Friday, May 08, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 9: "Trou Normand"

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In which we are her fathers now.

“Because any reservations I have about Abigail don’t extend to Hannibal.  He has no reason to lie about any of this.”  (Alana, to Jack.)

That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  Alana’s assumption that Hannibal Lecter thinks like the rest of us.  That, like any normal human being, his motivations lie in the pursuit of truth.  So well has he worn his well-tailored person suit that no one would have any reason to see malice in his actions, or his philosophy.  And even from the viewer’s perspective, Hannibal has no easily quantifiable reason for making the fateful call to Garret Jacob Hobbs, for playing the grand game of chess with Will, Jack, and Alana as the pieces, and for intervening when Abigail Hobbs kills Nicholas Boyle.

Well, maybe that last part is a bit more explicable.  Or at least it is after the events of “Trou Normand.”

Hannibal actually has the perfect motivation for the sociopathic acts that propel so much of the show’s plot: he’s curious.  About the results of his actions.  About the way that the people around him react.  About what drives men like Jack and Will, men who’ve given up their lives (and in Will’s case, his grip on reality) to correct the wrongs perpetrated by psychopaths.  In this way, Hannibal embodies the logical extension of the psychiatrist’s imperative: to explore the psyches of his patients (whether they be officially under his care or not.)  And like a child holding a magnifying glass over ants, he just wants to understand the mechanics of nature’s actions. 

But as this episode shows (or perhaps reinforces), his attachment to Abigail fulfills a latent fatherly instinct in him.  Or at least his vision of a fatherly instinct, and all the fulfillment that it might bring.  Nothing in this area is too certain, though, as the question of fatherhood and its far-reaching impact is explored on several different fronts. 

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the criticisms that can be easily levied against Hannibal in Season 1 is its tendency to adopt a killer of the week approach to its storytelling.  From a practical standpoint, this is understandable.  A network show that dabbles in such avant-garde leanings (especially in its maiden voyage) needs some kind of hook with which to draw in uncommitted viewers.  And as the season progresses, it seems as if Bryan Fuller uses this tactic more as a MacGuffin than as something to hang his hat on. 

Take this episode’s portrayal of Lawrence Wells, the totem pole murderer.  Played by the great Lance Henriksen, he’s an old man relegated to one climactic scene (in which he never leaves his Barcalounger.)  As a resolution to the main investigation thread, it’s fairly pedestrian, and from a plotting standpoint it gives the whole storyline the appearance of being shoehorned in between the darker material between Will, Hannibal, and Alana.  What Wells’s appearance does provide is a cementing of “Trou Normand”’s commentary on the often treacherous role of fatherhood.  Will’s revelation to him, that he inadvertently killed his own son in an attempt to cement his legacy, clearly crushes a man who thought that he’d finally figured a way out of the loneliness and anonymity of retired life.

He’s not the only father figure who has to face the consequences of his parenting.  Jack’s early episode meeting with Will once again takes on the air of a stern father and his son, even as Jack tries to be sympathetic to Will (in his own gruff manner.)  When Will and Hannibal try to advise Abigail on the problematic nature of her budding partnership with Freddie Lounds, Abigail chastises Will by saying “Just because you killed my dad doesn’t mean you get to be him” (a line that both hurts Will and subconsciously reinforces his belief that Garret Jacob Hobbs is taking over his soul.)  And in the end, it’s Hannibal who draws Will into a joint surrogate fatherhood of Abigail, but one which is based more in an abuser’s mentality (the secrets they all agree to keep between themselves) than anything else.  Of course, for Hannibal, this is a perfectly natural combination of intentions; he sees himself as Abigail’s savior, while also damning her to even further retreat into crisis.  But still, his embrace of her at episode’s end has some genuine emotion attached to it.  The lead up to that embrace, in which she finally admits her complicity in her father’s crimes, is a real gut punch of a scene, and having it play out in a long single take allows Kacey Rohl to run the gamut of emotions, while Mads Mikkelsen once again subtly underplays his muted reaction (which, because of his mastery of the role, speaks volumes.)

There’s one other emotional embrace in this episode occurs between Alana and Will, at the climax of an unnerving scene in which she finds him alone in his classroom, hallucinating about a lecture on the totem pole killer.  Her admittance of feelings for him is tempered by her concern for his sanity, and even though she tells him that she doesn’t want to mislead or lie to him, he’s so far gone down the path of his breakdown that the result is yet another knife in his side.  The look on Hugh Dancy’s face as Caroline Dhavernas hugs him is heartbreaking.  This lost man’s desperate attempt to connect with someone else can only be met by a show of platonic friendship.  Alana’s intentions might be honorable, but she inadvertently sends Will even further into Hannibal’s grip.

