In “Dolce,” Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will (Hugh Dancy) finally meet again, together for the first time since the attack last season that sent every major character off in a different figurative corner, scrambling for stability and absolution. Hannibal and Will’s relationship has unambiguously gained the tenor and stature of a major, socially conflicted romance. Hannibal’s murders have attained a wacky but resonant thematic association: Killing in this series is a metaphor for the exposure of the private craziness we feel we nurture inside ourselves, for which society will potentially shun us. Hannibal revels in a potentially offensive symbolism in which violence is linked with unconventional sexuality, particularly homosexuality, but its treatment of this dicey juxtaposition is empathetic, dwelling on the characters’ respective confusions, not to mention their senses of social estrangement.
Hannibal and Will’s reintroduction to one another has the appropriate ring of a dream. What is this series, if not a dream play? Every formal choice made in every episode intensifies that impression. Will comes out of nowhere, emerging from a hallway of darkness without celebration in the middle of the episode, and sitting next to Hannibal in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, where the latter sketches Primavera, the Botticelli painting that helped set this season’s plot in motion. After all the cat-and-cat game-playing, it simply boils down to a matter of Will sitting on a bench next to his monstrous mentor and symbolic lover. Mikkelsen, Dancy, creator Bryan Fuller, director Vincent Natali, and writer Don Mancini all outdo themselves here: The scene, which suggests a horror-movie cover of the famous diner sequence in Heat, could scarcely be better. “You and I have begun to blur,” Will tells Hannibal. No kidding. “Isn’t that how you found me?” Hannibal counters, not as a reproach, but with something resembling authentic, yearning curiosity.
Blurring, blending, and melding. These are the motifs that formally structure “Dolce.” When Hannibal captures Will soon after their conversation in the museum, we see an astonishing image that, on a literal level, is meant to approximate the latter’s delirium after Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto) thwarts his attempt to capture the former. Chiyoh wings Will from a Florence rooftop with a sniper rifle as he raises a knife to attack Hannibal, her appearance, as always, utilized as a convenience for plot bookkeeping. (Chiyoh’s involvement in “Dolce” is mercifully confined to a handful of scenes.) Then, that terrific image: of Will rendered as a large inkblot against a white screen, passing in and out of corporeality. Within this inkblot, we see shapes of Hannibal, and of the jet-black humanoid stag that traditionally represents him as a being of satanic power. Figuratively, this sequence suggests a collapse of identity that’s explicitly, consciously reminiscent of Persona.
This inkblot imagery is mirrored a number of times in “Dolce,” most obviously in the sequence that startlingly reveals Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) and Margot (Katherine Isabelle) to be sleeping together in an arrangement of forbidden like-mindedness that suggests a more direct, mercenary, less neurotic version of the relationship shared by Hannibal and Will. The potential pleasures to be enjoyed from watching two beautiful women have sex are pointedly elided, as Alana and Margot are shown together as a series of almost laughably vaginal shapes, which merge from the abstractly rendered union of their bodies, particularly their faces. The geometric images that come to represent their sex eventually resemble graphics from the credits sequences of kitschy 1960s films like Casino Royale. This scene serves an ordinary, unsurprising narrative purpose: to reveal that Alana and Margot are going to double-cross the latter’s brother, Mason (Joe Anderson), once he procures Hannibal. But this encounter also raises lingering questions about Alana. Who is she now to get so deep into bed with a family as corrupt and damaged as the Vergers? The naïve idealist of the first two seasons seems so poignantly far away.
Another scene of blending, or fading: When Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) sets about establishing a ludicrous defense for her murderous dinner-party exploits with Hannibal, taking drugs, which are said to be the same sort of disorienting cocktail of intoxicants that was used to manipulate Miriam Lass, then claiming to authentically believe that she’s Mrs. Fell, the wife of the curator Hannibal killed and impersonated. Will and Jack (Laurence Fishburne) question her, and, in a cheeky callback to last season, Will says to her “I. Don’t. Believe. You,” which references Bedelia’s conversation with him while he was incarcerated for a variety of Hannibal’s murders. When she first shoots up, we see Bedelia drift in and out of consciousness, raising her hands toward the ceiling of her chic Florence apartment, which is bathed in red splotches that suggest blood splatters. Earlier in the episode, Bedelia’s the co-subject of another incredible image: of her and Hannibal kissing on screen for the first time, rendered as silhouettes, their faces tentatively staking one another out. The series has been very vague about what Hannibal and Bedelia mean to one another, though his attachment to her is adamantly confirmed when he’s revealed to have been planning to eat her as well as Will. There’s no higher compliment from Hannibal the Cannibal (trademark: Frederick Chilton), who eats people for which he nurses either the lowliest of contempt or the highest of esteem.
Come to think of it, a lot of stuff happens in “Dolce,” as this is an unusually plot-driven episode of Hannibal that nevertheless maintains its surreal, mood-centric aura of erotic dread. Occasionally, though, one can see the gears turning so as to get the players from point A to point B on schedule. The portion of this season that serves as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel of the same name is clearly drawing to a close, paving the way for Fuller’s take on the author’s Red Dragon, which inspired Michael Mann’s Manhunter while first introducing the world to the Lecter character (parts of this book were also used, and expanded on, in the first season; the Will Graham character also comes from this source material). As a result, the pace occasionally seems rushed, the plotting haphazard and illogical even for such a figurative series. These tendencies are especially illustrated by the perverse decision to entirely elide Hannibal and Will’s capture by Mason—a development that’s been the sole driving narrative force of the season thus far. How did Mason find them, interrupting Hannibal’s intention to eat Will’s brains (a set piece directly lifted from the novel Hannibal, though the victim’s fate there wasn’t so serendipitously interrupted)? Chiyoh, last seen skulking about in a hallway as Jack approached Hannibal’s new setup at Sogliato’s, probably conveniently disappeared again. No, we’re meant to surmise that Bedelia ratted her lover out to the Italian police, whom Mason bought off instantaneously over the course of a brief phone conversation (leading one to wonder why it took him this long to get Hannibal to begin with, or why he bothered working with Pazzi in the first place, or…well, one gets the idea).
But this anticlimax does serve as a wonderfully curt, jarring palate cleanser. Just like that, we’re out of Italy, after so many long, dreamy, expressionist reveries, and back to America, switching from erudite European evil, as personified by Hannibal, to Mason’s lewd and crude way of doings things, which embody a certain blunt, new-money form of North American self-entitlement. Will’s last instance of drifting into his own mental space, which was to presage his death, is halted to return him to a reality of imprisonment and torture at Mason’s Muskrat Farm. This shift in tone is eerily represented by the shrilly metallic opening of the doors to the truck in which Hannibal and Will hang upside down by hooks, like two of Mason’s beloved slaughtered pigs. If Fuller intends to honor the Hannibal novel’s ending, Mason isn’t long for this world (this season’s repeated shots of a huge electric eel in Mason’s private chambers imply that Fuller’s planning to maintain the novel’s most ghoulish punchline), but will the weirdly beautiful tone of giallo-tinged grotesquerie be restored by Mason’s death? Or will Red Dragon’s monster, Frances Dolarhyde, bring with him a whole new set of aesthetic rules by which to play?
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