[Word of warning: This is long. For easier skipping through to the customary Armitage praise, jump to “The Ultimate Provocation”. Post contains plot SPOILERS but no graphic details of the gory climax of the show.]
Hannibal has always been a boundary-pushing show. Even a late-comer and one-trick-pony (read: fan who is only watching for the
Armitage plot) like myself could easily see that, without knowledge of prior seasons and episodes. The show concerns itself with extreme topics such as cannibalism, which it – controversially – glamourizes and trivializes. It is highly stylized in its cinematography, is unafraid to spend hours in half-darkness, divides its artistic emphasis equally between visuals and audio (in voice, sound and spoken word), and balances the fine line between horror show and psycho thriller. In short, Hannibal is most certainly a niche product, and its current status as “up in the air” as to whether it will find a new home on a new channel, is no real surprise.
Coming into Hannibal as a non-fan, I was aware of the difficulties the source material and the artistic execution posed. I expected my boundaries to be pushed, if not crossed, and to find myself provoked. And nowhere has this happened as much as in episode 3×12. In fact, I found the underlying theme of this week’s episode to be “provocation”: Bedelia provoked Will, Lecter provoked Crawford, Chilton provoked Dolarhyde, Dolarhyde provoked Will, and indeed, I felt provoked by almost everything in this episode, speech, visuals, characters, acting, plot…
Provoked by Ennui
Hannibal 3×12 first tested my tolerance levels with the drawn out conversation between Will and Bedelia. No, there was little in there to cross my blood, gore and pain thresholds. But Bedelia’s sleep-walkerish, highly stylized speech sorely tested my patience. It is entirely unclear to me why Bedelia has this (literally) unblinking, monotonous manner of speaking. At times, her way of communicating is almost biblical in articulation, in terms of figures of speech and unctuous, deliberately slow overarticulation of words and sentences. It makes me wonder whether she is trying to put Will to sleep, or hypnotize him with her suggestively calm voice. Well, she was singularly successful with that approach on one of the audience members. I found myself yawning and wishing this endless droning-on to come to an end. Mind you, before I fell asleep, I did cop on that she was prodding and provoking Will with her assessment of Lecter’s relationship to both of them. “Do you ache for him?” Well, I was pleased to see that Will joined me in the ranks of those who will not be provoked by Bedelia – and move on to the next part of the plot…
Provocation = Psychological Gaming
… which had another conversation, this time between Lecter and Crawford. After the therapy session of the opening scene, this pushed the episode into psycho thriller territory. Initially I thought the dichotomy between “devil and god” was very clever, but such contradictions are always most impactful if they are illustrated in unconventional ways. Here, they followed fairly conventional lines – the negative connotations of the coldness emanating from Lecter (signified by the blue/green lighting and the cold grey decoration of Lecter’s empty “cell”) vs the positivity of god, signified by the warmly illuminated, wood-panelled visitor area from which Crawford speaks. Side note: In terms of cinematography I really like what the show is doing in those scenes in the asylum. The visual classification of good and evil used here may be nothing out of the ordinary, but the possibilities for exciting camera work which the use of the plexi-glass wall affords, are used really well. I like the way the camera plays with focus. The shallow depth of field used in the show allows the camera to seemingly focus on Lecter as if there is no boundary between him and his visitor, only to then pull back and bring the glass wall in focus and discover the reflection of the visitor on top of Lecter. The producers are certainly getting their money’s worth out of the focus-puller on this show!
But back to my theme of provocation. It was present in this scene (as in the later one towards the end of the episode), too – with Lecter repeatedly provoking Crawford by attempting to draw him into a cycle of guilt, to make him complicit in the psychological game that is being played. Crawford: “You are the devil himself.” “And that makes you god, Jack.” “Yes, it does.” Similarly, the confrontation between Lecter and Dr Chilton is another dance of provocation – Lecter having written a supposedly brilliant psychological article which contradicts Dr Chilton’s assessment of Lecter and thus compromises Chilton’s expertise. “This was quantifiably bitchy!” “You don’t have the proper stuff, Frederick!” *ouch* No wonder Chilton steamrolled out of the ward and was all too happy to get in on a high-profile trap to ensnare the Red Dragon.
