(S P O I L E R S)
In which I can give you the majesty of your becoming.
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat.. drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost...
It is the driving force, the dark, pulsating heart of Hannibal this claustrophobic tension between the clinical world of quantifiable psychiatry and the lurking, illogical pandemonium of the dream world. The Silence of the Lambs derived great power from Hannibal Lecter’s acumen with hyper-logical mind games, and the its sequel indulged his more operatic, decadent sensibilities. But Bryan Fuller’s aim is to plumb the depths of the mind without a certifiable expectation for any easy diagnosis. To touch madness. To experience every corner of the inky 3am world where fantasy and reality engage in a dance of erotic phantasmagoria, a Jungian melding of the indefinable twin impulses of our lives.
And at the center of it all, sweating through his pillow night after night, gripped by the mania that so many of us have felt in the middle of the night, when rational solutions seem wholly inadequate, lies Will Graham. The latest in a long line of heroic loners, possessed by a vision quest not of his choosing. God’s Lonely Man, as Thomas Wolfe might say. A seer schooled in the cold logic of murderous intent and damaged psyches, but also one who’s had the curtain of reality drawn ever so slightly back for him. Who’s been given a glimpse of the anarchic glories that lie behind it, wild flights of fancy that occasionally kiss the quotidian through a barrier more gossamer than most realize.
A man whose profound isolation and loneliness often leave him only with the sound of his heart, and of the guilt that consumes it, to drive him mad. And to taunt him with the question: “Why?” And maybe more importantly: “How much more?” In “Coquilles”, the standout fifth episode of Hannibal’s maiden voyage, that taunting grows deafening.
I found an island in your arms
Country in your eyes
Arms that chain
Eyes that lie
Break on through to the other side
(“Break on Through”/The Doors)
Beverly Katz may be a supporting player in the Hannibal universe whose purpose often seems to involve providing exposition alongside comic sidekicks Zeller and Price(although her eventual murder at Hannibal’s hands marks a turning point in the show’s narrative arc), but she’s given one of the key lines in “Coquilles”, one which illuminates many of this episode’s messianic aims. As she and the forensics team perform the autopsy on one of the Angel Maker’s victims, she notes that “Death makes angels of us all, and gives us wings where we had shoulders, smooth as raven’s claws.” Zeller guesses Robert Frost as the quote’s source, but Will correctly credits Jim Morrison. “Even a drunk with a flair for the dramatic can convince himself that he’s God” she quips. “Or the lizard king.”
Pop culture consensus has made it acceptable to venerate Frost as a transcendent poet, while relegating Morrison to the status of drunken buffoon spouting fourth grade poetry. But Frost could produce material that was resolutely traditional, and Morrison’s rock star status and confrontational persona often obscured his Rimbaud and Blake-influenced visions of profound existential questing. The hazy line between these two celebrity poets of the 20th Century is part and parcel of our definition of genius and insight. It’s also a split diopter of the sacred and the profane through which to view much of what occurs in this episode.
The most obvious allusion to Frost that Bryan Fuller provides the audience comes in the pre-credits sequence when Elliot Buddish (the Angel Maker) gazes upon two of his prospective victims at his hotel, seeing only their heads aflame (one of the series’ most striking images). In a state of agitation, he averts his gaze into the bucket of ice he’s gone to collect. It’s a direct reference to Frost’s “Fire and Ice”, his famous vision of the twin forces of apocalyptic destruction. In a show filled with dichotomous tension, these forces stand comfortably alongside dreams and reality, logic and madness.
In a greater sense, Frost’s poetry often explores the outer reaches of isolation, and the potential for inner destruction therein. And it’s here that he finds kinship with Morrison, whose travels along the road of excess toward enlightenment was shared by many, but which was still at heart the voyage of a solitary man. The transformative power of Morrison’s onstage persona, and the backbone of his continuing legacy, was his total commitment to performance as a means of transcendence, a nightly act of giving yourself over to the oft erratic impulses in the air. It’s what made him a mesmerizing force of nature at his best, and a drunken buffoon at his worst. But such is the sacrifice and the peril of commitment to capturing the essence of the shaman.
