In which we have been each other’s prisoner for a very long time.
Writing about Hannibal for the past few months, first in my marathon sprint through the first two seasons and now on a weekly basis as the new chapters of this story unfold, has been a fascinating experience. Much as I explored my own memory palace in writing about the first season of Mad Men and my teaching experience with it, so too did re-examining Hannibal’s maiden run allow for a relaxed sense of analysis and evaluation, expansive in its depth and breadth, aided and abetted by the dramatic irony inherent in a second viewing. But also much as my continuation of those Mad Men essays with the final seven episodes, exploring the new season of Hannibal has been challenging and enriching on a completely different level. Knowing that an endgame of some sort was imminent fostered a sense of overt prognostication in picking apart the final hours of Don Draper’s tale. Conversely, while there are passages of Hannibal so densely packed with artistic allusions and philosophical musings that they easily blossom forth in grand flourishes on the page, there are also episodes that are so purely and aesthetically experiential that they defy attempts to overly analyze, instead inviting the viewer to become enveloped in their mad beauty, much as so many characters have envisioned drowning in the inky recesses of bathtubs, dark water, blood, and the like.
Such is the case with “Secondo”, which must be one of my favorite episodes of the series and a microcosm of why I love this show so much. It’s a stunning achievement in cinematic narrative, in which Bryan Fuller and company employ a languid sense of atmosphere and lush visual scheme to hypnotic effect, even as pure plotting is relegated to the sidelines. I’ve lauded the show’s more avant-garde approach over the past few weeks, but this episode pushes the boundaries of the form to even greater power. And it does so by repurposing one of the more unheralded aspects of the Lecterverse mythos.
Hannibal Rising is an odd bird of a film, and an ever more perplexing addition to the Lecterverse. Inspired by Thomas Harris’s prequel of a book, it presents so many pieces of a would-be compelling puzzle, yet fails to offer a unifying thread for connection all of them. The rich cinematography and production design are alluring, and the rarified European atmosphere promises a deep and rewarding dive into Hannibal’s past. The end result, though, is sometimes awkward and stilted. A preamble to establish the wartime atmosphere that destroyed Mischa Lecter is necessary, but spending almost the entirety of the first reel engaged in such matters plays as overkill for a cannibal’s origin story. Gaspard Ulliel bears the angular physiology and icy calculation of a young Lecter, but his switch to cannibal mode is completely jarring. And there’s just a real lack of suspense or momentum in the material. It’s beautiful, but inert.
“Secondo” is Hannibal’s most blatant attempt yet to appropriate Hannibal Rising’s contributions to the Lecterverse, and it’s a testament to the show’s greatness that it employs much of the same methodology of that film, but to so much greater effect. Granted, following Silence of the Lambs and Ridley Scott’s Hannibal with a prequel film was always bound to be a challenging task, so deeply ingrained had that interpretation of the story become in the culture. Bryan Fuller has had the luxury of building a parallel universe in long form for two seasons before diving into the deeper recesses of Hannibal’s origin. The results are striking, as Will revisits the Lecter estate in Lithuania, a fog-enshrouded fortress straight out of the gothic horror tradition, Fuller channeling the spirit of Dark Shadows.
And that’s really so much of the episode: a total immersion in atmosphere. There are long stretches of Will’s journey that are left dialogue-free, a daring gambit in a show that has pushed that gambit quite far in the past. Fuller’s operatic bent for this season is in full effect here, but there’s also a creeping sense of the uncanny that pervades the action. The returning Jack Crawford puts it best when he notes to Rinaldo Pazzi that both he and Will died at the hands of Hannibal. Indeed, so much of this season so far has felt like a dreamlike depiction of…well, maybe not the afterlife, but at least an afterlife. It lends credence to the mythological underworld motif that Fuller developed in Season 2, fashioning a netherworld in which all of these characters wander, disconnected from time and space (it’s still unclear what tangible connection Will and Jack have to their old FBI positions, let alone any official authority.) When Bedelia notes to Hannibal that he’s drawing everyone back to him, it further cements the impression that the King of the Underworld has retreated to his domain in order to engage his former friends/betrayers on his own terms.
This total immersion makes for enthralling viewing, even as it leaves me with much less to say than I normally do. But that’s not the worst thing in the world, now is it? And I get the feeling that when eventually viewed in the context of this season’s other episodes, “Secondo” will serve as a memorable movement in a 13 part masterpiece of a gothic horror aria.
To the leftovers we go:
*James Hawkinson employs rack focus to great effect here, setting Hannibal and Bedelia (and Will and Chiyo) as close in the frame, yet deeply separated by the shifting difference in their visual clarity.
*There’s also further emphasis on Bedelia’s part of the hazy line Hannibal toes between being her lover and her patient. Her admonishment that she can find her way out of this situation no matter what might be a stark warning…or an amazing act of denial.
*For the second time in the series, we see Will create a death tableau to rival that of Hannibal’s work. But this time, it’s with the man who murdered his sister. And it takes the form of the Death’s Head Moth, the iconic symbol of Silence of the Lambs.