Penny Dreadful and Hannibal: Fall of the Witches, Rise of the Dragon

Hannibal meets Penny Dreadful

“Dire combustion and confused events new hatch’d to the woeful time”

A tale of two gruesome halves. A celebration in the brutal wake of Penny Dreadful’s second series conclusion and farewell to Hannibal’s Hannibal as he prepares his last stand against the advent of the Red Dragon. For those up to date with the horrors of both series – these *spoilers* don’t come in the night.

Read on or jump to: Hannibal

Pennies – Penny Dreadful leaves the mortal plain

Penny Dreadful: The Second Season

“I think that you are the most human man I have ever known”

PENNY DREADFUL CONCLUDED EARLIER THIS MONTH WITH A FINALE OF TWO PARTS. TYPICALLY, THE SECOND HALF WAS DEVOTED TO THE INTRICATE RE-POSITIONING OF ITS PLAYERS ON A CHESS BOARD PRIMED FOR ITS LUXURIOUSLY CONFIRMED THIRD SEASON. And that that says more about the show than a first half given over to resolving the second season arc, a battle in the blurred war of dark and light that continues to run like stitching through its take on gothic literature.

The threat of coincidence hangs over all narrative, nowhere more apparently than in episodic television. As America’s television grows to rival its film industry, enticing stars with higher budgets and heightened writing, arcs and themes have developed to match. Many shows have managed to rise above their Hollywood comparators in terms of tight plotting and scripting, although some of the biggest cheat with multiple sketch-based storylines (one set in and around Westeros in particular). Elsewhere critically acclaimed ‘thematic’ series make their job easier by limiting storylines and cast to a single season. But with Penny Dreadful, confronting coincidence while chucking its characters together is very much the point.

A stronger field

The depth of the villain was stretched and strengthened…

As Penny Dreadful’s second season unravelled we saw polarisation. Compelling powers pushed and pulled the characters to various extremes, always seen through a finely tuned and psychological needle’s eye.

Writer John Logan’s dialogue and scope improved beyond even the first series. After seemingly setting up (the unnamed) Dracula as the main villain, the second season instead wrenched us into the world of witches – another and effective lieutenant of he who must not be named. Over the course of the season, the result was a rich deepening of the character’s opposition; a villain stretched and strengthened while crucially retaining its mystery. It was a neat trick to the point that a killer twist might not even be confirmed. And on the way there was time for dolls and wax works to take the place of the Grand Guignol. And crucially, lest all humour depart us, a wonderful full-time position in the script for Simon Russell Beale’s Ferdinand Lyle.

One year on

“Modernity personified” in the age of the industrial

Last year’s mid-point look at Season One came from the early gothic slant of Frankenstein. In particular, the stunning adaptation of the good doctor’s story that made up the third episode, which starts with:

“…The brutal lessons of life and death that the young Frankenstein was forced to learn. We see him walking through daffodils and quoting not just Wordsworth, but the poet’s Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. We see the origins of the Doctor of course, and how death set him on an inevitable route. The creature narrates what we’ve seen so far, the Doctor who favoured Wordsworth and the Romantics’ view of the world who creates something that is “modernity personified” in the age of the industrial. It’s no wonder that Frankenstein fundamentally cannot stand his creation, and is incapable of making any effort to make up for his abandonment. It shouldn’t fit quite so well with the other son we’ve seen, not quite, but it does. That’s perhaps due to the quality of the creature’s argument. Tellingly, Frankenstein doesn’t speak for minutes as his firstborn addresses him. When told by his son that they are the Janus mask, “inseparable” his first words, “how could you do that?’ The response that it is a mercy for the tragic Proteus – “you put me through nothing but pain”.

“As the creature continues its insightful psychoanalysis, it sums up what may as well be Penny Dreadful’s main remit. Following the father who could only be “surgeon and the butcher”, he comes to London. Rightfully not the creature’s birth place, but the perfect hub for these stories. A rather pretentious ‘Hellmouth’.

