that have plagued Will since we first encountered his tortured visage at the Marlow house in the series’ first episode. And if Bryan Fuller’s thoughts are anything to go on (he’s often stated that the Marlows are intended to be Francis Dolarhyde’s first victims), Chilton’s nightmare child observation, like many other plot threads throughout the show’s history, once again brings everything back full circle. Abigail Hobbs might have walked the line between sinner and saint in her role as Will’s surrogate child, and her death might have irrevocably scarred him, but Francis Dolarhyde is the true child of his subconscious, and (following the line of last week’s Fight Club self-flagellation reference) his own twisted version of Tyler Durden, a hulking beast of an introvert who allows himself to be fully subsumed by his darkest impulses.

So it is that all around him, Will sees his nearest and dearest murdered in the signature Red Dragon style, their eyes the mirrors that reflect back his sin. As Will puts it to Bedelia “The divine punishment of a sinner mirrors the sin being punished.” And as she advises him “We are all making our way through the Inferno.” Call it the Last Temptation of Will Graham. If he is to be the Lamb of God, if only his hand can unlock the seven seals and banish Satan to the pit for a thousand years, then he must first suffer for the sins of the many. He must first take his three day tour of Hell before his return to life. Gaining almost superhuman empathy with Hannibal warped his psyche, but there was something almost transcendentally romantic about their coupling. His identification with Francis Dolarhyde bears none of that romanticism, only the intoxication of power, and, just as Satan tempted Christ to use his divine power to leave the cross and smite his enemies, the prospect of becoming his own worst nightmare. (Note how his first two appearances in this episode are reveals from the rear right of his head, Hawkinson’s framing suggesting the darkness within him that he must now constantly draw himself out of.)

Ah, but there’s the tricky role of the Great Tempter once again. The Devil tricking the world into believing that he doesn’t exist. After all, that sly smirk that Will flashes to Bedelia upon admitting his lack of surprise at Chilton’s fate looks suspiciously like Hannibal’s grin after he learns of the same event. She opens the episode by brazenly intimating Hannibal’s love for Will (surely the most direct statement of the show’s massive elephant in the room), but she closes their second meeting at episode’s end with an even more chilling statement: “Hannibal Lecter does have agency in the world. He has you.” She also notes that he "may have well have struck the match" that burned Chilton, and that "That's participation" (a direct callback to Hannibal's retort to her in Florence from earlier in the season, when she was still trying to beg mere observation.) It’s the second time in this haunting hour that Will is struck dumb by a simple, yet profoundly unsettling insight. And it reminds the viewer that above all this episode’s arch manipulative forces, it’s the one who has the least physical power and presence, who’s been trapped in a room for three years, who is shot as a lone figure isolated inside an empty glass cage….he’s the one with the most power. Witness Satan tempting Christ during his forty days in the desert, almost exclusively using nothing but his words. And so too does Hannibal wreak so much havoc and bring about such apocalyptic fury only through the seductive, dulcet tones of his voice. Will has felt so much guilt for so many years over the collateral damage of his work, of his visions, but lately he has tread through the Valley of the Shadow of Death unscathed. Because he has unwittingly become Hannibal’s surrogate in this world. It’s the ultimate blow, the greatest temptation to a savior figure filled with righteous anger. And at episode’s end, Will is left to contemplate how exactly he can finish his season in Hell. And how he might once and for all emerge from the pit of darkness that has nearly enveloped everything about him.

And now for some penultimate leftovers:

*Kudos again to Richard Armitage for his phenomenal of Francis as the Red Dragon incarnate. Now fully immersed in his alter ego, he’s gained a newfound eloquence in his speech, and a stark mastery of his physical brutality. But the vulnerability he displays when Reba visits with soup remind us all that this is a sad, broken man, consumed by his worst instincts and fears of mortality.

*Note too how immediately after Hannibal tells Jack that gods demand sacrifices, the scene cuts to Francis in his attack raking his back with his fingernails, spreading the blood sacrifice down his copy of Blake’s Red Dragon painting.

