Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dear Nick Fallon,

I have adored you for almost seven years but I've never written to you directly. I feel it's high time I let you know that you are, far and away, my all-time favorite soap opera character. Hands down, no questions asked. You smoke the competition. I even sent fan mail on your behalf to Days of Our Lives writers and producers, something I've never, ever done for another character on a daytime drama. I still remember your first day on the show. You were so hyper and silly. I was dubious. But by day two you'd won me over with your wit and charm and your enthusiastic, romantic nature. I loved that you fell head over heels in love with Chelsea the moment you laid eyes on her. Remember when you guys flew to Canada to help Shawn D. and Belle? And you stopped Philip from pursuing you by planting a knife on him at the airport? So cheeky. So smart. You and Chelsea had fantastic chemistry. I wanted nothing but good things for you two.

You didn't always make the wisest choices when it came to securing Chelsea's affections, though. Creating a fake online persona to woo her, using your boss in the medical lab as your avatar? Unwise. Especially considering he was a skeevy perve who tried to take advantage of her. But I understood your insecurities. Chelsea treated you like a lap dog when she first met you. It's only natural you would think you didn't stand a chance with her. And you came clean about that and you two were on the right path. I loved the day you helped her with her calculus homework and the two of you ended up making out. Wonderful, perfect first love stuff! You kids were beautiful! Course then she found out you lost your virginity to her mom, Billie. I stood by you after that, too. It was very much a wrong place, wrong time scenario. You still thought you didn't stand a chance with your dream girl so you took comfort in her sassy cougar-ma. It wasn't a full-blown, Mrs. Robinson type affair, just a one-off thing. I know you only ever had Chelsea in your heart. 

The day Chelsea learned the truth was devastating for both of you. That happened on Valentine's Day, didn't it? What a cruel twist of fate. You guys never really recovered from that betrayal. I hoped you could get past it but, let's be honest, it was never the same for you and Chels after that. That's why you agreed to compromise your morals and jump through hoops to try and earn her trust again. This brings me to the hairbrush saga. Remember the hairbrush? The one Willow the ex-prostitute used to frame Chelsea for the fire at Bo and Hope's house? The fire that Willow herself set after being rejected by Sean Douglas? You stole that brush so that Chelsea wouldn't be charged with the crime. It was illegal but it was admirable, too. The same cannot be said about your confrontation with Willow on the beach. You struggled. Willow fell and hit her head. She (and her unborn baby!) died instantly. What a mess. It became harder to defend you to fellow viewers at this point. You were something of a trainwreck. 

Here's the thing, though. Chelsea was a monster before she met you. The show put you two together so she could have a redemption arc at your expense. The more you screwed up the better she looked by comparison. And here's another thing (maybe the most important thing of all): all the mistakes you made were the result of your misguided efforts to make others love you. You never intended to hurt anybody. You just didn't want to be alone. That resonated with me. Big time. You were never a villain. To me you were a deeply flawed, tragic hero.

The show subjected you to further insults as you continued to fight for Chelsea and her love. Do you remember the trip to Vegas, when Jerry Springer acted as your gambling guru, and then you married a random stranger named China Lee and she split but saddled you with two kids? I don't blame you if you don't remember. You had pretty significant head trauma at the time. Not that Chelsea or anyone else noticed. Can you imagine a character like EJ or Lucas or Brady being saddled with even one of your crackpot storylines? I can't imagine any of them coming through something so humiliating with their dignity intact. But you did. And as often as you made mistakes you did a lot of stuff that was truly selfless and heroic. No one in Salem seems to remember any of the good stuff. Except for Kayla, who made a mention of you finding the antidote that saved her when she'd been poisoned. No one talks about how you fostered Artemis and Demarquette, those kids you picked up in Vegas, and eventually reunited them with their real parents. Or how you saved a pregnant Sami from a bomb planted in a bouquet of flowers. Or how you took a bullet for Melanie in Paris. This was one of your final acts of heroism but it also proved to be your downfall. 

