The anthropocene extinction, which Jack quite reasonably argues should be called the capitalocene extinction, is by some margin the most urgent philosophical issue facing humanity today. So let’s talk about a pretentiously well-directed television show that purports to be a crime drama, but is really just a vehicle for two men to urgently discuss the nature of the universe.
Let us suppose for the moment that I am talking about True Detective. Certainly I am not mischaracterizing it, although in its second season it made a substantial effort to engage with the question of what role women have in a universe that exists primarily for men to urgently discuss the nature of. (And indeed, of white men; were I to make one and only one suggestion for a third season, it would be for a main character of color who might prove capable of deflating the pretensions of the other detectives in the way Ani did this season.) Indeed, in many ways it is this second season that is easiest to start with; the most straightforward way to understand what sort of show that it is, thus understanding why its failure to quite be that in its first season was so electrifying.
On its most basic level, True Detective is a piece of noir. The plot of the second season – criticized by unimaginative reviewers as a convoluted mess – is in reality no worse than the legendarily incoherent classic The Big Sleep. And Chandler is certainly a major touchstone for the specifically Califronian subgenre of noir that True Detective works in this season – it’s all very “down these mean streets a man must go.” (In contrast with its first, southern gothic-inflected take on noir.)
Within noir, at least in the Chandler model, the story is not so much a mystery as it is a test of the detective’s soul. The investigation of a crime is merely a vehicle for this trial and tribulation. And that’s very obvious in Season Two of True Detective, where the overall structure is primarily that of a classical tragedy – the falls of Ray and Frank, presented in parallel at the story’s climax. But crucially, their downfalls are then subsumed by the third strand of narrative, Ani’s successful escape and eventual telling of the story. True Detective becomes, in other words, not a story about the tragic downfall of the male heroes, but about the act of surviving a Greek tragedy, Ani being, herself, named after a character who failed to do just that.
(This is one of the most basic themes of True Detective: the failures of masculinity. All of the leads of the show, Ani included, attempt to perform masculinity and, in crucial ways, fail and are shown to be inadequate: Frank’s blue balls in his heart, Ray’s pathetic threats to the father of his son’s bully, Ani’s self-destructive determination to fuck like one of the guys, Paul’s entire plot and conflict in a thuddingly literal way, and, for that matter, Rust and Marty in a variety of ways. This is one of the many points critics of the second season simply failed miserably at, repeatedly taking lines as attempts at serious philosophy when the sole point of them was to be failed and inadequate statements. “Astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore,” for instance – a line whose banality and pretension is the point; it’s a failed attempt on Ray’s part to connect with his son. Even the show’s title is subjected to this sort of critique in the first season as Marty cracks “True crime. That’s the genre, not the title.”)
What makes a tragedy a tragedy is the sense of omnipresent fate. Aristotle defines the genre in terms of a chain of events that mutually reinforce each other’s likelihood and necessity. In other words, there is always implicitly a god in tragedy, because the world of a tragedy is designed for a purpose, namely to establish the inevitability of the hero’s fall. “The interior’s poison.”
Within True Detective, this is always framed with the idea that this is a fallen world. The edges of it are always rotting into an unspeakable barbarism; something that cannot quite be displayed and seen, like the secret practices of the Chessani patriarchs, or, to reach back to Season One, the video of Marie Fontaneau’s sacrifice. The truth of being a detective is the act of seeing the unspeakable and fundamental rot; of knowing the truth of the fallen world, and being condemned to live with that vision. Indeed, more than just being condemned, being justly condemned. “We get the world we deserve.”
(In this regard consider Frank, who is defined precisely by his inability to see; the world of paper mache that he surrounds himself with, and does not notice being torn away. Recall that his scarring tragedy is about darkness; he cannot see the rat in the basement. He can never see. Over and over again he proclaims that the scales have fallen from his eyes, and each time he is wrong. He doesn’t even see himself die. He is, til the end, resolutely not a detective.)
But in Season One True Detective accidentally outdid itself, hitting on an idea far more interesting than its own and not realizing that it was doing so. Indeed, most takes on the first season, including the spectacularly moronic plagiarism accusations leveled against it, fundamentally err in this regard, ending up so entranced by the idea of what True Detective could have been that they miss what it actually was. Let’s start, then, with what it was.
The easiest way to discern this is to start with the ending – Rust Cohle’s religious conversion outside the hospital. This comes in two stages, of which the second – the spiel about the light and the dark and the stars – is the most revealing, in that it, unlike all Rust’s earlier “march hand-in-hand into extinction” bits, is straightforwardly plagiarized (not that there’s anything wrong with some well-done plagiary), coming out of issue #10 of a b-list Alan Moore comic called Top Ten. I say plagiarized because unlike the Ligotti bits, this is used not with the intention of sending clever readers towards a particular literary text or tradition, but simply because Pizzolatto couldn’t think of a better final image than the one Alan Moore thought of for one of the later issues of his throwaway book about cops in a city where everyone’s a superhero.