*“You’re not a straight newspaper. You sell t-shirts that say ‘The Tooth Fairy is a one night stand’ “ (Will, to Freddie.)

*“I have seen a lot of hostility. But this was quantifiably bitchy!” (Chilton, to Hannibal, in response to his magazine article debunking the former’s book length defense of the latter’s insanity.)

*“That would have been your lip I was tasting. Again.” (Hannibal, to Alana, theorizing what would’ve happened if she had filled Chilton’s role. I think this qualifies as being quantifiably bitchy. Or, at the very least, funny.)

Monday, August 17, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 37: "...And the Beast from the Sea."

In which then you realized what I realized, which is that I can’t go home.

“Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast, and one is striving to forsake its brother.”
-Hannibal, channeling Goethe

Hannibal Lecter may be the most impactful, cross-cultural icon of the Thomas Harris literary/cinematic universe, his debonair charisma and sensual, predatory nature offering a pleasurable gateway into a world where finely cultivated depravity can be vicariously appreciated. Will Graham may be the archetypically stoic noir detective who serves as the emotional anchor for the audience. And in the hands of Hugh Dancy (via the words and vision of Bryan Fuller), he threatens to eclipse the beloved Clarice Starling as the primary force for good in this Lecterverse. But throughout all three adaptations of Harris’s second novel, one character has stood as the unsung backbone of the story, the impetus for dramatic progression who is too often forgotten in the ongoing discussions of this work. So as he has descended upon the narrative of what might be the final act of Hannibal, an all too fitting bringer of death to the proceedings, it’s well worth once again examining the Great Red Dragon himself, Francis Dolarhyde.

Hannibal has gained so much of its charm and lasting power from the psychological pyrotechnics between Hannibal and Will that even at this late stage, it can be easy to sideline Francis to a secondary focus.  It’s understandable from a practical standpoint, as he spends much of the story isolated from the two main characters whose lives he most deeply affects (although Fuller slyly connects Hannibal and Francis via the former’s theraputical fantasies, a nice counterpoint to the now formal, clinical meetings between Hannibal and Will…and a pleasant excuse to return Mads Mikkelsen to the womblike surroundings of his ornate office.) And by nature, Francis’s charisma is an often oblique matter at best. He displays none of Hannibal’s urbanity or Will’s smoldering sex appeal, relegated instead to evincing the pent-up frustrations of a man child tormented by his inner demons.

Which is what makes Richard Armitage’s turn as the would-be Red Dragon so fascinating, especially in comparison with the character’s previous screen incarnations. In Michael Mann’s Manhunter, character actor extraordinaire Tom Noonan ably captures the wounded outsider’s mien that so defines Francis.  Yet at times he seems to do so almost too effectively, interiorizing his existential conflict so much that the character comes across as somewhat of a cipher. And although Harris envisioned him as peaking 40, his transformation partially sparked by the specter of aging, Noonan’s already graying visage (he was only 35 at the time of the film’s release) subdues his essential childish bent. Bret Ratner’s glossy remake, Red Dragon, cast Ralph Fiennes as Francis, and he definitely embodies the more physically imposing presence that is an integral part of this lost soul. Fiennes’s crystal blue eyes also allow him to oscillate his gaze between childlike vulnerability and steely menace, a trait which defines much of Francis’s bifurcated psyche. But he’s also very much leading man material, and as compelling as he can be in the role, the viewer often gets the impression that this is a genuinely good looking man dressing up as a fractured pseudo-psychopath, blunting some of the impact of his character arc.