How were you to know you'd get hooked on pain pills, go off your head and become obsessed with Melanie (and, let's be honest, she was only ever Chelsea-lite; you and your bad girl fixation). Sure, you stabbed her father, Trent, in the back and killed him but, in your defense, he was harassing her at the time. I'm sure, in your drug-addled state, you believed you were saving her life. And Trent was scum. Everyone in town had a reason to want him dead. That doesn't mean you should have let Caroline take the fall for it, or tried to gaslight Melanie into believing she'd done it herself. Not gonna lie, that was bad. But no worse, really, than what most characters on the show have done at one point or another. I had hoped you'd develop Dissociative Identity Disorder, like your mother, Jessica, and get a great big, juicy, angsty mental illness/therapy story. You would have rocked the hell out of that. Instead you got a prison sentence and, in January of 2009, you exited the show. I was heartbroken. For weeks. Even though you are not real I hated the idea of you withering away in some prison cell. I stopped watching Days of Our Lives in protest. I turned my back on Salem, convinced the show would never have the good sense to bring you back. And then, in May of 2012, the unthinkable occurred. Word came down that you were returning to the show. I'd never allowed myself to believe it was a possibility. I couldn't have been happier.

At first it was great. You were older, more subdued and brooding, but that was all to be expected. You were still my Nick. My Nick! Back in Salem. For the first several days I could barely wrap my head around it. There you were, working at the Brady Pub, bonding with the adorable Gabi and going out of your way to look out for her even though she'd made some terrible mistakes. Another bad girl. Some things never change, do they? And then it all went to hell. It was revealed that you were homophobic. When Gabi turned up pregnant after a one night stand with your cousin Will, who happens to be gay, you showed your true colors. You married Gabi and blackmailed Will into waiving his parental rights. You started spouting off nonsense about God and the Bible and what's right and wrong. You were so smug and arrogant. You sounded like an idiot. And you were filled with hate. 

I could always overlook your shortcomings but this was finally too much for me. This was not you. I thought about the years you'd spent in prison. I was certainly not alone in thinking you had been subjected to all sorts of horrible mistreatment at the hands of your fellow inmates. But it took forever for this to come to light. And in the interim I admit, with shame, that I lost my patience with you. I even tuned out for a few days. I couldn't stand to have my favorite twisted into something so unrecognizable. But I came back. I couldn't stay away. And I even began to enjoy you as a villain. You weren't the Nick I fell in love with but maybe you didn't need to be. Maybe, if I didn't love this new you, I could at least find him amusing, in a twisted way. And I did. I never condoned your homophobic antics but I liked seeing you stick it to certain characters. Salem is populated with hypocrites. You really didn't look like such a monster next to some of them. And you were still smart. There was something endearing about your tenacity and your single-mindedness when it came to Gabi and her baby. You tried so hard to construct a perfect, make-believe life for yourself. You were sort of like Gatsby with his green light. Doomed to fail. But I have a soft spot for underdogs.

Then, after months of speculation, we got the big reveal. You were raped and beaten in prison by a fellow inmate. Repeatedly. At your worst I didn't think this explanation would be enough to excuse your actions. And maybe it isn't. But it explains them. And based on what you told Maggie yesterday you've known all along that what you were doing to Will was wrong. I didn't recognize my beloved Nick Fallon during this storyline but it sounds like you didn't recognize yourself, either. Now that the truth has come to light it all makes sense to me. And yesterday, for the first time since January of '09, I caught a glimpse of the old Nick Fallon. The real Nick Fallon. My Nick Fallon. 

Welcome back, sweet pea. I don't have words for how much I've missed you. And I can never properly express why you mean so much to me. I'm not even sure I understand it myself. But I'm sorry for what's happened to you. And I'm sorry I gave up on you, even if it was only for a few days. That won't happen again. No matter what happens I am in your corner. Always. 