If there’s one other important role that Lawrence Wells’s appearance serves, it’s as an accelerator for Will’s mental collapse.  For what is the human totem pole but the most grotesque, fantastical vision of death that the show has offered so far, and another marker for the intrusion of the nightmare world that Will sees into the waking hours.  As he enters his state of hyper-empathy on the beach, he utters the words “This is my resume.  This is my legacy.  This is my body of work.”  He’s tapping into Lawrence Wells’s mindset, but also commenting on the toll of his own work.  The descending God’s eye POV of him mirrors a similar one in “Coquilles”, when he gazes upon the work of the Angel Maker.  And the small pool of blood next to him on the sand is a disturbing grace note for his subconscious self-assessment.

Will’s breakdown is also reflected in the sound and visuals around him.  Brian Reitzell infuses most of his scenes with a disturbing ambient drone, one that builds in intensity as he falls further into the darkness.  When he first visits Hannibal, the normally carefully controlled camera compositions break apart into a serious of circular pans.  And the closeups on Will’s tortured face continue to proliferate, building an even more claustrophobic sense for the viewer.  But this descent isn’t over.  In some ways, it’s only begun.

As usual, we have some leftovers:

*In the opening scene, Zeller and Price discuss the philosophy of puzzle assembly in relation to the human totem pole.  This is episode is finally the point where Will takes all of the puzzle pieces he’s been collecting (and that have been dropped around him) and starts to put them together.  His vision of stabbing Nicholas Boyle, who then morphs into Abigail is a major turning point.  And his confrontation with Hannibal at the end is going places before he’s led astray into his co-father/enabler role.   You always have to be careful about what you might see when the big picture is assembled.

*”This is possibly the finest salad I’ve ever eaten in my life.  A shame to ruin it with all that meat” (Freddie Lounds, during the climactic dinner at Chez Lecter.  Which, in retrospect, means that she’s one of the only major characters not to engage in cannibalism during the first two seasons.  Watching the show again has made me realize how much I love Freddie as a character, and how much I wish that she had more screen time.)

*As a huge Lance Henriksen fan, I love seeing his cameo in this episode.  But man, what a way to earn a paycheck: sit in a chair for a three minute scene and emote!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 8: "Fromage"

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In which the way I am isn’t compatible with…

…the way I am.

“Sorbet” and “Fromage” form a musical duet of sorts, the former reveling in operatic excess, the latter offering a finely tuned examination of the way that musicality is intertwined in our lives.  As Hannibal so eloquently puts it “Every life is a piece of music.  Like music, we are finite events, unique arrangements.  Sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant.”  That philosophy plays out in all aspects of this episode, as the power of music profoundly affects the main characters’ lives.  But ironically, even as almost everyone seeks some kind of greater connection and fulfillment with another person, their attempts at dueting only end with a collection of lost individuals soloing away into the darkness.

More than almost any other episode of Hannibal so far, the psychiatrist/patient dynamic is at the forefront of “Fromage.”  Franklin once again seeks companionship in Hannibal, going so far as to tell him about his diagnosis of Tobias’s latent psychopathy (which he envisions to be a point of connection with his doctor), but Lecter still maintains their distant professional relationship.  Besides, he finds the intestine harvesting Tobias a much more interesting subject, especially when he realizes that his theatrical murder of Baltimore Symphony trombonist Douglas Wilson is meant as a serenade from one psychopathic murderer to another.  Aside from the slight homoerotic undercurrents between Hannibal and Will, this is the first time that the show has dealt with latent homosexuality in such a manner.  It’s implied that Franklin and Tobias are more than (ahem) friends (Hannibal notes to his patient “You’re not a psychopath, although you might be attracted to them”, a bone dry bit of double-edged humor), and the attachment that both men project onto Hannibal is obviously more than platonic.  Mads Mikkelsen’s slightly effete, pansexual demeanor in the role provides ample space on which to project such affections, so for them to finally skew in this direction is only logical. 

But these aren’t the only characters who, inadvertently or not, play out the psychiatric relationship in “Fromage.”  For the second episode in a row, Hannibal seeks the same connection with Bedelia that Franklin seeks with him, even as she keeps him at a remove (for now.)  For the first time, he explicitly states his desire to make Will his friend, and the end of the episode hints at a greater bond between them.  As usual, the tightrope that Bryan Fuller has these characters walk is what drives the narrative tension of the show.  Hannibal is simultaneously a twisted psychopath manipulating Will, and a lonely emotional vacuum in desperate need of his friendship.  And despite his aversion to human connection and increasing leeriness of Lecter’s intentions, Will still finds solace in his labyrinthine mind and status as a fellow outsider at play in the fields of the insiders. 