In splitting the difference between these two previous screen versions of the character, Armitage captures the essence of what makes him so frightening and tragic, crafting what has become the definitive filmed version of Francis Dolarhyde. In many ways he’s definitely as leading man handsome as Fiennes, but the subtle lengths to which he goes in portraying Francis appropriately dull much of that alluring façade. With his hair shorn into a tight buzz cut, he gains a militaristic loner’s edge, and his bulked up physique embodies Francis’s classic weightlifter’s presence while also adding enough weight to give him an almost babyfaced blankness in his features. The childlike, wounded nature at the center of his soul then comes through from a physical standpoint and through Armitage’s finely crafted mannerisms, the soulful hurt in his expressions and the often skittish leanings of his reactions.  But so much of the credit for his uncanny conveyance lies in the physical mastery he displays in the role. The actor has spoken about his discovery of the Japanese performance art Butoh (or The Dance of Death) as a key motivator for the controlled, conflicted movement he enacts as Francis; from week to week, it’s often a delight just to watch this man veer from economical prowling (anyone else think of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty when he searched the house for Reba in last week’s episode?) to wild, almost mechanical gesticulations. One such example comes in this week’s entry, in which he beats himself mercilessly for his perceived failings, all the while imagining the Red Dragon pummeling away at him. In his total physical commitment to the scene, he recalls Edward Norton’s smirking revenge on his boss in Fight Club, that great statement of modern male malaise and impotence. To believe that Francis truly feels possessed by the Dragon, it’s necessary to buy into the private war that tears him apart, and Armitage’s convulsions make the viewer believe that this is a man not entirely in control of himself.

Just who is in control stands as the central question of his arc, and of “..And the Beast from the Sea” itself. Following in the footsteps of the previous two week’s episodes, Bryan Fuller has once again named this entry after one of William Blake’s Red Dragon paintings, this one depicting the Dragon summoning the Beast from the Sea, a torch in one hand, a sword in the other. The Satanic Dragon’s purpose is to recruit the Beast into his war against the righteous. The previous two episodes (and Harris’s source material) have drawn parallels between Francis as the Dragon and Reba as the Woman Clothed in Sun, but the matter of the Beast complicates things somewhat. Indeed, the chief recruiter and seducer in this episode is clearly Hannibal, who advances his vengeance against Will by advising Francis to “Save yourself. Kill them all.”  He may assure him that “From the beginning, you and the Dragon have been one”, but in matters most Mephistophelian, the not so good doctor is the true great tempter (as Fuller has often said, he envisions Hannibal as a fallen angel.)

And this leads us back to the beginning of this essay…and to the end of the episode, specifically Hannibal’s quoting of Goethe’s Faust in his climactic confrontation with Will. As with most of his literary taunts, it’s mutable enough to cover several points of view. Of course, Hannibal has played Mephistopheles with Will all along, tempting him to the dark side (although there are deeper shades of grey inherent in that coupling than just good and evil.) And throughout this story arc, he’s goaded Francis into embracing the Red Dragon persona while also using him as his vessel for havoc. But the Faust quote emanates from the mouth of the titular character, deep amidst the interior conflict between his earthly genius and divine aspirations. By tossing this back to Will, Hannibal reinforces the warring factions within his onetime friend through the fractured lens of his new would-be protégé. Both blessed and cursed by visions reaching beyond the pale of the mortal veil, both men face the enduring temptation of transcending the mundane aspects of their lives. Will has tried to embrace the more stable aspects of his humanity through the family structure, but the frisson he experienced during his deepest immersion in Hannibal’s psychological hall of mirrors can’t be easily forgotten. After all, this is perhaps the only person who’s ever accepted his darkest impulses as an essential part of him, as a facet that can elevate him above humanity. As he tells Will in this scene “The essence of the worst in the human spirit is not found in the crazy sons of bitches. Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd.”