PS - Your portrayer, Blake Berris, is to be commended for bringing you to such brilliant life. As are all the writers who have helped, over the years, to make you real. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

We Need to Talk About Hannibal

I am, at present, experiencing a blinding level of love for NBC's Hannibal, a moody, unsettling, glorious smorgasbord of a show that has eclipsed everything else that I am currently watching. The colors, the sets, the costumes, the writing and the actors are all incredible. It's so visually sumptuous and emotionally engaging that I want to gobble it up. I don't watch a lot of network television but I would if more of it looked and felt like this. While it may not be as groundbreaking as Twin Peaks was when it debuted in 1990 there's something about Hannibal that reminds me of the earlier show; it's dreamy and arty and breaks with prescribed conventions for what mainstream television ought to be. It doesn't even seem to be aware of those conventions. It just turns up each week, smack-dab in the middle of the primetime lineup, and does its own sweet, strange thing.

To date author Thomas Harris has written four books that feature the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He first appeared in Red Dragon and reappeared in its two sequels, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. A fourth book, the prequel Hannibal Rising, explored his early years. I will confess that I have never read any of these novels (though I just started Red Dragon) and my knowledge of "Hannibal the Cannibal" and his universe comes entirely from the movie adaptations. I am most familiar with The Silence of the Lambs, which I have seen more times than I can remember. The premise, FBI trainee Clarice Starling enlists the incarcerated Lecter to help her capture another serial killer, is intriguing in and of itself but what makes the story truly special is the relationship that develops between these two characters. Lecter offers his help but only if Clarice will tell him personal information about herself, specifically painful personal memories from her past. And while it would be easy to assume Lecter's doing this simply to amuse himself at Starling's expense I want to believe there's more going on than just cruel mind games. Lecter seems to admire Clarice for her tenacity and her bravery. She's willing to lay bare her soul to a monster if it means she can save an innocent woman from being killed. For her part Clarice seems to respect Lecter, or at least the parts of him that appear to be cultured and thoughtful. They are both outsiders, albeit in very different ways, but perhaps that's all they need to connect on some level with each other. It's a stretch to read romantic love into their exchanges but I can't help but think it's there, bristling beneath the surface. I know the novel Hannibal concludes with the pair as lovers but, until I read it for myself, their story works better for me if they remain unrequited.

Before Lecter ever crossed paths with Clarice Starling, however, he matched minds with FBI profiler Will Graham in Red Dragon. Graham is the man who captured Lecter, and was nearly killed by him in the process. While they can each acknowledge the other's brilliance their relationship is tempered by Graham's fear of Lecter and Lecter's resentment towards (and desire for revenge against) Graham, the man who took away his freedom and forced him to live an uncivilized life inside a tiny cell.

Chronologically, the NBC series Hannibal takes place in the space between Hannibal Rising and Red Dragon. It introduces us to Will Graham, a man with an inscrutable mind. Graham can track down evil precisely because he can walk so easily in its shoes. He could be an incredible FBI agent save for the fact that he's not psychologically stable enough to pass the bureau's screening tests. Instead he's given a teaching position at the FBI Academy, where his insights can, hopefully, help others catch the most elusive criminals. That is until Jack Crawford, Agent-in-Charge of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, implores him to help on a specific case. Eventually Crawford convinces Graham to work for him as a Special Investigator on a regular basis, despite Graham's misgivings and those of his friend and colleague, psychiatry professor and FBI consultant Alana Bloom. Although Graham's thought processes are a boon to the FBI the work he's asked to do for them takes a terrible toll on his emotional well-being. It's easy for Graham to look at a crime scene and imagine himself as the killer but it's much more difficult for him to come back to himself each time. Violent thoughts and violent acts plaque his dreams and the more he subjects himself to them the more inept he is at shutting them out. 

