Thursday, May 14, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 11: "Roti"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which it’s like remembering something from your childhood.  And you’re not sure if it’s your memory or your friend’s memory.  Then you realize, sadly, it’s just some photo in an old book.

“One come a day, the water will run, No man will stand for things that he had done...”
-“Stop”/Jane’s Addiction

It’s always been about the parents, hasn’t it, this first season of Hannibal?  Sure, we’ve been entertained by the bone dry wit.  We’ve been perversely titillated by the grand-guignol grostesqueries on display in the murder scenes.  We’ve dove deep with Will into the Hannibal Lecter rabbit hole, plunged into that abyss just…a…bit…further…always to see how deep it goes (as deep as you want it to go says the abyss to the seeker.)

But the great through line of Bryan Fuller’s first pass through the inky recesses of the Lecterverse?  It’s always been the parental figures, the beacons of authority upon who have been placed the trust of so many other characters.  And how they have violated that trust, failed in their duties, and then abdicated responsibility for their deeds.

“I have no interest in understanding sheep.  Only eating them.”  -Hannibal

Hannibal isn’t explicitly driven by any political or sociological imperative.  Yet just as Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Lecter in The Silence of The Lambs captured the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time, gifting that specific culture its very own boogeyman, so too does this version of der cannibal arrive in a time when the full impact of authoritative betrayal seems to be reaching new crescendos.  It’s the post-post-post-Nixon era, the bloody aftermath of stock market crashes and financial collapses (wrought by those we trusted to hold onto our money, most of them still running free in the wild blue yonder).  It’s the post-9/11 fantasia in which, dream as we may, there’s still no escaping that day’s, that era’s cataclysmic failure of leadership.  It’s a time and a place where we’re advised to make our own way, to be our own bosses, because institutions not only will fail you, but are in actuality a concept built for suckers.   

Sorry kid.  Your parents burned down the house and spent your savings.  They’d apologize, but they’re in Aspen right now. 

“The subject musn’t be aware of any influence.”  -Hannibal

And so we have Garret Jacob Hobbs, the father who cares so much about his daughter that he kills eight other girls rather than slice and dice her.  Who cares so much that, like God before him, he fashions her in his own image, a twisted funhouse mirror of a young girl, a lure designed to perpetuate her own existence.  Whose last stab at fatherhood involves attempting to finally murder her, a blood sacrifice to the god of carnage he so diligently worships.  Who, even in death, invades Will’s mind, filling the gap left by his own absent father while slowly refashioning him in his own image as well.

“What kind of crazy are you?”  -Jack

And so we have Jack Crawford, the big daddy of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.  Who allows his intrepid young trainee to enter the belly of the beast, to be ripped by the Ripper.  Whose guilt over that abdication of responsibility is tempered by the fact that he washed his hands of that responsibility when he sent her off to her doom.  Who is so guilt ridden that, like the serial killers he pursues, he repeats his pattern and pushes his hyper-empathic associate to the brink of madness.  Who greases the skids by unwittingly sending him into that same belly of the beast to gain enough off the record psychotherapy to officially keep him on the road to madness.

“He’s having a difference of opinion with who he is.”  -Abel Gideon

And so we have Frederick Chilton, the king of psychiatric smarm, whose plush gig at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane allows him free reign to indulge his narcissistic fantasies at the expense of his own flock of charges.  Who decides to further warp Abel Gideon’s mind by psychically driving him to believe himself to be the Chesapeake Ripper.  Who is shocked shocked shocked at Gideon’s lawsuit against him, for isn’t the inherent role of the caged that of the test subject?  The guinea pig?    

“Poke around a psychiatrist’s mind, you’re bound to get poked back”  -Hannibal

And so we have Hannibal the Cannibal himself, the dark prince of parents in this corner of the Lecterverse.  Even worse: the unfit parent, the one who decides that having children would be interesting, would be fun, would be an experiment and a way to fill the emptiness of their life.  Whose exploitation of the man he fancies as his first true friend is as cold and calculating and self-justifying as can be.  Who’s perfectly comfortable with the collateral damage of his human experiments because after all, the path to enlightenment must be strewn with some amount of pain, right? And whose own psychiatrist advises him not to interfere with the steady creep of the madness that comes with that collateral damage.   

