(S P O I L E R S)
In which we're maintaining our position on the event horizon of chaos.
"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
–William Blake/The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
…and in these two episodes, Bryan Fuller manages to redefine excess in the televisual context like no one has before him. I made great hay out of the subversive nature of “Naka-Choko”’s ending, but the build up to what lies at the end of “Tome-Wan” manages to up the ante for shock in this setting. For as decadent and excessive as Hannibal Lecter can be, his is a mostly refined sense of these traits. Mason Verger has no such limits or restraints.
In my previous essay, I discussed the career of Michael Pitt, and of his premature departure from Hannibal following Season 2. Knowing about his impending absence while rewatching these final two episodes in which he appears adds a touch of melancholy to the proceedings. Which is a weird thing to say about a closing act that includes heavy implications of child molestation and incest, while also dabbling in tear-stealing, man-eating pigs, and face-shredding. But Pitt is obviously having such a blast playing Mason, taking great delight in the melodramatic excesses of this warped man-child (his baby face is a great and creepy complement to this.) There are larger than life characters aplenty in this show, but up to this point they’ve all been generally tethered to some semblance of cohesion and linear logic. Mason shatters that mold as a man completely consumed by his own privilege and excesses, his insane wealth carrying with it the curse of youth, while allowing him to take on a persona that represents the id unleashed. So much of this run of Season 2 episodes has focused on Hannibal and Will debating man’s true nature, and of reconciling the beastly with the mannered. But Mason is the bombastic end game for such a philosophy, an avatar of carnage amidst a legion of defenders of the norm.
And so logically that end game must lead to total consumption via excess. Which brings us to the scene that tops even Hannibal and Will dining on what is ostensibly Freddie Lounds while debating the nature of God. Hannibal’s core fanbase was aware of Mason’s gruesome origin story from the book and film of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, but even in the context of this show’s grand guignol tradition, nothing can quite prepare the viewer for the sight of Michael Pitt slicing off his own face and feeding it to Will’s dogs. And then, prompted by Hannibal, eating his own nose. It’s the culmination of a Lecter-infused drug trip gone bad, but it’s also the penance for his sins: after a lifetime of feeding on others, he’s only left to devour himself.
What’s really interesting about Mason’s fate is how, much like other parts of Hannibal, it combines aspects of future storylines in the Lecterverse canon with this prequel setting. Hence, Mason captures Hannibal with the intention of throwing him to the carnivorous pigs, which serves as the climax of Harris’s book of Hannibal. And it’s not the only example of this tricky chronology on display here. In “Ko No Mo”, what appears to be Freddie Lounds’s flaming corpse in a wheelchair is rolled down the ramp of an indoor parking garage. Longtime Lecter fans know this image intimately: it’s the ultimate fate of the original, male Freddie at the hands of Francis Dolarhyde. But with the revelation that this incarnation of Freddie is still alive, and in on Jack and Will’s plot to catch Hannibal, the possibility of that well-known death is muddled considerably. Fuller has shown a strong willingness to toy with the preconceived Lecterverse, so there’s every reason to believe that this Freddie will last well into the Tooth Fairy storyline. But as with the other references to previous Lecter films, it also simultaneously lends the proceedings an eerie sense of déjà vu and foreshadowing. Which is perfect for a series that deals so heavily in the rupturing of time, in all its permutations.
That rupture mirrors Will’s fractured psyche, but it also loops back into the viral influence of Hannibal Lecter on the very fabric of the show. Lest the audience forget this, the return of Bedelia DuMaurier is presented as a firm reminder. Drawn back into an FBI interview with Will and Jack, she’s willing to implicate her former patient (or is it psychiatrist) in many things, but even she admits that his main crime is persuasion, not coercion. And even as she advises that he “can get lost in self-congratulation”, she also offers a stinging rebuke to Jack about his chances of conquering over him (“If you think you're about to catch Hannibal, that's because he wants you to think that. Don't fool yourself into thinking he's not in control of what's happening.”) Once again, Gillian Anderson is a treat in the role of Bedelia. Her coy, enigmatic demeanor gives the lie to even her most sincere moments, especially when retroactively considering her eventual season-ending flight to Europe with the fugitive cannibal. It’ll be interesting to see how Season 3 further explores her motivations in this arena. Part of me would like to think that her growing sense of contempt for Jack Crawford’s efforts leads her into Hannibal’s arms. But she also tells him that “Nothing makes us more vulnerable than loneliness”, so perhaps she’s laying out her cards without us knowing about it.
Many a viewer will sympathize with this “It’s Hannibal’s world; we’re just living in it” sentiment. From a Manichean standpoint, the series can be seriously frustrating at times, as Lecter has an answer for almost every attempt to stop him. It’s also entirely organic to a narrative that trades in surrealism and a hallucinatory psychogeography. Indeed, by this point it’s probably a mistake to think of Hannibal as a serial killer thriller with outre tendencies. It’s more like the ethereal materialization of Bacon and Bosch’s hellscapes, with slight touches of the normal grafted on. Just as Will flirts with madness in his pursuit of Hannibal, so too does the viewer flirt with the outer reaches of standard moral and ethical boundaries in devouring the show. And just as Hannibal himself debates the true meaning of God in a seemingly blank universe, so too does the audience consider the potentially nihilistic concept of no guiding force to re-establish right and wrong in the Lecterverse. Giving yourself over to the demented pleasures of that form is an integral part of fully appreciating this thriller/philosophy lesson/voyage to the inner abyss. And as Hannibal has proven so far, doing so can be an utterly thrilling endeavor.
Some penultimate leftovers:
*I’ve said it before, but for all her poor romantic choices, it can never be debated that Alan Bloom is potentially the moral center of the show. Her earnest sense of justice and fairness in a world that seems to scoff at those concepts is so moving, especially in the climactic scene of “Ko No Mo”, in which she rails at Jack for the web of lies he’s spun, only to have her world doubly upended by the reveal of Freddie’s survival.
*“Tome-Wan”’s standoff between Hannibal and Will features some of James Hawkinson’s most daring cinematography, as he frames both men as being almost completely overwhelmed by the shadow the other in the foreground. It seems like a fairly small part of the episode’s visual scheme, but even in micro form it’s a bold gambit for a show of this format.
*Unless I’m forgetting someone, Mason is the first of Hannibal’s patients that we see lying on the couch in his office. Which obviously makes him very uncomfortable, as he motions the trust fund maniac back to the chair facing him. And for as much as Hannibal considers Mason to be a gauche menace, he’s also one of the only characters to make him crack an authentic grin.
*During Margot’s hysterectomy, was I the only one who saw Mason and company’s red scrubs as a nod to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers?
*“I’m full of myself!” (Mason, post-nose dinner.)
*“What game of chicken are you and the sperm donor playing, Dr. Lecter? (Mason, to Hannibal)