Enter Hannibal Lecter: Brilliant forensic psychiatrist, upstanding member of the community, friend and mentor to Alana Bloom, secret sadist who delights in torturing and eating his victims. Crawford brings him into the fold to asses Graham's mental stability. Lecter seems fascinated by Graham, whom he describes to Crawford as possessing "pure empathy." It's his ability to feel so acutely what others are feeling that allows Graham to place himself so easily inside the headspace of even the most confounding and malignant criminal minds. So it makes sense that Lecter, a man who, quite possibly, feels nothing for anyone other than himself, would find someone like Graham intriguing. Graham, a socially inept man who self-identifies as possessing traits akin to people diagnosed with autism or Asperger's, initially finds Lecter off-putting and uninteresting. That changes, however, as they spend more time together. With each subsequent episode of Hannibal Graham appears more at ease around Dr. Lecter. At this point I would say Graham considers him a friend. Graham begins checking in with Lecter regularly as a patient, despite the fact that he doesn't really believe therapy "works on him." Lecter becomes the one person Graham can talk to about the toll the work he's doing with Crawford takes on his psyche. Hannibal is meant to be the lifeline that brings Will back when his mind goes to dark places. Privately, the good doctor seems to have his own sinister agenda.

I want to write about all the reasons I love this show and I honestly don't know where to start. I guess if I begin at the beginning the first thing I fell in love with was Will Graham. I have seen both of his big screen incarnations, in Manhunter and Red Dragon, but until this series the character never resonated with me the way that Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling did. I don't feel like I ever really understood the burden of Graham's "gift" before now. He can let the bad in but he cannot shut it out. How could he feel anything but an overwhelming sense of fear every time he slips into the mind of a killer he's trying to catch? What if he begins to like the idea of killing? What if, in trying to catch the monsters, he becomes one himself? This is a man who bristles at the idea of being sociable, to the degree that he can barely make eye contact with other people, but who seems to long for connection. What must it be like to be so attuned to the feelings of others but also so closed off from everyone around you? I love the scene in the first episode where he earns the trust of a stray dog he sees running down the road. He takes the dog home, cleans him up, names him "Winston," and introduces him to the other six strays he's rescued. It's the closest the character comes to appearing happy and at ease within his own skin. The Will Graham of Hannibal, played by the wonderfully gifted Hugh Dancy, is so raw and fragile that, at times, it's hard for me to watch him. But he's so compelling and endearing that I cannot look away.

Dancy's Will has a perfect foil in Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal. They are, by all outward appearances, polar opposites. Will is nervous, uncomfortable and awkward while Hannibal is calm, cool and assured. Will is rumpled and unkempt but Hannibal is always immaculately dressed (in some of the most stunning suits I've ever seen) and immpeccably well-groomed. Will's face betrays every emotion he feels but Hannibal's face is still and placid as a mask. Hannibal exudes confidence, to the point where you can't imagine he's ever had to second-guess himself in his life. Hannibal is unflappable. Nothing phases him. Nothing frightens him. Will all but vibrates with fear. Mikkelsen has stated in interviews that he plays Hannibal as Lucifer moving amongst mortals and that is exactly how he appears. Hannibal is duplicitous and wicked. He's insinuating himself into Will's life and his work in order to undermine both and yet there's something about him that is so irresistible. I don't want Hannibal to succeed in orchestrating Will Graham's downfall... but I don't necessarily want him to fail, either.

Anthony Hopkins performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is iconic and it deserves to be. Hopkins is brilliant in the role. He is terrifyingly cruel and barbaric but also refined, well-mannered and enormously intelligent. Does he feel anything for anyone other than himself? Is he even capable of such a thing? When I watch The Silence of the Lambs I always get the sense that he feels something genuine for Clarice. I have a harder time figuring out if Mikkelsen's Lecter feels anything for any of his friends or colleagues. In last week's episode he attended a charity benefit and was visibly moved by an opera singer's exquisite solo. I am very curious to see if he will exhibit the same level of emotion in regard to any of the other characters on the show. I applaud Mikkelsen for taking on a character like Lecter, who is so celebrated and so often associated with Hopkins, and making him entirely his own dark, seductive creation. 

