Friday, June 05, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 27: "Antipasto"

In which I can help you tell the version of events you want to be told…if you ask me.

Abel: But I shouldn’t spoil the fairy tale, should I?  You and your little gingerbread house.
Hannibal: Let it be a fairy tale then.  Once upon a time…”

…and so the fairy tale begins.  As a follow-up to the Lecter House Massacre that closes out Hannibal’s second season, “Antipasto” offers little in the way of resolution, aside from the continuing presence of Laurence Fishburne and Caroline Dhavernas in the opening credits (more on their fates is coming next week.)  But as a full-fledged leap into the dream world that a Hannibal Lecter unleashed can create for himself, it’s a stunning experience, a heady, intoxicating stylistic brew, and as much of a celebration of aesthetic pleasure as “Mizumono” was a celebration of chaos and carnage.

Discussing the show in a recent interview with Variety, Bryan Fuller noted that “it’s evolved from a crime procedural into an opera, just because we had done so much with the crime procedural world and it was always an element that I never fully embraced — I was always looking for ways to subvert it or enhance it with the death tableaus.”  Just as Hannibal revealed his true self to Jack, Alana, and Will at the conclusion of Season 2, so too did the show itself finally reveal itself for what it was: an extension of Hannibal himself, the seductive fugue state of a man in love with darkness.  “Antipasto”, then, has no illusions about absorbing the form of Hannibal the European aesthete (much as Ridley Scott’s Hannibal did as well.)

And what sensual pleasures there are to behold in this brave new cannibal world.  James Hawkinson has been rightly praised for the lush beauty of his cinematography throughout the first two seasons; his accomplishment is even more impressive considering the compact spaces and settings in which he had to compose his images.  But Hannibal’s flight to Paris, and then Italy, opens up the visual palette to encompass a realm of Renaissance architecture and old world artistry.  So much of the appeal (and conflict) of Hannibal as a character has always lied in the dichotomy between his classical artistic predilections and the more nouveau, utilitarian American environment in which he’s resided.  It’s a dichotomy that’s thrown into even starker contrast in his dealings with the sterile world of the FBI, with its dull modern architecture and uniformity of fashion and philosophy.  Characters often view him as an exotic bird in a concrete jungle, and the audience takes great pleasure in his ability to inject a primal and diffuse sensibility into an environment of such rigid codes.  It’s why Hawkinson’s cinematography has been so enthralling, his willingness to bend and distort our view of reality tapping into the universal thrill instinct that’s embedded deep in our DNA.

In “Antipasto”, he takes these visual flights of fancy to even more impressionistic lengths.  The expository flashbacks that are scattered throughout are all framed in the classic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which in standard cinematic language usually denotes an expansion of the visual field.  But when applied to the standard 1.78:1 televisual frame, it condenses and tightens the visual field (which, in a bit of meta-commentary, reflects the restrictive nature of both the FBI’s world and the show’s procedural roots), while still offering a distinctive sense of spatial framing.  Thus, when the action returns to the present, our field of vision is expanded up and out into a full panoramic appreciation of the decadent fairy tale that Hannibal has created for himself, and that Bryan Fuller and company have created for the audience.  It’s a world in which Bedelia descends into the inky darkness of her bathtub, floating and drowning in her own doubt (which is also a visual callback to the image of Alana doing much the same in “Mizumono”, and of Will’s vision of Cassie Boyle floating in the dark from way back in “Apertif”.)  In which the first images that we see are of a key inserted into a lock and a hypnotic flourishing of flames, the mechanics of the internal combustion process transformed into an alluring montage. 

And in which the telling flashback to a dying Abel Gideon chastising Hannibal about the hermetically sealed environment he’s constructed for himself (the key quote from which opens this essay) cuts directly from Hannibal saying “Once upon a time” to a startling first person POV shot of two hands flinging open a crimson velvet curtain to reveal the golden hues of the Italian ballroom.  It’s Hannibal’s very own Wizard of Oz moment, the restrictions of the black and white world exploded in a visual orgy of color.  As acclaimed cultural scholar (and author of the forthcoming book The Problem with Alana Bloom) Lillian Tyack noted to me from her Swiss chalet “In this context, Hannibal is obviously the Wizard surrogate, the curtains motif echoing that character’s  revelation in the film, and running parallel to Hannibal’s removal of his person suit revealing his own true, manipulative self.”  There are other signifiers of Hannibal’s reshaping of the world into the fairy tale version that he desires.  Season 2’s obsession with close ups of eyes is enhances with the close up of Hannibal in his motorcycle helmet, the visor forming a giant, all-seeing, reflective eye.  While studying at the conservatory, he’s surrounded by two row of display cases filled with medieval torture instruments, the layout echoing the pseudo-medieval row of life-size cages in Frederick Chilton’s Baltimore State Psychiatric Hospital.