“All I heard was my heart, dim but fast, like footsteps fleeing into silence.”  -Will

And so we have Will and Abel, twin brothers in trauma, prodigal sons of two psychiatrist father figures.  Two men who have come to view themselves unfit for normal human relationships, stuck outside Alana’s house, watching the normalcy she represents with resigned despair.  Abel’s Colombian Necktie displays of his victims the ultimate refutation of the talking cure, of the authority of those medical professionals.  Will’s identification with Abel’s murder of the transfer van orderly and guard a cathartic unleashing of his own submerged, subconscious rage at the authority figures that have batted him around.  Abel’s precise dissection of Chilton (aided by Freddie Lounds, another abuser/abdicator of authority) a final means to make the not so good doctor literally hold the guts he’s never shown before, and another tribute to the Chesapeake Ripper’s public shaming of his victims.      

“I feel fluid.  Like I’m spilling.”  -Will

Collapse and dissipation and the drowning the drowning a river of your own making avalanche landslide from great ice edifices the solid matter of reality melting away and the water from within and the waters of time enveloping grasping for air and hope but reaching only polite embraces and betrayal and the stag that is everywhere there it is behind you in Chilton’s office that  there it is running through the snow toward Gideon toward Hobbs toward solutionoblivion because who at last are you who have they made you where when jump cut to seizure to the antlers of the kill room the antlers that protrude from all walls from the walls of your mind the maze in the forest lost as you may be but there must be a light or an exit or a reason or someone to guide you beyond all this only to once again leave you deep inside the maze abandoned like a childlefttofightthecancertheparentleftbehindwithoutanyexplanationandnowthewolfisatthedoorbayingtogetinbutwholeftthedoorunlockedIfearnotknowingwhoIamthat’llgiveyousomethingbettertodowithyourtonguethanwagitmyselfisalittlehazyatthemoment…………

“I don’t care who I am.  Just tell me this is real!”  -Will

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 10: "Buffet Froid"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which I got lost in the reconstruction.

“There's a grandiosity to the violence that I imagined that feels more real than what I know is true.”  -Will

And so, ten episodes into Hannibal’s maiden televisual murder spree, we come to my origin story in regards to Bryan Fuller’s behemoth of depraved decadence.  As I mentioned in the introductory essay to this series, I had avoided watching the show when I first heard about it.  ‘Cause, ya know, how could a network television drama capture the richness of the Lecterverse?  But then a friend started talking about how much she enjoyed it, and kept referring to it each week.  At the time, we were both reading Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live, which features a brief diversion into discussing Cotard’s Syndrome (the belief that you are already dead, either figuratively or literally).  When we got to this part, she enthusiastically noted how one of the recent episodes of Hannibal had featured a character suffering from this medical malady.  I pitched in with a reference to Charlie Kaufman’s 2007 meta-meta-meta-drama Synecdoche, NY, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s misery-infested protagonist is named Caden Cotard.  Much mutual enthusiasm and gushing ensued.  And it was at this point when I finally decided that the cosmic consciousness was trying to tell me something, and that I should finally dive in and watch the show.

That’s how we ended up here, with me reconstructing my thoughts on Will’s Graham’s reconstruction of a killer’s mindset and deconstruction of his own psyche.

“Buffet Froid” seems to be the point where, as an audience member, you’re tempted to either adopt Hannibal’s viewpoint and continue appreciating the series with a mixture of passion and analytical remove, or to really start disliking everybody’s favorite cannibal.  Up to this point, Fuller and his writing staff have walked such a fine line with his motivations; even in the aftermath of Abigail Hobbs’s murder of Nicholas Boyle, his intentions are somewhat noble in their own twisted way.  But the revelation in this episode that Hannibal and Dr. Sutcliffe have colluded to hide Will’s Encephalitis from him, all in the name of medical exploration of the dual psychological and neurological effect of the disease, marks a definite turning point in the show’s central relationship.

In Hannibal’s mind, of course, this all makes sense.  So well-trained is he in matters of compartmentalization that viewing Will as simultaneously a friend, a medical experiment, and an alibi is second nature.  There’s probably commentary to be made here on Hannibal’s mindset echoing so much of the modern compartmentalization-driven corporate mindset that has filtered down into our everyday lives.  But that might be another essay for another day.  In the moment, his deliberate manipulation of Will to throw the scent off of his own murderous trail is probably the most overtly villainous act he’s committed in this season.