Hannibal isn’t the primary source of solace in this episode for Will, although that psychiatrist’s dynamic still dictates the rules of relational engagement.  After hints and intimations throughout the first seven installments, he finally makes a move on Alana after she comes to check on him (and his increasingly damaged psyche.)  There’s a natural sweetness between these two characters, a duo that has long placed the solitary nature of their careers over any aspirations of romance.  Will’s subsequent confession of their kiss to Hannibal (“I wanted to kiss her since I met her.  She’s very kissable”) is such a light and goofy moment for a man already deep in the throes of a breakdown (and a reminder that Hugh Dancy is very suave and charming.)  Alana constantly refers to how she thinks too much to date anyone, mirroring Will’s early season declaration that his empathic powers are the product of “an active imagination.”  But in this moment, it’s Will who implores her to stop thinking so much, ultimately to no avail.  Her training as a psychiatrist trumps the seemingly genuine affection she has for him, forcing her to leave him alone, a self-created hole in his chimney the dark abyss left to beckon to him.   

The universal longing for human connection is obviously at the heart of these character arcs, but there also seems to be an implied questioning of the fundamental divide between logic and emotion.  In each pairing, the person playing the role of the psychiatrist/sounding board usually has some justifiable reason to keep their counterpart at an emotional remove.  And yet, the emotional and psychological consequences of such distancing can’t be ignored.  In one of her sessions with Hannibal, Bedelia posits that “Every person has an intrinsic responsibility for their own life.”  But this ignores the responsibility that we have for each other, something that these characters’ logical decisions abdicate (although you could argue that Hannibal’s rejection of Franklin makes sense on a lot of levels; he does snap his neck at episode’s end.)  Once again, Fuller presents a complex portrait of this subject, one without many easy answers.  After all, the most empathic character on the show (Will) is also the one headed for a nervous breakdown. 

And even in this cavalcade of disconnected characters, there’s at least one shining example of a deeper connection between two people.  Although one of them is a dead man.  As Will enters the mind of Douglas Wilson’s murderer, playing his cello corpse on the Symphony stage, the sole, applauding member of his audience is none other than Garret Jacob Hobbs.  The grand arc of Will’s psychological disintegration has followed a gradual path, but it’s in this episode that we see the major cracks forming.  When Hannibal asks him what he sees behind the closed eyes of his visions, Will’s POV invokes the image of Hobbs in the dream audience.  His answer (“I see myself”) encapsulates the tortured duality that’s ripping him apart, even as he tells Jack earlier in the episode that he’s starting to distance himself from the emotional grind of his hyper-empathy.  During Wilson’s autopsy, he’s clearly in character when he offers a guttural “I had to open you up to get a decent sound”, the realization of which shakes him to his core.  And his auditory hallucinations now reach a fever pitch, as he constantly hears the sounds of animals in some sort of pain or suffering.

It’s appropriate that what Will hears is such a tipping point for his strife, as music plays such a major role in this show (and specifically in this episode.)  I’ve previously lauded Brian Reitzell’s phenomenal scoring, but he really outdoes himself in this episode, using extended string passages as both commentary on the main plot and unnerving white noise.  The skittering percussion and ambient drones of Will’s visions are always unsettling, but here Reitzell adds dissonant, chime-based percussive sounds that lend a sense of relentless forward momentum to his mindset.  As Hannibal notes when he visits Tobias’s home “(You) can’t impose traditional composition on an instrument that’s inherently freeform.” 

He’s literally referring to his Theremin, and figuratively to Tobias and himself.  But this quote also applies to Will’s non-traditional crime-solving methods (and general philosophy), and to the show’s general stylistic approach, a freeform excursion within the traditional confines of network television.  The universal connection that music provides is often most powerful when it strives for moments of ecstasy and transcendence, and Hannibal reflects this power in its avant-garde flights of excessive fancy, which ask the viewer to give themselves up to the uneasy pleasures of a nightmare landscape.

And now for the leftovers:

*In a great example of Chekhov’s Gun, Hannibal kills Tobias with the black stag statuette that has so often accompanied him in the frame during his office scenes.  If there’s was any doubt about the source of Will’s stag visions, well…

*Also of note in the office scenes is the forboding lighting.  Up to this point, the majority of those scenes have been set at night, when the rich, warm colors of the set can really pop out.  But as the show’s tone further darkens in this episode, there are more daytime office scenes, the almost chiaroscuro lighting creating a harsh, striking visual scheme across the characters’ faces.

