Saturday, May 23, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 15: "Sakizuke"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which I am fixed and unseeing.  Unless someone else sees me.

The psychological echo chamber that Hannibal (and Hannibal) builds throughout the first season is one that entraps many a character, and drives Will into a complete breakdown.  In a meta-narrative sense, it also draws in the viewer, with plot points, themes, and motifs repeating themselves throughout the extended story to create a hypnotic, ambient buzz of dread (most notably in “Releves”, which I discuss here.)  So it’s only appropriate that in a second season in which the power dynamic between Will and Hannibal is flipped, there would be an episode like “Sakizuke” that mirrors its counterpart from Season 1.

“Amuse-Bouche” was the second episode of Hannibal’s maiden voyage, and it famously dealt with rogue pharmacist Eldon Stammets, who drugged and planted diabetics in order to give them a more profound connection to the world, which then extends to the almost fungal connections that form between the main players of the show.  “Sakizuke” similarly explores the symbiotic connections between these characters, and their varying states of decay.  As I alluded to in the essay for “Kaiseki”, Bryan Fuller includes some of Hannibal’s Japanese background in Season 2, primarily in Brian Reitzell’s sound design and with the episode titles.   Sakizuke is the Japanese culinary version of Amuse-Bouche, so this episode of the same name also deals with a mad artist assembling humans into a giant performance piece meant to connect them with a greater purpose.  This time, it’s the wheel (or spiral) of bodies that the unnamed killer crafts inside a secluded grain silo.  It’s one of the most memorable grotesqueries in the show’s run, a Hieronymous Bosch nightmarescape invading the waking world. 

Leave it to Hannibal to offer the most compelling analysis of this daisy chain of death.  As he peers into the top of the grain silo after discovering the killer’s lair, the bodies form the iris of an eye, while also reflecting in his eye (in a closeup that tells so much about what lies deep inside the inky vaccum of Dr. Lecter.)  Before arriving at the scene, he asks Jack if the killer is looking at God, and theorizes that “The eye looks beyond this world and into the next.  And sees a reflection of man itself.”  Later, when he’s stitching the killer into his own creation, he comforts him by saying “God gave you purpose, not only to create art, but to become it” (much like classic painters would insert themselves into their pieces.)  It’s easy to read a touch of megalomania into Hannibal’s view, which also ties in with his love for the classical arts (which often invoke a profound sense of transcendent divinity.)  And in Will’s empathic vision of the body spiral, Hannibal repeats one of his famous lines from “Amuse-Bouche” (“Killing must feel good to God too.  He does it all the time. And are we not created in his image?”), furthering the godlike aspirations attached to him.  But a much more brass tacks motivation can also be applied to his fascination.

For despite his status as the FBI’s new Will Graham and a seeming victory in his grand experiment of Season 1, Hannibal is losing much of what really stabilizes him.  His hyper-compartmentalized psyche needs Will to take the blame for the Shrike copycat murders, but it also yearns to save what he perceives as his only real friend in the world.  His loneliness at the end of “Kaiseki” is reflected here in his several meetings with Will, and even though he’s now tight with the FBI, he’s still an outsider (seen in a nice bit of business when he awkwardly pivots between Katz, Zeller, and Price, one of the few examples the series has offered of this graceful man almost tripping over himself.)

And after a period of slowly percolating distrust, Bedelia finally fires Hannibal as a patient, in a scene filled with animal menace and a raw, palpable sense of fear.  Gillian Anderson’s dry, off-kilter portrayal of Bedelia has always matched up well with Mads Mikkelsen’s subdued, hyper-controlled performance.  Just as his motivations are often fascinatingly hard to read, so too does her poker face conceal what seem to be much more complex emotions than she readily allows.  Despite his Machiavellian view of the world (nicely echoed in his comments to Jack, that the killer knows that “those in the world around him are a means to an end”), there’s always an eternally childlike vulnerability to him.  Aside from his attempts at connecting with Will, this can be seen in his continuing offers of friendship to Bedelia.  So when she throws down her final rejection, he’s left without his main ties to human normality.  And his first instinct is to balance things out by turning her into his next meal (in his office and in his later failed attempt at her house.)  It’s telling that when Jack intones that “The killer’s having an existential crisis”, his words are crosscut with Hannibal dining on veal taken from the body spiral killer’s leg, a resetting of his control over the world after the abject rejection he experiences in the first half of the episode.