At the center of this fairy tale world is Hannibal’s queen, Bedelia DuMaurier.  For a year, speculation has run rampant as to why she joined her former patient on that plane to Paris.  What “Antipasto” reveals is as complex as one would expect from the series.  For her role in this fantasy world is ultimately both that of queen and princess trapped in the castle.  Gillian Anderson has always been fascinating as the sphinx-like psychiatrist, but she really gives a tour de force performance in this episode.  For long stretches, the mannered veneer to which we’ve grown accustomed threatens to break apart; she looks as if she’s about to be ill, the seeming guilt of her situation an overwhelming weight.  These passages feel much like the rape/trauma theory I espoused in my essay for “Releves”, especially in the context of the flashback to her murder of her former patient (and Hannibal’s emotional blackmail/vampiric request that follows it, which also forms the epigram for this essay.)  When Anderson breaks down in tears after the murder, it’s a powerful moment, made even more effective by her almost total flattening of affect in the previous two seasons building up to it.

But it’s not that simple.  It’s never been that simple.  For even as she continues to bluntly assess his twisted psychology in their domestic life (“You no longer have ethical concerns, only aesthetics”), there’s a definite allure that Hannibal holds for her.  He brings it into focus during his murder of Anthony Dimmond, when he asks her “Are you going to observe or participate?” and if she anticipated what would happen between him and this man who threatens the secrecy of his identity.  Her answer (“I was curious”) is, of course, Hannibal’s classic motivation for the destruction that he wreaks on others, and when she admits that this is what she thought would happen, he correctly notes “That’s participation.”  Bedelia may want to believe that in her own fairy tale, she’s the trapped princess.  But deep inside, she knows that she’s been a more willing queen than she wants to admit.  It’s Eros and Thanatos run rampant once again, with Hannibal as the sexiest death avatar in the world, and Bedelia drawn to the erotic frisson of that danger.  When she sees the medieval drawing of Lucifer superimposed over his face during his lecture on Dante, she wants to flee.  But in the end, it’s devil she knows that she sticks with.

The presence of Abel Gideon in the black and white flashbacks serves as a nice reminder of Eddie Izzard’s charm in that role.  It also reminds Hannibal and the viewer of the tenuous state of any fairy tale existence.  As Gideon notes at episode’s end “I’m just curious to know how you’ll feel when this all happens to you.”  Reality will beckon at the door soon enough.  But for now, it’s once again Hannibal’s world.  And we’re just living in it.

Some high class leftovers to have:

*Once again, Brian Reitzell’s sound design is a standout feature, an integral part of the show’s genetics.  The European setting allows him to indulge a more playful tone, while also sticking with the more avant-garde aspects of his main philosophy.  Hence, the opening motorcycle ride is scored to a jazzy sax while wavering nightmare strings lurk in the back of the soundscape.  And Dimmon’s murder climaxes with a free jazz sax squack overlaid on fairy tale-esque audio twinklings.

*Bedelia’s dinner comment to Dimmond (that her husband prefers her to taste a certain way) is a delightfully bawdy bit of business amidst the submerged unease.  And the look on Hannibal’s face when their guest proposes that the proceedings turn into a three-way?  Priceless.

*“I still believe I am in conscious control of my actions.  Given your history, that’s a good day.” (Bedelia, to Hannibal)

*“I’m trying to avoid things with a central nervous system” (Bedelia, describing her culinary habits to Dimmond at dinner.)

*In the flashbacks to Hannibal showering at Bedelia’s house and her post-murder cleanup, the dripping water in each turns to blood as it washes off of them, a visual callback to the blood rain motif that “Mizumono” featured.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 26: "Mizumono"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which in the few jerky seconds of sleep I do get, all I see is dark, swarming behind my eyelids.
I dream darkness comes into me.

