Friday, July 03, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 31: "Contorno"

In which all the elements of epiphany were present.

Well that was certainly cathartic.  For a show that has traded so heavily in subverting expectations, in denying easy resolutions, in portraying Hannibal Lecter in almost superhuman fashion, always several steps ahead of his pursuers….well, even though he walked away at episode’s end, Jack Crawford’s royal ass-kicking of everyone’s favorite urbane cannibal certainly provided an emotional payoff a long time coming.  Granted, the plot trajectory that Bryan Fuller has crafted for this season, with Francis Dolarhyde and the rising of the Red Dragon waiting in the wings, would seem to dictate that Hannibal’s time as a free man is limited at best (although that all could change.)  But still, departing from the traditional Lecterverse mythology to give Jack his great moment of revenge (for his near-murder, for extending Bella’s pain, for destroying his life) is an altogether valedictory and sweet experience.  Even if you never want to see Mads Mikkelsen trapped in the confines of Frederick Chilton’s house of horrors.

Like so many moments in Hannibal, this climactic confrontation plays off of pre-existing cultural associations to evoke a feeling in the audience that is both nostalgic and immediate (which also reflects on the increasing temporal dissonance of the plotting.)  Jack and Hannibal’s epic slugfest is set to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”, which will always possess a certain resonance with many as the theme song for the opening symphony of brutality in A Clockwork Orange (another work involving a man who gains great satisfaction from the combination of classical music and graphic violence.)  Thomas Harris and Ridley Scott devotees can spy an almost direct recreation of Rinaldo Pazzi’s death from the Silence of the Lambs sequel (itself a recreation of an infamous public gutting from the Pazzi heritage), but that feeling of recognition is immediately derailed when Jack shows up on the scene.  And, of course, there’s the scene’s most obvious feature: its invocation of the Jack-Hannibal brawl at Casa de Lecter that closed out Season 2’s “Mizumono.”

Much of this storytelling methodology is foreshadowed several scenes earlier, when Hannibal notes to Bedelia that he prefers the immediacy of the harpsichord over the piano that he must play in their apartment, that “the piano has the quality of memory”.  This leads him into divulging to her both his past with Pazzi and his knowledge of Mason Verger’s bounty on his head.  And maybe this progression is key to understanding something deeper about his character.  So many of the players in Hannibal’s world (and especially in Season 3) are torn between the past and present, wandering in an emotional and psychological netherworld in which they resemble the dead, no longer able to exist outside of that which has scarred them.  Bedelia herself plays the part of Hannibal’s wife while still clinging onto the clinical mindset of her psychiatric career; the resulting conflict traps her in a state of paralysis on all fronts.  Mason and Alana forge an unholy alliance predicated on revenge for the scars that Hannibal has inflicted upon them, but they seem to have no existence in the present world in which they reside.

And there’s Will Graham, by the far the ultimate case study in the paralysis borne of a mind trapped between the past and present.  His entire character arc in the show has been predicated upon running from the guilt of his past failures and the fantasies of his empathic visions, while still trying to forge a semblance of normalcy in the waking world.  In the first four episodes of this season, much has been made of his status as a dead man voyaging through the land of the living, his sole purpose of killing Hannibal clouding his mind with visions of Abigail Hobbs and preoccupying him so much with Chiyoh as a partner in crime that he fails to see her complicity with her old cannibal charge (resulting in his tossing from their train and reunion with the nightmare stag.)  As Hannibal tells Bedelia early in the episode “Will has reached a state of moral dumbfoundedness.”  And as Chiyoh so accurately diagnoses in their train car “If you don’t kill him (Hannibal), you are afraid you’re going to become him.”  Moral and ethical ambiguity are what make the show so oblique and fascinating, but in this case, Jack’s certitude about his revenge ethos give him an easier path to payback than the twisted one that Will embarks upon.

This is where Hannibal seems to rise above the rest of the players.  Even as predatorial forces encircle him, he remains sanguine about the role that his past serves in shaping his present.  A relative lack of empathy will do that for you.  But there’s also an almost Dr. Manhattan-like quality about the perspective that he holds over his life.  The reason why he’s been able to constantly stay so far ahead of his pursuers must be partly attributed to his ability to consolidate all times and experiences of his life into one viewpoint, acknowledging them all while still relentlessly moving ahead, a shark in the muddled psychological waters that cloud the vision of so many others. 

Which is why Jack’s revenge gains such immediate traction in this episode.  Will wants to circle his prey, tapping into his past, understanding his motivations before moving in (there’s also a sense that he needs more convincing to go through with it.)  Mason and Alana want to counter Hanibal’s murder tableaus by enmeshing him in their own version, but that involves multiple levels of planning and bureaucracy.  But Jack merely desires the intimacy of revenge that allows him to take a direct line toward him.  And following last week’s “Apertivo”, which played so heavily around the literal and figurative shatterings of the main players’ lives, this time its Hannibal who is shattered, tossed through several sheets of glass, arm crushed in an antique wheel, ego bruised even as he tries to goad Jack into further violence and retribution. (It’s also interesting that Jack tosses his wedding ring into the river, evoking more of the drowning imagery that has dominated this season, yet this time serving as a moment of power rather than futility.)

