In which then you realized what I realized, which is that I can’t go home.
“Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast, and one is striving to forsake its brother.”
-Hannibal, channeling Goethe
Hannibal Lecter may be the most impactful, cross-cultural icon of the Thomas Harris literary/cinematic universe, his debonair charisma and sensual, predatory nature offering a pleasurable gateway into a world where finely cultivated depravity can be vicariously appreciated. Will Graham may be the archetypically stoic noir detective who serves as the emotional anchor for the audience. And in the hands of Hugh Dancy (via the words and vision of Bryan Fuller), he threatens to eclipse the beloved Clarice Starling as the primary force for good in this Lecterverse. But throughout all three adaptations of Harris’s second novel, one character has stood as the unsung backbone of the story, the impetus for dramatic progression who is too often forgotten in the ongoing discussions of this work. So as he has descended upon the narrative of what might be the final act of Hannibal, an all too fitting bringer of death to the proceedings, it’s well worth once again examining the Great Red Dragon himself, Francis Dolarhyde.
Hannibal has gained so much of its charm and lasting power from the psychological pyrotechnics between Hannibal and Will that even at this late stage, it can be easy to sideline Francis to a secondary focus. It’s understandable from a practical standpoint, as he spends much of the story isolated from the two main characters whose lives he most deeply affects (although Fuller slyly connects Hannibal and Francis via the former’s theraputical fantasies, a nice counterpoint to the now formal, clinical meetings between Hannibal and Will…and a pleasant excuse to return Mads Mikkelsen to the womblike surroundings of his ornate office.) And by nature, Francis’s charisma is an often oblique matter at best. He displays none of Hannibal’s urbanity or Will’s smoldering sex appeal, relegated instead to evincing the pent-up frustrations of a man child tormented by his inner demons.
Which is what makes Richard Armitage’s turn as the would-be Red Dragon so fascinating, especially in comparison with the character’s previous screen incarnations. In Michael Mann’s Manhunter, character actor extraordinaire Tom Noonan ably captures the wounded outsider’s mien that so defines Francis. Yet at times he seems to do so almost too effectively, interiorizing his existential conflict so much that the character comes across as somewhat of a cipher. And although Harris envisioned him as peaking 40, his transformation partially sparked by the specter of aging, Noonan’s already graying visage (he was only 35 at the time of the film’s release) subdues his essential childish bent. Bret Ratner’s glossy remake, Red Dragon, cast Ralph Fiennes as Francis, and he definitely embodies the more physically imposing presence that is an integral part of this lost soul. Fiennes’s crystal blue eyes also allow him to oscillate his gaze between childlike vulnerability and steely menace, a trait which defines much of Francis’s bifurcated psyche. But he’s also very much leading man material, and as compelling as he can be in the role, the viewer often gets the impression that this is a genuinely good looking man dressing up as a fractured pseudo-psychopath, blunting some of the impact of his character arc.
In splitting the difference between these two previous screen versions of the character, Armitage captures the essence of what makes him so frightening and tragic, crafting what has become the definitive filmed version of Francis Dolarhyde. In many ways he’s definitely as leading man handsome as Fiennes, but the subtle lengths to which he goes in portraying Francis appropriately dull much of that alluring façade. With his hair shorn into a tight buzz cut, he gains a militaristic loner’s edge, and his bulked up physique embodies Francis’s classic weightlifter’s presence while also adding enough weight to give him an almost babyfaced blankness in his features. The childlike, wounded nature at the center of his soul then comes through from a physical standpoint and through Armitage’s finely crafted mannerisms, the soulful hurt in his expressions and the often skittish leanings of his reactions. But so much of the credit for his uncanny conveyance lies in the physical mastery he displays in the role. The actor has spoken about his discovery of the Japanese performance art Butoh (or The Dance of Death) as a key motivator for the controlled, conflicted movement he enacts as Francis; from week to week, it’s often a delight just to watch this man veer from economical prowling (anyone else think of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty when he searched the house for Reba in last week’s episode?) to wild, almost mechanical gesticulations. One such example comes in this week’s entry, in which he beats himself mercilessly for his perceived failings, all the while imagining the Red Dragon pummeling away at him. In his total physical commitment to the scene, he recalls Edward Norton’s smirking revenge on his boss in Fight Club, that great statement of modern male malaise and impotence. To believe that Francis truly feels possessed by the Dragon, it’s necessary to buy into the private war that tears him apart, and Armitage’s convulsions make the viewer believe that this is a man not entirely in control of himself.
Just who is in control stands as the central question of his arc, and of “..And the Beast from the Sea” itself. Following in the footsteps of the previous two week’s episodes, Bryan Fuller has once again named this entry after one of William Blake’s Red Dragon paintings, this one depicting the Dragon summoning the Beast from the Sea, a torch in one hand, a sword in the other. The Satanic Dragon’s purpose is to recruit the Beast into his war against the righteous. The previous two episodes (and Harris’s source material) have drawn parallels between Francis as the Dragon and Reba as the Woman Clothed in Sun, but the matter of the Beast complicates things somewhat. Indeed, the chief recruiter and seducer in this episode is clearly Hannibal, who advances his vengeance against Will by advising Francis to “Save yourself. Kill them all.” He may assure him that “From the beginning, you and the Dragon have been one”, but in matters most Mephistophelian, the not so good doctor is the true great tempter (as Fuller has often said, he envisions Hannibal as a fallen angel.)
