In which this is a child of a nightmare.
“Fate has the habit of not letting us choose our own endings, Frederick.”
(Hannibal, to Chilton)
We’re in the end times, we are. This televisual, cinematic tale of a man cursed with hyper-empathic visions and his doppleganger/partner in crime/soulmate, a charming empathic vacuum, is about to shuffle off this mortal coil. Possibly to be reborn anew in another venue, in another format. In its wake, it leaves a sprawling fever dream fugue state of a narrative, one which gradually abandoned the strictures of its procedural roots to delve into the farthest corners of consciousness, of moral and ethical ambiguity, of the great question of humanity itself. Yet for as far afield as Hannibal trod during this version of its existence, for the ecstatic stylistic heights to which it soared (particularly in the more experimental passages of Season 2 and the first half of Season 3), it has returned to more earthly trappings for its climactic exploration of the Red Dragon’s Becoming. But as easily recognizable as this milieu might be, it has been irrevocably been altered by the channeling of what lies beyond consciousness, in those outer limits of the psyche and the soul. As the Red Dragon takes his inspiration from the Book of Revelation which spawned him, so too have these final episodes built toward the arrival of divine retribution.
And for the arrival of the Lamb of God, in the character of Will Graham. But even as he may bring divine wrath upon the wicked, this Lamb emerges from a realm in which God is not such an easily quantifiable entity. From the beginning, Bryan Fuller has used Hannibal as venue for examining the very concept of God and the God impulse. Season 1 mined a rich vein of commentary on irresponsible father figures, cod-manipulators whose biological and spiritual children were left to suffer as a result of neglect. Hannibal’s affinity with the Old Testament God, the God of theodicy, the one who impartially metes out suffering (or impartially allows it) has allowed him to view the world from a distant, godlike perspective (see his first view of the corpse spiral tableau in Season 2, or his reaching for the circle of light above in him in last week’s episode.) Jack Crawford might call him “the devil himself, bound in the pit” (another quote from Revelation, and more credence to the theory that while Francis Dolarhyde believes himself to be the Great Red Dragon, Hannibal Lecter is the one and only original version), but Hannibal’s response (“Then that makes you God, Jack…all gods demand sacrifices”) casts the purity of the deity from whence came the Lamb in terms most unflattering.
For in this world of moral ambiguity, the godlike figures of authority continually fail those held in their thrall. They’re wildly different shows, but this thematic angle recalls David Simon’s critique of modern institutions in The Wire. Like Fuller, Simon told his tales in a recognizable idiom, but took his inspiration from much more classical sources, notably the tropes of Greek tragedy (but with the failed institutions of Western Civilization, modern America, and the social strata of Baltimore standing in for the vengeful, often petty gods of yore.) And like those Greek myths, mere humans were often the hapless puppets of those deities, cast about by whims they often didn’t understand until death. (Quoth D’Angelo Barksdale “The king stay the king.” Attempt ascendance to the throne at thine own peril.)
“The Number of the Beast is 666…” revisits the puppet-like state of those underneath the gods one last time in capsule form. Its narrative arc is almost exclusively preoccupied with the price of manipulation. Once again, the generally moral Jack stands tall as a manipulator par excellence. His first appearance, in conference with Will and Alana, is centered upon tricking the Tooth Fairy into giving himself up. The scene even opens with Will saying “Got me on the hook, Jack. Now you’re dangling me to catch a bigger fish.” Christ instructed his followers to be fishers of men, but this is taking things to the extreme. For as fond of the straight and narrow as he is, Jack shares Hannibal’s penchant for the zero sum game, for justifying any actions as necessary for a goal’s attainment (see the overlapping of Hannibal’s reflection onto Jack during his visit to his cell.) Thus his drawing back of Will into the sick and sordid world that almost proved to be his undoing once before, but this time with the collateral damage of a wife and child hanging in the balance. As Alana reprimands both he and Will “You once fooled yourselves to believe that you were in control of what was happening. Are you still under that delusion?”
But Alana’s protestations also ring hollow, as she readily throws the Red Dragon’s target onto Frederick Chilton’s back in order to save herself. I’ve discussed this before, but as Chilton, Raul Esparza has taken a character who was a stock villain in previous incarnations and turned him into a smarmy, cynical, hilarious, and often completely sympathetic human being. When he confesses his true fear of Hannibal to Alana in Season 2 (right before being plugged in the eye by Miriam Lass), it’s a moment of raw emotional vulnerability. And he really excels in this episode during his captivity in Francis’s house, glued to a chair and forced to recount the sins that landed him in this spot. Several times, DP James Hawkinson lets the camera linger on Esparza’s face for long, uninterrupted takes, and he really sells the complex mixture of loathing, fear, and panic that is coursing through Chilton’s head. Resident punching bad that he is, he’s finally burned alive in the famous wheelchair sentence that destroyed Freddie Lounds in previous incarnations of this story (and which served as the basis for the faking of Freddie’s death in this one.) But death will not come easily for Frederick Chilton, as he’s left alive as a burnt, blackened husk of a person, his lipless mouth left to wail in agony as he throws responsibility for his state back at Will.
