Per the elaborate religious analogies offered up in “The Number of the Beast Is 666,” “The Wrath of the Lamb” finds Will (Hugh Dancy), the lamb to Hannibal’s (Mads Mikkelsen) Lucifer and Jack’s (Laurence Fishburne) God, attempting an elaborate bait and switch to nab Francis (Richard Armitage), a.k.a. the Great Red Dragon, after the latter fakes his own death. Theoretically, the episode is about the negotiations Will must orchestrate so as to cleanse himself (he’d like to think anyway) for a return to his life with Molly, as he navigates the powerful influences of his dueling authority figures. In actuality, every plot development is clearly planted in preparation for the show’s climax atop a bluff where Hannibal once hid Miriam and Abigail. As with Justified’s somewhat anticlimactic finale earlier this year, there’s a rushed, “off” quality to “The Wrath of the Lamb.” At times, one wonders if there’s a conductor sitting right outside the periphery of the camera, egging the actors to “move it along.”
This represents a diminishment of sorts, as Hannibal is a series that’s concerned with torment and brooding. The plots, as well-oiled, if bonkers, as they can be, are essentially beside the point. Hannibal’s a landmark series for the way it has ported a specific element of avant-garde cinema into TV—a loose-limbed strangeness embodied by a willingness to follow a tangent for its own revealing rewards. Cinephile reactionaries often go too far in their defensive dismissal of TV as art (inadvertently sounding like the very people who once scoffed at cinema), but they aren’t entirely wrong either: TV shows are mostly plot machines, serving up a stifling ticker-tape of “incident” to be instantly discussed online so as to further the brand in question. Hannibal is rich in the sort of incident that TV champions love, but there’s more: The rich, unnerving formality of the show’s aural, visual design approximates the internal sea changes of its characters. Underneath the serial-killer narratives is a core of loneliness, of disenfranchisement with commercialist, heteronormative values. Will and Hannibal aren’t just super-geniuses in love; they both nurse profound contempt for, and, in Will’s case, an inferiority complex to, the traditional arrangement of 40 or 50 hours a week at work mixed with perfunctory family time.
“The Wrath of the Lamb” doesn’t allow much time for the reflexive, melancholy wandering that often characterizes Hannibal’s best episodes, like season two’s finale, “Mizumono,” or this season’s “Aperitivo.” There’s too much plot to get through, which awkwardly fuses Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon with elements of creator Bryan Fuller’s own design. As I predicted last week, Red Dragon’s climax has been jettisoned, namely, because it was already adapted as a sterling set piece in ”…And the Beast from the Sea.” Francis sets Reba (Rutina Wesley) up to be rescued in his burning house at the last minute so she can falsely identify a body that he’s dressed to simulate his own corpse. Francis eventually corners Will in the latter’s expressively seamy motel room, and brokers a negotiation with him, largely elided, to get Hannibal out of the state hospital for a real-world palaver that’s to end with a revenge killing. Even by the logically flexible standards of the show’s dreamy, free-associative rhythms, this development makes no sense. Francis’s desire to square perceived slights with Lecter comes out of nowhere, has never been referenced before, and it casts light on the fact that Francis isn’t acting like his old split-self anymore. He’s now a generic, leather-coated avenger, whose torment, and sense of fate, are meaningless. Francis is a device for getting Hannibal and Will together.
This randomness is intensified by a narrative whopper that’s so insane it nearly stops “The Wrath of the Lamb” in its tracks: Will talks Jack and Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) into releasing Hannibal for a reprise of the sort of Great Red Dragon sting operation that recently failed miserably, leading to Frederick Chilton’s (Raúl Esparza) being burned alive. That’s right: Hannibal, an uncatchable killer who gave himself up to everyone’s unfathomable benefit, is to be released back into the wild so as to catch another so-far-uncatchable über-monster. To Will’s credit, he knows the plan’s crazy, as he’s playing everyone against themselves so as to kill both Hannibal and Francis vigilante-style. A pivotal scene between Will, Jack, and Alana reveals that the latter two recognize this aim as well. But, surely, there’s a better way to kill Hannibal in captivity?
