Thursday, April 30, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 6: "Entree"

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In which here we are: a bunch of psychopaths helping each other out.

For all of the ways in which Bryan Fuller successfully reinvents the Lecterverse in Hannibal, the long shadow of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs inevitably hangs heavy over this world.  Which is completely understandable.  Few films of the modern era have so resolutely embedded themselves in the pop consciousness like that Oscar-sweeping behemoth.  Think about it objectively for a second, how unlikely its success was, especially by 1991’s standards.  Here was a mid-budget drama featuring an Oscar-winning former child actress playing an FBI agent advised by a cannibal (portrayed by a Welsh actor with minimal stateside renown) in her pursuit of a psychopath assembling a skin suit.  Oh, and it features some of the more brutally violent scenes in then-mainstream cinema, including a climactic orgy of annihilation in which the cannibal doctor beats a guard to death with his baton and then, in one of my personal favorite reveals, is shown to have used his sliced-off face as a mask for his escape.

Titanic, this ain’t kids.

But with twenty years hindsight, it’s easy to see how Silence of the Lambs arrived at the perfect time in which to capture the zeitgeist.  The political conservatism of the Reagan ‘80s was about to give way to the more progressive bent of the Clinton ‘90s, and the film’s explorations of deviant subcultures dovetails with the emergence of much of the underground into mainstream culture (to use the title of the famous Nirvana/Sonic Youth documentary of the time, it was 1991: The Year Punk Broke…in all the permutations of that word.)  Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger might have been the nightmare lords of ‘80s horror cinema, but by the end of the decade they were more amusing ghouls than agents of fright.  The Hannibal Lecter of Silence is a truly transgressive figure, the end product of ten years of corporate power run wild: a suave, urbane man in a three piece suit who also happens to eat people.  And a medical figure, someone in whom you place your full psychological trust, who will betray and manipulate that confidence in ways far beyond your wildest dreams.  Add the second wave feminism that was bubbling up in the cultural conversation, and how aptly Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling embodies a new wave of strong women heroes, and the portrait of the film’s crossover success becomes complete.

Fuller has always been upfront with his debt to the classic Lecterverse, and part of the enjoyment to be derived from watching this show is in spotting the often sly references he makes to it.  In the essay for “Coquilles”, I mentioned the allusions to Francis Dolarhyde and his eventual Red Dragon persona (in his audio commentary for the series pilot, Fuller notes that the opening Marlow murder scene is intended to be Dolarhyde’s first.)  “Entrée” is easily the most-Silence festooned episode yet, with the introduction of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, its infamous maximum security wing/dungeon, and smarmy general administrator Frederick Chilton (Raul Esparza).  At his dinner with Chilton and Alana Bloom, Hannibal even drops in the oft-quoted final Lecter line from Silence (“It’s nice to have an old friend for dinner.”)

But Hannibal’s references to its progenitors aren’t merely winking namechecks.  As “Entrée” shows, it often uses that rich mythology as an echo chamber in which its characters journey, while also subverting its audience’s expectations.  And some callbacks fundamentally alter the Lecterverse in often fascinating ways.

So ingrained in the cultural consciousness is Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Hannibal Lecter, that Mads Mikkelsen’s task in reinterpreting the good doctor seemed daunting, to say the least.  Hopkins brings a theatrical flair and an aesthete’s decadent leanings to Hannibal’s persona.  By the time Clarice Starling meets him, he’s become acclimated to life in the confines of the State Hospital, and to playing the role of the monster hidden in the depths of the castle.  Once he’s escaped to Italy in the sequel, he’s free to indulge the outer limits of his psyche; if the film version of Silence is formally tailored toward the hard, incisive perspective of Starling, the filmed Hannibal is a stylistic outgrowth of the operatic sensibilities of its title cannibal.