Where this plot progression leads the show next week….well, that’s a great question.  Traditional Lecter lore dictates that Hannibal must end up in Mason’s estate to be dangled above the man-eating pigs, only to be saved by Clarice Starling.  But despite hewing close to that tradition in many instances, Bryan Fuller has displayed no qualms about handily manipulating it as well.  And after all, Will Graham is still wandering down those train tracks….

Leftovers ahead on the right:

*As acclaimed Rossini scholar (and author of the forthcoming book Why Cordell Matters: The Mason Verger in Us All) Lillian Tyack noted on Twitter tonight “Fuller’s use of ‘The Thieving Magpie’ also offers a direct commentary on the scene at hand, as Pazzi tries to steal Hannibal’s knife, and Hannibal steals Pazzi’s life.”  And who am I to argue with her?

*Brian Reitzell’s ever-evolving score remains a high point in the Hannibal experience.  During several instances in “Contorno” (notably when Will falls from the train), he throws in a bubbling, gurgling tonal soundscape that almost sounds like a distorted Moog.  Reitzell’s sound procuring process is always unpredictable and intriguing, so it’ll be interesting to eventually read about his methods for this go around.   

* “There are means of influence other than violence…but violence is what you understand.” (Chiyoh, to Will, before tossing him from the train car.  Hmmm…maybe her complicity with Hannibal is more a matter of trying to give Will a little tough love in redirecting him toward his ultimate goal.)

*Censor-defying moment of the week: Mason noting to Alan that she’s tasted more of Hannibal than everyone else, and that “Spitters are quitters, and you don’t strike me as a quitter”.  That’s the second oral sex joke that’s flown under the radar this season (after Bedelia’s dinner time quip in the premiere about how her husband prefers her to taste a certain way.)

*More reason why Hannibal is too intelligent and daring of a show for the network landscape?  And episode that climaxes in a satisfying fight opens with an extended conversation about snails surviving in the stomachs of birds, and how this reflects the complex nature of finding one’s true purpose in life.  Sigh…..gets my synapses firing in all sorts of gratifying ways.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 30: "Apertivo"

In which the dead…the dead at least have the luxury of being done with what they lost.

“Not all our choices are consciously calculated.” (Will)

Four episodes into Hannibal’s third season, it’s become readily obvious that there’s no escaping the events of Season 2’s final salvo, “Mizumono”, no healing from the Lecter House Massacre aside from the various layers of psychological scar tissue that each victim has formed (the physical manifestation of which Cordell so delights in describing to Mason.)  In total, those first two seasons formed a closed circle of trauma and violence, the apocalypse at Garret Jacob Hobbs’s residence looping back on itself in the final confrontation between Will and Hannibal.  And with that circle closed, its main actor abandoned the hermetically sealed murderworld that he created, leaving his victims trapped within, gazing out toward him while choking on the fetid air on which they were left to subsist.

Or maybe that closed circle actually formed around the glass ceiling of sanity under which Will, Jack, Alana, etc. precipitously hovered, its pressure finally shattering that barrier into a million pieces and sending the players crashing back down to the bottom.  Shattered glass, shatterings of all sorts are a prominent motif in “Mizumono”, and they’ve continued to recur in Season 3, especially in “Apertivo”, which beckons the plot back in time to fill in the blanks between the events of last season and Will’s search for Hannibal in Italy.  The opening flashback to Frederick Chilton’s near assassination by Miriam Lass features not only the shattering of the interrogation room window by her bullet, but the grotesque rupturing of the back of his head, the blood spatter from which drenches the screen before subsiding to reveal the reconstructed, yet still fundamentally broken, Chilton of today.  The flashback to Hannibal’s gutting of Will (which is becoming the central and defining trauma of his life, replacing that of his murder of Garret Hobbs) includes an interior close up(!) of the rupturing of his stomach.  Of course, Alana’s iconic plunge in “Mizumono”, seen here again, sent her crashing through the second story window of Casa de Lecter, her prone and broken body left to absorb a cascade of glass and rain.  Jack’s flirtation with death comes courtesy of a shard of glass embedded in his neck and Mason Verger’s fate is sealed by his drug-induced rupturing of his face and Hannibal’s shattering of his spine.

It’s a great indicator of the chaotic, deformed world of this season that the returning Chilton serves as the guide who attempts to bring these characters back from their state of spiritual disembodiment.  But, well….Humpty Dumpty and all.  There’s no real returning to the land of the living for these members of the walking dead.  As Chilton tells Will “The optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true.  This is your best possible world, Will.  Not getting a better one.”  Like Hannibal’s other victims, his motivations are driven by revenge most personal, an inversion of Lecter’s methodology of elevating his victims into transcendence via his murder tableaus.  Chilton’s desire is to drag Hannibal back down into his torture dungeon, to exert command over him once and for all.  Alana, with bone marrow in her blood, transforms herself from the show’s beacon on optimistic goodness into a femme fatale, her dark sexuality seemingly a weapon at the service of punishing Hannibal for his sexual manipulation of her, a means, as she notes to Mason, to “get him to the stage” of the Verger-designed theatre of his death.  Jack’s drive to abandon the pain of his FBI life following Bella’s death is derailed by Hannibal’s conciliatory note, which draws him to once again serve as protector to Will, to see their original mission completed this time.

