Wednesday, August 5, 2015

RECAP: Hannibal 3x09 - Who Does This Dragon Think He Is?

Quick reminder that we have Kyla Furey of Feedback Force doing weekly Hannibal recaps for us right now because she is awesome.

I want you to understand how dearly I love this show. Like, I love this show so much that I’ve evangelized it to everyone I’ve ever met in the past two years. I love this show so much that Debbi bought me an amazing “Eat the Rude” tote bag for my birthday that I use for grocery shopping. I love this show so much that there have been weeks where I set my schedule around how far away I was from the night it was airing. This is certainly one of my top favorite TV shows of all time.

Which is why it is physically painful for me to say anything even vaguely negative about it. Last week’s recap was a little heart-wrenching to have to write, and it feels like a betrayal to not be 100% positive about the episode for the second week in a row.

Not to say there was nothing good about this episode - there were some elements that I very much liked, and others that, while I couldn’t wholly endorse them, I am eager to see more of. But while there are certainly things to like about this one, I’ll admit to feeling once again... off. There’s something that’s not quite gelling with me about the second half of the season so far, and I have a theory as to what it is. But we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about what happens in the episode.

Will goes to talk to Hannibal in prison. They are stiff and formal with each other. Hannibal has a certain air of... tiredness around him. On anyone else it could be called desperation, but on Hannibal it’s more of a subdued frustration. He’s clearly bored with his prison, less amused with his own jokes now that everyone gets his punchlines, and frustrated with Will’s aloofness. Clearly prison is not agreeing with him as well as he might have hoped when he surrendered.

He clings to Will, given the chance, clearly eager for a claw-hold in the cracks in Will’s psyche. All episode Hannibal needles Will - about family, about Will’s need for him - and there’s a certain meanness to it that wasn’t there before, a certain insulting undertone where there used to be affection and respect. Hannibal is not happy where he is, and he is lashing out.

We also get to see some of Hannibal’s reminiscences throughout the episode about Abigail, which are probably my favorite parts. It starts with the scene that immediately follows the last we see of Abigail in season 1, detailing how Hannibal and Abigail staged Abigail’s death. Beyond that we see Hannibal teaching Abigail, training her like the murder-daughter he wants her to grow up into. It’s fascinating for me to see this side of Abigail, because it adds a depth to her character that we could really only speculate at before. 

Or does it? It also begs the question of how subjective these “memories” of Abigail are, how realistic and how formed by Hannibal’s own desires for her. Just as Will always imagined her as the perfect daughter he could teach to fish, Hannibal imagines her as the girl who would “hunt” with him. 

But what of this is real, what’s metaphorical, and what’s straight-up made-up? Did Hannibal really drag the corpse of Abigail’s father into his office for her to slit his dead throat? I mean, given Hannibal I suppose it’s possible. So much of this show is already submerged in the murky depths of magical realism, it can be tough to tell what’s meant to be taken literally. But in the best possible way.

Alana seems to be doing well for herself.* She and Margot are apparently still together and have a little baby son, carried by Alana but created from Mason’s sperm so that he is a suitable and provable Verger heir, thus ensuring Margot’s inheritance. Alana is aloof with Will, but not hostile. She seems to have matured in a very believable way; she is still stable and generally positive, but her bleeding-heart good will is gone. She’s sharp now, practical. There is no more room in her life for the kind of soft empathy she had before. Now she’s all iron underneath.

She’s even this way with Hannibal, ever-vigilant in watching over the keys that lock the doors between him and the outside world. She threatens him in a way that is very believable, and which feels remarkably menacing given that I know her lines were originally delivered in the source material by the more-funny-than-threatening Chilton. When Alana threatens Hannibal with indignity, you feel she is doing it not to be petty (as Chilton would), but because she knows how to truly get under Hannibal’s skin.