Which makes Mikkelsen’s performance as the pre-committal Hannibal so compelling.  His unconventional good looks, almost reptilian in their nature, give him the appearance of a perpetually inquisitive predator, yet a predator whose seductive presence reels in most of those in his orbit.  He’s not afraid to underplay many aspects of Hannibal’s persona, turning him into a blank slate upon which the other characters project themselves.  This can be an alienating concept for some viewers; it’s easy to root for Hopkins as the larger than life anti-hero, but the Machiavellian calculations that Mikkelsen’s Hannibal displays throughout the first two seasons make him both fascinating and deeply frustrating (he’s always that far ahead of everyone else.)  It’s a testament to his underplaying that when he reads Freddie Lounds’s FBI-approved article on Gideon’s supposed Ripper status, the annoyed clicking of his fingers feels like an explosion of rage.

“Entrée” seems to be keenly aware of the Hopkins legacy, as it serves up Eddie Izzard in the role of Dr. Abel Gideon, a most Hopkins-like villain.  When Alana makes her initial descent into the max security wing, it recalls Clarice Starling’s first visit with Hannibal, and Gideon’s demeanor is very much in keeping with the slightly arch and taunting tone that Hopkins takes in his portrayal.  Izzard’s casting is intriguing on several levels, with his combination of comedic and dramatic chops allowing him to project menace mingled with mirth.  His long history of helping to mainstream cross-dressing and his frankness about his own transgenderism also plays into the complex and mutable sexuality of the Lecterverse on a meta-level.

And the introduction of Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky) as the albatross around the guilt-ridden Jack Crawford’s neck certainly pays tribute to his future recruitment of the similarly green Clarice Starling.  Lass has the same plucky determination and slight naivety that defines the Starling of Silence.  She also trumps her more veteran superiors by having the wits and wherewithal to ferret out the Chesapeake Ripper (much like Starling’s insight helps her nab Buffalo Bill, as she literally shows up at the house that no one else figured out.)  But Hannibal Lecter is no Jame Gumb, and his advanced level of awareness spells doom for the young FBI trainee.

In the first five episodes of Season 1, Jack often comes across as an angry, stern figure.  Even as he’s humanized with the introduction of Bella’s cancer diagnosis, he’s simultaneously compared to an absentee god who’s abandoned his creation in Will.  This episode’s inclusion of the Miriam Lass storyline gives much greater weight to the motivation factor for much of his stern nature (well, that and the nature of the job, the emotional toll of which he lectures Lass on.)  It also forges a strong connection between Will and him, as we now see that both men are haunted by a crushing guilt for the human cost of their work.

On a meta-level, the inclusion of these references to the classic Lecterverse also creates a world which suggests that Will’s philosophy of futility is more correct than he knows.  Establishing Miriam as the Clarice precursor gives the narrative arc a sense of doomed repetition, and Gideon’s foreshadowing of the future Hannibal’s demeanor (albeit filtered through Hopkins’s role) can make the audience feel as if this role of the charismatic uber-maniac is one which must be filled by one person or another.  Will’s greatest fear is that the paralysis of his vision will allow events to repeat themselves, and that with each one he’ll lose more of himself.  The expansion of this version of the Lecterverse is often seen through his eyes, so it would only make sense (especially as his mental state deteriorates) that he would see those fears growing more powerful all around him. 

Time for the leftovers:

*We’ve seen several of Hannibal’s ritualistic murders (even though at this point of the season, they haven’t been explicitly attributed to him), their Bosch-like tableau nature creating works of art out of the victims.  The Chesapeake Ripper murders on display in “Entrée” (one by Lecter, one by copycat Gideon) are chaotic counterpoints to the aforementioned crime scenes, almost cubist works of violence in their perversion of sleek medicinal metal into human skewers.

*”Not to snap bubblegum and crack wise, but what’s my angle?” (Freddie, to the FBI trio.)

*Speaking of Ms. Lounds, Lara Jean Chorostecki and Raul Esparza (as Chilton) really get to chew the scenery in this episode.  I’ll always have a soft spot for Anthony Heald’s Chilton in the earlier Lecter films, but Esparza brings an arch contempt for everyone around him to his entertaining take on the role.

*Note that the Chesapeake Ripper copycat murder (and, by implication, the previous ones as well) involves the removal of his victim’s eyes, a visual echo of Garret Jacob Hobbs’s final words to Will (“See?  “See?”)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 5: "Coquilles"

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In which I can give you the majesty of your becoming.