Even then, though, the show makes it difficult to cast a purely dichotomous judgment on him.  During my first viewing of Season 1, I remember being deeply frustrated by some of the Hannibal-related plot machinations.  At times, he seemed much like Frank Underwood in the first two seasons of House of Cards, a character who holds almost superhuman sway in his ability to stay several steps ahead of everyone else.  House derives much of its viewing pleasure from this dynamic: Frank may be a devious anti-hero, but his enemies are generally such feckless amateurs (climaxing with the almost comically spineless president) that you have to admire his cunning intellect.  And he’s the only character in the show that’s willing to be totally honest with you.  Hannibal plays a much different game in setting up Will as a strong, noble, likeable protagonist.  But the central motif of his empathic powers also requires the viewer to extend their empathy to Hannibal as well.  As this is where the brilliance of Bryan Fuller’s vision is on full display.  Even as he commits his most heinous acts (and it’s ironic that violating the Hippocratic Oath got me more riled up than his murders), Hannibal never descends into the realm of melodramatic arch-villain.  Sure, you naturally want to root for Will to finally nail him (a desire that is only heightened during Season 2), but the complexity of his thought process, the purity of his predatorial instincts never really allows you to hate him.  It’s a revelation that’s really hit home for me while rewatching Season 1 for this essay series, and it’s made the show an even richer experience this time around.

Which is an appropriate thread of discussion, as the perception of time, a thematic motif that’s been lurking its way through the past few episodes, becomes a major force in “Buffet Froid.”  So much of our viewing perspective is filtered through Will’s increasingly fractured mindset that early in the episode, when he suddenly switches from gutting the fish he’s caught to gutting Beth LeBeau to exiting his crime scene vision in a panic, it’s a disorienting experience (Season 2 takes this concept to even more hallucinatory heights.)  The breaks in time that he experiences later in the episode (when he returns to the LeBeau house, and during his second MRI) are ones that we also literally see as he does.  In some ways, these blackouts are an interesting meta-commentary on the role of jump cuts, and the cinematic language in general.  As has been noted many times, watching a film (or, especially in the modern era, the better long form television shows) is akin to an act of mass hallucination, a collective dream in which we partake for a few hours.  Standard edits in a film become part of our accepted logical flow, but jump cuts can throw us for a loop.  Even if we go with them, part of our brain still wants to fill in the blanks (which is also part and parcel of the persistence of vision required to view celluloid film prints, our minds filling in the imperceptible flicker between each of the 24 frames in a second….something that’s been completely lost in the much more passive realm of digital projection.) 

Will’s obsession with reconstructing crime scenes requires him to fill in his own blanks, so these new gaps in time are the logical extension of the Encephalitis-fuelled mania that preys on one of the few points of stability in his life.  Thus, the irony of Hannibal advising him to draw a clock in order to anchor his notion of time and place.  Despite his protestations to the contrary, Will finds fulfillment and grounding in pursuing that which is missing; the tension between this pursuit and his feared loss of sanity is the price to be paid, but it’s now obvious that some of this fear has been based on a condition that’s purely medical in nature.

And this isn’t the only case of filling in the blanks on display here.  Georgia Madchen’s Cotard’s Syndrome literally prevents her from seeing faces, driving her to attempt to remove them like masks.  She views her own role in life as that of a giant blank, a void that only needs to be recognized by others.  And her condition leads to one of the show’s most chilling images: Hannibal, clad for the first time in his ace, clear plastic killing suit, finishing his copycat murder of Dr. Sutcliffe, his face a total blank to her.  This man, this vacuum of empathy has now been given his most stunning visual representation.  And it’s telling that it’s taken a person as damaged as Georgia to see what all of the show’s sane characters have been unable to discern.

Time for the leftovers:

*During his dinner with Hannibal, Dr. Sutcliffe metaphorically extends his discussion of their meal by referring to Will as a pig that Lecter has found.  It’s a nice callback to “Sorbet”, in which Will tells his students that the Chesapeake Ripper views his victims as pigs.

*In an episode in which Hannibal and Sutcliffe engage in medical malpractice, Jack Crawford’s own role in such a crime is also pushed to the forefront again, as he and Will spar over the shady ethics of having him treated by Lecter in order to keep his condition private (thus allowing him to continue working on the FBI cases.)  It’s yet another development in the dual father figure dynamic that Hannibal and Jack have with Will.

*One of my favorite images of this episode is the rack focus shot of the wolf-shaped porch decoration at the LeBeau house, which is a nice reference to the concept of the wolf at the door (Hannibal being the most obvious example.)  It also parallels Will’s home in Wolf Trap, Virginia, and his long term goal of catching Hannibal in his own trap. 

*After putting it off for a year, I steamrolled through the first season of Hannibal in a week on Amazon Video.  When I next saw my friend, I let her know by drawing her Will’s clock, and telling her my name and that I knew I was in this room.  She was quite pleased.              

Monday, May 11, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 91: "The Milk and Honey Route"

In which you just do what you have to do to come home.