And nowhere was provocation so clearly heard and felt, than in the orchestrated interview between Freddie Lounds and Will/Chilton/Crawford. It was all about provocation, in fact – teasing the Red Dragon with overstated psychological assessments of subliminal homosexuality, “intolerable feelings of inadequacy”, “a vicious, perverted sexual failure, an animal”, “the tooth fairy is the product of an incestuous home”. I confess, part of me was delighted when it became clear that Dolarhyde had not stepped into the trap – at least not in the way they wanted him to. Instead of targeting Will, he kidnaps Chilton, upsetting the game that they have instigated, complicating it, and certainly provoking the fear and awe he feels the dragon is owed. That was unexpected and clever, and it perversely satisfied me.
The Ultimate Provocation
The ensuing scene between Chilton and the Red Dragon may not have held intentional provocation for hardened fans of gore. But for me, this was the most provocative scene in the whole episode because my boundaries were not only pushed but finally crossed, to the point of having to avert my eyes. To say that I “loved” this scene, would be misleading. There is little to love about the feeling of fear, dread, disgust, horror. But the intensity of the scene was fantastic. It was shiver-inducing, nightmarishly unreal fear, and both Raul Esparza and Richard Armitage were brilliant in it. The drivelling, pants-wetting mess of Dr Chilton elevated the Red Dragon even more. Comical little details – the panty-liners as blind-fold, anyone?, or the Avon lady “ding-dong” of Dolarhyde’s door bell – did not distract from the horror unfolding. Whoa, a single D pushed my blood pressure higher than a shitload of E. Well, or let’s say that the suspense in this scene was an exquisite journey from a soft pianissimo to a thundering crescendo.
Where to start on this? Dolarhyde proves himself a master at the psychological game, distracting his victim with implied reassurance, then threatening with unexpected reactions, and confusing with references that Chilton can not yet interpret. Armitage imbued this scene with so many startling yet effective details, I have trouble identifying the exact action that allegedly elicited a gasp from the crew on set. There is the softness at the beginning, with Dolarhyde offering the exposed Chilton a blanket – for warmth? courtesy? or merely covering his modesty? – and almost establishing a false sense of security and hope. Very unexpectedly, Dolarhyde places his hands on Chilton’s shoulders, a gesture of reassurance. But the peace is only short-lived, and the more Dolarhyde speaks, the more obvious and scary the menace he emanates. For the viewer this is clear, anyway. The black mask is terrifying. And the voice even more so. Armitage has gone deep down again, on Thorin level, and combined with a deliberately slow articulation, it becomes a terrifying hiss.
Dolarhyde is like a dangerous wild cat, playing with its prey. He prods (and provokes) his victim, building hopes, bursting them again. Luckily Chilton can’t see behind his back – the towering, masked killer behind him is a truly terrifying sight, emphasised by the camera shooting from below, and never more so as when he repeats the intense staring he had subjected Reba to in the tiger scene. Listening to Chilton’s panicked babbling, Dolarhyde cups Chilton’s head (in a gesture of preciousness that reminded me of tenderly holding a baby’s head) and slowly bends down – smelling the scent of fear? Observing his victim closely? Sensing what is going on in Chilton’s head? The fact that we know he habitually bites his victim, makes this so scary, as does the fact that this is simply inexplicable, abnormal, unexpected behaviour. We would expect a serial killer to handle his victim roughly. But the gentleness is even more upsetting, because it is so utterly illogical. He should be tearing into Chilton’s neck, but instead he is almost caressing him.
The brief interlude with Reba momentarily breaks the tension – that is the show playing cat and mouse with the audience – and throws us back to our initial empathy with Dolarhyde. Reba’s attempt at reaching out mirrors our own reaction. We want Dolarhyde to stop killing, and to be saved by love.