 – Frankenstein: “We will need more material” AD2014 Part Two

A year on Logan continues to work wonders spinning out the romance and poetry that swirl around that myth. However Caliban’s rather transparent assumption of the name John Clare, taken from the fragile and underappreciated poet who lamented the effect of the industrial revolution, and even this season’s twist of the Bride of Frankenstein didn’t prove the show’s most compelling part.

The third episode

Grimmish witchcraft, signs and portents, pitchfork carrying, God fearing villagers…

This time, the ground-breaking episode three fell to the ever mysterious Vanessa Ives, a flashback to the country ‘holiday’ that followed her fall and desolation as related in Season One. That brought us Grimmish delving into witchcraft, full of signs and portents, pitchfork carrying, God fearing villagers and horrific reminders of mortality. Just as the year before, it’s the highlight of the series.

And also just as last year, Penny Dreadful made a marvellous stab at leaving its chess pieces in a heightened and improved place for the year come the end of its run. The only one left bereft last year was Sir Malcolm’s man servant Sembene… And this year he’s ended up even worse off. Although, as this is Penny Dreadful and his Quatermain-lite master heads back to Africa with his body nothing is for certain.

The missing element

Perhaps there was too much flitting around ‘Dracula’ the year before…

Despite the praise, something was slightly amiss with Season One. Logan and the rest of the cast and crew had crafted an intoxicating story, it was just slightly too clinical. Powerful performances and immaculate dialogue carried the themes well, but in spite of the swirl of sex, gothic romance and metaphysical horror, there was a cold heart at the centre rather than the passion that typifies much of the source material. It was a difficult balance, especially as it crossed the gamut of Gothicism from Shelley to Stoker while pausing to drawing in Wilde’s philosophical work. But come the Second Series, the ground was far more solid.

Penny Dreadful remains rather cold of course, keeping many secrets close to its chest before sinking into the blunt horror in the final episodes. The witch opposition this season was not only unexpected but compelling, providing a more tangible threat than the feral vampires of the first. The wonderfully depicted coven perhaps suggests that so much flitting around ‘Dracula’ was part of the issue the year before. Now, with Mina dead, Vanessa Ives was less swanning around town forlornly than assuming the role of both victim and mistress of her fate.

Her previous relationship with Dorian Grey seemed all but forgotten as the feckless London dilettante floated about on his particular brand of hedonism for most of the series. Until episode eight.

All after the rather hilarious carnal ‘climax’ of episode seven, the message of the fallen angel put things chillingly back into perspective. And with the reveal of Grey’s painting, divisive perhaps, but for me an effective and compelling version. That reveal wasn’t by accident. Using the savage end to his many episodes of secondary and inconsequential storylines for effect, there’s no coincidence this came as the message revealed that there was not just one enemy, but two brothers. The first season had blinded us with Dracula, or so we thought, but now distinctions subtle and obvious were revealed, and at the heart of it – his painting a chained man, like a wingless angel – was Dorian Grey, distracted as ever by earthly pleasure at every step.

The scattered league

But there was no Demeter destined to crash on the sands of Whitby…

Miss Ives remained at the centre, empowered and marginally less of a mystery than she had been. She had overcome and vanquished some of her deepest and darkest days come the finale. But the main mystery of her true role in the prophecy remains. She’s the show’s focus after all. Come the end, when she stalks Sir Malcolm’s empty London pad, extinguishing candles one by one, she finally loses her religion. But it’s not because it’s been disproved, quite the opposite. She has to abandon it and Penny Dreadful without the numinous Miss Ives might be a quite altogether different place.

“So we walk alone”

And alone she was. While Frankenstein’s life lay battered and exposed across town, the rest of the league had scattered among three boats departing British shores. The steam ship taking Malcolm and Sembene back to Africa, the Icebreaker carrying Caliban to his fate in the arctic and the ship taking the rustled and defeated Chandler back to his homeland in a cage.

“I am fit for only one place and should have been there long ago”

At that point, amid the long season coda, it seemed so likely we’d see another ship on the seas, heading towards Britain. But there was no Demeter destined to crash on the sands of Whitby. Not just yet.