“I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past.”  -Trudy

In a recent NPR interview with Terri Gross, Matt Weiner discussed/confirmed how so much of Mad Men’s final season has focused on Don Draper undergoing a reckoning with his life, with the cost of his long game of alienation and, to once again borrow a Fitzgeraldian conceit, the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams.  But in total, this sense of reckoning has extended to so many of the other characters as well.  It’s a natural plot development for a narrative entering its final days.  It’s also, as I’ve discussed here before, a keen parallel with the end of the ‘60s cultural reckoning that’s going on around them.

Which makes “The Milk and Honey Route” such a pleasure in the way that it offers what might be a final point of reckoning for three of the prickliest characters in the show’s history.  The title of the episode is taken from sociologist Nels Anderson’s famed treatise on the hobo lifestyle, specifically in regards to the train routes that provide the most welcoming conditions.  Anderson emphasizes how even in the hobo community, the definition of such a path can be wildly subjective.  So too do the characters in this episode navigate the often diffuse path to happiness that opportunity presents them.

If you’ve read any of my essays on teaching Season 1 of Mad Men (and if you haven’t, get on it it pal!  You can start here), you’ll remember my extensive discussions of the much-maligned Betty Draper/January Jones axis of suburban ennui and disaffection.  Or, to put it more bluntly, the genesis of what would become one of the more loathed characters on the show.  It’s so strange looking back today and seeing how much of a victim Betty was in that first season, so far has she seemingly traveled from that point of audience empathy.  But her path from those first appearances is key to grasping the weight and impact of her final destination.

This episode’s revelation that Betty has inoperable lung cancer is quite possibly the cruelest fate to be visited upon any of the characters in the show’s run.  In a season that has echoed storylines and developments from the past, this once again takes the audience back to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, the pilot episode that was so focused around the encroaching health concerns of cigarettes.  Like many of the plights that befall people in this fictional universe, there’s not really any buildup or obvious predicating factor for Betty’s cancer (other than a typical for the time smoking habit.)  And her death sentence is signed at a time when she seems to finally be achieving a state of fulfillment, returning to college to study psychology, and having reached a peaceful equilibrium with Don.

As I mentioned in those previous Mad Men essays, much speculation has surrounded the state of January Jones in her long run as Betty.  Rumors circulated that she was difficult to work with, that the result of said difficulty was the gradual fading of her screen time and coarsening of her character, that her (possibly) unexpected pregnancy before Season 5 led to Betty’s fat period.  And who knows, some of these rumors might have validity.  But foregrounding them ignores the greater issue at hand: the complexity that Matt Weiner and his writing staff bring to the show’s female characters.  Dramatic convention (and, in many ways, 20th century western dramatic convention) dictates that a character like Betty be portrayed as a sympathetic victim or one who eventually overcomes her oppressors to achieve a moral victory.  But real life doesn’t always work that way, and Weiner has always been more interested in building real people, not stock conventions.  Allowing Betty to transform into an icier, less likeable person, or for Peggy to give up her child in the name of her career, or for Megan to be both sympathetic and codependent in her marriage to Don…it can be easy to frown on some of these developments, especially in our post-post-feminist society.  Mad Men’s focus, though, has been on an ensemble of characters that are always realistically difficult to pin down, who all struggle to reach any kind of existential progress in their lives.  Having the guts to develop female characters in this way, in an environment so laced with misogyny, is a commendable act of dramatic honesty.

And it’s this dramatic honesty and willingness to trust the audience to continue investing in thorny characters that makes Betty’s cancer diagnosis so sad.  We as an audience have lived with her for six plus seasons, have seen her devastation at finally coming to terms with Don’s infidelity, have seen her desperate grab for happiness with other people (while too often ignoring happiness with herself.)  So when she’s given the fatal news here, the collective weight of those six years of dramatic companionship fell crushing, even if some of her more easily empathic moments seem so distant.  Her decision to carry on with life in the face of impending death is emblematic of the complexity of her character, a mixture of denial and acceptance.  But her final reckoning with Sally, her acceptance of her daughter’s adventurous ways, is a powerful moment of confirmation that, indeed, Betty isn’t just a shrew.

In many ways, Pete Campbell has always been Betty’s doppleganger, even if they’ve only shared minimal screen time.  Two people descended from well-monied lineages (that fall apart following the death of their patriarchs), they both suffer from trying to simultaneously fulfill and transcend those legacies.  Pete’s East Coast Ivy League upbringing is as much of a burden as Betty’s schooling in being a proper WASP housewife.   Long-time readers are well-versed in my staunch defense of Pete as a character, and the journey that Vincent Kartheiser has charted throughout the show’s history is a fascinating one.  The guy who started as an antagonist figure for Don is Season 1 has grown into one of the more forward thinking characters in the ensemble, while also still being somewhat of an entitled prick.  But the deeper emotional beats along the way have told the real story of Pete.  Think back to his doomed romance with Beth Dawes in Season 5, especially the scene in “The Phantom” where he covertly confesses his pained love for her in the aftermath of her shock therapy (even though she no longer remembers him.)

