In which my journey to damnation began when I was swallowed by the beast.
“I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity.”
― William Blake
“See how magnificent you are? Did he who made the lamb make thee?”
---Hannibal via William Blake
As perhaps the most fine arts-obsessed narrative series on television, one in which minor characters have achieved transcendence though being transformed into death sculpture tableaus, in which avant-garde, often classically leaning soundscapes have scored crises both interior and existential, and in which the central character wields an aesthete’s sensibility both as sociological lens and weapon…it seems only fitting that the plot machinations would eventually circle back into the madness-dabbled fantasia of William Blake. Touched by a Gothic sense of beauty, cross pollinated with competing strands of Impressionism and Romanticism, Blake’s best known paintings explored his preoccupation with the symbiotic relationship between the divine and the obscene (a fascination that also extended into his poetry and other writings.) As Thomas Harris took inspiration from Blake’s Red Dragon paintings to fuel his story of the psychosexual havoc that Francis Dolarhyde wreaks on others, so too has Bryan Fuller carried on Blake’s musings on the split diopter of good and evil in crafting his extended tale of a hyper-empath and an empathy vacuum inevitably drawn into each other’s sphere of existence, both men striving to reach truths more seraphic than secular by forming a co-dependence that blurs the lines between malice and justice.
Aside from the Red Dragon paintings, one of Blake’s most well-known treatises on the interdependency of the sacred and the profane is his short poem “The Tyger”, which contemplates the titular animal’s sleek, predatorial nature and, in a greater sense, the authorship of this killing machine. As he states in the fourth verse:
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
Blake’s companion piece to “The Tyger” was “The Lamb”, which mused on the delicate nature of that pastoral creature. The hidden protagonist, again, is the creator of such an animal, one who is capable of birthing such beauty and terror. While envisioning himself meeting with Hannibal in his office in the intro to “And the Woman Clothed in Sun”, Francis Dolarhyde indulges his hero worship of the cannibal while imagining the plaudit that is quoted at the beginning of this essay. It’s a direct lift from “The Tyger”, well in keeping with Francis’s Blake-obsessed mind and the old-time religion that simultaneously haunts and heals him.
It’s also a precursor to what are perhaps the key scenes in this episode, on several fronts. As I mentioned in last week’s essay, Blake’s Red Dragon paintings prominently feature the image of the Satanic beast lording over a woman who will give birth to a child that will bear the Gospel to the world. There are two versions/paintings of this tableau: “And the Woman Clothed With the Sun…” and “And the Woman Clothed in Sun.” They serve as mirror images, one with the mighty Dragon’s back all but obscuring the woman, the other with the woman’s divine presence front and center. Bryan Fuller has paid tribute to this doppleganger effect by title the second and third episodes of Season 3 as such. But he might also be stretching into a more far-reaching Blake reference in constructing this episode.
“The Tyger”’s opening verse features Blake opining “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” In 1986, Alan Moore used this couplet (and the poem’s larger philosophical thrust) as the template for “Fearful Symmetry”, the fifth chapter of his groundbreaking, revisionist, comic book saga Watchmen. At heart the story of the capture of Rorschach, the series’ breakout, sub-psychopath anti-hero with a damaged child’s heart of gold, it’s also a point of marked escalation for several of the main characters on their path to the apocalyptic truth of the finale. By this point in the construction of the tale, Moore and artist partner Dave Gibbons were fully exploring the creative possibilities inherent in the form. So in a canny decision that gives it a haunting power that grows with each subsequent reading, they chose to structure this chapter as a mirror image unto itself, in which the middle of the issue forms the nexus point from which springs two strands that reflect each other. From the shape and organization of panels to the blocking of the characters to the plot elements themselves, each strand serves as a near doppleganger of the other. This structure also reflects the very nature of Rorschach himself, whose mask bears the iconic mirror-image blot from whence he takes his name, and whose concept of justice entails a highly refined sense of the morally trepidatious path he must trod to battle the weakness of the good and the tyranny of evil men.
