Archetypes: Television: ‘Hannibal,’ the Stag and the Artemis Thing (2015)

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NBC

Motown released one of Smokey Robinson’s slyest songs, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” recorded by the Marvelettes, in late December 1966. And if Bryan Fuller, creator of the equally sly, just-ended series “Hannibal,” had listened to this ditty for inspiration for the entirety of show’s three seasons, it shows.

The song is a wonder of two lovers’ shifting identities, alternating pursuit with surrender. The lover who reveals the strategy – lead singer Wanda Young-Rogers – says she’s secretly been trailing her man, like a fox that sees a rabbit as prey. But she makes clear that, to get to her endgame, she “had to learn your ways and your habits.”

The song’s twist, of course, is one of those Venus-flytrap endings. The lover finds herself in her man’s arms, and realizes she’s the one who’s been captured instead, as the cunning tenderness of her ploys is reciprocated by a love that “hits me like a sudden slap,” a metaphor that hews closely to love’s sometimes violent underbelly. (The song doesn’t mention perilous cliffside embraces, in case you’re wondering.)

Of course, in “Hannibal,” both lead male characters are proactive hunters: Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) aims to kill Will (Hugh Dancy), and Will, Hannibal, which simultaneously makes each hunter the prey, a notion best expressed through the stag, the series’ featured animal. One of Hannibal’s kills is posed and impaled on a stag, and he’s also got a sculpted version of the thing, later used as a weapon, in his office. In Will, the hallucinatory image of the stag appears and retreats in and out of unconsciousness. The adage is to the victor belongs the spoils. Except, in “Hannibal,” the labels get blurred.

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NBC

Both men are connected to the stag. Hannibal is a serial killer who eats his victims – as a hunter would eat a slaughtered creature for sustenance – and Will is a criminal profiler whose gift is getting into the psyches of the murderers he’s tracking. The stag works as both hunter and prey through the myth of Actaeon, a mythical hunter who unfortunately gets on the bad side of the goddess Artemis, also known as Diana of the Hunt. She turned Actaeon into a stag, which was pursued and killed by his dogs.

Artemis/Diana, however, is the linchpin of the series. Author Barbara G. Walker cites the goddess’s use of the stag – as one of the earliest versions of the horned god – as her sacrificial consort. Also relevant is horned animals,’ in general, but especially the stag because of its association with male sexuality. In this mythic soup swirl Hannibal and Will, both mirror images of the other, both goddess-controlled hunter and prey, and each suffused with an Aries-fueled eroticism which, in the finale, played out in a pre-death embrace, like an unconsummated yet still fiery ember.

As a key female presence, Bedelia (Gillian Anderson), a fellow psychiatrist, has ties to Artemis/Diana, acting as Hannibal’s consort and Will’s confidante who, if the coda to the finale is any indication, is as much Hannibal’s prey as she is his protector.

“Hannibal”’s remarkable lushness was especially on view during the serial-killer psychiatrist’s culinary creations from both the fleshy and organ parts of his trophies – his primitive side abhorred waste; all cuts were lovingly fabricated – which Will also ingested. There’s a sacramental, Eucharistic motif to the entire series, as this trio of characters took in the triumphs of the hunt, and becoming or improving upon the very thing one ingests.

The song’s first verse also eerily sets up a theme of what turned out to be the show’s final season. The transcendent element behind the kills by the Red Dragon a/k/a The Tooth Fairy is transformation and mirroring. And as the song’s lyrics describe it, the world’s put on a new face, “certain things rearrange,” with the world now seeming like a totally new place.

A place that many fans of “Hannibal” will surely miss.

Archetypes: Hunter. Prey.

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