It’s such a deep divide that exists within Will, one that has only grown since the beginning of the series. His gravest fear, that the ghosts of his empathic visions might invade the physical world, has come true too often, costing him a friend in Beverly Katz and a surrogate daughter in Abigail Hobbs. Those losses packed the emotional heft of any well-sketched characters. And now, this Mark of Cain that deforms Will’s psyche has infected the lives of two people who have only received minimal screen time, but who carry with them a universal empathic weight. As he tries to explain Francis’s attack to his stepson Walter, Will can only inadvertently trap himself in an unwanted self-description: a killer who is caught and put in a mental hospital (Walter knows this truth all too well from Freddie Lounds’s Tattlecrime article.) Hugh Dancy is so affecting during his hospital scenes with Walter and Molly. There’s so much hurt in this man’s eyes, and so much added context for his angst from the two and a half seasons of context that Fuller and company have provided. Previous screen versions of Will have been tortured, but you really believe this incarnation’s lament that he will never escape his legacy and his awful empathic curse.  And yet, it’s instructive to note that after attempting to console Walter, he tells Jack Crawford “I had to justify myself to an 11-year old.”  It’s meant to be a statement of frustration, but there’s also a slight edge to Will’s voice, one laced with a hint of resentment for having to lower himself to the standards of a child…even if it’s his child. (Note how DP James Hawkinson physically isolates Will in the frame in the shot featured above, visually walling him off not only from his son, but from the intermittent confidante who has lured him away from his family.)

Does this make Will as much Hannibal’s prospective Beast from the Sea as Francis? Are Will and Francis the two souls dwelling in Hannibal’s breast? Or are all of these characters dealing with the Faustian bargains they’ve struck to reach this point? After all, Will’s soul has been sold as much to Jack as to Hannibal, who long ago sacrificed a key chunk of his humanity to his inner clinical darkness. What’s undeniable is the overwhelming darkness that’s taken over Hannibal in its possibly final days, an encroaching sense that there is truly no return to the lives that these characters formerly inhabited, and to the homes in which they found solace. What remains is only the change which Hannibal describes in his final lines, the evolution toward something beyond the previous strictures of existence. For at a certain point, flirtations with darkness cease to retain their relative safety, transforming into a full embrace. Into a becoming.

On to this week’s leftovers:

*As likeable as he may be, the opening meeting between he, Will, and Alana (in which forcing Francis into suicide is discussed) once again shows what a cold and calculating presence Jack can be, especially when driven to stop a serial killer. To quote Will “Jack Crawford, fisher of men, watching my cork move against the current. You got me again.”

*Walter’s desire to watch baseball seems a bit odd (especially since the current story arc seems to be set in mid-winter), until you remember that in Harris’s Red Dragon, his biological father received a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals before dying of throat cancer. It’s the fine line that Fuller often walks between reverence for the source material and translation for an audience unfamiliar with said source (which can make you think that Molly’s coma vision of a baseball being hit three times is a winking act of trolling the more analytical section of the audience.)

*Finally, thirty-seven episodes in, we get Hannibal Lecter in a version of his classic Silence of the Lambs mask. And in a neat twist on the comparable scene in that film, Alana is the one stripping his cell of comforting accoutrements instead of Chilton.

*“You have hubbed Hell, Dr. Lecter” (Jack) “I often do.” (Hannibal)
-Okay, two things here. First, how often do you hear someone use hub as a verb? Just another reason to love this show. It’s a direct quote from Jack in Harris’s novel, but in that work he’s directing it toward Freddie Lounds. And speaking of Freddie…with two episodes to go, have we seen the last of Lara Jean Chorostecki? I certainly hope not.

*“How do you imagine he’s contacted me? Personal ads? Writing notes of admiration on toilet paper?” (Hannibal, to Will, theorizing about Francis’s preferred mode of communication. It’s a wry bit of dialogue that pays tribute to the decidedly analog avenues by which he made contact with Hannibal in the previous versions of Red Dragon.)            

*When Hannibal asks Will what he sees when he closes his eyes (the implication being his family…and him murdering them) it recalls the moment in Season 2’s “Mizumono” when he advised him “You can make it all go away. Put your head back. Close your eyes. Wade quietly into the stream”. That entreaty came in the midst of stabbing Will in the stomach, but it also offers a neat parallel to the ocean imagery that haunts Francis in this episode. Will once found peace in the placidity of the stream, but it’s the tumultuous sea that threatens to engulf him (and potentially turn him into its Beast.)