not in our stars, but in ourselves
What kind of animal are you willing to eat? We are, in the Western world at least, a deeply carnophallagocentric society. We eat meat at every meal. We eat muscles and organs. We stuff different kinds of animals’ body parts into each other, and then into our mouths. And yet, there are some animals and parts we consider inedible: oh, no, I’d never eat offal; I can’t eat pork because it’s against my religion; no one should ever eat dog meat; etc., etc., etc. Voracious as we are, we consider certain animals unseemly to eat. It’s some sort of cognitive dissonance – why, if we’re so desperate to eat flesh all the time, do we bother pretending that some are more acceptable than others – but it’s not one that Hannibal Lecter experiences. He prefers quality over quantity, and will harvest and prepare any meat he likes.
In “Dolce,” Hannibal and Bedelia have a languorous conversation about her leaving him, and her awareness that he was intending to eat her. She says she’s leaving because she knows she’s not yet suitable for his “particular tastes” – and he admits that he’s been “savoring” her. Ethics become aesthetics. That really is the key to Dr. Lecter – and it’s one we haven’t really been given before, at least not in any of the novels or films that I know. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that we’re really invited to try to understand why Hannibal does what he does, and thinks how he thinks. Sure, Hannibal Rising paints it as a reaction against being made to eat his sister by Nazis (or something), but why that reaction? How? This show revolutionizes the way we see Lecter: we see that his old habit, of eating the rude (ethics), has grown stale for him; now he wants to savor his prey, and he wants his prey to be people he loves (aesthetics). His earlier murders this season – even though he was targeting “free range rude” – were cries for help, plaintive calls for the object of his fantasies to come to him.
And Will Graham does indeed come. In a scene that would have felt right at home in Brief Encounter or some other romantic tragedy, Will finds Hannibal at the Uffizi, seated in front of Botticelli’s Primavera, “sketching Hannibal fanart” as the Entertainment Weekly recap puts it. Hannibal tells his beautiful little Graham cracker, “If I saw you every day forever, Will, I would remember this time.” Will seems happy to see Hannibal, too, but he came to Florence to kill his friend – not for a tryst in a museum. Eros and Thanatos are constant companions on this show; sex and death are always intertwined. Hannibal’s love for Will is so immense that it literally has to be all-consuming: by the episode’s penultimate scene, he’s preparing to cut open Will’s skull and eat his brain (plus who knows what else). Will’s need to kill Hannibal is co-mingled with a yearning so powerful that Jack Crawford worries it will prevent him from dispatching of his almost-lover. It is a powerful thing to feel understood and wanted by someone as peculiar (to put it mildly) as either Will or Hannibal.
Speaking of coitus, while the great Hannigram love scene is unlikely ever to take place, we did get a sex scene “so unapologetically vaginal that Maude Lebowski would approve” (as Alan Sepinwall put it in his Hitfix review): Alana Bloom and Margot Verger (Katherine Isabelle). We find out, during some characteristically (for Hannibal) sexy-yet-unsexy post-coital talk, that each of these ladies has her own plan: Margot wants a baby, so she wonders if Alana would be able to harvest her brother’s sperm (without, one hopes, actually having to deal with him in anything more than a medical sense); Alana wants to turn Mason in to the authorities as soon as he gets Hannibal. Girl power! (As a side note: this episode especially, but also the series as a whole, has very much glamorized and celebrated same-sex pairings. By contrast, the one heterosexual expression of something like desire comes from Mason: the creepiest motherfucker in the universe tells his sister that he’s sorry he removed her uterus, because now he thinks she’d make a great mother, and he’d inseminate her himself. Is this what conservatives are afraid of? Do they think gay marriage will lead to nothing but vagina kaleidoscopes, murder husbands, and the few rogue heterosexuals forced to copulate with their own sisters?)
And that’s not all, in terms of sisters doin’ it for themselves. Bedelia, in addition to telling Hannibal she’s leaving before he can eat her, doses herself with some of the wild sedatives that Hannibal gave to his former captive, Miriam Lass. She’s “freebasing [her] alibi,” as Jack puts it, in order to lend credence to the story she intends to present to the Italian police: Hannibal abducted her, brainwashed her, drugged her up, kept her under his thumb. Neither Jack nor Will falls for it, of course, but la polizia does. It seems very likely that the corrupt Italian authorities – having been bought by the Vergers – were tipped off to Hannibal’s whereabouts by none other than the so-called Mrs. Lydia Fell. Bedelia began this season in barely concealed terror, but she realized, as Hannibal’s control wavered, that she would have an opportunity to break free.
Just before she’s about to inject herself with Dr. Lecter’s Wonder Serum, Chiyoh drops in. Chiyoh says she’s his family, and Bedelia says she’s his psychiatrist. With something of a smile, Chiyoh says, “You’re his bird. I’m his bird, too. He likes to put us in cages to see what we’ll do.” Last episode, Chiyoh and Will compared Hannibal to a big cat (a tiger or a panther, for my money; probably not a lion or a cheetah). Here, we see two of his little birdies – with whom he grew bored enough not to want to eat, I suppose – flipping the species assignments. Each intends to catch Hannibal. They’re much more like lionesses: focused, determined, and not likely to play with their food.
That brings me to one of the most amazing feats this show has pulled off, and one that makes me rue its possible demise all the more: it is going to be genuinely awful to see this iteration of Hannibal Lecter in a cage. Assuming the second half of the season follows Red Dragon, Hannibal will be imprisoned in Dr. Chilton’s medieval “hospital” for the criminally insane. It will be horrible. In the movies, Anthony Hopkins is introduced in prison. It’s all we know of him. We know he’s tremendously resourceful, and hell-bent on seeing the outside again, and he does break free – but we don’t see him before his imprisonment, not until the (ludicrously unconvincing) opening scenes of the film version of Red Dragon. But we know this Hannibal. We’ve seen him free. We’ve seen the astonishing lengths he’ll go to, just to preserve his own freedom. He is a monster and a murderer, a manipulator and a maniac, but he’s a fully realized being. He’s not just a malevolent force in a jail cell, insulting an F.B.I. trainee’s cheap shoes and West Virginia accent. It will be downright tragic for him to be locked up, with no view, no music, no art except what he can recreate from memory. Will’s plan to kill him seems almost a mercy, a way to save Hannibal from a fate worse than death. It’s true love.