Thursday, May 28, 2015

HANNIBAL Eps. 18/19: "Mukozuke/Futamono"

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In which he is the devil, Mr. Graham.  He is smoke.

(With the clock ticking down to Hannibal’s third season premiere next Thursday, I’ve decided to combine the next two episodes of Season 2 into one essay.  Hopefully this double feature will still serve much the same purpose as the other essays in this series.)

In the grand, thirteen course, cinematic meal of Hannibal’s second season, “Mukozuke” and “Futamono” serve as a critical crossroads for the main characters and the narrative arc in general.  Allegiances shift, motivations become vague and cloudy, and the very fabric of the show’s reality begins to split.  And the genesis point for all of this is the murder of a supporting character not known for eliciting passionate sympathy.

Bryan Fuller’s choice to kill Beverly Katz is an interesting one.  All credit to Hetienne Park, who brought a steely, analytical reserve to her portrayal of Katz, one which served as a welcome corrective to the fog of deception that often envelops the other characters.  But that reasoned pragmatism (and a screen presence that was often limited to autopsy exposition with Zeller and Price, where she was the straight man…er, woman) wasn’t designed to form a strong connection with the audience.  At this point, she’s the most prominent character to be murdered, and that memorable moment at the conclusion of “Takiawase” when she discovers Hannibal’s sub-basement layer, only for him to discover her, grips the viewer as any good suspense beat would.  Still, the pure fact of her death isn’t an emotionally shattering experience.

Maybe Fuller’s intent all along was to use Beverly’s death as a blank slate upon which the other characters could project their burgeoning guilt.  Because the grief that Jack and Will display at her death scene is some of the most shattering that the show has depicted up to this point.  And it’s so affecting because of the buildup we’ve had with these characters, to the point that the subdued nature of their actual reactions comes across as seismic.

I’ve discussed the guilt that eats away at Jack extensively in this essay series.  Laurence Fishburne’s naturally stoic, fatherly presence is such a boon to his portrayal of the character.  In a show that thrives on some all-time great faces, his deep set, brooding features are a perfect canvas for all sorts of subtle emotional shifts and nuances, while still maintaining a constant sense of pensive contemplation.  The establishment of his long-term pain over sending Miriam Lass to her apparent doom, and then repeating it with Will (as well as the pain from Bella’s slow death march) has sometimes been expressed in his short bursts of anger.  But this is a man who internalizes his grief, the pressures of paternity both personal and professional tamping down any true catharsis.  So when he doubles over in agony upon seeing Beverly’s corpse on elaborate display, the audience feels that pain acutely.

Will’s moment of agony is even more gripping, for entirely different reasons.  Hugh Dancy is often such a livewire in this role, alternating between moments of near disintegration and semi-autistic coldness, that it can take a while during Season 1 to latch onto him emotionally.  He hits a real peak in the S1 finale, especially in his moments with Alana, but Season 2 requires him to take on a much more smoldering presence as he calculates an exit strategy while also struggling with his growing interior darkness.  As with Jack, his reaction to Beverly’s murder is motivated by guilt; Jack implicitly gives her permission to continue visiting Will, while Will essentially sends her off to Hannibal’s house of horrors.  The real crushing moment of his reaction comes when he attempts to enter his empathic vision of her death, but is overcome with sadness and heartbreak. Dancy’s brief, simple convulsion of pain is so affecting coming from a character who has always been able to view these visions as exercises in formal inquiry.

And the true weight of Beverly’s death sources back to Hannibal himself.  His character arc through the first seventeen episodes has been so complex and deftly shaded in ambiguity that even when we see him actually committing a murder, his childlike, amoral sense of inquisitiveness almost seems to balance things out.  But almost all of those murders (save his apparent slaughter of Abigail Hobbs) have involved the guilty or the relatively anonymous.  Murdering Beverly is his step beyond that barrier and into a world that both we and the other characters intimately know.  For the first time (aside from Will’s grief over Abigail), his murderous instincts have touched a raw nerve.  And the synthesis of her murder and his Machiavellian frame job from Season 1 is what drives Will to realms that he’s long feared.

