Saturday, July 18, 2015

This Is My Design: Dr. Lecter's Strong Medicine

The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. - Judge Holden, Blood Meridian

At the beginning, the gang is all here. The demanding curmudgeon of a boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne). The compassionate love interest who is afraid of getting too involved, Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhevamas). The technical team that doubles as comic relief, Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) and Jimmy Prince (Scott Thompson). The fridge-bound too-competent-for-the-show Beverly Katz (Hetienne Park). The bright, damaged waif Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl). And, finally, our loveable, tortured hero Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Our favorite tropes are securely in place.

Hannibal begins as a genre piece. We have seen flawed superhero cops done before, comically in Monk, with literary pretensions in Sherlock. Unlike those programs, however, Hannibal is named for its villain, not its hero. Even Dexter is named for the good serial killer. This is the first sign that the show is not what it appears to be.

From the beginning, the soundtrack isn't right. It shudders, clanks, and skitters. It indulges in the deep bass hits common to contemporary horror movies. It only reaches melodic cogency as Dr. Lecter finishes one of his many art projects. The images are likewise out of place. There is close-up after close-up of minute detail. The lighting casts everything in a smog. These and other seeming visual superfluities ham-handedly demand that we notice that this is no ordinary procedural. As special tv deputy investigators, this is our second clue.

From the beginning, the dialogue is stilted. It stumbles through awkward reveals. It feels most at home in Dr. Lecter's office, during his ice-cold psychiatric interviews. Compared to Hannibal's professionalism, the rest of the characters seem emotionally volatile, histrionic. Will Graham's hyper-empathy is the clearest counter-point to Lecter's glacial analysis. We scratch our chins and ponder this third piece of evidence.

Soon, we realize, everything that happens outside of Hannibal's office is simply preparation for the next scene of his "therapeutic practice". This is the fundamental reversal that Hannibal relies upon. In most cop shows, the confessional scenes are supplements put in place in order to facilitate shocking psychological reveals that spur narrative development. In Hannibal, the things that take place off the couch are entrement between Lecter's physiological, culinary, and psychological dissections.

Lecter is a psychiatric patient's nightmare; a therapist that is really as removed and inhuman as he must pretend to be in his professional function. Most mainstream variants of psychiatry are guided by a vision of the good life. It may be a life of freedom from neuroses, or of self-actualization. Dr. Lecter has emptied psychiatry of its therapeutic rationalization and stripped it down to manipulation. The end-goal of his practice is to fulfill the therapist's curiosity. Hannibal, like us, is simply interested in what will happen next.

The show, in short, is an excuse to put us on Dr. Lecter's couch. He controls the action, the characters, the dialogue. He simply hopes to help us achieve aesthetic catharsis, the highest possible achievement in his voided vision of psychiatry. In the course of his therapy, Dr. Lecter reveals to us our real role as television viewers, that of the disinterested analyst. As much as we might want to be Will, involved, emotionally engaged, and thirsty for justice, Lecter endeavors to show us that we have more in common with him than with our hero.

Lecter's "therapy" is supposed to demonstrate to Will just how much he resembles Lecter. We are supposed to go through this journey alongside him, noting the ways in which Lecter's horrifying spectacles thrill us, the way in which our hopes are undermined over and over, replaced by another one of Hannibal's aesthetic marvels. It's all part of the process; several times Hannibal escapes death just because it's not supposed to end this way. He can't die before our demons are exorcised. For him to die prematurely would destroy all of the hard work we've done together. The end-point of the show is not meant to be moral victory, but aesthetic completion. Hannibal endeavors to teach us that the two cannot coincide.

This assertion of incompatibility is ultimately theological. In the beginning of Season 3 when Will visits a church with the shade of Abigail Hobbs, he muses on Hannibal's relationship to God. Hannibal's Creator, says Will, has made a world in which elegance takes priority over moral order. In the world of the show, Hannibal's world, this is demonstrated again and again. Hannibal tries any number of therapeutic techniques in order to get us to realize his metaphysical picture of the world. Take the case of the great corpse sculpture of the human eye, staring up to God. Hannibal's addition is to the put the body of the sculptor himself at the center. At first glance, this is a standard quasi-Nietzschean statement; there is no God, just the inexorably violent aesthetic vision of humankind. Thus Hannibal muses: "Killing must feel good to God too. He does it all the time. And are we not made in his image?"  Aestheticizing nature, as he would have it, also entails ennobling cruelty.

But let's take a second glance, this time through Lecter's therapeutic lens, Hannibal also uses the "great eye" to remind us that he knows that we are watching: "If God is looking down at you, don't you want to be looking back at him?" This is the implicit narrative of the show made explicit. As we look down at Hannibal's design, so too does he look back at us. We have seen Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, or Red Dragon. We know he will be caught. But the world of Hannibal the show is already a much contorted image of Thomas Harris' vision as expressed in the novels. Hannibal is not just a retelling, but a realignment. This is the most blatant moment of the show's smug self-consciousness thus far.

This puts the ending of Season 2 in context. When Hannibal is nearly killed by our heroes, he tells Will Graham that he forgives him. In so doing, he also forgives us; we wanted to see him get his comeuppance, we wanted the therapy to end in catharsis. We have reverted to identifying with Will. We have betrayed Lecter's therapeutic efforts, and, after appropriate punishment, he forgives us and continues treatment. The question of whether or not we will forgive him in return will be answered by what the circumstances are when the good doctor takes his fated fall. It remains to be seen whether it will be on his terms or ours.

In the latest episodes each of the characters struggle to deal with the aftermath of Hannibal's punishments. Toward this end, Will visits Hannibal's childhood home. There, he discovers a supposedly cannibalistic prisoner guarded by a former Lecter family servant named Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto). When Will shows Chiyoh his wounds, she tells him that he should tell her what has happened in the form of a story. "All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story." she explains, The contextualization of a traumatic event can dampen the continuing power of the trauma incurred. When the imprisoned cannibal is eventually murdered, Will poses him in an imitation of Hannibal's artwork. Through narrative construction and a repetition of Hannibal's work, Will hopes to move through and beyond identifying with him. If the show is to end well for Will (and, by extension, for us) this may be the best way forward.