June 18, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), NBC
I have a complicated relationship with The Killing Joke. On the one hand, it is a phenomenally good Batman story, that gets absolutely right the conflicts and convictions that drive Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and The Joker, three of the most important characters in one of the most enduring mythologies of the modern age. On the other hand, much of the story is given over to an origin of the Joker that just feels wrong. A creature of pure evil shouldn’t come from circumstances so banal. A creature of pure evil shouldn’t come from anywhere at all. True, incarnate evil walks in out of nowhere, appears from unknown places, wreaks havoc without need for motivation or origin. The Joker doesn’t need a backstory. One day, there was peace in the world. On the next, he walked into town, and nothing has been the same ever since.
The same is true of Hannibal Lecter. The biggest thing Thomas Harris misjudged with Hannibal Rising (and that book, and its adaptation, consists of virtually nothing but misjudgments) is the needs of his audience. No one was clamoring for a Hannibal Lecter origin story, and those that were clamored for something they could never understand and never be satisfied by. What makes Hannibal Lecter one of the all-time great villains is the fact that he is inherently inexplicable. He arrives, and chaos follows. He knows more than you. He can see into the dark, because he is its creature. He can understand things normal minds would shrink away from. He isn’t the devil, no. But to normal, mortal minds, he is effectively indistinguishable.
Part of the brilliance of “Secondo” is the way it travels into Hannibal’s past without ever offering a satisfying explanation of his origin. It gets right what The Killing Joke and Hannibal Rising get wrong, by leaving a total mystery the biggest question around the central character. All the explanation I will ever need is contained within an exchange between Bedelia and Hannibal. “Why can’t you go home, Hannibal? What happened to you there?” she asks, probing, as we all are, in a way, to find answers to the unanswerable. His response is all we will ever be able to know of that void: “Nothing happened to me. I happened.”
But “Secondo” is more than the answer to an unanswerable question. It is also a taut, deeply disturbing horror story about a woman confined by her own decency. Chiyo (who seems to be taking the place of Hannibal Rising’s Lady Murasaki, and more elegantly) has told herself a story, and been confined by what it had to mean. Left with the option of dispatching a man she believes to be a cannibal, she instead imprisons him, and watches over him for what must have been decades, alone in a mansion, with only her guilt and her resolve. “All sorrows can be borne, if you put them in a story. Tell me a story.” Chiyo’s desire to understand Hannibal was her undoing. Hannibal created a story that would explain his nature to her, and left her clinging to that story as a life raft against the torrents of human nature. Hannibal posed a challenge: kill this man, and be free. Chiyo answered by accepting her imprisonment, to save a life, even if only in a darkly inexplicable way. Her actions cannot be considered heroic; they cannot even be considered merciful for the man she kept as prisoner for endless years. Rather, they are a self-imposed test of her own fortitude. She wouldn’t become what Hannibal wanted her to be, not without another push. And that push comes from Will Graham.
If the episode is a horror story with Chiyo as the central victim and also a central antagonist, the role Will Graham plays in it is equally dark and horrifying. Will knows what he is doing when he sets the prisoner free. He knows that he is stepping into Hannibal’s shoes, pulling strings Hannibal strung for him years back. Will makes Chiyo into his own Bedelia, the origin story we saw in “Antipasto” playing out in eerily similar ways here as Will manipulates Chiyo into murder and then trades on her indebtedness to create an uneasy partner in crime. “Secondo” is a dark chapter for all involved. No one here, save our brief interlude with Jack Crawford and Inspector Pazzi, is innocent. “Secondo” is a den of killers, where motivation is hinted at only darkly. What drives these characters is nothing but themselves. The same thing holds them back. They decide, ultimately, who they are and who they are not, what they will do and what they will not. They create and adhere to their own codes, and in that way, they are living in Hannibal’s world.
The idea of Hannibal as the Devil recurs throughout this series, but perhaps never more potently than in the way he pushes an agenda of dark freedom. The Devil’s greatest allure lies in freedom from the rules of God. The Devil tells us we can make our own rules, set our own code, adhere to whatever we’d like and be free from any strictures we don’t bind ourselves to every day. The Devil’s morality is a personal morality. The Devil’s truth is the truth that gnaws at you at night, when sleep and sunlight feel so far away. Hannibal whispers in your ear that you can be whatever you choose to be, and then guides you towards your worst truth. He leaves you alone with your darkest impulses, and drives you into the shadowy corner where they lie. It doesn’t matter where Hannibal comes from, because it can’t. All that matters is that he is. Whether you like it or not, whether you understand it or don’t, whether you let him in or fight to keep him out. Hannibal is there, waiting, pushing, persuading, knowing. He’s the Devil on your shoulder, the dark voice telling you that freedom is only one transgression away. What’s holding you back?
- “He knew where to look for me.” “You knew where he would look for you.”
- “I am not concerned for myself. I know exactly how I will navigate out of whatever it is I have gotten myself into. Do you?”
- “Where will Will Graham be looking for you next?” “Someplace I can never go. Home.”
- “It’s not healing to see your childhood home. But it helps you measure how you are broken. How and why. Assuming you want to know.”
- “The spaces in your mind devoted to earlier years…are they different than most rooms?”
- “Screams do fill some of those places, but the corridors do not echo screaming. Because I hear music.”
- “That may have been impulsive.” “You’ve been mulling that impulse ever since you decided to serve Punch Romaine.”
- “Technically, you killed him.”
- “You cannot preserve entropy. It gradually descends into disorder.”
- “Not my house. Not my fire.”
- “All he’s allowed is the sound of water. It’s what the unborn hear. It’s their last memory of peace.”
- “You’re keeping him like an animal.” “I wouldn’t do this to an animal.”
- “We construct fairy tales, and we accept them. Our minds concoct all sorts of fantasies when we don’t want to believe something.”
- “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him.”
- “What were you like as a young man?” “I was rooting for Mephistopheles, and contemptuous of Faust.”
- “Will Graham understands Hannibal. He accepts him. Now who among us doesn’t want understanding and acceptance?”
- “If past behavior is an indicator of future behavior, there is only one way you will forgive Will Graham.” “I have to eat him.”
Part of the brilliance of “Secondo” is the way it travels into Hannibal’s past without ever offering a satisfying explanation of his origin.