Meanwhile, Will continues his investigation of the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon, delving further and further into the psyche of a family-killer, which is a little closer to home than he is entirely comfortable with at the moment. It seeps into his own life, giving him nightmares about what he could do to his own family, despite the fact that he holds nothing but love for them.**

The investigation also puts Will in the path of the returning Freddie Lounds, who is very much back in full love-to-hate-her form. In an excellent nod to the fandom, it appears she actually referred to Will and Hannibal as “murder husbands” in one of her articles, so it’s great that that line made its way into the canon. She also apparently snuck in to Will’s hospital room to take naked pictures of him and his abdominal scar. Naughty naughty, Miss Lounds.

As for the Red Dragon himself, Francis Dolarhyde, he’s still around, murdering people’s pets and hitting on blind ladies. The introduction of Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley) is interesting - a blind black woman who develops photos and film for a living, since she can work easily in pitch-dark environments. An interesting character concept, although at this moment I feel she’s more potentially interesting than actually so.*** She’s a character from the book who’s here because she’s a Red Dragon character, not because she (so far) serves any real purpose in the story.

And here, I think, is the crux of why I’m having trouble connecting to these new episodes. Despite the fascinating and bizarre performance of Richard Armitage, I’m really just not that into the Red Dragon. He’s too much like the serial killers from Season 1; we’ve seen dangerous before, we’ve seen deranged before. We’ve always been able to catch these killers within a few episodes - they’ve always been a pale backdrop to Will and Hannibal’s arc. Now suddenly this new one appears and the stakes are supposed to be immediately higher somehow. For me, the show hasn’t really earned that yet.

I suspect this might be coming from an over-reliance on the source material, or at least the assumption of the audience’s familiarity with the source material. I haven’t read Red Dragon. I haven’t seen the movies based on it. There’s this air about the show of, ‘This is it! This is the big one!’ but I just don’t feel the hype. What makes this guy worse than the bee-keeper? Worse than the angel-maker? Worse than the muralist? Yeah, Dolarhyde is deranged, but so were all of them.

There’s a scene in the episode where Dolarhyde asks Reba if he can have a plum, and Bryan Fuller tweeted something about there being such a “sweetness” to him. I was astonished. What sweetness? Dolarhyde is Creepy Creepy Creepy with capital C’s. Clearly there’s something here I’m missing. There’s some inner sense of him that other people have that I apparently don’t.

As I thought about it, I think this over-reliance on the book is what’s tainting the rest of the scenes for me as well. There’s dialogue that’s clearly from the literature that feels forced in, that doesn’t flow like dialogue on this show usually does. (In the past, some of the most florid and odd-sounding lines have been directly from the books, and they often stick out even amongst the already over-the-top dialogue everywhere else.) There are scenes that feel very rote, like, ‘Ah yes, this was in the book, so we must put some version of it on the show.’ And it just feels... forced. Less fluid than it used to.

Despite having the exact same content, the tone of Thomas Harris’s novels and the show Hannibal are VERY different.**** Thomas Harris has a very pulpy “series-of-things-that-happen-without-ornamentation” style sensibility in what is a fairly standard-form thriller with some interesting characters. On the other hand, the show has always been very cerebral, very character-driven and emotional. 

What I’ve loved about the show is the way the serial killer drama was just an excuse for us to examine the psychology of the characters. So far, this half of the season doesn’t feel like that. This season feels like a fairly standard-form thriller with some interesting characters.*****

In the spirit of Debbi’s excellent article on Spiderman from the other day, here’s what I would have loved to see for this episode and the previous - the show as I wish it could have been. It would have been super risky, but I think it would have sold this drama much better to me.

Imagine for episode 3x08 that Hannibal and Will aren’t even in it. We feel their presence only by the gaping hole of their absence. Instead, the episode focuses solely around Jack and Dolarhyde. We see Jack trying to re-assimilate into the BAU, trying to get his bearings once more. We see him struggle and eventually regain his reputation in the department; buoyed by his “capture” of the Ripper but still a bit tenuous given the disastrous results of his earlier brashness. 