But in Bryan Fuller’s grand scheme, Hannibal’s view of the body spiral as a connection to the divine might have more resonance than is readily apparent.  Acclaimed mythology scholar Lillian Tyack (also a major Hannibal fanatic, a longtime reader of this blog, and the author of the forthcoming book Echo/Ecco: Theological Mythocryptography in a Post-Navidson World) recently contacted me from her Swiss chalet with the following sage insights:

These past two episodes have featured, albeit briefly, scenes involving pomegranates. The first occurs when Will imagines himself having dinner with the Wendigo and the other is showcased when Hannibal feasts alone on the leg of the man he added to the mural. The image of a pomegranate has existed throughout history as a reminder of the Rape of Persephone, the goddess of Greek mythology who represents the fertility of vegetation. She exists as the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter and the god of thunder, Zeus. Persephone is best known for her role as the Queen of the Underworld alongside her husband Hades. She was brought there as a girl when Hades and Zeus transpired her kidnapping. This caused Demeter great grief and once she realized that the father of her child betrayed her, she vowed to inhibit the growth of all agriculture until Persephone was returned. Hades conceded to let his wife go, but before her release he tricked her into eating the seeds of a pomegranate, thus forever tying her to the Underworld and forcing her to return for one third of every year.
In Hannibal, the Underworld isn’t so much a tangible place as it is a state of mind. This Underworld is represented by the darkness of the psyche, how far someone can go until they finally tumble into the psychotic, horrific and distinctly evil. Hannibal Lecter rules this mindset; he is a cannibalistic psychopath yet he is able to float through the world with charming ease. Will, on the other hand, is pulled into this horrific darkness by the two men he trusts the most. Hannibal, like Hades, believes that brining Will into his own domain is the best for both of them while Jack, like Zeus, pushes Will to madness for his own benefit. Alana serves as the role of Demeter, who is much distraught by what became of a man who was once so close to her. Jack and Alana have both served as semi-parental figures to Will throughout the first season, but it is not till this episode where the audience is able to see how much he relies and clings to them. When Alana determines that Jack is partially to blame for Will’s predicament, she prevents the FBI from flourishing by calling an inside investigation and even serves as a possible threat to the livelihood of the establishment. She persists in her efforts to retrieve Will from the Underworld, and slowly but surely he makes his way back. He sometimes experiences moments of clarity, and even his act of making himself seem in need of Hannibal’s attention as a means of manipulation serves as evidence that he is becoming more lucid as each day passes. Even when Will breaks out of the physical and metaphorical prison that he is trapped in, he is still intrinsically tied to Hannibal Lecter. This respite then ends and as the season progresses, Will gradually re-enters his Underworld to rule alongside Hannibal as he aids him in creating unconventional works of human art. Then, he serves as the cannibal’s other half, gaining his trust and establishing himself as a member of the psychotic. During the killer/veal dinner scene, as Hannibal sits across from an empty seat with only a pomegranate as a placeholder, it is evident that he awaits Will’s return as the Queen of his own personal Underworld. 

The cursed nature that Will might carry extends into the flights of altered perception that he experiences throughout this season.  Hugh Dancy walks such a fine line with his acting, as much like Hannibal in Season 1, he’s required to play a character who’s often playing a character.  Or two.  Or three.  His breakdown in front of Alana and Hannibal at the open of this episode is revealed to be an elaborate emotional con when he returns to his basement cell.  When he pleads with Beverly for help (in a mirror of Anthony Hopkins’s quid pro quo speech in Silence of the Lambs), he seems sincere.  But in the episodes to come, his descent back into Lecter’s psychological dungeon calls much of that sincerity into question.  It’s a disorienting ride for the character and the audience, yet another symbiotic connection fraught with peril.  

Leftovers ahoy:

*Now that he’s incarcerated, the tenor of Will’s empathic visions has changed.  Instead of the classic image of the gold pendulum erasing the crime scene and placing him into a fugue state, he’s now instantly transported into the photographs that he examines.  At the same time, we get our first glimpse of Hannibal’s version of Will’s visions, his highly attuned sense of smell placing him firmly within the golden cornfield that will lead him to the body spiral.