The Graham / Lecter relationship would be enough, on its own, to hold my interest each week. It's icing on the cake that all the other characters on Hannibal are fantastic as well. Lawrence Fishburne's Jack Crawford is stellar. He's such an authoritative and commanding presence. If Hannibal is the devil on Will Graham's shoulder, tempting him, on some subconscious level, to give in to his darker urges and impulses, then Crawford is the voice of reason and right, imploring Will to use his talent for the greater good. That's not to say that Crawford is a saint. While I appreciate his passion for justice it frustrates me to see him treat Will as a means to an end. I believe he cares about his colleague but at times he's also painfully dismissive of the toll his demands take on Will's well-being. Will is fortunate, however, to have a friend like Alana Bloom, who has no self-serving agenda where he's concerned and genuinely cares for him. Caroline Dhavernas plays Bloom with warmth, wit and compassion. She's truly admirable and appealing. Equally appealing is Hettiene Park, who plays Beverly Katz, a crime scene investigator who specializes in fiber analysis. I like that she's sassy and straightforward and that she doesn't treat Will like he's fragile or unstable. She treats him the same way she does everyone else and he seems to appreciate that. I like the other members of the forensic team, too, as well as all the other supporting players. Lara Jean Chorostecki is a hoot as sleazy tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds. She's so underhanded and self-serving and so unrepentant about the trouble she stirs up. I admire her moxie and I think she's really fun to hate. Kacey Rohl is doing a marvelous job as the enigmatic Abigail Hobbs, a serial killer's daughter who is rescued by Will Graham but also orphaned by him in the process. She's the daughter Graham wishes he could have, if only he could take her in as easily as he does his other strays. Abigail, however, seems more at ease around Hannibal Lecter, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Lecter uses that to his advantage in one nefarious way or another. I enjoy all the characters on Hannibal because I feel like they have been so meticulously crafted and developed. The level of care given to each one is wonderful. I buy them as complex beings with rich interior lives. To me they feel real.

Even though the characters feel real to me everything else about Hannibal feels slightly off, but in the best possible way. This makes sense because so much of the show is presented from the point of view of Will Graham, a man whose tenuous grasp on reality seems to further deteriorate as the series progresses. Each week Graham looks a little more haggard. He can barely sleep at night and when he does he is tormented by strange and terrible dreams. His sleeplessness forces his dreams into his waking world. I love the giant, feathered stag that frequently appears to Graham when he's alone. It stalks him in his dreams but also shuffles by sometimes as a hallucination while he's awake. Is it a harbinger or an invitation? I have no idea but it's a great, haunting image.

From an aesthetic standpoint Hannibal is peerless. I usually miss half the dialogue the first go around because I'm so distracted by the arresting visual flair of the show. Even the most gruesome crime scenes are beautiful because they are so elegantly and artistically staged. I love that so much emphasis is placed on the beauty of the meals that Hannibal prepares. Even though I know he's using his victims to feed his unsuspecting friends I can't help but salivate when I see him cooking.  The attention to detail on this show is incredible. I find myself revisiting every episode and picking up something new each time I watch.

So much has been made about the amount of violence and gore the audience sees on Hannibal. It's been criticized for being too graphic for network television. Since I watch next to nothing on network TV I cannot speak to the level of violence on this show in comparison to other network programming. I do not think the graphic content on Hannibal is excessive given the nature of the show. I have a hard time even thinking of Hannibal as a crime show because the crimes are mostly just excuses to get the characters talking about themselves or to explore particular relationships between different characters. Anyone who watches Hannibal and sees only ugliness and brutality should look closer. To me the show is deeply human. It is not violence for the sake of violence or mindless torture porn. It is emotionally, intellectually and artistically satisfying. 

Hannibal changes some of the established facts of the Harris series but it feels faithful, in spirit, to what I've seen on the big screen. Creator Bryan Fuller has already stated that later seasons will cover the same period of time already covered in Red Dragon and its sequels. I, for one, would love to see this show's take on those stories. Frankly, at this point, I will feel very cheated if I don't get to see them. Hannibal is absolutely everything I want in a television series and I applaud NBC for taking a chance on something this unconventional and unique. I hope it sticks around for a very long time.