“Oh wrangling schools, that search what fire
Shall burn this world, had none the wit
Unto this knowledge to aspire,
That this her fever might be it ?”
(“A Fever”/John Donne)

This excerpt from Donne’s poem about a long lost love serves as Hannibal’s elegy to Bella in his card.  It also encapsulates so much of the tone of this season, as characters are driven by a fever of madness and despair for the death of their former lives.  Nowhere is this stronger than in Will’s vision quest toward…what?  As he notes in the quotation that opens this essay, logic and reason went out the window a long time ago.  In a week in which Hannibal was felled by the low ratings-driven axe wielded by NBC (alternate destinations for a prospective Season 4 remain), this quote also encapsulates so much of what is inscrutably sticky and phenomenal about this show.  Its distortion of temporal solidity and its willingness to wade into moral and ethical ambiguity (especially in relation to its ostensible protagonist) take it to places that most televisual works dare not tread.  And its desire to trace the outer limits of free associative psychology, both in its characters and its formal style, presents often daunting challenge to the viewer.  A network horror drama gains much of its allure from the hero’s search for order amidst the chaos; when that hero slowly begins to embrace the chaos, to enter a dark romance with it, where does that leave the viewer?  Bryan Fuller would likely argue that this is the whole point, that falling into the chaos can be a liberating experience for the audience.  But the discomfort that results from a viewership weaned on plot-driven narratives probably prevents much of that from happening on a mass scale.

Will’s long-standing fear of plunging into these liminal depths was what drove him to near-madness in the first two seasons.  But his passage through Hannibal’s underworld, and his passionate embrace of death, has left him without the restrictions of that thought process.  He appears to be psychologically freestyling through his days, moving inextricably towards a return cycle in Hannibal’s orbit (as Chilton so succinctly puts it).  And it’s this sense of freedom, this exploration of the Freudian death wish, that makes him just as much of an unwitting pawn as he was at his Encephalitis-plagued nadir.  The revenge-driven quartet of Chilton, Alana, Mason, and Jack all seem to be pushing Will back out into the stream of life, bait once again for the big catch that is Hannibal Lecter.  What they might not fully realize is the extent to which they might follow him out into that stream, and maybe how far they’ve already drifted away from the shore of reality and sanity.  After all, Hannibal was the one who left Will just whole enough to live another day….

Leftovers aplenty this week:

*Will’s fantasy vision of he and Hannibal garroting Jack at the dinner table is scored to Edward Grieg’s The Death of Ase, from his suite to Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.  It’s stirring material, but there’s also a bit of Peer Gynt’s vagabond ways about both Hannibal and Will.  Act One of the play sets up Peer’s story, and much like Hannibal’s second season, Act Two features the main character descending into a fantasy world, before becoming an outcast/outlaw in Act Three.

*Joe Anderson takes over for Michael Pitt as Mason Verger…which is probably the best timed actor transition in recent history, the latex skin-grafted face he now wears erasing most obvious demarcations of such a change.  Mason’s quasi-religious conversion is fascinating stuff.  His view of himself as being in league with Christ, especially in the context of Hannibal as fallen angel (which Bryan Fuller has remarked upon in the past), forms a world in which the Verger estate becomes the Heaven to which this seraphim must be drawn back into.  Talk about every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints…

*Glenn Fleshler debuts here as Cordell.  In an amusing twist, he also played George Remus across several seasons of Boardwalk Empire, including a stint in Season 2 in which he did business with Jimmy Darmody…who was played by former Mason Michael Pitt.

*It’s great to see Raul Esparza back as Chilton, his perpetual smarminess tamed here by an obsession with payback for the deformation of his body and soul.  The moment of unmasking that he and Mason share (“You show me yours, I’ll show you mine”) is, in keeping with the show’s twisted tone, both grotesque and mildly kinky.

*Once again, DP James Hawkinson creates a stunning visual landscape for this episode.  He continues to use rack focus to separate characters in the frame’s field of depth, but here he also utilizes several crossfades between the profiles of several actors.  The effect is once again to simultaneously unite these visages in the frame, while showing how truly, figuratively distant they are from each other.

*“The riot of lilacs in the wind smells nothing at all like the stockyards and slaughterhouses one usually associates with the Verger name.” (Margot, to Alana)

*”You see, I’m free Dr. Bloom.  I’m right with the Risen Jesus, and it’s all okay now.  And nobody beats the Riz.  He will rise me up and smite mine enemies and I shall hear the lamentations of their women.” (Mason, paraphrasing his lines to Clarice Starling from Thomas Harris’s Hannibal)