*And speaking of visions, the extensive eyeball motif in this episode can also be interpreted as yet another callback to Garret Hobbs’s “See!  See!” (itself another echo of similar lines by Francis Dolarhyde.)

*In another echo of “Amuse-Bouche”, we see Jack pouring out his guilt over Will to his psychiatrist (played by the great Martin Donovan), just as Will began to pour out his guilt over killing Garret Jacob Hobbs to Hannibal in that earlier episode.  The irony of Jack’s feelings is that he later essentially gives implicit consent for Beverly to continue picking Will’s brain for help, thus once again inadvertently dooming a subordinate of his to Hannibal’s murderous advances.

*Bedelia’s visit to Will at episode’s end (and her confirmation that she believes him) will prove to be the thread of sanity that Will clings to the most as he formulates his plan against Hannibal.  But it also becomes a much more complicated matter in view of her eventual siding with her former patient.

*I failed to mention it in the “Kaiseki” essay, but I love the cage that Will sits in at Baltimore State during his interviews.  That line of individual pens is such a striking image, fully in keeping with the show’s Gothic sensibilities while also emphasizing the medieval cruelty of Frederick Chilton’s house of horrors.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 14: "Kaiseki"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which now, my inner voice sounds like you.

If Season 1 of Hannibal traced its overall narrative arc in the pattern of Will Graham’s gradual mental collapse (and Hannibal’s gradual enveloping of his mind and the lives of the other characters), then Season 2 is where Bryan Fuller fully commits to plumbing the phantasmagoric depths of the darkness into which everyone has descended.  As I mentioned in my introductory essay to this series, what began in 2013 as a psychological thriller/police procedural with heavy shades of the grotesque seems over time to have taken on the properties of Hannibal Lecter, almost as if he’s been a virus infecting all aspects of the story.  Characters who originally have strong bearings on the world begin to lose their grip, or to fall into a haze of mild confusion.  Plot chronologies become fractured, with jump cuts in time eliminating key moments in several lives.  And James Hawkinson’s cinematography and Brian Reitzell’s sound design, always lush to begin with, become nightmarishly, surreally decadent and unnerving.  As Will says to Jack in this episode “You have let the fox into the henhouse.”  And just as Hannibal has wormed his way into the good graces of the FBI, so too has his character and his show also done so to us.

The key development in Hannibal’s takeover is Will’s near total cognizance of his role in framing him for the Minnesota Shrike copycat murders.  Watching the show during these two first seasons has always been an interesting exercise in mixing prognostication with pragmatism.  We all know that Will must eventually emerge from his exile in the Baltimore State Psychiatric Hospital’s maximum security wing/torture dungeon in order to catch Hannibal and go on to tangle with Francis Dolarhyde and the manifestation of the Red Dragon.  Fuller has been explicit about his long term plans to retell the classic beats of the Lecterverse over multiple seasons.  But Hannibal’s ratings have also been sketchy enough so far that any faith in the actual progression of that plan is always up in the air in the viewer’s mind (although the show’s foreign financing has given it much leeway in its content and general survival.)

Which is what lends so much of this season its demonic power and allure.  We know that Will is searching for the answers that will free him and finally condemn Hannibal.  But we also know that even at its best, his mind can be a funhouse of mirrors on the verge of cracking.  So the possibility that low ratings or a sudden creative shift might lead to major changes in the narrative seems to always be a very plausible prospect.  Will’s method of easing his psyche while incarcerated (by escaping into visions of him fly fishing) is a beautiful counterpoint to the stark ugliness of his cell.  But even in that pastoral beauty, he can't escape the Wendigo, whose emergence from the stream immediately before the opening credits offers a stunning image that foreshadows the epic battle of wills that comes to dominate this season.  But the question of who’s fighting who and what for will become much hazier before the apocalyptic events of the finale.