But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat.. drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost...
(“Dreams”/Fleetwood Mac)

It is the driving force, the dark, pulsating heart of Hannibal this claustrophobic tension between the clinical world of quantifiable psychiatry and the lurking, illogical pandemonium of the dream world.  The Silence of the Lambs derived great power from Hannibal Lecter’s acumen with hyper-logical mind games, and the its sequel indulged his more operatic, decadent sensibilities.  But Bryan Fuller’s aim is to plumb the depths of the mind without a certifiable expectation for any easy diagnosis.  To touch madness.  To experience every corner of the inky 3am world where fantasy and reality engage in a dance of erotic phantasmagoria, a Jungian melding of the indefinable twin impulses of our lives.

And at the center of it all, sweating through his pillow night after night, gripped by the mania that so many of us have felt in the middle of the night, when rational solutions seem wholly inadequate, lies Will Graham.  The latest in a long line of heroic loners, possessed by a vision quest not of his choosing.  God’s Lonely Man, as Thomas Wolfe might say.  A seer schooled in the cold logic of murderous intent and damaged psyches, but also one who’s had the curtain of reality drawn ever so slightly back for him.  Who’s been given a glimpse of the anarchic glories that lie behind it, wild flights of fancy that occasionally kiss the quotidian through a barrier more gossamer than most realize.

A man whose profound isolation and loneliness often leave him only with the sound of his heart, and of the guilt that consumes it, to drive him mad.  And to taunt him with the question: “Why?”  And maybe more importantly: “How much more?”  In “Coquilles”, the standout fifth episode of Hannibal’s maiden voyage, that taunting grows deafening.       

I found an island in your arms
Country in your eyes
Arms that chain
Eyes that lie
Break on through to the other side
(“Break on Through”/The Doors)

Beverly Katz may be a supporting player in the Hannibal universe whose purpose often seems to involve providing exposition alongside comic sidekicks Zeller and Price(although her eventual murder at Hannibal’s hands marks a turning point in the show’s narrative arc), but she’s given one of the key lines in “Coquilles”, one which illuminates many of this episode’s messianic aims.  As she and the forensics team perform the autopsy on one of the Angel Maker’s victims, she notes that “Death makes angels of us all, and gives us wings where we had shoulders, smooth as raven’s claws.”  Zeller guesses Robert Frost as the quote’s source, but Will correctly credits Jim Morrison.  “Even a drunk with a flair for the dramatic can convince himself that he’s God” she quips. “Or the lizard king.”

Pop culture consensus has made it acceptable to venerate Frost as a transcendent poet, while relegating Morrison to the status of drunken buffoon spouting fourth grade poetry.  But Frost could produce material that was resolutely traditional, and Morrison’s rock star status and confrontational persona often obscured his Rimbaud and Blake-influenced visions of profound existential questing.  The hazy line between these two celebrity poets of the 20th Century is part and parcel of our definition of genius and insight.  It’s also a split diopter of the sacred and the profane through which to view much of what occurs in this episode.

The most obvious allusion to Frost that Bryan Fuller provides the audience comes in the pre-credits sequence when Elliot Buddish (the Angel Maker) gazes upon two of his prospective victims at his hotel, seeing only their heads aflame (one of the series’ most striking images).  In a state of agitation, he averts his gaze into the bucket of ice he’s gone to collect.  It’s a direct reference to Frost’s “Fire and Ice”, his famous vision of the twin forces of apocalyptic destruction.  In a show filled with dichotomous tension, these forces stand comfortably alongside dreams and reality, logic and madness.     

In a greater sense, Frost’s poetry often explores the outer reaches of isolation, and the potential for inner destruction therein.  And it’s here that he finds kinship with Morrison, whose travels along the road of excess toward enlightenment was shared by many, but which was still at heart the voyage of a solitary man.  The transformative power of Morrison’s onstage persona, and the backbone of his continuing legacy, was his total commitment to performance as a means of transcendence, a nightly act of giving yourself over to the oft erratic impulses in the air.  It’s what made him a mesmerizing force of nature at his best, and a drunken buffoon at his worst.  But such is the sacrifice and the peril of commitment to capturing the essence of the shaman.

