“And the Woman Clothed in Sun” is explicitly taken with Hannibal’s great theme: “reality” as a terrifyingly fluid and elastic realm, dictated by the conditions of the fragile mind. The most taken-for-granted elements of our lives, events that we think just “happened” to us, can be revealed to have been actively initiated by us without our conscious knowing, and can mean nothing that we initially take them to mean. These ideas aren’t new to psychiatry or even to pop media, which often utilizes crude acknowledgements of subjectivity in the service of springing lurid twists in which half a narrative is revealed to be an illusion or fabrication. Hannibal is after something more ambitious and universal, however, exploring how we casually isolate ourselves, how traumas can inform different people in greatly unpredictable fashions. This notion of loneliness, of self-imposed exile inspired by self-loathing, is what has lent the series-spanning arc between Will (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) such remarkably durable emotional heft. At its broadest, the series is about people who hate themselves managing to find one another, revealing social functionalities they didn’t know they possessed. The murders and the Grand Guignol flourishes are symbolic of a desire to connect and to reach out socially, and this is how Hannibal evades the chic nihilism of most serial-killer fiction.
We’re halfway through creator Bryan Fuller’s six-episode adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon now, and it’s striking how Hannibal has never entirely re-embraced the crime-procedural format that largely, loosely defined the series before it segued into the dreamy, expressionist Italian sojourn that governed the first half of this season. Will’s efforts to capture Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) are rarely the active emotional focus of the series in the way his desire to capture killers-of-the-week have been in the past. Francis is no mere antagonist, for one thing, but a vital intensification of the desires and resentments that have long stymied Will and Hannibal. We don’t think of Francis as the “villain” exactly, despite the vileness of his master plan, but more like another character trapped in an ever-expanding web of subjectivity. Francis also suggests a literal fusion of Will and Hannibal, perhaps a missing link, as he possesses Will’s working-class grace and Hannibal’s taste for the outré and florid. Francis would also appear to have more than a bit of Will’s sentimentality; decidedly unlike Hannibal, Francis needs people, especially his victims, to like him or at least respect him, which is a major portion of his need for transformation into William Blake’s Red Dragon.
“And the Woman Clothed in Sun” might be the loneliest episode of Hannibal since the great “Aperitivo,” which memorably wrestled with Jack’s grief over Bella’s death, fusing the past and present tenses in manners that are memorably experimental and ambitious. Early in this episode, Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) delivers its thesis aloud, lecturing to a rarefied group about Dante’s inferno, which she capitalistically laces with bits of her infamy as the “captive” of Hannibal Lecter in Italy. As Will watches on from the background, Bedelia reminds us that Dante was the first to provide an “urban” definition of hell; before him, it had often been described as having a “mouth” rather than gates. This is a poetic, roundabout way of saying that we make our own hell, in addition to our own reality, something about which Bedelia, like Hannibal, knows quite a bit. A gorgeous, unsettling painting of Dante’s inferno, characterized by a polka-dot-ish red pattern, is glimpsed behind Bedelia as she speaks. Her classroom is subtly stylized to resemble its own hell: Everyone sits in sync with almost supernaturally erect posture, suggesting disciples rendered as vertical slits—a painting sprung to life.
Fuller and co-screenwriter Don Mancini finally clarify something about Bedelia that isn’t too surprising: She’s every bit as chilly, calculating, and amoral as Hannibal. The mysterious past patient (Zachary Quinto) who binds the two mad doctors, often implied to have represented a fashion in which Hannibal might have exploited or somehow emotionally imprisoned Bedelia, is revealed to have merely been a plaything passed along between them. Hannibal was driving the patient insane for his amusement, per his wont, and Bedelia killed him in a flamboyantly gory fashion that was alluded to earlier in the season, reaching down his throat, plunging her arm up to beyond its elbow inside of him. The patient wasn’t killed out of any sort of retribution or just deserts; he was an innocent.
The bombshell here pertains to what this story potentially says about Will’s involvement with Hannibal. As Bedelia tells Will the truth of the dead patient, her dialogue with him is cross-cut with her final exchange with her victim, in a doubling effect that suggests that Will and the patient are interchangeable as patsies. “One thing I learned from Hannibal is the alchemy of lies and truths. It’s how he convinced you you’re a killer,” Bedelia says, in a bit of common sense that might come as somewhat of a shock to the viewer anyway, as there’s something weirdly, romantically appealing about the idea that Hannibal and Will are these simpatico master killers, divided only by the latter’s governing guilt and self-consciousness. In a loony way, it’s sentimental, allowing Will (read: the audience) to be special in the eyes of a person who’s absolutely like no one else. What if Hannibal were just fucking with Will too, as he has most of his other victims?