A life renewed

Yet more proof that John Logan’s one of the greats…

Unlike Caliban, Penny Dreadful has always been in safe place. In fact, it has something all too rare: network execs with rare insight. “John Logan’s brilliant writing and this amazingly talented ensemble continue to draw a passionate, global fan base into the meticulously crafted world of ‘Penny Dreadful’,” as Showtime Networks president David Nevins said.

Season Three is duly confirmed, which Logan promises will unleash not only a wider canvas but pull a new literary character into the mix. The likes of David Haig and Sarah Greene’s soon to return Hecate were able additions to the expanding universe, but special mention must go to Douglas Hodge’s brilliant turn as Inspector Bartholomew Rusk. The unruffled ‘tective just what the show was missing.

Elsewhere there were two particular highlights, scattered among Lyle’s fine one-liners. The house invasion of the witches was one. Camouflaged imperceptibly in the walls until they chillingly slunk into vision, they reminded me of comic scribe Grant Morrison’s chilling reveal of the demon Beast stalking the young magician Zatanna in his Seven Soldiers of Victory meta-series. A literal and chilling tree-hugger. It was a trick they couldn’t use enough.

And then perhaps my favourite, when Chandler had weakly seen off Hecate he gives one of the greatest and no doubt slightly meta responses to inevitable plot propulsion – yet more proof that John Logan’s one of the greats. So good it made the next week’s recap: As Sembene informs Chandler that Miss Ives left has snuck off to confront he witches on her, Josh Hartnett’s look says it all, his eyes rolling to the ceiling: “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”

For Thoughts – Hannibal surrenders his freedom

Hannibal: The third season – halfway through

The saddest of the season

Over on good old ‘regular’ television, NBC presents a sadder case. The saddest of the season in fact. It was never a good sign when the Hannibal was nudged to a later summer start date, for all the hope it meant the show could accommodate David Bowie in its cast. Sadly that wasn’t the reason and the move failed in its distant hope that its ridiculously low ratings would look better in the longer light. Cancellation seemed inevitable and so it came. The most cable of shows on a mainstream network had run its course after an impressive three seasons. For the rest of its run it’ll sit in the cold and lonely crypt of Saturday nights. Chances of a fourth season are remote.

From the screen

“Cordell! Cordell! Cordell!”

I just can’t stop doing that. Much the same kind of sneer whether Joe Anderson or Gary Oldman, but that’s how definitive Lecter’s prominently scarred survivor Mason Verger is – you can’t mess with it.

Hannibal delves into dark and psychological territory, just like the best of gothic era horror that Penny Dreadful consumes. Many of those same references lay behind Lecter, but there’s plenty of other baggage stashed in the hold of that flight to Italy. Of course Hannibal’s first layer of reference is the exquisite but short course of the four Lecter books written by Thomas Harris through the 1980s to 2000s. Or that was the beginning. Two decades of cinema had already overcooked the Lecter saga; for all the exquisite trinkets provided by Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the first Red Dragon adaptation), Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs or Ridley Scott’s Hannibal there’s the dead duck of Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon. Despite the notable flaws in those Manhunter and Hannibal adaptations, it was Red Dragon that showed how far direct interpretation can fall. And that’s with a heavy heart beating in a sad hand: Jokerside would judge Red Dragon to be Harris’ best book.

On film, Hopkins run as Hollywood’s favourite serial killer was over inflated by that third film. The rushed and simplistic shots are soon bogged down into the pale blue of the Florida Keys by stunt casting. It failed as a sequel/prequel to Silence of the Lambs, it failed as a horror thriller and mainly it just failed in taste. It’s scant consolation that it earned less at the box office than Hannibal.

But now comes the chance to set that right.

Pitched series

There was never a danger that the procedural structure would last…

On television, Hannibal set out from that killer pitch. The perfect antidote to two decades of Lecter on film casting calls and bestseller lists. A prequel to Red Dragon where we’d see Lecter at liberty, before his extended incarceration, working with the FBI and alongside profiler Will Graham. They’re so engrained in pop-culture, those warnings on the walk through the hospital gates, down to the basement cells… The idea of seeing him at large, a different shape of monster, was irresistible. When a fugitive in Italy, this isn’t a Lecter who’s known imprisonment, although he spends a considerable amount of time storing information for that inevitability…

Hannibal was excellently cast. Mads Mikkelson’s Lecter is a physical predator with constant gameplay flitting behind his calm eyes, literally, without the acquired and creepy Americanism of Hopkins, or the cool British anger of the Brian Cox iteration in Manhunter. Though the first season took the time to build a classic procedural team and tackle cases of the week there was never a danger that structure would last. In a way the series was right to mimic the development of Harris’ books, which began with the Crawford-starring but Lecter-less Black Sunday in 1975.