Hurling Will headlong into the abyss during Season 2 is a bold move on Fuller’s part.  He’s clearly meant to be the audience surrogate, especially in a classic dramatic sense, so the depths to which he plunges in the name of catching Hannibal can often be wildly alienating.  His visions of his transformation, the black Wendigo-like antlers sprouting forth from his back, are potent, disturbing stuff.  And his manipulation of Matthew Brown, his guard and the murderer of Andrew Sykes, into attempting to murder Hannibal is certainly not standard heroic narrative material, even in revenge sagas.  The chilling image of Will’s blank expression overlapping with his vision of a blood-saturated sink, blending with the rivulet of Hannibal’s blood entering the drain at his spa (featured at the beginning of this essay) is a powerful image of a man becoming completely lost in his own private hell, the black handles of the sink becoming the inky recesses where his eyes should be (and another callback/foreshadowing of the eye imagery that dominates the classic Francis Dolarhyde storyline.)

Perhaps the most significant shift in alliances during this two episode run occurs when Alana Bloom sleeps with Hannibal, and subsequently serves as his alibi when Jack questions him about the disappearance of Abel Gideon.  Alana can be such a frustrating character during these first two seasons.  She’s the ultimate voice of reason and empathy when she reports Jack to the FBI’s IA department following his handling of Will, but her romantic rejection of Will drives him even further into his insanity spiral.  She’s clearly a very sensitive person, one driven by a deep sense of insecurity about the influence of her professional duties on her personal desires (which strongly connects her to Will and Jack.)  Trapped in a cycle of bad timing, she tries to serve as her own psychiatrist when she wants romance with Will, but when she finally decides to follow her gut instinct it leads her right into the arms of Hannibal, the ultimate manipulator.  Will’s central conflict is often driven by how he’s manipulated by Jack and Hannibal; Alana’s desire to do the right thing inadvertently makes her just as vulnerable to manipulation.

But being manipulated by Hannibal Lecter is not a permanent mark on anyone, so expertly has he honed those skills.  His psychological experiments in Season 1 left a trail of carnage in their wake, while also serving as master classes in subtlety.  But this two episode run shows a Hannibal who is beginning to relish his role as puppet master.  He spends so much time in the early parts of this season mourning the absence of his friend/lover interest that when Will orders his murder it almost liberates him from those concerns.  In many ways, he’s the jilted lover who decides to gain revenge on his ex by sleeping with his lover and going on a debauched rampage.  And that sense of liberated decadence also extends to the stylistic aspects of these episodes.  I’ve mentioned before how Hannibal has a viral effect on both these characters and the audience.  “Futamono”, in particular, offers a cavalcade of surrealist fancy, as his sheet music crossfades into Will, the notes later blossoming into the flowers of Sheldon Isley’s remains in the autopsy room.  When he tells Alana that he’s famished from the trauma of his death scare, the imagery shifts from a close up of his eye to a psychedelic montage of flowers blooming.  It’s rebirth on several different levels, but leading toward the death of the city councilman.  But these avant-garde leanings are only the tip of the iceberg as far as the madness of Season 2 goes.

As always, the leftovers:

*Aside from his subsequent cameo as a corpse, this is the last call for Eddie Izzard as Abel Gideon.  The Hopkins-esque delight he took in this character made him a memorable foil to Hannibal, and in this two episode sendoff he’s given a real sense of emotional grounding to complement his sociopathy.  Gideon might be a nutjob, but he’s a passionate nutjob.

*Brian Reitzell really outdoes himself with the score for these two episodes.  His extensive use of a bronze slit drum throughout “Mukozuke” creates a nightmare soundscape that is both atmospheric and completely unnerving (particularly in the immediate aftermath of Beverly’s murder and Will’s investigation of it.)  Following such a jarring auditory experience with the stylized, almost soothing harpsichord tones of “Futamono” is a great contrast, as well as a reflection of Hannibal’s growing power over all aspects of the show.

*Seeing Will strapped down in a gurney with a revised version of the classic Silence of the Lambs Lecter mask is such a bizarre, delightful sight.  And to hear him echo Hopkins as Lecter when he grills Jack about the Chesapeake Ripper’s motivations (as Jodie Foster receives in the film) is also a nice touch.  It’ll be interesting to see how far Bryan Fuller eventually advances into the Lecter mythos.  All of these references to the pre-existing works create a fascinating hall of mirrors that might only get more compelling if Jame Gumb ever shows up.

*And speaking of Silence references: “The last time someone rang my doorbell this early, it was a census taker.” (Hannibal, to Alana.)

*“All the things that make us who we are.  What has to happen to make those things change?” (Gideon, to Alana.)

*Freddie Lounds gets the prime gig of discovering Beverly’s body, while also playing quid pro quo with Will for the rights to his story.  She also gets a rare, completely human moment when she pleads with Jack not to enter the crime scene.  Lara Jane Chorostecki is such a pleasure to watch as this decidedly prickly character, so her eventual involvement with the further machinations of the plot to catch Hannibal is a welcome treat.    