Or what if Bedelia is just fucking with Will? (The series is beginning to resemble early David Mamet in its density of who’s-conning-who intrigue.) Not only possible, but probable, the real question being the extent to which she’s fucking with him. This long dialogue scene between Bedelia and Will, arriving near the end of the episode, represents Anderson’s best work on the series since her scene opposite Will when the latter was in prison at the beginning of the second season for the murders of the Chesapeake Ripper, a.k.a. Hannibal Lecter. At times, she’s been hobbled by the coy ambiguities assigned to the character. Given something to truly play, Anderson shines, rising to the standards of the show’s melodramatic grandeur, particularly by casting her eyes with a truly unnerving deranged glint.
Regardless of Bedelia’s motivations (perhaps a little jealousy of Will), she’s at least partially right about Hannibal’s manipulation of his favorite patient, and this casts a pall on the Hannibal/Will friendship that was already set into effect by Hannibal’s envy over Molly, Will’s wife. Speaking of deranged glints, Hannibal’s satanic, pitch-black eyes in this episode put Bedelia’s evil slits to shame. Teasing Will about Francis, attempting to make the former jealous with the latter, Hannibal mentions Blake’s Great Red Dragon painting, saying that “few images in Western art radiate such a unique and nightmarish charge of demonic sexuality.” He could very well be talking about himself, and his teeming anger. Taunting Will, Mikkelsen’s Hannibal even busts out an unexpected homage to Anthony Hopkins’s, his pop-cultural father: Referencing how much time’s left until the lunar calendar is to inspire Francis to kill again, Hannibal utters, “Eleven days until the next full moon. Tick tock.”
And what of Francis? He continues to imbue the series with a pathos that’s admirably uncomfortable, considering that he’s a serial killer. He also co-inhabits the episode’s best scene, a variation of one of the best scenes from Red Dragon. Taking Reba (Rutina Wesley) to the zoo to see a drugged tiger, who’s having a tooth pulled, Francis watches her as she interacts with the animal, which he clearly takes as a symbol of what he strives to become. Reba and Francis have literal sex later on (rendered in a series of astute fades and superimpositions that inform traditional TV-sex grammar with a newfound sense of communion and longing), but this interlude with the tiger comprises their first act of making love. “The orange [of the tiger’s fur] is so bright, it’s almost bleeding into the air around him,” Francis movingly tells Reba, who massages and explores the great cat while its body nearly glows in spectral orange. We’re not seeing the tiger as it is, but as Reba imagines it, in another moment that affirms the show’s notion of subjectivity as the true governor of our lives. Francis uses his profound alienation from society as a conduit for empathy with Reba’s blindness, and, in turn, the tiger is a conduit for Francis’s visions of his own strength and for Reba’s desire to find within that strength a reservoir of the very real vulnerability she detects in his pleading, halting speech.
Tellingly, when Reba first makes an explicit sexual gesture to Francis, it echoes the way she touched the tiger. Reba leans her head into Francis’s lap, as she positioned herself on the tiger’s massive chest, which rose and fell in line with its slumbering breathing. Francis and Reba explore one another in fashions that are intensely evocative of people touching those who aren’t used to being touched. There’s a fraught yet arousing physical tactility inherent in the tension of their awkwardness that’s often missing from many sentimental “late bloomer” stories. In these scenes, one feels the intense challenge of rewiring one’s vision of oneself in society, particularly romantically (the most frighteningly personal and unpredictable of all social interactions).
These resonances lend Francis’s desire to eat the real Blake watercolor painting of the Red Dragon, here said to be stored in the Brooklyn Museum, a real sense of stature (which also culminates in a wonderful first encounter with Will that stealthily references the elevator imagery from Dressed to Kill). Francis is wrestling with himself, with the idea that Reba, whom he sees briefly in a vision as a savior, might be the agent of transcendence he craves, a portal into belonging. She isn’t, of course, because such a convenient savior doesn’t exist. We save ourselves, with much-needed help. This pitiful madman doesn’t only represent our fears, but our desires, which are one in the same more often than we might care to admit.
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