“But this is your hour, when darkness reigns.” (Luke 22:53)

“What you did to me is in my head.  And I will find it.  I’m going to remember, Dr. Lecter, and when I do, there will be a reckoning.” –Will/“Kaiseki”  

And what a reckoning it is.  After 25 episodes of epic cat and mouse machinations and psychological subterfuge, the slow burn construction of an intricately constructed house of lies, “Mizumono” brings everything crashing down in an apocalypse of blood and carnage seldom seen on network television.  Throughout these past few months, I’ve written quite a bit about Bryan Fuller’s willingness to gleefully manipulate the classic Lecterverse canon, often to genuinely subversive effect.  This manipulation also subtly establishes a tone of creeping unease; if our preconceived notions of the linear plot mechanics of Will and Hannibal’s story are being rearranged or changed completely, then what remains at the end that we previously knew?

This creeping unease blossoms into full-blown hysteria in “Mizumono”.  And the effect is absolutely thrilling.  If, as Hannibal noted in “Tome-Wan”, the characters were maintaining their  position on the event horizon of chaos, it’s here where they finally plunge into the void.  Despite the relative security that foreign financing has bestowed on it, Hannibal’s real life ratings struggles have always called its long term survival into question.  So a plunge into the void on a show like this promises the potential of no return for any of the characters.  Or for the show. 

And so the final showdown between Jack, Will, Hannibal, and Alana takes on the feel of their lives going completely off the tracks.  Or perhaps reality going off the tracks.  The season-long buildup to the Lecter House slaughter has gradually allowed strict definitions of reality to disintegrate.  In “Mizumono” this disintegration eats away at everything we see, often in the most gorgeous manner.  There are so many moments of aching beauty throughout.  The slo-mo close up of Alana’s tear descending to the table and mingling with a scintilla of blood as she begs Will not to go through with his and Jack’s plan (a scene that parallels their same tearful conversation in the Season 1 finale.)  Hannibal’s papers floating through the air as he and Will burn his records in preparation for their potential escape (a sort of amazing scene for a man who takes such pride in the formal signifiers of his life.)  Alana’s mental image of her drowning in a pool of darkness, a reversal of Will’s dream image of her as black liquid succubus in “Kaiseki.”  All of these combine to form not the building blocks of a television show’s plot, but a psychotropic fugue state.  By this point, we the audience have joined these characters, plunging into our own void of experiential armageddon.

That plunge began, and ends, with Will Graham himself, the audience surrogate and wronged man in search of redemption.  His voyage into Hannibal’s underworld during Season 2 has often been a disturbing one, as Bryan Fuller has left so much of his true motivation and intent mostly ambiguous.  That gambit carries through the entirety of this episode, as it’s never clear where Will’s loyalties lie (see the memorable split screen shot that headlines this essay.)  Classic dramatic structure would dictate that he finally reveal himself as the undercover presence he was all along, but that expectation is exploded in heart-rending fashion.  And we’ve seen it all before.

Because in a show that has traded so heavily in the cycles of violence, and of a dread-filled sense of déjà vu (see my essay for Season 1’s “Releves”), it’s only fitting that this finale circles back to where it all began.  Early on, Will seems to be entering his home in Wolf Trap, VA, but once he sees the ghostly image of Garret Jacob Hobbs, it’s obvious that he’s still trying to exorcise the primal trauma of the Hobbs House massacre.  Later, when Kade Purnell eviscerates the FBI sanctioning of Jack’s plan to capture Hannibal, Will (who’s staring down an arrest warrant and the impending arrival of the feds) calls to warn Hannibal.  His simple words (“They know”) are a direct echo and reversal of the doctor’s phone warning to Garret Hobbs in the pilot episode, the two words that set in motion so much of the burgeoning chaos that explodes here.

But the biggest cyclical shock of all, and the moment that more than any other annihilates Will’s soul, is the reappearance of Abigail Hobbs, long thought dead at Hannibal’s hands.  Hannibal has gone to great lengths to portray the twisted symbiotic relationship between Will and Hannibal; they gradually begin to occupy what seems like the same headspace.  And so the Lecter House can now almost be seen as a physical manifestation of that cohabited psyche, these two men lost in the vast and twisting corridors of what they have formed, as the three people dearest to them become trapped in what they have built together.  Per his conversation with Freddie Lounds, Will still deeply cares about his long lost surrogate daughter.  So to see her alive, but seemingly a pawn of Hannibal’s all this time (“I didn’t know what to do.  So I just did what he told me” as she tells him) devastates him.  She’s been running around inside his head since her supposed death, but now that she’s back it’s as if he’s arranged for her to roam in the space that he and Hannibal created.  And she’s been even more trapped than she was before. 