Awwww. The scene with Reba confirms that there is humanity and feeling within Dolarhyde. He does not want her in the house, but he admits that he likes her. My heart broke a little when he affirmed her question.
But the interruptus is only a brief breather. Because after Reba’s exit, Armitage really turns up the madness. Confronting Chilton with what he has done and what he has become, he now menaces with madness. A killing monster, spewing nonsense. Another opportunity for Armitage to work with his voice. He gives the Red Dragon some humanity – a choice that took me by surprise but which works so well here. This is, after all, *not* an “other”, this is a human, through whom madness speaks, and that is articulated in a voice breaking with emotion – a mix of terrifying dragon and over excited human. Great touch.
Steadily the suspense increases, and the aw(e)ful crescendo is reached once Dolarhyde has recorded Chilton’s testimony on camera. Aside – UNF, Dolarhyde/Armitage handling camera equipment was a bit of a visual overload for *this* fangirl. It didn’t help that Dolarhyde is prancing around in his snug undies. (BTW, where did they come from so quickly after exposing himself in a compellingly sexual, masturbatory manner to both Chilton as well as the Red Dragon? And why did he turn around so rapidly after taking off the kimono? Hmph. I may have whimpered there.) But oh, those pretty hands, tenderly lifting the tripod and carefully adjusting the camera – asdkhaskjdgka. I may have *moaned* a bit *there*. #PlayRewindPlayRewindPlayRewind…
Ok, but that’s not really the point of it. What stood out to me in this part of the Chilton/Dolarhyde scene was the fluidity with which Armitage was acting here. There was the change between Dolarhyde and the dragon, for instance. Dolarhyde as he was presenting Chilton his packed lunch *ahem* seemed almost normal, not scary; neither did the transition to the recording. But as soon as he pulls the mask over his head before he commits the final coup de grace, he is the menacing dragon. And it was not just the mask that did it. There was something about the way Armitage suddenly stares, even under the mask, concentrates himself into a creature of unlimited power, squares his jaws – I can’t pin it down, but it is almost a split-second “becoming” in itself, so subtly and fluidly done, seamless and yet with neither transition nor clear-cut. Natural in its unnaturalness. His crawl over the sofa was fabulous, beautiful to watch, soft, muscles moving under skin, a wild cat on the prowl. To me it had an amazing fluidity again, and a modern-dance-like quality which – I admit – almost distracted me from the kiss of near-death that was to come. And yes, then there was the point where I had to look away. It took me by surprise, it was horrible, creepy, scary and disgusting, and more so because it looked as if he was diving in for a kiss. If only… I can assure you, I did not rewind *that* “kiss”…
The ultimate provocation. The Red Dragon is so sure of himself, he wants a show-down to prove his superiority. A clear challenge directed at Will, an invitation to a trial of strengths between the superhuman and the human.
Armitage Provokes *My* Awe
The naturalness with which Armitage acted this unnatural monster in 3×12, makes his performance stand out and convince. I would love to know what exactly Armitage brings to a role like this – what are the acting choices *he* makes to enhance the character, as opposed to the directions he is given by the director. How much artistic freedom does he have in his portrayal? Does he offer the director several different takes of a given scene to choose from? How detailed are the directions in the script? In the attic scene earlier in the episode, Dolarhyde self-mutilates, scratching his back, tearing off his own skin. Such visuals are hard to watch at the best of times, but Armitage adds extra layers with his voice, moaning under the roar of the Red Dragon. Hearing those sobs was absolutely heart-wrenching – it was an indication that Dolarhyde is not easily submitting to the dragon, not suffering gladly, sacrificing against his own will, compelled by the command of the dragon. Where do such ingenious additional details come from?
Is asking those questions demystifying the magic of a performance? I don’t know. But I know one thing: Don’t provoke me with flawless performances if you don’t want to be praised. Armitage is awesome.
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