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 17: "Takiawase"

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In which that would suggest a radically unorthodox form of therapy.

As I wrote about in my essay for Season 1’s “Roti”, Hannibal has dealt extensively with the subject of authority and protectorship, and all the attendant responsibilities that are so often abdicated therein.  Will has been the most notable victim of manipulation at the hands of authority figures, but the roll call of damaged subordinates is lengthy.  “Takiawase” touches on this subject once again, but in this case it offers a portrait of people trying desperately to be good protectors, albeit with their own interesting motivations.

With her cancer progressing to its end stages, Bella Crawford only wants to control the means of her death.  But she still acquiesces to Jack’s desire for her to take chemotherapy, if only to give him some sense of peace (thereby protecting what’s left of his guilt-ridden psyche.)  At the same time, she sees Hannibal as the one person in whom she can confide her real feelings.  The interactions between Gina Torres and Mads Mikkelsen are always fascinating.  Bella is portrayed as such a no bullshit person that her connection with Hannibal seems either very odd or an exercise in high dramatic irony.  But at heart, this relationship is another example of the moral and ethical complexity that Bryan Fuller brings to the Lecter character.  There’s a genuine desire to serve as protector and confessor in Hannibal’s demeanor around her, yet that old sense of amoral curiosity never quite dissipates.  In the key moment when she honors him by choosing to conclude her Morphine overdose in his office, he seems to accept it as a mantle of the humanity he claims to seek.  And yet a moment later, he’s flipping the Gold French Rooster coin that she’s given him as thanks for being her guide into the afterlife, channeling a bit of Two-Face in letting chance decide whether he brings her back from the dead.  Her rage at him in the post-revival hospital scene marks Hannibal as still not prepared to assume the role of protector that he covets.

This rooster motif also plays into the side story of Katherine Pimms, the acupuncturist/mercy killer.  Played by the always delightful Amanda Plummer, she also fancies herself to be a protector of the suffering (“I protected these people from hopelessness”), while also using their exit from this world as a connection to the greater consciousness, in this case by turning one of them into a honey comb.  It’s shades of “Amuse-Bouche”’s  Eldon Stammets once again, a serial killer with a conscience.  It’s also a direct reference to the death throes of Socrates, who (after self-administering his hemlock poison death sentence) was asked by an attendant about the gradual loss of feeling in his body (just as Katherine asks her patient about the gradual loss of feeling from her needles.)  As Hannibal notes to Bella, Socrates’s dying gift of the rooster serves as confirmation of his belief in death as a gateway to another world.

Of course, Hannibal’s pseudo-mythological portrayal of gateways to and from other worlds (spiritual and mental) is a hallmark of the narrative thrust.  In “Hassun”, Hannibal tells Jack that “The magic door is always attractive.  Step through, and leave all your burdens behind.”  Will fears the world of his visions crossing through the gateway of reality (even as he finds bittersweet comfort in his opening fly fishing fantasy of trying to serve as protector to Abigail Hobbs), and Hannibal’s long game involves drawing Will through the gateway of insanity and into a partnership with him.  But it’s not Lecter who offers the imprisoned profiler his most important gateway yet in this episode.

Leave that duty to that most unlikeliest of protector figures, Frederick Chilton.  Raul Esparza hams it up so wonderfully as the smarmy Chilton that it comes as a nice reversal when Will asks him to be his psychiatrist in order to block out Hannibal.  And to access a bit of information that provides the key to the locked gateway inside his mind.  Only by being injected with truth serum for a narcoanalytic interview is he able to discover the truth about Hannibal’s long term manipulation of him via hypnosis and psychic driving.  It’s a stunning sequence, the culmination of Will’s long psychological wandering and a psychedelic fever dream of the inner recesses of his damaged psyche crossed with a religious epiphany (Will once again gazing to a light in the sky, much like with Season 1’s Angel Maker murders.)  Even when Chilton seems to be giving up the game in his subsequent conversation with Hannibal, it’s actually a sly attempt at bonding him in silence over the Abel Gideon case.  Truly, sometimes you find your allies in the strangest places.