The problem with this is simply one of ambition; the use of a pretty good Alan Moore line as a profession of divine grace that serves as a refutation of Thomas Ligotti. Within Pizzolatto’s schema, of course, it’s not supposed to be brilliant – this is just the one bit of philosophical bullshit we get from the born again post-nihilist Rust Cohle, meant to be as much a piece of slightly ridiculous performativity as the drunkenly drawled (and also Moorean) “time is a flat circle” or “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” or, for that matter, “I’ll buttfuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse” (c.f. Crossed +100), except belonging to a new philosophical system.
The trouble is that the old one is largely more interesting. There are a lot of reasons people glommed onto the first season of True Detective: McConaughey’s impressive performance and the pregnant implications of Carcosa and the larger genre of weird fiction it represents, for instance. But part of it is simply that the philosophical ideas Cohle riffs upon are by and large fascinating. The carefully worked out and uncompromising nihilism that Ligotti offers in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, the work most riffed on for Cohle’s philosophical musings throughout the series, is a wildly invigorating and potential-laden worldview that aggressively challenges fundamental principles of the western liberal consensus that has at this point become the first ideology to achieve a functional global conquest. And compared to it, a fairly run of the mill story about a perverted serial killer just doesn’t really compare.
Put another way, much as Pizzolatto obviously has tremendous affection for Ligotti, he’s ultimately unwilling to present Ligotti as anything other than a particularly extreme form of macho bullshit – the ultimate embodiment of the hard-boiled detective he seeks to deconstruct. But ultimately all he can muster is exactly the sort of blithe platitude that Ligotti mocks in literally the first chapter of The Conspiracy of the Human Race as amounting to “being alive is all right.” Pizzolatto, in other words, makes the crucial mistake of stealing from a literary tradition he can’t hope to match the glories of. Nothing in True Detective’s first season is anywhere near as interesting as turning off the television and dipping into Ligotti. Its greatest contribution to the world is simply introducing millions of television viewers to a writer with a far more interesting and relevant vision.
And it is the relevance, ultimately, that fascinates me. Ligotti’s a very good choice for the age of the anthropocene extinction. The last great eschatology was nuclear armageddon. But nuclear armageddon was an apocalypse ultimately perpetuated by individual action. Its fascination was with the button – the simple act that signified the end of all things. Its terror was that there existed someone with the ability to put their finger on the button and the madness to keep pushing downwards once they do. The eschatology of our present age, however, is an entirely different and more alarming affair, based on the collective guilt of how human civilization has deformed the world, most obviously, in 2015, in the form of climate change. There is no button, and no way for individual action, on any level, to stop or turn back the literally rising tide. More than that, it is not individual sins that have caused the crisis – rather it is the very nature of the post-industrial age. It is that we have built a world where cars and plastics and factory farming are implacable realities that cannot simply be turned back from as a matter of individual choice.
In other words, the previous eschaton stemmed out of the danger of a solitary madman. This one stems out of the very existence of our civilization, a necessary and awful consequence of our basic sense of who we are as people. In the age of the anthropocene extinction, the view that “we are creatures that should not exist by natural law” is worthwhile in a way that “the light’s winning” is simply not.
Thankfully, the light is not winning in Hannibal. The world of Hannibal is all darknesses and quiet streams. It is a dark that is made constantly tangible; a product of one of the most visionary aesthetics ever seen on television. It is habitually experimental and full of gothic excess, to an extent that makes discussions of why it was not more popular almost beside the point. (In this regard as well it is much like True Detective Season Two.) It’s also, for what it’s worth, simply one of the best television shows of its era or any other; a masterpiece for the ages whose influence is going to be felt again and again over the next twenty years.
Its secret is not one, in every sense: Hannibal Lecter. Already an iconic monster, he’s exquisitely deployed in the form of Mads Mikkelsen, who gives as much a career performance as Hopkins did. Mikkelsen’s Lecter is exquisitely mannered, and yet with something bestial always waiting to tear out from within it. He plays the part without any of Hopkins’s giddy leering, offering a deliberate and meticulous performance to match the character’s deliberate and meticulous taste. He is, of course, playing a fundamentally different character; for all but six episodes he plays a free Lecter, in the prime of his murderous career. All the same, where Hopkins’s character is a classic cinematic villain, Mikkelsen’s feels like something entirely different; one is compelled to attempt hyperbole: “the best villain since Milton’s Satan,” perhaps.