It’s the final realization of Will’s greatest fear, that the world of his visions will invade the waking world.  And in that realization, he’s forced to relive the greatest trauma of his life onc again.  Back in a kitchen.  Wounded.  Forced to witness Hannibal slashing Abigail’s throat, in a perfect reenactment of what her father attempted to do so long before.  Absolutely paralyzed once again.  His long-promised reckoning has come.  But that reckoning is as much with himself as it is with Hannibal.  For as Lecter slashes her throat, it’s as the co-dependent organism that he and Will have formed is doing it.  Will is left to be both witness and perpetrator, the awful power of his empathic visions ruling his life once again.

Even Abigail’s seeming death is trumped, though, by what passes between Will and Hannibal in the episode’s final moments.  Because as Will makes clear, he’s shocked that Hannibal didn’t leave when he called to warn him.  The obsessive FBI agent, who’s devoted so much of his time to stopping his nemesis, has in many ways truly aligned himself with the only person who really understands him.  And it’s in the moments after Hannibal guts him with a knife that the most emotionally wrenching bits take place.  Mads Mikkelsen really excels here, selling the genuine hurt that this empathy vacuum feels at his betrayal by the only person who seems to understand him.  As he bitterly says to Will “I gave you a rare gift.  But you didn’t want it.”  Even to the end, Bryan Fuller refuses to give the audience easy resolutions to what’s been building.  These two lost souls have both shared something deeper than most humans do and engaged in a diabolical game of Catch Me if You Can. 

And now it’s all irrevocably shattered.  As are the lives of Alana and Jack.  And the fabric of reality that the show has tentatively clung to all along.  Hence that most evocative image of the rain outside Hannibal’s house turning into blood (which crossfades into Jack’s blood.)  As Hannibal walks away from the slaughter he has wrought, baptized anew in the rain as his victims drown in gore, headed toward boarding a plane to Europe with Bedelia (in a great stinger at episode’s end), the world has been turned upside down.  In the episode’s final shots, a bloodied Will sees the nightmare stag that’s been chasing him for two seasons on the floor beside him, dying.  But whether that death is what he really wants or not…………           

HANNIBAL Eps. 11/12: "Ko No Mo/Tome-Wan"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which we're maintaining our position on the event horizon of chaos.

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
–William Blake/The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

…and in these two episodes, Bryan Fuller manages to redefine excess in the televisual context like no one has before him.  I made great hay out of the subversive nature of “Naka-Choko”’s ending, but the build up to what lies at the end of “Tome-Wan” manages to up the ante for shock in this setting.  For as decadent and excessive as Hannibal Lecter can be, his is a mostly refined sense of these traits.  Mason Verger has no such limits or restraints.

In my previous essay, I discussed the career of Michael Pitt, and of his premature departure from Hannibal following Season 2.  Knowing about his impending absence while rewatching these final two episodes in which he appears adds a touch of melancholy to the proceedings.  Which is a weird thing to say about a closing act that includes heavy implications of child molestation and incest, while also dabbling in tear-stealing, man-eating pigs, and face-shredding.  But Pitt is obviously having such a blast playing Mason, taking great delight in the melodramatic excesses of this warped man-child (his baby face is a great and creepy complement to this.)  There are larger than life characters aplenty in this show, but up to this point they’ve all been generally tethered to some semblance of cohesion and linear logic.  Mason shatters that mold as a man completely consumed by his own privilege and excesses, his insane wealth carrying with it the curse of youth, while allowing him to take on a persona that represents the id unleashed.  So much of this run of Season 2 episodes has focused on Hannibal and Will debating man’s true nature, and of reconciling the beastly with the mannered.  But Mason is the bombastic end game for such a philosophy, an avatar of carnage amidst a legion of defenders of the norm.

And so logically that end game must lead to total consumption via excess.  Which brings us to the scene that tops even Hannibal and Will dining on what is ostensibly Freddie Lounds while debating the nature of God.  Hannibal’s core fanbase was aware of Mason’s gruesome origin story from the book and film of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, but even in the context of this show’s grand guignol tradition, nothing can quite prepare the viewer for the sight of Michael Pitt slicing off his own face and feeding it to Will’s dogs.  And then, prompted by Hannibal, eating his own nose.  It’s the culmination of a Lecter-infused drug trip gone bad, but it’s also the penance for his sins: after a lifetime of feeding on others, he’s only left to devour himself.