Beverly Katz, on the other hand, has been a voice of measured reason throughout her run on the show, so no surprise that she’s been willing to listen to Will and begin to serve as the protector of his legacy.  His second major revelation of the episode, that Hannibal is eating the souvenirs of his victims (and that he’s been fed some of those souvenirs), comes after she’s once again provided him with pictures of the body spiral murders.  And after so many accusations of his instability, it’s Beverly that finally agrees to pursue Will’s leads and investigate Hannibal’s house.  Of all the would-be protector figures in this episode, her motivations are arguably the purest.  So it’s only appropriate, in the twisted ethical landscape of the show, that her nobility is rewarded with death in Lecter’s lair.  Her downfall is captured in one of the great shots in the series, as the sub-basement’s power methodically clicks on in layers, first with the unseen bodies she discovers, then with the rear of the room where Hannibal awaits.  It’s a stark metaphor for his ability to hide in plain sight, as well as a visual callback to the moments in Season 1 when he would be framed as a blurry figure influencing Will and other characters in the foreground.  And it also shows how dangerous slightly adjusting one’s vision of reality to take in his darkness can be.

To the leftovers:

*During his aforementioned fantasy sequence with Abigail, Will repeats their conversation from Season 1, in which they debate the difference between fishing and hunting (“one you catch, the other you shoot.”)  It takes on added resonance now that Will has attempted to shoot Hannibal, only to realize that he’ll have to catch him to gain any sense of justice.

*I’ve mentioned before how Hannibal’s machinations sometimes take on an almost supervillain-esque grandeur.  But when you step back and look at his character’s path, you realize that so much of his foresight is gained simply by staying quiet and listening to those around him (who are often all too willing to divulge key bits of information.)

*A note of advisory: if you ever find yourself a character in the Lecterverse, STAY OUT OF BASMENTS!  Nothing good can come from them.

Monday, May 25, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 16: "Hassun"

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In which the boundaries of what’s considered normal are getting narrower.

“Ours a love I held tightly
Feeling the rapture grow
Like a flame burning brightly
But when she left, gone was the glow of
Blue Velvet”
(“Blue Velvet”/Bobby Vinton)

For an episode that deals so heavily in one of the most well-worn motifs in televisual crime fiction (the trial of a main character), “Hassun” presents a distinct unravelling of the world for the characters surrounding this most stable of plot devices.  The encroaching surrealism that will soon dominate this season begins to steadily flood the various corners of the plot (much like Will’s madness took the form of visions of water at the end of Season 1.)  Just as the Japanese course of Hassun serves as the main event of the Kaiseki feast (which is then followed by dishes that slowly conclude things), so too does this episode of the same name serve as an early peak of relative normalcy in the season before the gradual descent into a fever dream of insanity. 

But there’s also another reference point for “Hassun”, one that explores similar power relationships and themes of the darkness at the edge of the psyche.  One that also centers heavily around the presence of a severed ear.  And a submerged sense of homoerotic intrigue between two men, one seemingly a hero and one seemingly a villain.

Indeed, if Bryan Fuller isn’t explicity referencing David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in this episode, then at the very least he’s psychologically channeling it.  That film famously sends All-American boy Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) into a world of psychosexual trauma, predicated on his discovery of a severed human ear.  In the key scene that truly begins his descent, Jeffrey walks the idyllic nighttime streets of Lumberton, only for the romantic dark of night to crossfade into the camera spiraling into that mysterious ear.  Abigail Hobbs’s ear might’ve been the smoking gun in framing Will last season, but the ear of bailiff Andrew Sykes (meant to throw suspicion away from him mid-trial) is the focal point of “Hassun”’s plot twist, and the camera spiraling out of it as Jack and the forensics team study the evidence recalls Lynch’s imagery.  If the descent into the ear in Blue Velvet is meant to symbolize the entrance into madness (and the subsequent dollying out of Jeffrey’s ear at the conclusion symbolizing a mild return to sanity), perhaps Hannibal’s spiral out of the ear in this scene is a further reference to the Hannibal Lecter’s viral infection of these characters’ worlds, or another visual callback to Will’s fear of the netherworld of his visions breaking into the real world.

Blue Velvet resonated so strongly in the culture upon its release because of its taboo subject matter, but also because of the very recognizable plot and character structure off of which it so deftly riffed.  Lynch once described the film as “the Hardy Boys go to Hell”, and its indebtedness to the world of Film Noir also offers a series of archetypical subversions that go far beyond the Code-restricted subterfuge of those crime melodramas.  “Hassun” plays similar games with its more easily recognizable aspects.  During her courtroom testimony, Freddie Lounds is shot in stark chiaroscuro lighting, her tilted hat and steamy delivery adding to the sense that she’s playing the femme fatale (Brian Reitzell also includes subtle saxophone intonations in the soundtrack that underscores her appearance.)  And Will, of course, is the classic Hitchcockian wrong man, caught in the web of a force greater and more maniacal than him (which itself is a nod to a major Noir motif.)  His opening dream, in which time stutters back and forth before he ultimately throws the switch on his own electrocution, uses an execution method that is still widely recognized, yet which has also been illegal in Maryland for years (Martin O’Malley actually banned the death penalty in 2013, a year before the airing of this episode.)  But Will is a long way off from Henry Fonda, his anti-social demeanor and dalliances with chaos making him a far more complex figure.