Such responsibility is well-warranted for our intrepid FBI profiler. James Hawkinson’s cinematography has provided a gorgeous, often surreal sheen to Hannibal’s visual palate. but one of the most underrated aspects of it has been his mastery of framing, and the power dynamics expressed therein. And so it’s no surprise that when Freddie interviews Chilton for the Tattlecrime bait piece, Will is pictured directly behind him from a low angle, shaping his words for maximum shock effect, the puppetmaster through and through (note the dragon or snakelike rattling that Brain Reitzell utilizes on the soundtrack as Will pushes his vision of the diagnosis…and that Jack literally directs Freddie on how to shoot the two men by standing behind her.) This same blocking is repeated when Francis holds Chilton in captivity, albeit from an even more extreme low angle. Will and Francis become mirror images once again, the men with the vision looking to turn a mere mortal into the vessel for their message. And at the conclusion of the episode, after Chilton’s purpose has been achieved, Francis enlists Reba to be the new vessel for his gospel, the witness for the final act of his Becoming.
Before his untimely flaming wheelchair ride, Chilton does provide Will with one last, haunting bit of insight, as amidst his taunting of the Tooth Fairy to Freddie he plants the idea that opens this essay: that this homicidal monster is the child of a nightmare. The stunned look on Will’s face clearly shows that this concept hits home. Later on with Bedelia, he might slightly revel in his lack of surprise at Chilton’s fate, but these words from his old sparring partner/caretaker are a concise, perfect summary of the central fears that have plagued Will since we first encountered his tortured visage at the Marlow house in the series’ first episode. And if Bryan Fuller’s thoughts are anything to go on (he’s often stated that the Marlows are intended to be Francis Dolarhyde’s first victims), Chilton’s nightmare child observation, like many other plot threads throughout the show’s history, once again brings everything back full circle. Abigail Hobbs might have walked the line between sinner and saint in her role as Will’s surrogate child, and her death might have irrevocably scarred him, but Francis Dolarhyde is the true child of his subconscious, and (following the line of last week’s Fight Club self-flagellation reference) his own twisted version of Tyler Durden, a hulking beast of an introvert who allows himself to be fully subsumed by his darkest impulses.
So it is that all around him, Will sees his nearest and dearest murdered in the signature Red Dragon style, their eyes the mirrors that reflect back his sin. As Will puts it to Bedelia “The divine punishment of a sinner mirrors the sin being punished.” And as she advises him “We are all making our way through the Inferno.” Call it the Last Temptation of Will Graham. If he is to be the Lamb of God, if only his hand can unlock the seven seals and banish Satan to the pit for a thousand years, then he must first suffer for the sins of the many. He must first take his three day tour of Hell before his return to life. Gaining almost superhuman empathy with Hannibal warped his psyche, but there was something almost transcendentally romantic about their coupling. His identification with Francis Dolarhyde bears none of that romanticism, only the intoxication of power, and, just as Satan tempted Christ to use his divine power to leave the cross and smite his enemies, the prospect of becoming his own worst nightmare. (Note how his first two appearances in this episode are reveals from the rear right of his head, Hawkinson’s framing suggesting the darkness within him that he must now constantly draw himself out of.)
Ah, but there’s the tricky role of the Great Tempter once again. The Devil tricking the world into believing that he doesn’t exist. After all, that sly smirk that Will flashes to Bedelia upon admitting his lack of surprise at Chilton’s fate looks suspiciously like Hannibal’s grin after he learns of the same event. She opens the episode by brazenly intimating Hannibal’s love for Will (surely the most direct statement of the show’s massive elephant in the room), but she closes their second meeting at episode’s end with an even more chilling statement: “Hannibal Lecter does have agency in the world. He has you.” She also notes that he "may have well have struck the match" that burned Chilton, and that "That's participation" (a direct callback to Hannibal's retort to her in Florence from earlier in the season, when she was still trying to beg mere observation.) It’s the second time in this haunting hour that Will is struck dumb by a simple, yet profoundly unsettling insight. And it reminds the viewer that above all this episode’s arch manipulative forces, it’s the one who has the least physical power and presence, who’s been trapped in a room for three years, who is shot as a lone figure isolated inside an empty glass cage….he’s the one with the most power. Witness Satan tempting Christ during his forty days in the desert, almost exclusively using nothing but his words. And so too does Hannibal wreak so much havoc and bring about such apocalyptic fury only through the seductive, dulcet tones of his voice. Will has felt so much guilt for so many years over the collateral damage of his work, of his visions, but lately he has tread through the Valley of the Shadow of Death unscathed. Because he has unwittingly become Hannibal’s surrogate in this world. It’s the ultimate blow, the greatest temptation to a savior figure filled with righteous anger. And at episode’s end, Will is left to contemplate how exactly he can finish his season in Hell. And how he might once and for all emerge from the pit of darkness that has nearly enveloped everything about him.
And now for some penultimate leftovers:
*Kudos again to Richard Armitage for his phenomenal of Francis as the Red Dragon incarnate. Now fully immersed in his alter ego, he’s gained a newfound eloquence in his speech, and a stark mastery of his physical brutality. But the vulnerability he displays when Reba visits with soup remind us all that this is a sad, broken man, consumed by his worst instincts and fears of mortality.
*Note too how immediately after Hannibal tells Jack that gods demand sacrifices, the scene cuts to Francis in his attack raking his back with his fingernails, spreading the blood sacrifice down his copy of Blake’s Red Dragon painting.
*“You’re not a straight newspaper. You sell t-shirts that say ‘The Tooth Fairy is a one night stand’ “ (Will, to Freddie.)
*“I have seen a lot of hostility. But this was quantifiably bitchy!” (Chilton, to Hannibal, in response to his magazine article debunking the former’s book length defense of the latter’s insanity.)
*“That would have been your lip I was tasting. Again.” (Hannibal, to Alana, theorizing what would’ve happened if she had filled Chilton’s role. I think this qualifies as being quantifiably bitchy. Or, at the very least, funny.)