We’ve made such leaps with Hannibal before, but the episode’s unusual emphasis on plot keeps you aware of the contrivances. There’s enough story here for three episodes, and one wishes for breathing room. For all of the foreshadowing of Will’s emergence this season as an agent of the dark side entirely untethered from the conventional world, for instance, there’s little here that directly elaborates on Will’s feelings about the manipulations he’s either orchestrated or been taken in by. Will’s motivations here are pointedly opaque, in fact. “Mizumono” is operatic for the startlingly sudden crystal clarity of the characters’ emotions: When Hannibal beckoned Will to see him as he put a knife into the latter’s gut, the emotional chambers suddenly clicked into flabbergasting place. This is a love story. “Mizumono” hangs over “The Wrath of the Lamb,” as both are about whether Will and Hannibal will commit to one another, shunning the polite world entirely, or continue to play their complementing roles of hunter/hunted for the world’s illusion of proper social organization.
The climax, in which Hannibal and Will alternately butcher Francis, as the latter envisions himself in half-dragon drag, has a kick to it. The bloodletting is characteristically well staged, gushing forth out of all three combatants in the orgasmic slow-motion that we’ve come to expect from Hannibal. And the second-to-last stinger has symbolic grandeur: Will, exhausted with debating the pros and cons of life with and without Hannibal, casts them both over the cliff at Hannibal’s hideaway—an act that’s memorably alluded to earlier when Hannibal says something that contains roughly 10 different meanings (“The bluff is eroding”).
There’s a tonal change to “The Wrath of the Lamb” that suggests deliberate self-parody. The intentional camp factor of the series noticeably increased with Hannibal’s incarceration at the beginning of the Red Dragon cycle, and that element is particularly pointed up here. When Brian (Aaron Abrams) and Jimmy (Scott Thompson) examine the body that Francis uses as a decoy, they describe their findings to Jack with a flipness that’s startlingly broad and callous; the scene is played as a “Who’s on first?” routine. In the episode’s best scene, Hannibal describes to Alana the deal she made with him when she refused to leave the massacre that concluded the second season: “You died in my kitchen, Alana, when you chose to be brave. Every moment since is borrowed. Your wife. Your child. They belong to me. You made a bargain for Will’s life, and then I spun you gold.” Mikkelsen’s line delivery, as the camera gradually pushes in on his face, is chilling, but there’s also a comic edginess to the encounter. The episode abounds in these icy, absurdist bon mots. (Another, also delivered by Hannibal to Will: “It’s a shame. You came all this way and you didn’t get to kill anybody.” Or, even better: “I believe that’s what they call a mic drop. You dropped the mic, Will. But here you are, having to come back and pick it up again.”) In this fashion, “The Wrath of the Lamb” ambitiously indicates yet another evolution for the series, which has grown over the years from a flamboyantly stylized procedural to a lonely, giallo-infused fantasia to…what might’ve been next, precisely? A farcical comedy about a figurative madhouse inhabited by self-obsessed demons?
This is why I wish to end my coverage of Hannibal on a high note, despite my mild disappointment with “The Wrath of the Lamb.” This finale is cluttered and self-conscious, but it evinces a tireless ambition to resist the expectation that a TV series gives its audience the same thing each week. The episode ends Hannibal on the right quasi-conclusive note, which is punctuated by a stinger in which Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) prepares to feast on her own roasted leg, in a manner that recalls the self-cannibalistic feast of Abel Gideon. Did Hannibal survive the fall or is Bedelia insane, wracked by anxiety over his potential return? Are the possibilities distinguishable? This joke is packed with meta resonance: Hannibal will haunt mainstream television in the way that Hannibal clearly haunts Bedelia, casting a pall over the medium that’s really a dare. Like David Lynch before him, Bryan Fuller has shined a light over TV’s capacity for eccentric, follow-thy-master poignancy. TV is often compared to the novel, in an over-compensating effort to elevate its reputation. What if it were to emulate a short story or poetry collection, in which every tale, or every stanza, is unique yet cumulatively webbed together by their creator’s obsessive, reaching curiosity?
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