Like Betty, it’s the accumulation of our shared life experience with Pete that makes his climactic reunion with Trudy so emotionally powerful.  “The Milk and Honey Route” portrays him as finally standing at the edge of his dreams, Don’s departure from McCann-Erickson giving him unprecedented clout and the ability to be the major domo he’s always wanted to be.  But the pitch from Duck Phillips, of all people, to jump to Learjet triggers his own grand reckoning with himself.  In his dinner conversation with brother Bud (always the favored of the two Campbell boys), he finally realizes that their eternal dissatisfaction with what they already have reaches back to their father’s malign influence.  And that realization is what drives him back to Trudy, the one woman who has always understood him the most.  The way that his voice briefly cracks as he tries to convince her to come back with him, to start their marriage over is so affecting.  Most other shows would give him a huge breakdown here, but the manner in which Weiner and co. have finely crafted Pete for all these years make that small crack in his voice just as gut-wrenching as a traditional moment of catharsis.  After chasing the New York dream for so long (all the way back to Season 1’s “New Amsterdam”), he’s finally happy to relocate to Wichita if it means being with the woman he loves and their child.

Joining Betty and Pete in this episode’s pantheon of prickly characters is, of course, Duck Phillips. who has unexpected stuck around the sidelines of the narrative following his unceremonious flameout at the conclusion of Season 2.  I’m an unabashed fan of Mark Moses’s work as Duck.  Much like Vincent Kartheiser, he’s not afraid to completely embrace the sleazier aspects of the character (his beeline for the liquor inside the globe in Pete’s office here is priceless).  His continuing presence on the fringes of the action marks him as the ultimate opportunist, a headhunter extraordinaire but also an increasingly inveterate drunk.  But that’s the beauty of Duck: as in real life, it’s often the slightly slimy, disreputable people who offer us some of the most important things.  And so it is that his unexpected (and completely self-interest-laden) intervention leads to Pete’s reconciliation with Trudy, and a stab at happiness for the Campbells.  It’s so strange, but I’m really going to miss Duck (even though his dalliances with Peggy still make me want to throw up.)  I’ve reached the point that when Moses’s name pops up in the credits of other shows (notable The Killing and Homeland), I get really excited, knowing that he’s probably playing another sleazebag. 

That triumvirate of prickly characters might take precedence in this episode, but Don is still the beating heart of the narrative.  And with one episode to go before his story reaches its end, he’s seemingly in a good place: gone from McCann, wandering the open road, finally trying to live life (as he predicted he would in Season 1, when Roger Sterling told him that he’d probably die in the middle of a pitch.)  His sojourn in the Oklahoma motel seems to have all the hallmarks of the idyllic Kerouacian existence to which he alluded in “Lost Horizon.”  But dropping out of being Don Draper isn’t as easy as abandoning Dick Whitman all those years ago.  When he spots a stunning, leggy brunette at the motel pool, his gaze establishes the pattern of suave seduction that we’ve seen so many times before…until her children and overweight husband shatter his daydream.  His attempts at anonymity also quickly fall apart.  He’s too entrenched in being Don to pose as an itinerant drifter, too good at his established lifestyle to fool the local denizens into ignoring his obvious wealth.  There’s a bit of sadness to his predicament here; after years of wanderlust-driven aspirations, the reality of his existence on the road only brings him the attention of a youthful scammer and a nasty assault by the drunk veterans who he shared stories with hours before.

When he gives the young scam artist his car at episode’s end, leaving himself to wait on a bus to somewhere, it’s the penultimate step of his own season-long reckoning, and one of the final acts of stripping away his material signifiers.  No matter how far away he removes himself from the trappings of his Madison Avenue life, Don will, at heart, still always be Don.  He’s invested too much in that life for it to disappear.  Whether that realization leads him back to New York, or to Diana Bauer (who’s seemingly vanished from the story), or to somewhere else entirely, is unknown.  The opening dream sequence, in which a policeman finally catches up with him for some unknown offense, seemed to bode ill for our man in the suit.  But one thing is clear in those final shots of this episode: Don Draper is happy.  And for the first time in his life, he’s close to being whole.