And speaking of the finale…there are the powerful opening moments of “Kaiseki”, which in time will be revealed as the beginning of the bloodbath awaiting at season’s end.  Teasing the climactic scene at the beginning of a narrative has become somewhat of an overused trope in modern television and film, but it works like gangbusters here.  For one, it upends the expectations set up by the first season, in which Hannibal’s icy, controlled demeanor helps to shape the slow burn tension of the plot.  Seeing Mads Mikkelsen gracefully vault over his kitchen counter to engage in a brutal melee with Laurence Fishburne runs completely counter to the general restraint we’ve seen him display so far (one or two murders aside).  It also firmly ties him to the animalistic vision he holds in Will’s eyes, while also establishing a fascination with how these two men eventually end up literally at each other’s throats.

The cinematic language used to paint this enigmatic portrait is direct, yet still complex.  The opening shot of Hannibal slicing into a prime slab of red meat from the left side of the frame is mirrored after the Twelve Weeks Earlier title card with a similar shot of him slicing a pale cut of fish from the right side, evoking the relative placidity that will eventually build towards matters most bloody.  Hannibal and Jack are both framed in tight, wide angle close ups, their faces framed slightly off kilter in almost Leone-esque fashion (appropriate for their preparation for a duel.)  Reitzell’s koto drum-inflected music establishes the Japanese motifs that will be featured this season (in a nod to Hannibal’s Aunt Muraski from Hannibal Rising, mentioned here at the dinner table), while also lending the two men’s brawl an air of the martial arts.  This koto drumbeat will also be repeated in military form when Hannibal visits the river crime scene in Rockville, MD, a steady rhythm  Both men’s faces are reflected in Hannibal’s knife, violence now the connecting force for their relationship (and possibly a mini-reference to the samurai sword.)

The clear fissure in time of this scene, and all of its attendant complications and implications, is also a fitting reflection of how time and perception in general will be distorted throughout this season.  Embarking on his quest for the truth, Will is a man unstuck in time, his ability to reconstruct the past only at its most effective when used for others’ lives.  The journey down his personal rabbit hole constantly threatens to warp his view of the world even further.  When Alana puts him in a hypnotic state to job his memory (using a metronome that mimics the pendulum he sees in his hyper-empathic fugue states), the darkly gorgeous image of her as an inky siren, enveloping Will with her kiss is but the first of many flirtations with the abyss that he’ll have.  In the midst of his long game of hunting Hannibal, there are so many moments where it’s unclear if he’s in character or completely succumbing to the doctor’s seductive charms (the hazy memory of Hannibal implanting Abigail’s ear into Will’s stomach via feeding tube takes on an almost rape-like connotation here, while also reinforcing some of the homoerotic tension that exists between these two men.)  And the audience is drawn right in too, images both fantastical and nightmarish threatening to obliterate any trace of the fairly linear story of the first season.

When he confronts Hannibal in the depths of the hospital, Will tells him “I’m going to remember Dr. Lecter.  And when I do, there will be a reckoning.”  His words ring true on the personal front, but his long path toward the truth will also prove to create a reckoning for all of the characters in Hannibal’s thrall, and a powerful reckoning for the show as a whole.

Bring on the leftovers:

*Leave it to Beverly Katz, the eternally pragmatic voice of reason, to be the one who’s able to calmly examine the case against Will, enlisting his help in analyzing the gaggle of missing persons who will turn out to be the Boschian wheel of bodies.  Too bad that her pragmatism will lead to her demise at Hannibal’s hands.

*I sometimes feel like I give Bedelia short shrift in these essays, although her presence so far has been somewhat fleeting and in service of moving the plot along.  But as this episode shows, her understanding of Hannibal’s threat continues to grow, especially as he pushes her to lie to Jack about him.  I do love when he tells her "I'm being as open and honest as I know how", which is a perfectly true and Lecterian thing to say.

*”The irony is that he is my patient, but he refuses to speak to me.  Makes me feel like I'm fumbling with his head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.” (Chilton, speaking to Hannibal about Will.  It’s a direct echo of Lecter’s description of Chilton to Will in Red Dragon.)

*The dynamic between Jack and Alana is realistically complex and satisfying, as she reports him to the FBI (and Cynthia Nixon’s Kade Prurnell) for lack of judgment (or is it misconduct) in his handling of Will, even as the two of them maintain their joint familial protection of Will’s legacy (symbolized here in his dog Winston, who keeps running back to Chez Graham while under her care.)  That dynamic will get even more complicated this season, especially when Alana falls under Hannibal’s spell.