What’s really interesting about Mason’s fate is how, much like other parts of Hannibal, it combines aspects of future storylines in the Lecterverse canon with this prequel setting.  Hence, Mason captures Hannibal with the intention of throwing him to the carnivorous pigs, which serves as the climax of Harris’s book of Hannibal.  And it’s not the only example of this tricky chronology on display here.  In “Ko No Mo”, what appears to be Freddie Lounds’s flaming corpse in a wheelchair is rolled down the ramp of an indoor parking garage.  Longtime Lecter fans know this image intimately: it’s the ultimate fate of the original, male Freddie at the hands of Francis Dolarhyde.  But with the revelation that this incarnation of Freddie is still alive, and in on Jack and Will’s plot to catch Hannibal, the possibility of that well-known death is muddled considerably.  Fuller has shown a strong willingness to toy with the preconceived Lecterverse, so there’s every reason to believe that this Freddie will last well into the Tooth Fairy storyline.  But as with the other references to previous Lecter films, it also simultaneously lends the proceedings an eerie sense of déjà vu and foreshadowing.  Which is perfect for a series that deals so heavily in the rupturing of time, in all its permutations.

That rupture mirrors Will’s fractured psyche, but it also loops back into the viral influence of Hannibal Lecter on the very fabric of the show.  Lest the audience forget this, the return of Bedelia DuMaurier is presented as a firm reminder.  Drawn back into an FBI interview with Will and Jack, she’s willing to implicate her former patient (or is it psychiatrist) in many things, but even she admits that his main crime is persuasion, not coercion.  And even as she advises that he “can get lost in self-congratulation”, she also offers a stinging rebuke to Jack about his chances of conquering over him (“If you think you're about to catch Hannibal, that's because he wants you to think that.  Don't fool yourself into thinking he's not in control of what's happening.”)  Once again, Gillian Anderson is a treat in the role of Bedelia.  Her coy, enigmatic demeanor gives the lie to even her most sincere moments, especially when retroactively considering her eventual season-ending flight to Europe with the fugitive cannibal.  It’ll be interesting to see how Season 3 further explores her motivations in this arena.  Part of me would like to think that her growing sense of contempt for Jack Crawford’s efforts leads her into Hannibal’s arms.  But she also tells him that “Nothing makes us more vulnerable than loneliness”, so perhaps she’s laying out her cards without us knowing about it.

Many a viewer will sympathize with this “It’s Hannibal’s world; we’re just living in it” sentiment.  From a Manichean standpoint, the series can be seriously frustrating at times, as Lecter has an answer for almost every attempt to stop him.  It’s also entirely organic to a narrative that trades in surrealism and a hallucinatory psychogeography.  Indeed, by this point it’s probably a mistake to think of Hannibal as a serial killer thriller with outre tendencies.  It’s more like the ethereal materialization of Bacon and Bosch’s hellscapes, with slight touches of the normal grafted on.  Just as Will flirts with madness in his pursuit of Hannibal, so too does the viewer flirt with the outer reaches of standard moral and ethical boundaries in devouring the show.  And just as Hannibal himself debates the true meaning of God in a seemingly blank universe, so too does the audience consider the potentially nihilistic concept of no guiding force to re-establish right and wrong in the Lecterverse.  Giving yourself over to the demented pleasures of that form is an integral part of fully appreciating this thriller/philosophy lesson/voyage to the inner abyss.  And as Hannibal has proven so far, doing so can be an utterly thrilling endeavor.

Some penultimate leftovers:

*I’ve said it before, but for all her poor romantic choices, it can never be debated that Alan Bloom is potentially the moral center of the show.  Her earnest sense of justice and fairness in a world that seems to scoff at those concepts is so moving, especially in the climactic scene of “Ko No Mo”, in which she rails at Jack for the web of lies he’s spun, only to have her world doubly upended by the reveal of Freddie’s survival.

*“Tome-Wan”’s standoff between Hannibal and Will features some of James Hawkinson’s most daring cinematography, as he frames both men as being almost completely overwhelmed by the shadow the other in the foreground.  It seems like a fairly small part of the episode’s visual scheme, but even in micro form it’s a bold gambit for a show of this format.

*Unless I’m forgetting someone, Mason is the first of Hannibal’s patients that we see lying on the couch in his office.  Which obviously makes him very uncomfortable, as he motions the trust fund maniac back to the chair facing him.  And for as much as Hannibal considers Mason to be a gauche menace, he’s also one of the only characters to make him crack an authentic grin.

*During Margot’s hysterectomy, was I the only one who saw Mason and company’s red scrubs as a nod to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers?

*“I’m full of myself!” (Mason, post-nose dinner.)

*“What game of chicken are you and the sperm donor playing, Dr. Lecter? (Mason, to Hannibal)