In which I don’t know if I can save myself. Maybe that’s just fine.
“... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”(Nietzsche)
How in the world can I wish for this?
Never to be torn apart till the last beat
Till the last fleeting beat of my heart
(“The Last Beat of My Heart”/Siouxsie and the Banshees)
It was always about falling, wasn’t it? If there was one recurring image that haunted the run of Bryan Fuller’s radical reinvention of Thomas Harris’s Lecterverse, even above the nightmare stag, even above the elaborate death tableau, it was that of characters in freefall. From the beginning, in those first grotesque strains of this symphony of gothic horror that echoed through “Apertif”, it was there in Will’s dream vision of Elise Nichols’s floating corpse, which would fall into impalement by those ever-present stag horns. Bedelia’s attempts to escape from her life as Lydia Fell took the form of visions of unfettered descent into an ocean of black liquid. Will found the most concrete view of his mental destruction through imagining himself as a falling teacup, shattering on some far away floor. And after all, what was Will’s grand plot to ingratiate himself into Hannibal’s world in order to capture him but a prolonged plunge into the abyss…one from which he never really emerged.
So it only makes sense that the final image of the NBC run of Hannibal (or, at least, the final pre-credits image) would be Will and Hannibal plummeting over the edge of a cliff, star-crossed soulmates freefalling to their potential annihilation. This phantasmagoric fugue state of a show, which so expertly traced the glories and horrors of giving oneself over to the darkest recesses of the heart, could really find no better resolution for the psychological long game in which its players participated. Or one that was more honest to its grand intent.
Because, as became so apparent early on in that maiden season, Bryan Fuller’s focus was never on the limitations of the procedural format against which the show often strained. And it was never about merely perpetuating the pop culture boogeyman trappings that Hannibal Lecter so stylishly wore in the hands of Anthony Hopkins. What he and his collaborators would form over three seasons was, instead, one of the most complex, mature, avant-garde narratives in television history (and, it could be argued, in cinematic history.) In its NBC run, it wielded the freedom bestowed upon it by its foreign financing with great aplomb, relentlessly subverting the conventions of the major network drama format. And along the way, it displayed an uncompromising willingness and determination to let its freak flag fly, to explore the outer reaches of the form. To not only gaze deeply into the abyss, but to dive right into it.
It’s been difficult for me to find a proper way to write about what could be the final episode of Hannibal. Watching it provided none of the traditional signifiers associated with a series finale, which is appropriate considering Fuller’s proclivity for making each season’s ultimate act both a potential final statement and a bridge to another chapter of the story. As the story marched toward its bloody climax, I constantly felt that duality; it all just seemed like another step in a narrative that could never really achieve finite resolution. Over the last few months, my epic Hannibal writing project often skewed toward the academic and the analytical. Unlike my journey into Mad Men’s first season, there was only minimal personal narrative from which to draw when metaphors and motifs carried only limited weight. But for all the symbolic weight that Fuller and company attached to the show, for all the flights of stylistic fancy on which they took the narrative, in the end Hannibal ended up being a very personal depiction of its main players.
And so, Jack Crawford takes part, maybe for one last time, in a scheme that backfired in glorious and tragic fashion. I’ve lauded him here before, but Lawrence Fishburne has brought such gravitas, but also such complexity to this role. Alternately a stoic crusader for justice and an obsessive, irresponsible father figure, he has been a sterling exemplar of how realistically the show has portrayed the ambiguities of the human moral and ethical landscape. If, indeed, this is his final turn as Crawford, it ends as it so often did throughout the series: with the taciturn FBI boss arriving at the scene of the crime too late to stop the carnage that occurred, in part, at his directive. His face is once again a bas-relief of emotional scar tissue. He remains a man driven by justice, but haunted by the cost of that effort.
And so, the seemingly indestructible Frederick Chilton, who gained such richness and life in the able hands of the sublime Raul Esparza, becomes a voice of ethical repudiation, chiding Alana Bloom for serving as the roper for Hannibal’s Machiavellian plot. As I’ve detailed in previous essays (particularly in last week’s entry), the development of Chilton beyond Anthony Heald’s entertaining, yet limited, interpretation in the Hopkins films has been one of my favorite parts of the show. Alana may have served as the idealistic voice of moral concern in the first few seasons, but the psychological damage that she’s suffered since then has hardened her into the would-be guardian of Hannibal’s cage. It’s fascinating to ponder where these two characters, whose arcs have converged at several points, might go if this version of the story ever continues. (Fuller has hinted that a prospective fourth season would feature Alana and Margot looking to right the Verger family’s legacy of brutality. Could Chilton take over Mason’s mantle as deformed pursuer of his cannibal tormentor?)