Would it be going too far to suggest that “And the Woman Clothed in Sun”, an episode swarming with Blake references in the midst of a series swarming in cultural references, is Bryan Fuller’s sly nod to Alan Moore’s “Fearful Symmetry”? Examined closely, the plot stretches across six main scenes, all of which seem to form a mirror that folds into itself (Hannibal’s manipulative phone call is more of a side tangent, although one with great significance….more on that in a bit.) At the heart of the episode are those two aforementioned key scenes, in which Francis and Reba visit the zoo and then return to his house. In an attempt to transfer his inner beastly feelings onto a more accessible form, Francis arranges for Reba to pet a sedated tiger. As she caresses the powerful creature’s fur, Francis is taken aback by his identification with the beast, none more so than when she gently strokes the tiger’s massive canine tooth (which is on the same side of its face as Francis’s hairlip.) The image of Reba’s dark skin against the near-fluorescent glow of the tiger’s pelt is somewhat reminiscent of Will’s painterly vision of Mrs. Leeds’s corpse from the previous episode, a reference that’s hammered home in the next scene, when a mid-coitus Francis envisions Reba as the divine manifestation of the Woman Clothed in Sun. When she pets the tiger, Reba is moved to tears, and during his moment of sexual ecstasy with her, Francis also sheds tears. Fuller has called this romantic entangling “one of the most beautifully tragic in modern literature, and the soul of Red Dragon”, as two wayward souls blessed (or cursed) with visions beyond their ostensible limits find solace and each other. It’s a modern take on Beauty and the Beast, but one in which the monster lurks within the confines of a generally handsome man.
Francis Dolarhyde isn’t the only Hannibal character whose struggle with their inner beast is masked by an alluring veneer. Indeed, the bifurcation of mannered civility and primal urges has formed the backbone for much of this show’s ongoing narrative, its most notorious monster also its most debonair bon vivant. And the dual scenes that form the middle of this episode’s mirrored structure feature two of the most prominent symbols of the beauty/beast dichotomy. Though he may be oft disheveled in appearance, Will Graham still carries Hugh Dancy’s Brit heartthrob allure with him wherever he goes. It’s a huge part of what elicits such audience sympathy for his tortured psyche; he’s the archetypical dashing gentleman trapped by the curse of feeling too much. In this regard, Gillian Anderson’s Bedelia DuMaurier is his twin, her refined porcelain beauty a cover for a moral and ethical philosophy that deals in ambiguous cruelty.
Their initial standoff in this episode features some spectacular verbal parrying, as Will chides her for hiding behind the veneer of victimhood while she slyly refutes his tagging her as the Bride of Frankenstein by noting that “We’ve both been his bride” and that “I was with him behind the veil; you were always on the other side.” In a show that has featured some of the most mature explorations of the intangibles of sexuality and moral intent, Bedelia has always stood out as both cipher and femme fatale. Though she was not entirely complicit in her faux marriage to Hannibal, her explanation for how she came to be swallowed by the beast (“He never called me my name. That was strange at first. And then it wasn’t strange. And then…I was Lydia Fell”) is just mannered enough, especially compared to what we’ve been privileged to witness, that her follow up to it (“What we take for granted about our sense of self, everything we see, everything we remember, is nothing more than a construct of the mind”) carries with it the distinct whiff of craven self-exoneration.
That same lack of culpability comes to the forefront in this scene’s mirror image later in the episode, in which Will and Bedelia’s second confrontation (this time in her office) is deftly intercut with her sessions with Neal Frank (Zachary Quinto), whose corpse we briefly saw in a flashback in “Antipasto.” When Will once again accuses her of lying about her time with Hannibal, she replies “I obfuscate”, a perfect description of the verbal slight of hand she pulls during the earlier lecture. It’s intriguing to note how Hannibal’s two foremost psychiatrists utilize obfuscation with rapier precision, the irony of their treachery set in the world of the talking cure hanging heavy over the proceedings. That irony is even heavier in the context of Neal’s revelations about his failed sessions with Hannibal, and his subsequent fate. His tales of phototherapy and of being subjected to a flashing light that caused him to enter a fugue state are a direct parallel to the expert manipulation that led to Will’s framing as a murderer in Season 1. Later in the scene, Bedelia tells Will that “One thing I learned from Hannibal is the alchemy of lies and truths. It’s how he convinced you that you were a killer.” And just as Hannibal used his mental and verbal dexterity to seduce Will (and, for that matter, everyone around him for a time) into his preferred version of reality, so too does he plant the seed in Neal’s mind to swallow his tongue. Fuller has stated that this death is meant to give context to the final exit of Multiple Miggs in Silence of the Lambs. It’s also a perfectly Lecterian bit of ironic wordplay made manifest in physical violence.
