(S P O I L E R S)
In which this is the nightmare that followed him out of his dreams.
It’s all about that final scene, isn’t it? All of the feinting, and lingering glances, and circling around each other? All of it meant to build to one of the most subversive scenes in, at the very least, network television history, if not the annals of the medium in general. The one in which the ostensible protagonist and the ostensible antagonist (although we’ve long since abandoned reductive definitions like those in the context of Hannibal) sit down to dine on what is heavily implied to be the body of a just recently butchered, petite female journalist. In which they continue their long-standing personal symposium on the nature of God, punctuated by that ostensible protagonist tossing out “You can't reduce me to a set of influences. I'm not the product of anything. I've given up good and evil for behaviourism.” And in which they finish off the episode with a knowing grin between them, the conclusion of a tete-a-tete laden with homoerotic undertones (itself the conclusion of a long-gestating homoeroticism in said relationship.)
See, Hannibal non-converts? This is what you’ve been missing in the late hours of Friday night prime time for the past two years. Let the show’s move to Thursday nights serve as a wake up call.
It’s so strange discussing the anarchic glee that Hannibal displays in the latter stages of Season 2 from an objective perspective, because longtime viewers (or writers who decide to shotgun the entire run in a month and a half for an essay series) have, much like Will Graham with Hannibal, become so inured to the freaky stylistic timbre of the narrative that a scene like the aforementioned one just seems like a logical progression of the plot. Granted, when I think back to watching this episode for the first time a year ago, it seemed deeply disturbing…although part of me had to figure that all was not as it seemed. And in retrospect, knowing that so much of what we see in these penultimate episodes is the carefully crafted product of Will’s design, his grand plot to catch Hannibal once and for all, some of the shock is lessened. But his deep dive into Lecter’s abyss is not without its ambiguous implications. In a recent interview with Backstage, Hugh Dancy noted that Will remains somewhat of a mystery to him, that he tries to embrace the more nebulous aspects of the character in portraying him. This is why Hannibal is still such a thrilling experience the second time around: the radical psychological dialectic refuses easy answers on the moral and ethical spectrum.
This two episode run is a sterling example of such a dialectic, its narrative thrust trading in the role of animal instinct in human lives. Once again, the killer of the week device is employed as commentary on the main storyline, although the tale of animal trapped in a human body Randall Tier invades that central story in a more severe manner than most of the show’s pop-up psychopaths. In a near-repeat of his warning to Garret Jacob Hobbs, Hannibal advises Randall of the FBI’s approaching hoofbeats. But his greater intent this time is to push his former patient toward murdering Will, or at least toward testing the boundaries of Will’s growing commitment to their relationship. There’s much discussion between Will and Hannibal about the need to embrace their animalistic side. In analyzing one of Randall’s murders, Will tells Jack that “He wants to maul. There’s nothing personal about this” and that “He’s not denying its natural instincts. He’s evolving them” (in regards to the appropriation of the predatorial instinct.) In “Naka-Chono”, when Will’s empathic vision of Randall’s killer delivers him into a discussion with this man that he just slaughtered and hung on an animal skeleton, his victim states that “This is my becoming. And it’s yours.”
It’s another in the show’s long line of foreshadowings to the eventual arrival of Francis Dolarhyde, but it also cements the uneasy question of what dark instincts are growing within Will. Early on in “Shiikazana”, Hannibal prods him about his fantasy of murdering him (by manipulating the nightmare stag that has haunted him since he killed Garret Hobbs, which also serves as a direct nod to one of young Hannibal’s more gruesome murders in the prequel Hannibal Rising.) Will’s response (“I felt a quiet sense of power”) could be applied to so many of the disturbed, impotent individuals in the Lecterverse, all chasing after a dominance that flirts with the divine. It’s no mistake that animal imagery is so closely associated with these would-be pupae. Jame Gumb’s Death’s-head Hawkmoth, Dolarhyde’s Red Dragon, Mason Verger’s pigs (more on them in a moment): all of these men aspire to transcendence by regressing themselves to their basest instincts, mirrored by the way in which so many of Hannibal’s murder tableaus elevate their very human victims to near-transcendent works of art. Will Graham may never fully reach the depths of impotence that they all inhabit, but he comes close to touching it, enough so to rip away at the fabric of his sanity. His self-defense-driven murder of Randall Tier is morally sound, but the manner in which he delivers up the corpse to Hannibal as a peace offering can’t just be dismissed as part of his plan. Those actions scar Will in ways that are still left to be explored.