Now he finds himself on a case - tough, gruesome. Unlike anything he’s seen in a long time. We see him try and fail to catch Dolarhyde, and try again and fail. From Dolarhyde’s scenes we see that Jack isn’t even close. Jack is as frustrated as we’ve ever seen him. We see people starting to call Dolarhyde the “new Ripper,” Chilton musing about the public interest in this new serial killer and Jack’s habit of obsession. We see Jack almost call Will, but think better of it - again, and again, and again. Unlike Season 1, we see Jack really giving it his all on the case by himself - but it’s just not enough.

And then finally, we see him break. He has no leads on the second murder. He has nowhere else to turn. At the end of the episode, he goes to see Will Graham.

Then, in 3x09, we start from the beginning again. We see parallel stories in the three years of Will making his way out of depression and Hannibal falling into it. In between each sequence from the past, we have the conversations of Will and Hannibal together, talking about the case through the wall of Hannibal’s cell. There is no Dolarhyde in this episode - only Will and Hannibal.

In the past, we see Will drink himself into a depression over Hannibal. We see him hit rock bottom, and see Molly appear and offer him something that it takes him a while to recognize. We see it finally dawn on him, and see him clutch at the offer of family like a lifeline. 

Meanwhile, we see Hannibal Lecter slowly descend into melancholy. At first he’s cheerful - baiting the press, running circles around the shrinks who come to study him. But over time it wears thin - the press becomes both bored and boring, the shrinks a dull tedium. He waits for Will. He sends him letter after letter after letter, and hears nothing. He gets his stack of mail and we see him perfunctorily toss aside envelope after envelope searching for the one he most wants, but finding nothing. We see him gradually come to realize exactly how patient he has to be, and it doesn’t sit well with him.

Interspersed with these scenes, Will and Hannibal talk about the case, slowly and falteringly finding their footing in the steps of their old dance. We see how the people they were at the end of 3x07 have morphed into the people they are now, and how they must now re-learn to relate to each other. We set a strong foundation for the rest of the season to be about why it’s difficult for them to work together, and how that will affect Will’s work at the crime scenes and Hannibal’s machinations behind them.

To be honest, I think this would be much better for the show. I’d much rather see more of what makes the show interesting - the emotional dynamics between our leads, the cerebral cat-and-mouse game they play together - than more of Dolarhyde. To be frank, I don’t care about Dolarhyde. I don’t think much has been done to make me care about Dolarhyde. And so I find the amount of time devoted to his character... well, let’s just say I’m skeptical. Willing to have my mind changed, mind you. Just skeptical.

I suppose we’ll see how it develops from here.

* As Debbi put it, “Hyper-successful power lesbian is a good look on her,” which is true. I mean, technically she’s bisexual (we think), but the point still stands.

** There’s another domestic scene with Will and Molly which feels better than last week, but still not entirely convincing to me. Although funny, the dialogue of that scene felt really off to me, and I know it happens to be taken directly from the books. I don’t know what it is that’s bothering me - is it her acting? Do they just not have chemistry? Or is it just that it seems so dang unnatural for Will to have scenes where he’s honestly happy? 

*** Also who the heck, blind or otherwise, gets in the van of a man who asks you to ride along “for his pleasure”? That is creepy as heck. Just keep waiting for the bus, girl. Seriously.

**** Disclaimer: my only experience with the actual writing of Thomas Harris is Silence of the Lambs, but my impression is that Red Dragon is similar.

***** Especially when compared with the first half of the season, which I loved although I know a lot of other people didn’t - my god, the contrast.

Kyla Furey is an independent game designer and writer. She is also one of the hosts of the game-analysis podcast, Feedback Force, and hosts a weekly Saturday night game livestream on Twitch TV. She enjoys the surreal and the moody in her media, hence her great love of NBC’s Hannibal. You can follow her on Twitter @Kyla_Go where she livetweets Hannibal on Saturdays at 10pm Pacific, following which, she posts delirious stream-of-consciousness reaction videos on YouTube.