And so, the Red Dragon saga comes to a fitting conclusion, with Francis Dolarhyde’s raging bull of a man-beast laying siege to Hannibal’s hideaway, only to be taken down by the twin forces of a driven hyper-empath and his mirror image empathy vacuum. All credit again to Richard Armitage for his powerful portrayal of Dolarhyde, which, even in these final gore-soaked moments, elicits a strong sense of sympathy. As he lies bleeding to death on Hannibal’s patio, his life leaking out of him in one final dragon wing pattern, the look on his face is both pained and mildly ecstatic. For this has been a truly tragic final chapter of one man’s life in which, stricken by the sudden accumulation of a lifetime of pain and the realization of his own mortality, he sought to transcend the mundanity of his life, of our life. To become something greater than the human form allowed. As murderous and deranged as that becoming would be, it was still the last resort of a man who felt totally helpless. We’re all fed a steady diet of bromides telling us to rise above our humble means, the Horatio Alger myth still riding strong in the social strata. Francis Dolarhyde followed that philosophy to its logical conclusion. In death, he manages some form of transcendence, as he passes into legend once and for all. As Hannibal tells him “You were seized by a fantasy world, with the brilliance and freshness of childhood. It took you a step beyond alone.” His total embrace of self-annihilation, his abdication of his physical signifiers through burning his house, his absolute commitment to going that one step beyond…it all adds up to the definitive statement on the character.
And so, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter reunite in each other’s arms. Their final exchange (Hannibal: “See, this is all I ever wanted for you Will. For both of us.” Will: “That’s beautiful”) could be an epitaph for the show as a whole. For in the end, Will seemingly comes to terms with his true self, the one that (as he reveals midway through the episode) manipulated Hannibal into turning himself in by giving him a false sense of passive power, the one that joined his cannibal partner in acts of carnage that went beyond mere undercover work. The one that was never quite made for the normal domestic life, as much as he so yearned for it with Molly and Walter. The one who was only fully understood by a serial killing cannibal.
Previous film incarnations of Will clearly portrayed him as a man troubled by his empathic powers, yet also one with firm connections to the straight world which he inhabited. There can be some debate about his psychological state at the end of those narratives, but he is still resolutely a warrior for the maintenance of the status quo. But Hugh Dancy’s Will only shows fleeting connections to society’s definition of normalcy. It’s what’s likely made him such a tricky character for a mainstream audience, but it’s also what’s made him so compelling. Fuller was willing to suggest that the traditional moral arc of a hero can be as oblique and troublesome as that of his antagonist, and that the definition of those two roles could mix in ways that turned their relationship into a metaphor for friendship and love. The most obvious corollary is Thomas Harris’s Clarice Starling, who eventually abandons her FBI existence to join Hannibal as his lover and fellow cannibal on the lam (a wild, subversive ending that was significantly altered for the film version of that story.) But Fuller maintains the very ambiguous nature of Will’s desires to the end. He may realize the validity of his connection with Hannibal, but he’s still the Lamb of God, the one who must make the sacrifice, the one who realizes that they can’t exist like this, for their own good and for that of the world around them. True, the post-credits sequence, with Bedelia seated at a table with two other place settings, her cooked left leg ready for a feast, suggests that the next chapter of this story might continue Will and Hannibal’s partnership. But in the moment, as Will notes in the quote that begins this essay, he’s willing to accept that there’s no real saving himself. And that the only recourse is to take one final plunge into an abyss both literal and figurative. To give himself up to the freefall with which he’s flirted for so long.
And so, this stunning dreamscape of a show proves, in the end, to be quite the personal story for me after all. Because I form such an emotional connection with the lives of these emotional ciphers. Because I realize that form is often as spiritually enthralling as content. Because the repeated suggestions by a friend to give Hannibal a try leads to it forming another in a long series of deep connections between us, including a stimulating back and forth about this series of essays and their philosophical implications. Such profound effects for a mere television show to have, especially one that I marginalized for almost a year as being standard network fare. But this is why I watch the show. Because much like Hannibal itself, sometimes the most confounding, strange, challenging, unpredictable, non-traditional things in life are the most rewarding.
For one final time…at least for now…the leftovers:
*These guys! Brian Zeller and Jimmy Price have been a staple of the show since the beginning, and the expert acting chops and comic timing of Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson have helped to raise them above their roots as ministers of exposition. If this is the last that we see of them, their brief dissection of Francis’s faked suicide is a proper sendoff indeed.
*Also worth mentioning one last time is Rutina Wesley, who brought such grace and toughness to the role of Reba. Her interactions with Richard Armitage were always beguiling, and quit often surprising in their complexity.
*During Francis’s sneak attack of the police van that carries Will and Hannibal, Will has a brief subliminal flashback to his first eye to eye meeting with the would be Red Dragon in the museum elevator. It’s easy to miss, but it once again drives home the shock that moment carried, and the power its held over Will ever since.
*“You righteous, wreckless, twitchy little man!” (Bedelia, to Will. Ftw.)
*“I believe that’s what they call a mic drop. You dropped the mic, Will.” (Hannibal, to…well, you know.)
*“You died in my kitchen, Alana, when you chose to be brave. Every moment since is borrowed. Your wife, your child…they belong to me. We made a bargain for Will’s life, and then I spun you gold.” (Hannibal, to Alana. One last chilling moment to remind us that, charming as he may be, this is still a profoundly dangerous man.)
*“There is no advantage. It’s all degrees of disadvantage.” (Will, to Bedelia, in what could be the final word on the world that Hannibal portrayed.)
*And one last hats off to James Hawkinson, Brian Reitzell, Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, and, of course, Bryan Fuller, for collectively being the heart and soul of this enterprise. I’ve heard other pundits say that we’ll look back one day, far in the future, and say that we were there when the great Hannibal took its too often unheralded bow. So many actors and technicians made Hannibal what it was during its run on NBC, but these primary five helped to reconfigure what we might think about what not just a network television show, but a work of cinematic narrative could be. Truly, this was their design.