On the way to the quite unexpected, intense and psychologically unravelling chess matches of the second season, there was time to reference and foreshadow the books to come. By the end of the second year we were well acquainted with chilling versions of minor players, particularly the hapless but guile Frederick Chiltern. We’d seen reporter Freddie Lounds burn in front of us, in a very familiar way, albeit as part of an intricate ruse. The little explored Minnesota Shrike had given us the intriguing hook of an apprentice to fully blend the empathic Graham and Lecter together, albeit one of Hannibal’s distinct creation and choosing. That was a different and darker vision of the Campbellian monomyth than the books had given us, and it was put into sharp relief by the young FBI trainee Miriam Lass, handpicked by Jack Crawford and sent out into the wild with devastating consequences. The Starling that veered off course. And of course it had to visit the most compelling back story that was sure to come back with major effect: the Vergers.

Small inflation

Bach’s Goldberg variations had rung out…

In the typical inflation of a television series, Lecter’s body count has risen above the norm. Prior to Red Dragon, he should be tipping eight confirmed kill and one survivor. In the television continuity, though many are blurred by implication and coercion, he’s nearing 60. But as the series is perhaps more about the survivor Will Graham than the psychiatrist himself, there was no doubt that the other damaged survivor Mason Verger would show his, well, face. And though the series changes flavour when it arrives at adaptation, framed by the larger family of ‘Hannibal’, they don’t feel quite as token as they did in the final novel or its adaptation.

So, Bach’s Goldberg variations had rung out. Mind Palaces had been tapped. Exquisite sketches had been drafted. And much, much, much food had been prepared. It was time for adaptation.

Advent of the Dragon

Had we jumped the stories?

Before we reached the Verger endgame, there always had to be a point when Hannibal got the better of Graham, in true, gutting style. Although two series of Hannibal had been very much about undoing Graham’s original and rather simplistic discovery of Lecter’s true agenda. And though this was stretching, we knew that we were close when the second season premiere took us immediately into a devastating, balletic and bloody showdown between Lecter and Jack Crawford. That was a riveting sign of how things were propelling, but little did we know where they would go… It took a whole season to see the effect, with question marks hovering over the survival of Bloom, Crawford, Abigail Hobbs and Will Graham. And as for that incredible jump to Hannibal and his psychiatrist, the fantastically named and played Be Delia Du Maurier, aboard a plane to Europe – we were undeniably heading straight for Hannibal.

Had we jumped the stories? Graham’s fate broadly matched his gutting referenced in Red Dragon, but could it be that the Lounds episode wasn’t a reference but an adaptation and could Anna Chlumsky trainee have been Starling after all? Starling who had dominated the franchise ever since Jodie Foster’s compelling performance in The Silence of the Lambs?

Show-runner Bryan Fuller has set up such an ingeniously plotted story that it was enjoyably difficult to tell what would and could happen next. But on the brink of the first major adaptation it was clear that this time round the books were the consequence.

Beginnings and endings

How fitting then, that build up to Red Dragon has been formed from the book sequence’s ouroboros…

Mid-season finds us having completed the series adaptation of Hannibal, intertwined with strands of Hannibal Rising; the last Lecter novel and the series’ weaker prequel. And the reward come its end has been Hannibal’s eventual and inevitable incarceration. So now the rest of the series can concentrate on the real deal: The rise of the Red Dragon. How fitting then, that build has been formed from the book sequence’s ouroboros.

