Monday, May 25, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 16: "Hassun"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

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.”     


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