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Hannibal S02E09: "Shiizakana"

During my time as a student, both undergraduate and graduate, I ended up taking two classes concerned with horror films, despite not really being a fan of horror films. One was devoted entirely to the genre, and the other placed horror under the umbrella of body genres. That latter class was centered on an essay that, in addition to horror, covered melodrama and pornography and questioned how audiences respond to those respective genres. While I'm still not fond of many of horror's sub-genres, particularly the so-called "torture porn" films that became popular around the turn of the century, the classes gave me a significant amount of appreciation for them that I generally lacked previously.

Among the many takeaways was the pleasure to be found in horror, and, more importantly, where that pleasure comes from. The general idea is that we return to horror not only to be scared out of our minds in a safe environment, but because horror films provide a release valve of sorts. Writing about horror in Danse Macabre, Stephen King argues that horror "...is an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy—to commit gratuitous acts of violence, to indulge in our puerile dreams of power, to give in to our most craven fears. Perhaps more than anything else, the horror story says it's okay to join the mob, to become the total tribal being, to destroy the outsider." And then you put down the book or leave the multiplex or turn off the TV and go back to your life as a normal person, the pleasure of violating social mores through vicarious killing having been satisfied.

At this point, you may be asking what in the world any of this has to do with Hannibal, beyond the obvious notion that the show operates within the framework of the horror genre, and as such, we may get to experience the similar pleasures of enacting violence against others in a safe way. Certainly "Shiizakana" encouraged this, as the camera allowed us to assume Randall Tier's perspective in a manner similar to how the camera allows us to assume the perspective of Michael Myers in the Halloween films, when we watch and experience the world through the eye holes of Myers' mask. Hannibal didn't go all the way in this regard, as "Shiizakana" often cut away from Tier's perspective so as to see his beastly mechanical jaws at work, but that sort of perspective switch isn't uncommon to the genre, either.

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is that Will Graham is living in a horror movie, and he's working through the identity fluctuations that we as audiences are able to let go of once the story is over. Season 1 saw Will assuming the position of the killer/monster of the week, and explored the way he dealt with the trauma of that experience. There wasn't any pleasure to be had in it for Will. However, after being labeled a killer/monster himself by the season's end, and having remained so for much of this season, Will is struggling to reconcile his desire to kill Hannibal, and in doing so, to become a killer/monster (the image of Will as a stag creature returned this week after an absence that lasted a few episodes). At the same time, Hannibal is priming Will to become just a killer/monster. He wants for Will to never have a resolution to the traditional horror story, where the audience gets to leave after the monster is vanquished or contained (until the sequel). Essentially, he wants Will to always be behind Michael Myers' mask.

This is Hannibal's design, and it's one he's been building over the years, apparently. He never discouraged young Randall Tier's animal identity crisis, and instead it seemed likely that he subtly taught Tier to construct himself a person suit until he was ready to construct his animal suit. There was a definite sense of pride as Hannibal said, "You've come so very far, Randall." He's practicing it again with Margot in his encouragement of her desire to kill her brother, he's been practicing it with Will for a while now, and it seems increasingly likely that Du Maurier was another attempt at this same goal. (Didn't you just love the very subtle but noticeable shift in Mikkelsen's body and voice as Will brought up Du Maurier? I don't think I've ever seen Hannibal quite so annoyed.)

That Hannibal has plans is why is he's generally considered among the scariest of horror's villains/monsters/killers/whatever. Sure, the cannibalism provides an additional sense of fright, but it's that Hannibal's a monster that thinks. Many horror monsters are seemingly supernatural forces seem nearly unstoppable but have no other insight into human nature and behavior than the uncanny ability to predict exactly which door a victim is going to open. Hannibal, as a psychiatrist, understands others, knows what makes them tick. Like a zombie, he's attempting to make copies of himself, monsters that walk around wearing people suits, but where the zombie acts on an instinct and thus doesn't care that it is making more zombies, Hannibal is fully aware of what he's doing. It's a conscious act, not an unconscious one.

The downside for Hannibal is that the same thing that sets him apart from his fellow monsters, is the same thing that sets his would-be victims apart from their peers. Instead of running and screaming, hiding in closets or in basements, his victims talk and think, both back at him and now to one another, and with tumblers of whiskey no less. Will and Margot comparing notes on Hannibal may have been the highlight of the episode, not only for its staging—Will's den is arranged, and the scene is shot, like a much more intimate version of Hannibal's office—but for they're both struggling with what Hannibal is offering them:

Will: I tried to murder Dr. Lecter. 
Margot: Did he have it coming? 
Will: What do you think? 
Margot: I can’t say that I know. 
Will: Neither can I.

Like us engaging in a horror story, Margot and Will are weighing the pleasure they would take in becoming killers/monsters. It may satisfy particular urges—killing Mason and killing Hannibal, respectively—but satisfying those urges in a physical way is different than doing it vicariously through a horror story, and with more lasting repercussions, especially if we treat these murders as tipping points. Will already knows that killing feels good as it felt good to kill Garret Jacob Hobbs and I imagine we'll find the he thought it felt good to apparently kill Randall Tier. The trick to all this is that Tier's death doesn't actually satisfy that urge to kill Hannibal (as killing Peter's social worker last week might have accomplished on some level), and thus it allows Hannibal to keep priming Will to become a killer/monster himself.


– To answer maybe your most pressing question: Yes, I watched porn in a classroom and read academic articles about it, including essays on pornography from a Marxist perspective. Yes, such things exist.

– To answer your second most pressing question: No, I don't think that the only reason we watch horror is for a vicarious thrill of killing. The problem with this particular approach to assuming pleasure is that it's based in psychoanalytic theory, which generally assumes if you can explain one person, it applies to everyone, regardless of culture and experience. For what it's worth, I've never seen the theory applied in a way that suggests we're all going to start murdering people, just that we're generally responding to a cultural norm that tells us killing is, exceptions aside, immoral and wrong, and so we revel in some safe taboo-breaking. No harm, no foul.

– Hannibal's hat is AMAZING.

– "Typhoid and swans. It all comes from the same place."

– "I'd say this makes us even. I sent someone to kill you. You sent someone to kill me. Even Steven."

– The music this week was a bit of a repeat. It was, again, from Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, except this time it was the first movement, "Introit et Kyrie."

How did "Shiizakana" taste?

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 8/29/2015

Season 3 : Episode 13

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