Hannibal has long been this writer’s second favourite tale in the canon, coming just after I’d discovered Red Dragon on page and begun to appreciate The Silence of the Lambs on the big screen. At that time the Lecter machine was in full hype mode with the film in pre-production even before the book was published. And when it arrived it was utterly mad. Far less procedural, more meta-aware, particularly of its position as a book soon to be adapted Hannibal, it crossed multiple plains through twisted and dark takes on revenge. It’s a soft romance at its heart, in the best gothic tradition. Entering the territory of high melodrama with plenty of time for sadistic subtexts and the twisting relationships that revolve around the central pair. That was enough to knock me off balance; pulling in even more horror via Dante and Frankenstein was all the better.

A slight rise

We’re now a good three decades late for the Second World War to play that role.

Hannibal Rising is quite rightly the junior partner in series three (although the ongoing mystery of Lecter’s sister Mischa was actually laid in Hannibal). It was brought in through Will’s journey as he set about a loose circling of Lecter throughout Europe, visiting Castle Lecter, learning more about the Doctor’s past and picking up ‘support’ in the manipulated, deadly Chiyoh on the way. He wasn’t following the current Doctor so much as his life. And unlike the Hannibal threads, it’s certainly not over yet. It was quite rightly a light adaptation of the prequel novel, with some of the books key scenes redacted by time. Originally carved from the devastation of the Second World War in Lithuania, we’re now a good three decades late for that conflict to play that role. Although its footprint may have been light, Hannibal Rising is what helped spins the series into metaphorical montage like never before, something the adaptation of Hannibal sorely needed. Of particular note was the extraordinary kaleidoscopic sex scene of episode six: pushing forward plot points, changing flow and setting the final stories fairy-tale tone through one unexpected sequence.

The Italian job

Well and truly scattered by bloody events

Europe provided the half season’s active palette, with American scenes mostly told in flashback. The core gang survived, though they were all changed. Well and truly scattered by the bloody events of the second season finale. When we saw Crawford he was mostly off the FBI book. Will Graham was soon on his irresistible travels and, having previously been a centre-point of procedural episodes, he was only given a chance to show his crime-empathic skills once. Alana Bloom fell to self-defined revenge and freelancing, while the forensics team just weren’t required. They may well be back, alongside the still deliriously opportunistic Chilton come the latter part of this series.

There were two anchor points, far removed from the FBI setting of the first series: Florence and Maryland. Lecter was soon installed in the Palazzo Capponi delle Rovinate. There, it’s not that he had less conviction than we were used to, but the power of the dynamic drawn between him, Will and Jack was so much deeper; more equal more developed than the romance with Starling that ran through the book. It was also partly as Be Delia Du Maurier’s presence gave us a near insight into what might have come after Hannibal the novel ended. Be Delia was a foil for Hannibal’s thought processes and justifications and when that foil’s as radiant as Gillian Anderson that’s easy to overlook. She would have been his conscience were that possible, but it’s strange to witness him in that familiar habitat for so long under psychological scrutiny. Hers were an extraordinary pair of eyes to view Hannibal’s abrupt violence and growing number of minor lapses. Acts that required both of them to continually define their roles.

The wide sea

“Cordell! Cordell! Cordell!”

Sorry about that. Across the Atlantic, the gloriously deranged Verger was focussed solely on revenge while the product of his mania coalesced around him. Of course, he was making everyone’s life as miserable as possible, this time with the inside track from Bloom rather than Barney smuggling him props or the pig farmers who were dealt with the season before. And now, he even had a gloriously un-wavering Cordell.

“Cordell! Cordell! Cordell!”

Back on script

Perhaps that’s a microcosm of how Red Dragon will work…

When we fell into adaptation with Doctor Fell, it came as a shock. On a set agenda in Europe, the depth we had grown accustomed to almost flattened when dialogue and scenes were directly lifted from the source material, no matter how characters were flipped around or familiar lines about wives were adopted by other voices. It was strange to hear Lecter give his lecture on Dante under his wonderfully obvious pseudonym, although here it’s implicit he took the name rather than choosing it.

It reached an extraordinary peak when the show was forced into following something close to the novel’s narrative in episode five, Contorno. That episode advanced the plot massively, like an elastic band recoiling after four episodes of the kind of meandering and irresistible navel gazing that the show’s Fannibals have grown to adore. Perhaps that’s a microcosm of how Red Dragon will work in conjunction with its preceding two and a half seasons. It will be a bumpy, but satisfying ride.

