One of the most brilliant touches of Hannibal, which remains one of the smartest shows on television, is the way it embraces complexity in even its darkest elements. Evil is not straight-forward mustache-twirling, but something more complicated, an attempt to communicate beauty, pain, and personal experience to a world that cannot understand. Madness, too, is not some simple psychological defect that undermines those it afflicts-it is a pernicious twisting of the entire world around those who are within its grasp, a subtle and powerful shift that, among this show’s intelligent psychopaths anyway, comes across as a coherent world view rather than lunatic ramblings. Even good is not particularly easy to discern here. Will Graham has committed murders, and he is the closest this show has to an out-and-out hero. Jack Crawford is supposed to stand for justice, but he manipulated Will into putting his family in danger and confesses to immediately viewing Dolarhyde’s attack on Molly and Walter in terms of how it would make Will recommit to finding The Great Red Dragon. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Nothing is nearly as tidy as we might like.
Take Hannibal’s role in all this. His allegiance is far from clear. He claims to be helping both Will and Francis, and both appears to cooperate with Jack’s plan to tap his phone line and undermines it by warning Francis the call is being monitored. Even Lecter’s most overtly evil act in “…And the Beast from the Sea,” siccing Dolarhyde on Will’s family, is arguably a move that will help will to see his prey more clearly. Hannibal has always believed that the best way for Will to catch killers is to embrace the darkest side of himself. Its innate to the idea of Lecter as Lucifer that his greatest trick is helping us to embrace out worst tendencies. So by putting Will’s family in danger, he helps Will to get into Francis’ head even further, to understand the idea of transformation that is at the heart of The Great Red Dragon’s murders.
This is something that comes up again and again on Hannibal (and in the novels from which the show draws inspiration), the idea that killers are obsessed with their own transformations and with transforming others, the idea that they become detached from humanity by a twisted desire to give their victims a gift. Dolarhyde knows he is feeding people to the Dragon, but he also thinks he is saving them, in some sense. So many of this show’s killers twist their victims’ forms to better them or to communicate their ideas like artists whose medium is flesh and viscera. It’s a dark but fascinating idea, and it is one that has underlied this show since Garret Jacob Hobbs displayed a woman on a stag’s antlers in the show’s pilot, telling us man is meat to be hunted, and evil is the stag man who is always just behind us, if only we could look over our shoulders quickly enough to see him.
The brilliance of this arc is how it underlines that Hannibal is nearly as dangerous when locked in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane as he was when he was loose in the world. He may not be personally digesting his victims for the moment, but he remains the grand master of manipulation, orchestrating a symphony of violence, madness, and pain without lifting so much as a finger. Hannibal’s voice is as dangerous as his finely tuned physique. All he needs is the power of persuasion to sow discontent and chaos in anyone who steps near enough to hear him whisper. That is the genius of the “killer in a cage” conceit of Harris’ Lecter novels, and one that the show has put on display perhaps better than any previous iteration.
“…And the Beast from the Sea” also tracks the dissolution of Francis and Reba’s relationship, perhaps the chief tragic element underriding this story. Reba’s presence offers the vague, distant hope of salvation for Francis. If he can show this woman compassion, if he can learn that he is not seen as a monster, but can be loved as a man, perhaps he can keep the Dragon at bay and become the man Reba thinks him to be. Last week, he let her touch a sleeping tiger and seemed to believe that meant he too could be near her for a time. But now he realizes he will only consume her eventually, and he cannot bring himself to hurt the woman he loves. Francis is being devoured by his madness, pulled further and further into the grasp of his darkest self, but still, he tries to push Reba from his wake, to keep her out of harm’s way. Still, in the depths of this monster, there is a man.
And that is the secret to Hannibal Lecter’s success as the true villain of this piece. Dolarhyde struggles against the darkness within him, making him a tragic figure. Will channels his darkness into an attempt to save lives, rendering him the hero of the piece. But Hannibal embraces the darkness, uses his worst side to poison his best and his best side to assist his worst. He is a being in perfect harmony and total control of his own impulses. Who is Hannibal helping, and how far will he go to see how this all works out? Those are questions only he knows the answer to. He may appear to be an angry child bashing his two favorite toys against each other to see which one will emerge victorious. But he’s something more than that. He’s helping everyone, even as he’s hurting them. He’s twisting both sides until they dance closer and closer to becoming perfect mirror images.
That is the genius of the "killer in a cage" conceit of Harris' Lecter novels, and one that the show has put on display perhaps better than any previous iteration.