Such a shamanic imperative is at the heart of Will Graham’s vision quest, his dark romance of a duet with the other side. It’s only by channeling the twisted psyches of his subjects, by almost completely giving himself over to them, that’s he’s able to fully comprehend their obscene motivations. Elliot Buddish provides the most harrowing mirror image for him yet. Though according to his wife he’s not a religious man, the onset of his brain tumor inspires thoughts most divine in his mind. His quest to transform sinners into saints through a grotesque transfiguration of the flesh echoes the Old Testament philosophy of redemption through blood sacrifice. It also gives Will a view of the dark side of revelation, a reality that only seems a half step away from his. Transfiguration reigns over this episode, as Bella Crawford reveals her cancer diagnosis by intellectually dissecting the cold and emotionless calculus that the cancer employs in taking over her lungs. And Buddish is clearly a precursor to the mythical chaos that will be wrought by Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon himself (the quote that leads off this essay is from Will’s nightmare vision of Buddish, a direct reference to a famous Dolarhyde line. It’s also a parallel to Hannibal’s Cassie Boyle murder tableau subconsciously mirroring Will’s previous visions of Theresa Marlow’s gored body, yet another example of the waking world freely intermingling with the dreamscape. And don’t forget the psychosexual transformative desire of Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill.)
In biblical terms, Will hews to the classic model of the prophet, endowed with an almost spiritual sense of insight that is both gift and curse. He’s doomed to be rejected (although in this case, the rejection is mostly self-inflicted) and, as I mentioned in a previous essay, to endure a sort of reverse Cassandra complex, sentenced to a life recreating the events of the past, paralyzed to change them in any way. But this paralysis also tears apart his psyche, transforming him into what he sees as the manifestation of his worst fears. And the only person who seems to empathize with the wicked power of his visions is a vaccum of empathy who revels in playing both God and Devil.
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
(“The End”/The Doors)
Though there are certainly religious overtones in parts of Hannibal, “Coquilles” is the first episode to address the topic of a divine presence in such explicit fashion. And the question of an absentee God hangs heavy over the proceedings. During their conversation about the Angel Maker, Hannibal tells Will that “Any idea of God comes from many different areas of the mind working together in unison.” Later, Will says of the Angel Maker “His mind has turned against him, and there’s no one there to help.” Once again, he clearly realizes his brotherhood with Elliot Buddish, their mutual cry for relief from a damaged psyche.
But this exchange also begs the question: If our conception of God comes from the mind, does the revolt of the mind also equal the revolt/failure of God? On a deeper level, does Will’s fear for his sanity mask a despair for a potentially godless universe, in which that curtain between dreams and reality is due to fall at any moment? Granted, it’s a somewhat Lovecraftian notion, but seen from the perspective of this man on the edge (which is our viewpoint for much of the show), it’s worth considering. It’s also deeply complicated by the eventual revelation of Will’s encephalitis and the effect it has on his perception of reality, although how many prophets of all ages (Elliot Buddish included) have walked that line between medical malady and divine insight? At the scenes of Buddish’s crimes, DP James Hawkinson employs a God’s eye POV of Will, the camera slowly descending towards him, Hugh Dancy looking for all the world like a penitent man in search of something beyond his world, staring straight into the face of God…but a God whose handiwork betrays his vengeful intent.
If God is absent, then Will is left with Jack and Hannibal to stand in for him, each man manipulating his abilities to their own effect. It’s in “Coquilles” that Hannibal first firmly plants the seeds of dissent between Jack and Will, telling his patient that gods often abandon their creations, while also referring to his service to Jack as a deal with the Devil. The irony is delicious, as it’s Hannibal whose calculated oscillation between God and Devil figure leaves Will as his ultimate creation, and his ultimate experiment. His fascination with the fungible nature of spiritual enlightenment can be summed up in his comments to Will about Buddish:
“You want to feel such sweet and easy peace. The Angel Maker wants that same peace. He hopes to feel his way cautiously inside and then find it's endless, all around him… You accept the impossibility of such a feeling, whereas the angel maker is still chasing it.”
Part of Hannibal might rationalize the impossibility of this ocean of peace, but his curiosity about the mental impulse that drives anyone to search for it also drives him to prod Will into the deeper recesses of that journey. Judeo-Christian beliefs often portray the grace of God as an all-encompassing embrace of love. As a God figure in his life, Hannibal offers Will that same comforting embrace. But it’s an embrace of enveloping darkness.