*”I didn’t poison you Tobias.  I wouldn’t do that to the food.” (Hannibal, once again bringing the funny via his own twisted ethics.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 7: "Sorbet"

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In which you are wearing a very well-tailored person suit.

The beauty of Hannibal Lecter as a character, the allure of his anti-heroic charisma, is founded in a deep sense of theatricality.  It’s no surprise that his status as a pop culture icon didn’t occur until Anthony Hopkins brought an arch-melodramatic flair to the role (even though he famously only has 16 minutes of screen time in The Silence of the Lambs, not that much more than Brian Cox had in his more reserved take on Lecter in Manhunter.)  Despite the continuing influence of the naturalistic school of serious acting, there’s always enjoyment to be had in watching a performance that’s larger than life, especially when it flowers in the confines of a verite world (note the legion of Lecter-esque anti-heroes that has proliferated in film and television since 1991.)  And in a universal sense, there’s an undeniable pleasure we derive from watching a master performer at work; it’s the old codependent dynamic between a magician and their audience, the art of the con taken to quasi-theatrical heights.

As I’ve mentioned before, Mads Mikkelsen’s take on Hannibal is a fascinating hybrid of the icy sociopathy of Cox and the refined, cultured theatricality of Hopkins.  He’s often an emotional cypher, and yet the control of his physicality he shows is almost like that of a mime, graceful and dancerly, imbuing even the most subtle of gestures and reactions with diamond bullet power.  As a result, the rare instances of brutality he displays early in the show’s run take on a shattering force, like a leopard pouncing on its prey.

Following the plot-heavy machinations of “Entrée”, “Sorbet” (true to its name) offers a narrative palate cleanser before the final descent into madness that awaits in the final stretch of episodes.  And in true Hannibal fashion, it’s an interlude that is the most overtly operatic one so far, a trenchant analysis of the performative impulse and all of its complications.

The production design of Will’s lecture hall at Quantico has always been tailored toward the theatrical nature of his lectures (and of the historically theatrical nature of teaching), so it’s appropriate that “Sorbet” opens on his class discussion of the Chesapeake Ripper’s history.  Will is such an odd case when it comes to the pedagogical model; his wildly anti-social tendencies run counter to the traditional model of the charismatic professor, and yet in his lecture scenes he’s a consistently compelling figure, the darkness within him creating an electric stage presence.  As he notes that “there is a distinctive brutality” in the Ripper’s crimes, the camera focuses on his POV of Jack, one half of the father figure duo which has so brutalized his psyche in the first half of the season.  When the camera cuts back to Will, the image of Miriam Lass immediately pops up on the screen behind him.  Now it’s Jack’s POV of these two proteges, one seemingly dead, one seemingly doomed, both playing a role whose tragic nature seems utterly circumscribed in its fabric.  The point is driven home with blunt force at the end of the episode, when he envisions Will’s corpse rising from the morgue table, his missing left arm forever fusing him with Miriam.

The scene that follows (at the slyly titled Concert for Hunger Relief), fully immerses the viewer in Hannibal’s classical opera leanings, so much so that the camera begins in the featured singer’s throat.  After all, the performance of our lives may be convincing, but behind it all we’re still all just a collection of slimy interior organs and muscles joining together to portray humanity.  Hannibal never forgets this, as he ultimately reduces his victims to their base nature: pieces that are meant to be absorbed into the remaining players.  But still, the collaborative efforts of these dancing bags of flesh aren’t without their moments of transcendence, as the camera shows when it gradually pulls back from the singer, up into the audience, and then spirals into Hannibal’s right ear.  The effect is an invocation of the hypnotic, seductive nature of music, but also a reminder of the spiritual vortex that lies at the heart of this man.

Hannibal’s performative nature is referred to several times throughout this episode.  When she asks him why he hasn’t cooked for her and her friends for so long, Mrs. Komeda notes “Have you seen him cook?  It’s an entire performance”, to which Hannibal replies “You cannot force a feast.  A feast must present itself” and that he’ll resume his parties “when inspiration strikes” (the classic, romantic motivator for the artistic mind.)  Will diagnoses the Chesapeake Ripper as being a performer at heart, whose graphic dissections serve as public shamings of his victims, while hiding “the true nature of his crimes.”  During their later therapy session, Franklin and Hannibal debate his ability to be a friend, Hannibal insisting that the only role he can play is that of doctor.  They also discuss Franklin’s dream of befriending Michael Jackson, a pop icon who seemed to only be comfortable in his skin when performing.

