Eyes without a face
By now, Hannibal seems to be nearing its final stretch—its promised lifelines from Amazon or Netflix have failed to materialize—but it still retains its full ability to shock and amuse. The funniest thing about last night’s episode came at the very beginning: unlike every other installment of the show this season, it aired without a viewer discretion advisory warning us of the violent imagery to come. And if anyone really thought that this meant the show was going to soften its content for its move to Saturdays, it took about ten seconds for it to disabuse us of that notion. (If the commercials that aired with it are any indication, the network evidently assumes that most of its viewers now are well over the age of sixty, and have probably seen it all.) “Digestivo,” which marks the end of the Mason Verger arc, as remixed from the novel Hannibal, may be the most violent episode of broadcast television I’ve ever witnessed. My wife watched much of it from between her fingers, and while I had a good idea of what was coming, it was both bracing and horrifying to see Bryan Fuller go further than Ridley Scott or Thomas Harris himself ever dared. I was pretty sure, based on the source material, that I was going to see a moray eel going down Mason’s throat; what I didn’t anticipate was the prospect of him eating Lecter, piece by piece, using Will Graham’s transplanted face. It isn’t an image that I relished, exactly, but it deserves a slow clap from anyone who thought Fuller might lose his nerve toward the end.
Ultimately, of course, both Lecter and Will were spared, at least for now. Mason wakes up from surgery wearing someone else’s face, but it turns out to belong to Cordell, the world’s most sadistic nurse and transplant surgeon, and it quickly slides off to the floor. It’s an unbelievably gruesome sight, and it reminds us of how willing Hannibal has always been to capitalize on our deepest fears about disfigurement. Decades ago, Pauline Kael made a similar point while discussing the polarized critical and audience reaction to Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars:
The danger is to the eyes. If the killer had gone for the throat, probably the movie wouldn’t be so frightening and wouldn’t be considered immoral…Laura Mars violates our guardedness about our eyes. The most dreaded thing that can happen to what many regard as their most sensitive organs happens in this picture; like Un Chien Andalou, it attacks what we’re watching the movie with.
Hearing Kael refer to the eyes as our “most sensitive” organs reminds me a little of what Woody Allen said about the brain: “It’s my second-favorite organ.” And Hannibal isn’t above making us fear for what might happen below Lecter’s waist. (The most disturbing moment in the episode, at least for me, was Mason’s speech about the actual cannibal Armin Meiwes, which reminds us that real life can produce monsters as horrible as anything fiction could devise.) But the face, like the eyes, has a special status in our nightmares, and by targeting it, as Kael cannily notes, it’s as if the show is attacking us at the very place at which we’re joined to the narrative.
And so much of the power of visual storytelling is derived from the filmed human face that destroying it feels like an assault on the idea of emotional connection itself. I noted years ago that the later films of Tom Cruise, who is in many respects our most interesting movie star, play like a series of variations on the theme of masks and facial disfigurement. He wears a mask in Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, the latter of which, along with Minority Report, all but erases his features, and even a franchise as escapist as the Mission: Impossible films is built on masks and their removal: the most delicious mislead in the entire series comes at the start of M:I-2, when Cruise peels away his face to reveal Dougray Scott beneath. Cruise returns to these images of masks and disfigurement so obsessively in his best films that it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of his ambivalence toward his own good looks. That’s what makes him so fascinating as a star: no actor, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner noted in The New York Times Magazine, has ever worked harder for our pleasure, but it’s all built around a core of secrecy and withholding. And the destruction of the most famous male face in the world, even in fantasy, seems designed to force us to think about the nature of our feelings about it. (Cruise, for what it’s worth, seems to have moved on: he allegedly turned down the lead in Iron Man because it would have required him to wear a mask for much of the movie.)
It’s a theme that Hannibal has mined from the beginning, and it’s right there in its sources. Mason Verger is defined by his lack of facial features, and it feels intuitively right that Lecter makes his improbable escape in The Silence of the Lambs by peeling off another man’s face and wearing it like a mask. Much of Hannibal, the show, has been devoted to the systematic removal of the masks that Lecter wears, or what multiple characters have called his “person suit”—a veiled nod to the literal person suit that Buffalo Bill will later construct. And there’s a strong possibility that the show, if it had been renewed, would have taken it even further. At the end of Red Dragon, which Hannibal is about to retell in loving detail, Will Graham all but loses his face:
[Dolarhyde] pinned Graham with his knees, raised the knife high and grunted as he brought it down. The blade missed Graham’s eye and crunched deep into his cheek.
And the damage was permanent: in The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.