August 1,2015 10:00 p.m. (EST), NBC
One of the neatest tricks in Hannibal’s visual lexicon is the way it actualizes psychological states visually. This show is one of the best in the history of the medium at showing rather than telling, at creating in us empathy for the characters by visually signaling us to their thoughts and feelings. Hannibal exists in a comfortable unreality, a world in which thought and action intermingle, in which emotion and longing intermix with cold hard facts so that they blend and become indistinguishable. This is visual poetry that has been very useful in artfully telling the story of a man who can slip into the minds of killers, but it is more than that. It’s a way to guide us into a story that is all about perception and perceptiveness, to key us to identify with the characters in subtle but incredibly powerful ways.
One of the best of these in the last two episodes has been Hannibal’s cell, a space that both must actually exist and yet cannot exist in the way that we see it. We have seen the facilities at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally insane, and they do not look like a drawing room in a stately manner. When we see the whole of Hannibal’s cell, there is no bed, nor a toilet—nothing, in other words, reflective of, as Alana puts it, the indignities Dr. Lecter is currently suffering. This constant unreality is a low thrum of Lecter’s psychological state, the way he maintains a detached serenity three years into his time in captivity. It’s the most constant room in his mind palace, but it is just one.
Another excellent example comes in the scene where Will talks to Molly on the phone. Suddenly, he is there with her, by her side, experiencing her warmth and their casual, lived-in intimacy. We know, as he must, that he is alone, but seeing him lie there next to her, hearing him laugh at her jokes, we feel, for a moment how Will must talking to his wife, the woman who grounds him and saved him from the darkness that constantly threatens to envelope him. Or look at the conversation between Will and Hannibal, which moves from location to location freely, each fitting its place in the conversation, but also symbolizing the way Will keys back in to the insights his talks with Hannibal used to give him. The dialogue, much of it lifted directly from Red Dragon, is compelling enough that two very good movies have been made involving these scenes shot straight-forwardly as conversations in a mental institution. Yet what Hannibal brings to it is a much deeper, more resonant understanding of this bond and what it does to both of them. Red Dragon has always been about a man throwing himself back into madness to catch a monster with the help of another monster. In the hands of Bryan Fuller, the psychological dread of that situation feels more palpable than ever.
There’s also a thrill to finally being here in the story, and I have to confess to feeling a rush when Mads Mikkelsen greets Will with a perfunctory “That’s the same atrocious aftershave you wore in court,” the same line with which Hannibal greets Will in the source material. Some of the dialogue doesn’t quite match with the way Mikkelsen tends to play Lecter, and yet, he pulls it off, finding a way to ground Lecter the preening peacock in the memory of Lecter the camouflaged aesthete. The Lecter played famously by Anthony Hopkins was willfully theatrical, a catty criminal mastermind who loved to take center stage after years of being ignored in a cell. But Mikkelsen plays the caged Lecter with the same quiet tragedy he has always brought to the character. He plays Lecter as Lucifer, a fallen angel who is disappointed with and saddened by the world as he sees it. The cattiness doesn’t work quite as well, but the look on Mikkelsen’s face when he knows his one true friend is back speaks volumes about this man and what drives him.
In this telling of the story, then, Red Dragon becomes a parable about the formation of families. It’s appropriate, even if it often feels like filler to get a fairly straight forward novel to the length of six episodes, that this harkens the return in flashback of Abigail Hobbs, providing us more details into how Hannibal bonded himself to her. The speech Hannibal gives her as she confronts her father’s corpse is one that resonates through every interaction tonight. The characters on this show are a twisted family, one born of trauma, darkness, and pain, but there is a twisted love between all of them, even if it is now liberally mingled with hatred. Francis Dolarhyde murders happy families, but the one that is coming together to stop him is anything but. Jack, Will, Hannibal, and Alana are co-dependent in ways they try desperately to deny, but they rely on and in some sense love each other, even as the ways they have broken each other leave them jagged and closed-off to affection.
Hannibal and Will are, in some sense, the broken heart that powers this faulty family. They are at their best with each other, which bleeds freely into them being at their worst. Jack manipulated Will back into Hannibal’s orbit because he knows Will is more effective with Hannibal in his head. Hannibal is never as happy as when he can play around in Will’s mind palace and rearrange things to his liking. Even Will cannot resist the pull of Hannibal in some sense. The two are drawn together like some sort of fate binds them, even as Will knows his life is better the further Hannibal is from his mind (both literally and figuratively).
Jack is both father and brother to these two, the third point in a platonic triangle always at war with itself in a struggle for dominance. The dynamic between Jack, Will, and Hannibal, all of whom need each other and constantly try to manipulate each other, is a fascinatingly rich one, and these episodes have literalized elements that the book only hinted at, in how cognizant Jack is about how he is using Will and Hannibal, and how much Hannibal understands about how integral he is to catching Dolarhyde, even if Will doesn’t want to admit it.
And then there’s Dolarhyde himself, tearing apart families in search of some sense of peace, even as he finds a woman with whom he could find it if only he could beat back the Dragon in his head. Reba (Rutine Wesley) is a smart, compassionate, self-possessed woman who is wounded like Francis, but never lets that destroy her. His tragedy is his inability to connect. He can barely speak, lest others know of his speech impediment. He cannot let Reba touch him, lest she feel his scar and see him as the monster he believes himself to be. He cannot connect, and so he lashes out. Isolation destroys, especially for a man without a mind palace. In place of that quiet retreat, that solitary salvation, Dolarhyde has only a mind that feels like it is bursting out into the world; he writhes in pain as he believes the Dragon emerges from within him. He cannot contain his madness, and so it is fated to consume him.
Hannibal is, at bottom, a horror story. It is filled with madness, depravity, and darkness. It is a story about the lengths human beings can go towards destroying one another. But Hannibal, especially in this telling, is also a gothic romance, an operatic ode to artistic expression and the deep need in all of us to understand and to feel understood. These themes form themselves together into the deformed family that has formed around the crater of destruction Hannibal left in his wake before his imprisonment. The Hart that staggered out of the heart Hannibal built for Will in that church near the beginning of the season has become a metaphor for all of the characters on this show. They don’t function as they should, nor do they look, on a psychological level, like normal people. But they still stumble forward, clinging to each other and to their fragile senses of self, trying not to be ashamed in a world that would shout them down. Trying to understand each other, even if it hurts. Trying to be understood, even if it kills them.
- “I’m more comfortable the less personal we are.”
- “Are you a good father, Will?”
- “As with all things in the natural world, you will adapt now, and mutate later.”
- “We don’t get wiser as we get older, Abigail. But we do learn to avoid, or raise, a certain amount of Hell, depending on which we prefer.”
- “Abigail Hobbs is dead.” “Long live Abigail Hobbs.”
- “So…what are you doing here?” “There are only five doors between Hannibal and the outside, and I have the keys to all of them.”
- “He who sups with the Devil needs a long spoon.”
- “Like you, Will, he needs a family to escape what’s inside him.”
- “I know what you’re afraid of. It’s not pain or solitude. It’s indignity.”
- “Never be ashamed of who you are, Abigail.”
- “What do they have in common?” “They were both happy.”
- “You called us ‘Murder Husbands.’” “You did run off to Europe together…”
- “It would be more honest if you ate his brain right out of his skull.”
Hannibal exists in a comfortable unreality, a world in which thought and action intermingle, in which emotion and longing intermix with cold hard facts so that they blend and become indistinguishable.