Such a shamanic imperative is at the heart of Will Graham’s vision quest, his dark romance of a duet with the other side.  It’s only by channeling the twisted psyches of his subjects, by almost completely giving himself over to them, that’s he’s able to fully comprehend their obscene motivations.  Elliot Buddish provides the most harrowing mirror image for him yet.  Though according to his wife he’s not a religious man, the onset of his brain tumor inspires thoughts most divine in his mind.  His quest to transform sinners into saints through a grotesque transfiguration of the flesh echoes the Old Testament philosophy of redemption through blood sacrifice.  It also gives Will a view of the dark side of revelation, a reality that only seems a half step away from his.  Transfiguration reigns over this episode, as Bella Crawford reveals her cancer diagnosis by intellectually dissecting the cold and emotionless calculus that the cancer employs in taking over her lungs.  And Buddish is clearly a precursor to the mythical chaos that will be wrought by Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon himself (the quote that leads off this essay is from Will’s nightmare vision of Buddish, a direct reference to a famous Dolarhyde line.  It’s also a parallel to Hannibal’s Cassie Boyle murder tableau subconsciously mirroring Will’s previous visions of Theresa Marlow’s gored body, yet another example of the waking world freely intermingling with the dreamscape.  And don’t forget the psychosexual transformative desire of Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill.)

In biblical terms, Will hews to the classic model of the prophet, endowed with an almost spiritual sense of insight that is both gift and curse.  He’s doomed to be rejected (although in this case, the rejection is mostly self-inflicted) and, as I mentioned in a previous essay, to endure a sort of reverse Cassandra complex, sentenced to a life recreating the events of the past, paralyzed to change them in any way.  But this paralysis also tears apart his psyche, transforming him into what he sees as the manifestation of his worst fears.  And the only person who seems to empathize with the wicked power of his visions is a vaccum of empathy who revels in playing both God and Devil.  

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
(“The End”/The Doors)

Though there are certainly religious overtones in parts of Hannibal, “Coquilles” is the first episode to address the topic of a divine presence in such explicit fashion.  And the question of an absentee God hangs heavy over the proceedings.  During their conversation about the Angel Maker, Hannibal tells Will that “Any idea of God comes from many different areas of the mind working together in unison.”  Later, Will says of the Angel Maker “His mind has turned against him, and there’s no one there to help.”  Once again, he clearly realizes his brotherhood with Elliot Buddish, their mutual cry for relief from a damaged psyche. 

But this exchange also begs the question: If our conception of God comes from the mind, does the revolt of the mind also equal the revolt/failure of God?  On a deeper level, does Will’s fear for his sanity mask a despair for a potentially godless universe, in which that curtain between dreams and reality is due to fall at any moment?  Granted, it’s a somewhat Lovecraftian notion, but seen from the perspective of this man on the edge (which is our viewpoint for much of the show), it’s worth considering.  It’s also deeply complicated by the eventual revelation of Will’s encephalitis and the effect it has on his perception of reality, although how many prophets of all ages (Elliot Buddish included) have walked that line between medical malady and divine insight? At the scenes of Buddish’s crimes, DP James Hawkinson employs a God’s eye POV of Will, the camera slowly descending towards him, Hugh Dancy looking for all the world like a penitent man in search of something beyond his world, staring straight into the face of God…but a God whose handiwork betrays his vengeful intent.

If God is absent, then Will is left with Jack and Hannibal to stand in for him, each man manipulating his abilities to their own effect.  It’s in “Coquilles” that Hannibal first firmly plants the seeds of dissent between Jack and Will, telling his patient that gods often abandon their creations, while also referring to his service to Jack as a deal with the Devil.  The irony is delicious, as it’s Hannibal whose calculated oscillation between God and Devil figure leaves Will as his ultimate creation, and his ultimate experiment.  His fascination with the fungible nature of spiritual enlightenment can be summed up in his comments to Will about Buddish:

“You want to feel such sweet and easy peace.  The Angel Maker wants that same peace.  He hopes to feel his way cautiously inside and then find it's endless, all around him… You accept the impossibility of such a feeling, whereas the angel maker is still chasing it.”