Such wordplay runs rampant throughout the show’s character progression; in an episode devoted so heavily to oral imagery (from the grotesque shot of Bedelia plunging her hand into Neal’s throat to the tiger’s mouth to Francis’s hairlip to all sorts of talk of being swallowed by a beast), it’s interesting to note how verbal diction serves as a sign of power. Both Will and Bedelia speak in perfectly articulated tones (Anderson’s almost absurdly practiced diction is a hallmark of her portrayal), all the while hiding their tumultuous inner conflict behind this mask of respectability. Despite being a handsome man, Francis sees his inarticulate nature as an irrevocable deformity; it’s only through intense rehearsal that he’s able to assume the polished diction of lawyer Byron Metcalf (the mantle of normalcy that gets him past the hospital security), before breaking down into mush mouthed adoration when speaking with Hannibal on the phone. And what is Francis’s talisman of power but a set of malformed false teeth, an exaggeration of his speech defect as weapon against his perceived oppressors in the straight world. Such aggression might be accurately assigned if Hannibal’s phone call to Chilton’s weekend secretary is any indication. It’s a scene that both Bryan Cox and Anthony Hopkins also played well with their soothing British tones (the gold standard for authority for much of the Western world), but Mads Mikkelsen makes the interesting choice to hold the conversation completely in his native Danish lilt. On one hand, it’s a wry bit of comedy, the most well-known Danish-inflected serial killer in the country fooling someone who should probably be well-acquainted with him. But this might also be the point, a testament to Lecter’s skills as a smooth talker extraordinaire, and another bit of meta-commentary on the power of authoritative diction in normal society.
When Bedelia asks Will if his wife knows how intimately he and Hannibal know each other, it’s a shot across the bow at his attempt to cloak his dark side behind the veil of a socially and sexually normal family unit. Will’s response (“She’s aware enough”) is tenuous in the moment, and even shakier in the context of his brief meeting with Hannibal near episode’s end (during which Dancy and Mikkelsen are lit from below in expressionist chiaroscuro lighting that gives them the appearance, respectively, of a hollowed out ghost and darkness incarnate). We’ve seen Will reveal his true self (or what he perceives to be true) several times before, but that looming aspect of the story is writ large in the two mirrored scenes that open and close this episode, in which Francis reveals himself to Hannibal and Will. In the former case, his actual revelation is only by phone, his dream unveiling a phantasmagoric image of his full transfiguration as the mythical beast that is the Red Dragon. At episode’s end, his revealing to Will is involuntary and much less grandiose. But the subtle power of his devouring of Blake’s original painting is, in many ways, much more powerful. We’ve seen Francis’s fantasies of power and heard the echoing sounds that haunt his psyche, but eating the painting is his final acceptance of the demons that plague him, a literal internalization of the beast. And when he locks eyes with Will in the elevator (before brutally tossing him against the wall), it’s almost as if our empath in peril himself is looking in the mirror. Bedelia asked him if he was trying to save Francis, and there’s more than a hint of an alternate future for Will in the visage of this Blake fetishist. The destroyer of the family unit has come face to face with the man who seeks refuge in it, and (unwittingly) with his rival for Hannibal’s acceptance and affection. Truly, the center cannot hold. The beast in all of these characters stalks around it, waiting for the collapse.
And now, for the leftovers:
*If we follow the Bride of Frankenstein motif to its logical extreme, does this mean that Francis is the inarticulate Monster in search of a mate, Will is Dr. Frankenstein, and Hannibal is Dr. Pretorius, the coded gay scientist who lures Henry Frankenstein into even greater danger? I guess that Reba would be the Bride, but Bedelia strikes me as capturing much more of that character’s cold pragmatism (and Will does call her the Bride….even though that would make Hannibal the titular doctor…..yeah, this is getting confusing.)
*“Extreme acts of cruelty require a high level of empathy” (Bedelia)
*“Paula, I have another visitor for the Great Red Dragon” (A Brooklyn museum tour guide, pulling off one of the episode’s great dry humor lines.)
*“This is why Scientologists hate psychiatry!” (Neal, to Bedelia)