This reference to the deceased King of Pop is one of the funniest moments of “Sorbet”, and yet it’s also one of the most instructive, especially as it pertains to the introduction of Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s retired colleague and personal psychiatrist.  For after six episodes of watching the good doctor masterfully manipulate all those around him in a grand, amoral experiment, this is the first time that the audience sees the lost soul within him.  Franklin may seem pathetic when he begs Hannibal to be his friend, but he plays that same role when he desires Bedelia’s friendship.  She’s the first character in the show to see straight through his performance, telling him “I have conversations with a version of you” and nailing his inhumanity with the famous quote that leads off this essay.  The way that Hannibal claims to have friends isn’t too far removed from his usual reserved delivery, but it carries with it a deep sadness…or, more accurately, his yearning to feel sadness at his state, a feeling that he can only portray.  Later in the episode, after his second session with Franklin (who mentions that “being alone always comes with a hurting, a dull ache”), he opens his office door for the first time to an empty waiting room (Will has forgotten his appointment.)  Again, the subtleties of Mikkelsen’s performance stand out; the slight look of disappointment on his face, proof of his inherent loneliness, is devastating. 

The casting of Gillian Anderson as Bedelia is a stroke of genius.  In many ways, she’ll always be Dana Scully, the hard pragmatist trying to rein in Fox Mulder’s eccentric instincts on The X-Files.  But she also brings that same sense of cool, analytical rigor to her role in Hannibal as well, her elegant, almost porcelain beauty a complement to her ability to underplay the part.  Over two seasons, she’ll prove to be one of the most complex characters on the show, oscillating between a slot on Hannibal’s kill list to playing the role of his accomplice and romantic confidante.  But more on her as this season progresses…

Hannibal might be the main performative force in this episode, but Will matches him in the depth of performance, with an outward intensity all his own.  For what is Hugh Dancy’s version of the tortured FBI profiler but the ultimate example of a method actor lost in the part, the logical endgame of the De Niro, Pacino, Day-Lewis era of total immersion in another personality (which I guess makes Jack the bad stage parent?)  Hannibal might have the finely tailored person suit, but Will can hardly maintain his, even though he has the vibrant inner humanity that Lecter so desires.  But even that’s in peril, as Will continues to fear the performance that will finally overtake his soul, once and for all (which, this episode once again implies in his nightmare vision, is that of homicidal father to Abigail Hobbs.)

The climactic moments of “Sorbet” initially seem to be a bit off kilter, as the hunt for the organ harvester’s kill truck plays as this episode’s requisite killer of the week being shoehorned into the plot.  But these final measures are a further reinforcement of the dominant theme of performance.  Hannibal saves the unnamed ambulance victim’s life by playing his old role of surgeon, and it’s here that his true nature finally begins to dawn on Will, the coalescing of the Chesapeake Ripper profile he’s been forming all episode long with the reality of the man in front of him (who has also used several of his murders to perform as the organ harvester, in an attempt to throw suspicion off of his deeds.)  When he declines to stay for dinner, Hannibal sees through his performance as well.  In the end, our favorite cannibal is left entirely in his element, hosting the long-requested dinner party, serving pilfered human flesh back to his friends, reveling in the role of the bon vivant.  His introductory words to the guests are perfectly synched with the beats of the Vivaldi piece on the soundtrack, and in the moment it seems like he’s utterly fulfilled.  But as “Sorbet” has shown, there’s a great chasm of longing that lies beneath the veneer of this perfect performance, a work of theatrical exactitude that is also a cage. 

Leftovers ahoy! :

*Hannibal may ultimately find romance with Bedelia, but it’s in this episode that his seduction of Alana begins to accelerate, even as he uses her to glean information about Jack’s motivations.  Their relationship will form one of the key dramatic barriers to Will during Season 2.

*Though classical and operatic works feature prominently in this episode, Brian Reitzell’s score is still a work of dark beauty.  In particular, the throbbing ambient soundscapes that he composes for Will’s sessions with Hannibal form a low level hum of dread and paranoia.

*”Who the hell gets a spleen transplant?” (Jimmy Price)

*”Surgery was performed, and then unperformed.” (Beverly)

*Mark down another Bryan Fuller homage to The Shining, as the hotel room organ harvesting crime scene is a direct nod to Kubrick’s film (the layout and design of the bathroom, the seating position of the victim in the tub, the diagonal framing of the bathroom door in the distance.)