Scars and the animal instinct both serve large roles in “Naka-Mono”, in which the death of Randall Tier appears to release his instincts into the veins of the plot. In a surreal and somewhat queasy sequence, Hannibal continues his seduction of Alana by comparing the musical qualities of his Theremin to their love making (which is all shot with a near-impressionist sheen by James Hawkinson.) The scene is crosscut with Margot’s seduction of Will (to produce the male heir she needs to inherit the Verger fortune?), their exploration of their mutual physical and mental scars the animalistic foreplay, Hannibal’s distant voice the narration “guiding them from dissonance to composition.” And then, in a truly audacious sequence, the two sexual couplings are merged in a psychotropic visual melange, as Will psychologically shifts between Margot and Alana, before ending up in bed with her and Hannibal. But his most prescient vision (and one of the show’s most disturbing) is of the Wendigo plowing away on Alana (which itself calls back to the POV closeup of Will as the nightmare stag in “Shiizakana”, drenched in blood, clothed in stag hide, a look of ecstasy adorning his face as he rises from his human meal.)
Such a perverse sequence is aptly complementary to the arrival of Mason Verger into the main plot. Michael Pitt has always been an actor who’s fascinated me. His delicate good looks give him the air of a melancholic leading man, but his career choices veer much more toward the life of a character actor. Cast opposite Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire, he was the damaged soul/prodigal son whose flight from the gangster life was motivated by a debilitating personal trauma. And from the mumbling Kurt Cobain surrogate in Last Days to the psychopathic pretty boy in the American version of Funny Games to the burgeoning sexual experimentalist of The Dreamers, he’s always pushed at the boundaries of his assumed career path. He’s also developed a reputation as being difficult to work with, which was abetted by his early departure from Boardwalk and his quitting Hannibal after Season 2. Whether these rumors are true is anyone’s guess, but his body of work is still constantly intriguing. In his limited turn as Mason, he imbues what is probably the most deviant, despicable character in the Lecterverse (at least in the context of what is revealed about him in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal) with a demented sense of delight, the self-satisfied decadence of a man living in a hermetically sealed world, whose unlimited financial power both protects him and traps him in cycle of searching for an elusive and greater high (one of his first lines is “What do I want?”, repeated four times.) Bryan Fuller has described Mason as The Joker to Hannibal’s Batman, which is a real testament to the complexity of Lecter’s character in this version of his story. And like the Clown Prince of Crime, Mason uses part of Hannibal’s repertoire against him. For as Will and others have noted in the past, the Chesapeake Ripper views his victim as pigs, the very animal that Mason utilizes to predatory extremes, eventually against his sister’s psychiatrist at the conclusion of this season.
To the leftovers we go:
*After years of hiding in plain sight, Hannibal is forced to deal with an ever growing army of doubters in these late season episodes. “Naka-Mono”, in particular, gives voice to Margot, Freddie, and Alana in this regard (Freddie as the voice of reason is a real delight.) Viewed through the pseudo-rape/assault lens of “Yakimono”, it’s a fitting development for this story. It also provides another layer to the Hannibal/Alana/Will love triangle, as her questioning of the boundaries of their relationship when the trio have dinner is soon thereafter followed by Will and Hannibal’s episode-ending culinary meetup (which plays very much like the spurned lover getting back with the true object of his affection after sleeping with his true love out of revenge.)
*In their initial conversation in “Shiizakana”, Will and Hannibal are shot by James Hawkinson in a series of increasingly closer one-shots. The effect is both intimate and disorienting, a further establishment of the collapsing psychological reality of this season.
*Come one now: how many other shows would attempt a Theremin-centric love scene?
*“What’s your private carnage?” (Will, to Margot)
*“You will always be ruled by your fascination with teeth.” (Hannibal, to Randall)