(S P O I L E R S)
In which it feels like I’m talking to his shadow, suspended on dust.
“I have seen dogs and many creatures…I mean the Devil…He said he would give me fine things, if I did what he would have me.” -Abigail Hobbs (April 19, 1692)
Though the battle of wills/dark romance between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter drives the narrative of Hannibal’s first season, Abigail Hobbs forms the center around which this and other major conflicts revolve. She’s arguably the least intimidating character in the show, and yet the sheer force of her presence is mesmerizing. It’s a credit to Kacey Rohl, who gives a real powerhouse of a performance as the last survivor of the Hobbs clan. The trauma that both binds Abigail and Will and thrusts them into interior darkness is one whose deep effects require both characters to mutate into open maws of grief and pain. The trajectory of Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of this traumatic agony is aided by Will’s already-autistic tendencies. But as Abigail, Rohl has little prep time before her embrace of the destructive chaos that envelops her; she only has a few brief scenes of relative domestic tranquility in “Apertif” before her father’s murder and her subsequent coma. When she finally awakens in “Potage”, it’s from a pre-credits vision in which her caressing of a dead deer morphs into her hand running through a dead woman’s hair (the brownish tree branches on her hospital room wallpaper are a nice counterpoint to the lush yellow and orange leaves of her vision). But like Will, the end of her dance in the nightmare netherworld brings no respite, only the sense that she has brought the nightmare back into reality with her.
The challenge that Rohl faces is how to portray a character that must be such a raw nerve of fear and anxiety, while also maintaining enough of a connection to emotional equilibrium to keep the mystery of her potential complicity with her father’s murders intact. From a physical standpoint, her penetrating blue eyes, offset by an open face, allow her to vacillate between wide-eyed terror and trenchant, almost accusatory glares. But it’s her utter commitment to the emotional depths into which Abigail must plunge that really makes the role. Her physical abandon during her awakening, and during her murder of Nicholas Boyle, is akin to the apex of an exorcism.
And that’s appropriate, considering the context of her historical namesake. Abigail Hobbs was a 14 year-old girl accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials, and one of the prime witnesses to confess to covenanting with the Devil (the quote that leads off this essay is from her testimony.) Seeing Hannibal’s Abigail through this lens lends her plight that much added depth and complexity. It makes this episode the beginning of her trial, as everyone involved casts shades of doubt on her supposed innocence, turning her into more of an object to be dissected than a traumatized human being (for as much gravitas as Laurence Fishburne brings to the role of Jack Crawford, he’s also ruthlessly mercenary in favoring Hannibal’s advice to interview Abigail over Alana’s more cautious tone.) Knowing that the real life Abigail was, in many ways, the product of internecine social warfare and the mass hysteria that resulted from it makes the viewer both sympathize with her and question her motivations at every step. The pre-credits flashback to what is seemingly her first father-daughter hunt paints Garret as a man driven to mold his daughter in his image…but it’s still her version of events.
There’s a strong hint of the Electra Complex made physically manifest in Abigail, as she draws a series of father figures to her, while keeping a safe distance from the women who offer her help (granted, there aren’t many who do so in this season, although there’s always a hint of tension between Alana’s growing romantic involvement with Will and his obsession with saving Abigail.) From what little is portrayed of her home life, she’s very attached to her father, his murder affecting her much more than that of her mother (her flashback to the cabin has an uncomfortable, barely concealed erotic air to it.) Will is drawn to her as a means of redemption for his murder of Garret and for the toll of his visions, but he will also assume a fatherly role in trying to guide her out of the darkness (one which she will gladly embrace. As she says when proposing a reenactment of the murder “You be my dad, and you be my mom…”, further invoking the Electra Complex.) He also reverses this complex when he dreams of slashing her throat in order to make everything better, salvation and assumption of the Hobbs mantle mingling in a viscous release. And, of course, there’s Hannibal, the ultimate dark father. His offer to assist her in covering up the murder of Nicholas Boyle (“I can help you, if you ask me to”) is seemingly a direct reference to the Salem Abigail’s admission of her pact with the Devil. But it’s also reminiscent of classic vampire mythology, in which they can only enter someone’s house if invited.
