Due to an unforeseen bout of recurring fever, I was afforded some time to catch up on TV. I don’t follow many shows, for a variety of the typical reasons: no time, most of it is drivel, etc. But, I found myself willing to make time to finish out the first season of Hannibal. It’s by far one of the most viscerally disturbing and visually evocative things I’ve ever seen–regardless of the medium–and I find it arresting on a few levels.
1: Its use of visual metaphor.
Television is rarely stylish enough to create and maintain a language of visual metaphor, but Hannibal finds ways to embed striking symbols into its core. The first season, as Will Graham succumbs to illness (while, to be honest, lead actor Hugh Dancy turns a relatively interesting character into a mewling, conflicted mess) he begins to see the image of a stag moving through his dreams, and then, as his sanity devolves, his waking life. Given that Graham’s point of view is central to the show, and his “power” is a remarkable empathy for entering the minds of killers, this seems a mere visual trick the filmmakers use to reinforce his madness in a coy “aha” reference for the audience who has watched from the beginning. However, as the events continue, the scenes of the stag culminate in a dreamlike hunting scenario. As he “hunts” the stag it begins to shift and change into a rather disturbing combination of Mads Mikkelsen’s face on a lanky, emaciated frame, topped with an impressive, imposing rack of antlers. As Will’s subconscious slowly unravels the truth he has been blinded to, the stag shifts into a frightening version of Hannibal, creating a metaphoric tie that even the character is unwilling to accept or acknowledge. Graham is then stalked and haunted by this figure, the great shadow in the darkness that dominates his life and mind. Hannibal as the black stag is a stunning metaphor for Will’s fear and creeping dread, culled sensibly from all of his knowledge and obsession with the killers he’s sought to understand.
In the second season, Graham attempts to become as calculating as his adversary, and the show’s producers introduce a variety of shots where he begins to become the stag himself, torn apart by and crowned with antlers of his own. The imagery of the central case of the first season remains, but now morphed and changed into a new way to interpret the internal lives of the characters and their struggle with the darkness that resides within them. But, the lens remains fixed on Will Graham. It’s also remarkable that Will must force the stag out, call it into existence by sheer will, implying that he understands the stag, but doesn’t have its true darkness in him. I also like that the stag only has meaning to Will, and its metaphor is only given context through his experience. We’re forced to empathize with him, in this way, to interpret the metaphor through his worldview, subtly reinforcing his gift–the ability to enter the mind of a killer and fully understand how they perceive and interpret the world. It defies the concept of cinematic truth, the belief that we are the viewers of an impassionately documented series of events. Instead we are empathic participants in the experience of the protagonist. Its a thrilling technique that has room for even deeper implication as the series continues and the visual language of Will’s empathy expands.
Visual storytelling of this type is uncommon in network television, where every shot is carefully budgeted and considered. The fact that they take the time to create and hone these images is a testament to their commitment to their characters and the medium of visual storytelling beyond the simplest of mechanics.
2: Its accurate understanding of Psychology
All shows take liberty with psychology, and I won’t claim that Hannibal hasn’t had its missteps (a fairly classical representation of therapeutic technique, for example), but where they get it right is the impossible complexity of psychological diagnosis. Caroline Dhavernas’s character, specifically, focuses on the multiphasic and interlinked nature of psychological disorder. There are not easy answers, no clear solutions in Hannibal’s world, defying the procedural approach that most of TV takes, where a quick pop diagnosis reveals the true nature of bad guy and everyone high-fives as they clock out for the day. The discussions of Graham’s disorder toward the end of season one were particularly interesting, as Bloom’s theory was one of illness induced dementia symptomatic of neurological distress–a biological perspective. Hannibal’s diagnosis was psychosis and an unwillingness to accept the latent passion and rage that inspired them resulting in repression of the offending events–a typically Freudian interpretation. They fought and argued for each side with a pretty high degree of accuracy that revealed the show’s understanding of psychology as a complex discipline, not one unified thrust of knowledge and technique. That’s rare.
More to come as I soldier forward through season 2…