Part of Hannibal might rationalize the impossibility of this ocean of peace, but his curiosity about the mental impulse that drives anyone to search for it also drives him to prod Will into the deeper recesses of that journey.  Judeo-Christian beliefs often portray the grace of God as an all-encompassing embrace of love.  As a God figure in his life, Hannibal offers Will that same comforting embrace.  But it’s an embrace of enveloping darkness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 4: "Oeuf"

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In which the family you think is family is just a stepping stone to real family.

“Jack: What do you see Will? 
 Will: Family values.”

In my essay for “Amuse-Bouche”, I noted how one of Bryan Fuller’s overarching thematic motifs in Hannibal’s first season is the complex and twisted family that forms amongst the main characters.  Both book and film versions of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal play around with this concept, mainly through Clarice Starling’s attachment to dueling surrogate father figures Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter.  Those two relationships gain an added frisson from the latent romantic tension therein; Clarice’s dark romance with Hannibal is explored in greater depths, but there’s always an implication that Jack’s affections for her dance around the border of purely paternal instinct.  This semi-incestuous dynamic is fully in line with the often hazy depiction of deviant/alternative sexuality in the Thomas Harris universe.  Francis Dolarhyde, Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, and Mason Verger are theoretically all antagonistic figures dabbling in perverse sexual desires (Verger’s being the most reprehensible, at least in the novel’s grotesque depiction), but they’re also all outcasts from larger family structures.  Dolarhyde and Gumb are both abandoned by their mothers, and Verger is stigmatized as the deformed monster of his affluent family via his drug-induced torture at Hannibal’s hands.

At this point in the show, Fuller’s adaptation of this concept downplays the sexual deviance angle (with the exception of the pseudo-incestuous trappings of Garret and Abigail’s relationship), but it fully embraces an extended family created from a band of orphans of all stripes.  During their therapy session, Will admits to having never known his mother, while Hannibal reveals his upbringing as an orphan (a trait which further connects both of them with Abigail.)  “Oeuf” features the first on screen appearance of Jack’s wife Bella (Gina Torres, the real life Mrs. Fishburne), but their obviously strained relationship marks him as the emotional orphan who seems to only find fulfillment in hunting suspects for the FBI.  And even though she seems to be fairly stable, Alana is only defined by her work relationships, with no hint of an outside life.

There’s always an ambiguous aspect to this family tree.  Will and Hannibal search for meaning in each other, and their mutual paternal feelings for Abigail have some benevolent motivations, even as self-interest taints the proceedings.  And Jack may serves as father figure to Will, but he also pushes him to the brink in the name of justice. But the manipulations on display can also be read as a wry commentary on the power dynamics of any normal familial structure.  At heart, these are still all people looking for some kind of connection. 

“Oeuf” serves as a nightmare refutation of that desire, as ideal families are literally destroyed from within by a band of “Lost Boys”, kidnapped/orphaned middle children inducted into a warped surrogate clan, complete with a Peter Pan figure in the older C.J. Lincoln.  The first post-credits shot, of maggots devouring a long-abandoned dinner, sets the stage for the larger thematic story on display: the age old fear that children are forces of destruction, a manifestation of a parent’s darkest impulses.  The socio-economic factor of affluence being no protection from the self-cannibalizing impulse also serves as a pitch black satire of the inherent decadence of the well-off (a concept that defines much of the legend of Hannibal Lecter.)  Will laments his inability to give the boys back what they’ve given away to this alternate family, while Hannibal theorizes to Jack that Will is desperately trying to return to his childhood with his father (effectively making him a Peter Pan figure chasing a Peter Pan figure.) 

This greater theme takes on an added heft when considering the context of “Oeuf”s disappearance from the show’s initial run.  On April 15th, 2013, ten days before this episode was set to debut, two brothers performed their own act of familial destruction when they bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Copley Square.  Cautious of offending the afflicted with his portrayal of murderous children, Bryan Fuller asked NBC to pull this episode from airing, instead chopping it up into a series of web episodes (the unexpurgated version is widely available on video and streaming services.)