Having introduced Detective Rinaldo Pazzi separately through Crawford and Graham, the flawed policeman is dealt with far better than the strained version in the film. But his inevitable fall to Verger’s money (the Italian polizia come out of the televisions series remarkably and universally badly) actually rendered Verger pointless, especially as Bloom’s had already tracked his host city. It may be the best balance of Pazzi the waning hero versus the avaricious ancestor, but the sketches we saw him in didn’t seem quite enough. Still, Verger’s revenge was always doomed, and relatively pointless in comparison to Crawford, Lecter and Graham’s relationship. And that may be just the point this draws out. We are well beyond any form of law and order until the very end of the adaptation.

As we sailed through those scenes, everything seemed irrelevant compared to Graham and Lecter being in the same room again.

Defenestrating fun

Another delightful irony in the web of Lecter’s game

When the crunch came, under the ratchetted tension of Du Maurier and Lecter’s exchanges, it of course took the form of Pazzi’s murder. At the pivotal moment, it’s Bloom who called Lecter rather than Starling, the pseudo FBI versus the ghost of what will be. Effectively taking the relationship to Lecter from the opposite direction to the novel, it was just as rewarding. Lecter later managed his successful escape true to form, but only after a second confrontation with Crawford. There was no doubt that, at least for a second, Crawford wanted to kill Lecter, but it’s another delightful irony in the web of Lecter’s game that he was saved from the window fall by Pazzi’s hanging corpse.

And thanks to the clash of Hannibal and Rising, there was even time for Graham to be Krendlered, or almost – the eye-catching but by no means darkest part of the novel. And that was just the children’s table – yes, capturing the essence of the novel, this was all about escalation. The main table, at the climax in Digestivo, is Mason Verger’s in Maryland USA. That meal was as blackly comic as could be hoped, taking a side swipe at the comic grotesquery of the novel. In fact, it was laugh out loud funny. And at moments like those, even the kaleidoscope and montage of previous episodes couldn’t break through. That served to make Lecter’s escape, always a weak piece of symbolism in Scott’s film, all the stronger. We saw the consequence rather than Lecter’s actions themselves.

Surrender

Ambiguity as a strength

Lecter’s was far more complicit in achieving Margot’s ends than in the book, and so too is the eel. But tellingly, the hair taken from Lecter, planted by Margot in the novel, was not by Bloom.

At the end it was almost reassuring to be back at Will’s house, albeit missing the dogs as much as he did, for Lecter’s final moments of freedom. That odd half-season did what the show does best: pull an incredibly satisfying resolution out of the impossible. And of course, use ambiguity as its strength. Will’s manipulation of the situation is even more ambiguous than Hannibal’s

Hannibal may seem self-serving, and that’s no doubt why many have turned against it, or never turned it on – but it twists in line with the story in its own faithful way. For all the fact that show runner Bryan Fuller called this season a jumping on point, it’s perhaps been more opaque than ever. Certainly, it was more rewarding in view of the previous two seasons. While roles from the later books were easily converted to a different flow of events, perhaps its greatest feat so far was the compelling reason for Hannibal to surrender. An incredibly satisfying punchline. That promises so much more than the petty revenge that always seemed to push the Lecter’s hand in Red Dragon. The riddle of how that comes to pass, whether he displays anger and indeed, who it’s aimed at will prove irresistible later this year.

To have reached Red Dragon is a mighty achievement, and perhaps that was all the show was destined to do. Having made Will Graham so utterly integral to Hannibal Lecter, could we have ever replaced him with Clarice Starling? Aside from low ratings, the issue of missing rights continue to dog the show. It never shook the impression that it would kill for a bottle of Chianti to go with a full set of filming rights to the whole saga, rather than pulling the most out of Red Dragon. It looks so ridiculous now.

In a way, a shame though it is, there’s something rather fitting about this version of the tale, one that promised to become definitive, struggling to cast off a chrysalis formed by factors beyond its control. Hannibal Lecter’s behind bars now, so we should all feel safe…

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