And this leads us back to the beginning of this essay…and to the end of the episode, specifically Hannibal’s quoting of Goethe’s Faust in his climactic confrontation with Will. As with most of his literary taunts, it’s mutable enough to cover several points of view. Of course, Hannibal has played Mephistopheles with Will all along, tempting him to the dark side (although there are deeper shades of grey inherent in that coupling than just good and evil.) And throughout this story arc, he’s goaded Francis into embracing the Red Dragon persona while also using him as his vessel for havoc. But the Faust quote emanates from the mouth of the titular character, deep amidst the interior conflict between his earthly genius and divine aspirations. By tossing this back to Will, Hannibal reinforces the warring factions within his onetime friend through the fractured lens of his new would-be protégé. Both blessed and cursed by visions reaching beyond the pale of the mortal veil, both men face the enduring temptation of transcending the mundane aspects of their lives. Will has tried to embrace the more stable aspects of his humanity through the family structure, but the frisson he experienced during his deepest immersion in Hannibal’s psychological hall of mirrors can’t be easily forgotten. After all, this is perhaps the only person who’s ever accepted his darkest impulses as an essential part of him, as a facet that can elevate him above humanity. As he tells Will in this scene “The essence of the worst in the human spirit is not found in the crazy sons of bitches. Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd.”
It’s such a deep divide that exists within Will, one that has only grown since the beginning of the series. His gravest fear, that the ghosts of his empathic visions might invade the physical world, has come true too often, costing him a friend in Beverly Katz and a surrogate daughter in Abigail Hobbs. Those losses packed the emotional heft of any well-sketched characters. And now, this Mark of Cain that deforms Will’s psyche has infected the lives of two people who have only received minimal screen time, but who carry with them a universal empathic weight. As he tries to explain Francis’s attack to his stepson Walter, Will can only inadvertently trap himself in an unwanted self-description: a killer who is caught and put in a mental hospital (Walter knows this truth all too well from Freddie Lounds’s Tattlecrime article.) Hugh Dancy is so affecting during his hospital scenes with Walter and Molly. There’s so much hurt in this man’s eyes, and so much added context for his angst from the two and a half seasons of context that Fuller and company have provided. Previous screen versions of Will have been tortured, but you really believe this incarnation’s lament that he will never escape his legacy and his awful empathic curse. And yet, it’s instructive to note that after attempting to console Walter, he tells Jack Crawford “I had to justify myself to an 11-year old.” It’s meant to be a statement of frustration, but there’s also a slight edge to Will’s voice, one laced with a hint of resentment for having to lower himself to the standards of a child…even if it’s his child. (Note how DP James Hawkinson physically isolates Will in the frame in the shot featured above, visually walling him off not only from his son, but from the intermittent confidante who has lured him away from his family.)
Does this make Will as much Hannibal’s prospective Beast from the Sea as Francis? Are Will and Francis the two souls dwelling in Hannibal’s breast? Or are all of these characters dealing with the Faustian bargains they’ve struck to reach this point? After all, Will’s soul has been sold as much to Jack as to Hannibal, who long ago sacrificed a key chunk of his humanity to his inner clinical darkness. What’s undeniable is the overwhelming darkness that’s taken over Hannibal in its possibly final days, an encroaching sense that there is truly no return to the lives that these characters formerly inhabited, and to the homes in which they found solace. What remains is only the change which Hannibal describes in his final lines, the evolution toward something beyond the previous strictures of existence. For at a certain point, flirtations with darkness cease to retain their relative safety, transforming into a full embrace. Into a becoming.
On to this week’s leftovers:
*As likeable as he may be, the opening meeting between he, Will, and Alana (in which forcing Francis into suicide is discussed) once again shows what a cold and calculating presence Jack can be, especially when driven to stop a serial killer. To quote Will “Jack Crawford, fisher of men, watching my cork move against the current. You got me again.”
*Walter’s desire to watch baseball seems a bit odd (especially since the current story arc seems to be set in mid-winter), until you remember that in Harris’s Red Dragon, his biological father received a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals before dying of throat cancer. It’s the fine line that Fuller often walks between reverence for the source material and translation for an audience unfamiliar with said source (which can make you think that Molly’s coma vision of a baseball being hit three times is a winking act of trolling the more analytical section of the audience.)
*Finally, thirty-seven episodes in, we get Hannibal Lecter in a version of his classic Silence of the Lambs mask. And in a neat twist on the comparable scene in that film, Alana is the one stripping his cell of comforting accoutrements instead of Chilton.
*“You have hubbed Hell, Dr. Lecter” (Jack) “I often do.” (Hannibal)
-Okay, two things here. First, how often do you hear someone use hub as a verb? Just another reason to love this show. It’s a direct quote from Jack in Harris’s novel, but in that work he’s directing it toward Freddie Lounds. And speaking of Freddie…with two episodes to go, have we seen the last of Lara Jean Chorostecki? I certainly hope not.
*“How do you imagine he’s contacted me? Personal ads? Writing notes of admiration on toilet paper?” (Hannibal, to Will, theorizing about Francis’s preferred mode of communication. It’s a wry bit of dialogue that pays tribute to the decidedly analog avenues by which he made contact with Hannibal in the previous versions of Red Dragon.)
*When Hannibal asks Will what he sees when he closes his eyes (the implication being his family…and him murdering them) it recalls the moment in Season 2’s “Mizumono” when he advised him “You can make it all go away. Put your head back. Close your eyes. Wade quietly into the stream”. That entreaty came in the midst of stabbing Will in the stomach, but it also offers a neat parallel to the ocean imagery that haunts Francis in this episode. Will once found peace in the placidity of the stream, but it’s the tumultuous sea that threatens to engulf him (and potentially turn him into its Beast.)