This vampiric concept is also given a fascinating and oblique spin when Alana introduces the concept of Folie à deux during her conversation with Abigail when they return to the Hobbs house. The psychological theory of the potential for madness to be shared between two people (or more, in its extended versions), it’s meant to offer a potential explanation for the possibility that Garret Hobbs’s psychosis could be passed along to his daughter. But it also provides a motif that pervades this episode: the gradual creep of insanity that spreads amongst the characters like an expanding pool of blood.
I’ve theorized before about how Hannibal acts as a sort of viral agent in the show, not only slowly infecting Will, but Alana, Jack, the FBI…even the visuals and sound design reflect his decadent, fantastical mind the further along we go. “Potage” seems to support this conceit, although it also calls into question whether Hannibal is the carrier of the madness or just the provocateur who encourages its development. It’s early in the show’s run, but Will already has a strong notion of the characteristics of the Minnesota Shrike copycat; Hannibal walks into his classroom right as he’s listing those attributes to his students. So the machinations that Lecter puts into motion in this episode (encouraging Jack to let Will talk to Abigail, knocking out Alana at the Hobbs house and then aiding Abigail in the cover up) make sense from a self-preservational standpoint. They also present the possibility that Abigail is the Typhoid Mary of this storyline, her traumatized innocence actually a vessel for the oceans of insanity that threaten to burst forth.
And burst they do, wherever they come from, in the stunning climax, in which the tensions that have been building throughout the episode explode into a cathartic, horrifying rampage of violence. An already on-the-edge Abigail lays witness to the aftermath of the ritual slaughter of her friend Marissa (impaled in the antler room, another canny chess move by Hannibal) in her father’s cabin. When she returns home, the insanity continues to flow freely. Marissa’s mother accuses her of killing her daughter, Freddie Lounds (who’s everywhere in “Potage”, manipulating the proceeedings as much as Hannibal) accosts her about a potential biography, and after discovering the human hair of one of Garret’s victims in a deer-adorned pillow, she’s then confronted by a distraught Nicholas Boyle, fearing for his life. Her gutting of him with a hunting knife is the awful emotional zenith of the emotional turmoil coursing through this episode. Once again, Brian Reitzell’s music is a star in its own right. Throughout “Potage” he utilizes a symphonic cacophony of atonal and dissonant soundscapes to immerse the viewer in the growing chaos. The combination of the hair pillow and Nicholas’s reappearance is accompanied by a full onslaught of strings, pandemonium reigning as the blood flows.
It’s only through Hannibal, coldly rational as always, that the chaos finally ends. As in “Amuse-Bouche”, DP James Hawkinson uses rack focus to frame him as a slightly blurry presence alongside the person upon whom he’s casting his spell (Will in that episode, Abigail in this one). Like Will, Abigail also addresses him from the upper level when she visits his office after escaping from the hospital. And like her would-be protector, she’s lured down into Hannibal’s abyss, their mutual secrets the bond that will tie them together throughout this season.
And now for the leftovers:
*It really is amazing how much Freddie Lounds manipulates so many plot threads this early in the show. You can see why Hannibal views her as a threat, but also how his nimble mind realizes how useful she can be in this ever-evolving chess game.
*Also, I might be stretching a bit here, but I’m struck by how much this shot of Freddie speaking with Abigail recalls her couch scene with Hannibal in “Amuse-Bouche”, in which her red outfit is contrasted with his cool blue suit and couch (she’s also once again on the left side of the frame.) Add in her leopard skin dress and there’s another strong visual connection between her and the show’s titular cannibal.
*James Hawkinson bathes this episode in earth tones both bright (the leaves in the forest) and warmly welcoming (the suburban décor of the Hobbs house), which makes the carnage that is unleashed upon this visual landscape all the more unsettling, and a violation of everything that is supposed to be reassuring about domestic life.
*”Miss Lounds, it’s not very smart to piss off a guy who thinks about killing people for a living” (Will, ill-fatedly bringing the funny to Freddie.)
*”It’s a hybrid. Great car for stalking.” (Alana, to Will)
*Will: “Abigail Hobbs doesn’t have anyone” Alana: “You can’t be her everyone.”
*”I don’t do well at redeeming gift cards” (Alana, to Will)
…..can you tell that I dig Caroline Dhavernas’s work on this show? After all, she is the only one with the insight that Abigail is hiding something.