Beyond its Noir trappings, Blue Velvet also offers a disturbing portrait of how deeply psychosexual perversion penetrates the human psyche, its central three characters forming a sadomasochistic love triangle for the ages.  Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) might ostensibly be the heavy, but there’s a childlike longing at the heart of his sexual enslavement of Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rosselini).  Jeffrey wants to save Dorothy, but he first finds sexual attraction to her when spying from her closet (and then again when he witnesses Frank raping her).  Jeffrey and Dorothy’s violence-ridden sexual coupling is her warped attempt to reenact Frank’s abuse, but Jeffrey also finds a modicum of sick pleasure in hurting her.  And the film’s main love story is the Oedipal struggle between Frank and Jeffrey, the hero and villain finding much unexpected common ground, the detective character/son drawn to replace the criminal/father.

By this point of Hannibal’s run, the relationship between Will and Hannibal has taken on similar leanings.  Like Jeffrey, Will thrives on voyeurism, even though he claims to want to pull himself away from the damage of his visions.  Hannibal holds more respect in the world at large than Frank, but like him he’s also the dark manipulator/Minotaur at the heart of the protagonist’s mental labyrinth.  Alana might not match up perfectly with Dorothy, but the love triangle that will soon ensue between these three has similar overtones of manipulation and submerged violence (especially in Will’s subconscious resentment of her romantic rejection of him.)  And the pseudo-romantic nature of Hannibal’s relationship with Will is much in keeping with the uncomfortably close one that Frank and Jeffrey hold.  Hannibal’s assault of Will is more subtle than Frank’s, but his attempt to seduce him into his darkness is right in line with Hopper’s psychopath.  Memorably, Frank (to the tune of Patti Page’s “Love Letters) threatens to send a love letter straight to Jeffrey’s heart in the form of a bullet; when he discusses Will’s apparent fan with him, Hannibal notes that “This killer wrote you a poem.  Are you going to let his love go to waste?” 

In both narratives, we’re forced to confront the fluid lines between protagonist and antagonist, and between good and evil.  In “Hassun”’s opening, both men are shown dressing for the trial in parallel form (ending with Will’s handcuff and Hannibal’s cufflink, the latter almost as much of a social binding as the former.)  When they meet in Baltimore State’s private room, the closeups of their faces form a shot/countershot pattern in which the darkness at the edge of each man’s visage complements the other.  In the climactic montage of Jack, Hannibal, and Will in various states of despair, Hannibal’s longing for Will’s presence is once again represented by the empty chair he stares at in his office.  It’s a great evocation of the climactic verse of Bobby Vinton’s song “Blue Velvet” (quoted at the top of this essay).  After all, Hannibal’s affection for Will reaches a high point when he “sets his mind on fire” near the end of Season 1.  But for now, all he has are the memories of that time, the afterglow of the fire.

To call the following leftovers might be a misnomer.  But they’re far enough outside of the Lynch-Fuller main thrust that I’ll include them as such:

*When Jack refers to he and Kade Purnell as the clowns in the ever-growing circus that Will’s case is becoming, he once again taps into the deep feelings of futility that plagues him.  Kade warns him not to spend his time lamenting those he left behind (lest he become the next one), but the impotence he feels in trying to help his dying wife, compounded with his guilt over Will being the latest in a string of supervisory/fatherly failures, has him trapped.  In many ways, Jack’s journey from unwitting enabler of Will’s framing to co-conspirator in the stealth hunt for Hannibal is the backbone of this season, a good man trying to atone for what seems to him like a lifetime of sacrificing his life to stalking death.

*On the verge of her romantic fling with Hannibal, we get one of the last glances of Alan trying to reestablish her bond with Will, climaxing in a final handclasp that could be a nod to Bresson’s Pickpocket, in which another criminal found spiritual redemption through a woman.

*Will’s empathic vision of Andrew Sykes’s murder marks the return of his trademark mental pendulum and skittering sound field. 

*The greatest refutation of the classic courtroom milieu comes with the ritual murder of the judge.  It also allows Hannibal to bring the funny once again with “Not only is justice blind, it’s also mindless and heartless.”