“Oeuf” was always going to be a bit of an odd duck, even before the Boston bombings disappeared it from prime time.  It’s one of two Hannibal episodes not lensed by ace DP James Hawkinson, and even though the show’s house style is still evident, there’s a noticeable difference from the usual lush extravagance.  Karim Hussain makes extensive use of reveals in his shooting, most notably in Alana and Hannibal’s first conversation about the best treatment for Abigail.  It’s not readily apparent if this method is meant to emphasize the outpouring of new information or to lend more of a visual dynamism to the plotting.  This slightly more traditional shooting scheme does hew to the grittier, more realistic view of crime that the episode takes, as aside from the graphic aftermath of the family murders, there’s not a speck of ritualism featured here.

Another odd feature of “Oeuf” is its employment of the criminally underused Molly Shannon.  Playing the matriarch of the Lost Boys, she’s never given a name, and for such a driving presence in the plot, she has precious little screen time outside of stating her surrogate family philosophy and being gunned down in the climactic cookout siege.  In my essay for “Potage”, I explored the possibility that Abigail Hobbs is reenacting the Electra Complex, and it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that Shannon’s nameless character is meant to represent motherhood in general.

Or maybe she’s the figurative manifestation of the absentee mothers that haunt so many of Thomas Harris’s characters.  Will and Hannibal lament their tenuous connections with maternal figures, and maybe on a more universal level, Hannibal is dealing with the implications of Thackeray’s famous line stating that "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children."  If this holds true, a universe with no mother is one with no God, where moral and ethical direction is fungible.  It’s a state of behavioral blankness that Will and Hannibal certainly explore during these first two seasons.  And it could also be argued that the main cast is fumbling through a somewhat amoral world in which they’re trying to assert their own godhood.  Hannibal mentions to Abigail that “Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless.  I want to give you your power back.”  And Beverly Katz compares Will to British artist Willard Wigan, whose microscopic works are perhaps the ultimate realization of the artistic impulse for total control in the act of creation (Will’s fly fishing hobby, one which entails a great deal of attention to microscopic detail, is revealed in this episode.)

The simplest answer might be the best one.  The Lost Boys case forces the members of this burgeoning surrogate family to face their subconscious fears of what they’re entering for the first time.  And it further foreshadows Will’s greatest fear, that Abigail is the killer everyone thinks she is.  His attachment to her is somewhat paternal, but it’s also driven by his uncomfortable identification with Garret Jacob Hobbs, and his desire to prove that both he and Abigail are more than extensions of a murderous psychopath.  When her complicity is finally revealed later in Season 1, it’s a devastating blow that pushes Will further into his psychological breakdown, the ultimate betrayal by his surrogate child.

In the aftermath of the Lost Boys wrap up, each of the main characters is left to retreat to their true families, as dysfunctional as they might be.  Jack and Bella sleep in the same bed, but are worlds apart.  Will’s refuge is with his pack of dogs, family members who will maintain total subservient devotion to him.  And Abigail is reunited with her dead mother and father, if only through her psilocybin-induced hallucinations of Hannibal and Alana (another foreshadowing of their eventual romance, and of the bloody, Hobbs-esque massacre that will close Season 2.)

To the leftovers:

*I haven’t mentioned it before, but I’ve always loved the time lapse photography that Bryan Fuller uses for most of the establishing shots.  At this point in filmic history, it can seem like a clichéd device, but in this context it creates a palpable sense of an exterior world at unrest, and of the fractured nature of time that will gradually envelop the show.

*Hannibal Lecter is truly in his element when preparing a meal, and the sheer delight that Mads Mikkelsen displays when cooking for Abigail is vastly entertaining.  It almost makes you forget about his Machiavellian plans.

*To further extend the surrogate family metaphor, Jack’s dinner with Hannibal lends the good doctor the air of a brother and a father confessor.  But Jack is also no fool; his prolonged dance with Hannibal will eventually lead to their epic confrontation in Season 2.

*”Family friction is usually a catalyst for personality development” (Brian Zeller, to Will, after asking him if he’s an only child.)