It is Hannibal around whom the show’s aesthetic bends. It is not that he is the only monster in the series; the entire point of Harris’s style of horror has always been the infinite number of ways in which intelligible desire can contort into monstrosity. That’s the entire point of Will Graham; to demonstrate the awful scope of what we can imagine ourselves to be. But Hannibal is the ur-monster, defined by the fact that he cannot be defeated or eliminated. He is that which will always haunt the world.
It is on this point that Hannibal pulls its most fundamental trick, which is understanding Harris’s story better than his telling or any previous adaptation has. It understands that the reason Hannibal is the ur-monster is that all monstrosities can eventually be made to converge into his.
His monstrosity, of course, is consumption. And the phrase “monstrous consumption” serves perfectly well to describe the overall aesthetic of Hannibal, most notably its lavishly trypophobic food design. But more important is the implication of the audience – its repeated cultivation of the pleasure of seeing through Hannibal’s person suit in ways the other characters do not, emphasized by the decision to wait until halfway through the first season before actually showing Hannibal killing someone, even as it inserts shots of him slicing up his victim’s lungs as early as the first episode.
But more fundamental is the way in which Hannibal cultivates an overall aesthetic of murder. The idea of bodily dismemberment as an act of art is reiterated throughout, from Will’s catchphrase upon deciphering a killer’s methodology, “this is my design,” up through Francis Dolarhyde’s Blakean transformation. But through Hannibal we are also gradually trained to become murder connoisseurs, learning to look at a crime scene the same way we look at a well-dressed table. Certainly Hannibal himself fills this role, hence what is possibly his best quip in the series, as he gazes at a patterned iris comprised of human bodies carefully selected for their skin tone and comments to its creator, in all sincerity, “I love your work” before helping him finish it by murdering him and sewing him into the center of the eye (after taking a leg for himself). But more to the point, part of Hannibal’s murderous pathology is a form of art criticism on humanity, as evidenced by his default mode of picking victims, namely eating the rude.
We are, in other words, always invited to side with Hannibal. And this is true in a way that goes beyond the usual horror aesthetic of “the villain is the best part.” It’s not just that Hannibal is fun to watch, although he absolutely is. It’s that we, like Will Graham, are seduced by him. Although it’s easy to miss the key phrase of that sentence, which in some ways would be better framed as “we are seduced by him like Will Graham,” because what’s key is specifically the nature of Will’s seduction – one based on his capacity for empathy. Will does not merely come to love Hannibal and want to be with him; he comes to understand Hannibal, and to think like him.
Empathy is, as a concept, one that gets a bad rap in fiction, due in part to the notion of the “empath” in genre fiction, popularized by Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as a variation on the telepath based on feeling emotions instead of hearing thoughts. This, however, involves a weirdly neutered sense of empathy; one that Will Graham serves as a corrective to. Graham’s empathy is in many regards more potent than telepathy would be; it’s based on the ability to understand someone. Will’s ability is, in effect, to create a model of another person inside his head. It’s an ability that, within Hannibal, is closely allied with Hannibal’s memory palace (what is it with Mikkelsens and mind palaces?), and, moreover, is itself a means of consumption; in the end, Will puts other people inside himself.
But what’s really key is that Will’s process of empathy is just what the viewer does in interpreting and understanding characters. A fictional character, after all, ultimately only exists as an empathic construction in someone else’s head: to interpret them is to consume them (and note how Francis Dolarhyde’s pathology is based on the act of looking). And so Will and audience alike are forced to consume Hannibal. Indeed, Hannibal feeds himself to them.
The thing is, as an ur-monster, Hannibal cannot simply be consumed. Or, more accurately, consumption of Hannibal is not a safe process. Central to Hannibal’s pathology is a very fundamental idea of eating someone as a form of transformation; Hannibal doesn’t just eat his victims, he contrives to feed them to people of significance to them, reshaping them without their knowledge into beings like him. Which is, of course, the entire plot of the series with regards to Will.
This gets at the key thing about Hannibal – another point where Fuller has carefully refined and honed the elements of the original narrative into something more laden with significance. Hannibal is a psychiatrist. In Harris, this is just a sort of incidental fact that contributes to his skillset; little more than an excuse for why Will and Clarice would want to talk to him. But in Hannibal it’s part of his identity, and a sincere one. Hannibal wants to help people. Specifically, he wants to help them be the best possible versions of themselves. Which, in his view, usually means helping them kill some dudes.
(Although perhaps the most deliciously unsettling version of this is his extended act of feeding Abel Gideon to himself so that Gideon can properly understand what it means to be the Chesapeake Ripper.)
But there’s an unsettling consequence to all of this; if the show puts us in the basic position of Will Graham, as the subject of Hannibal’s efforts at engendering a transformation into our best and most murderous selves, does it not ultimately constitute an endorsement of being a serial killer? Indeed, given the frequency with which the show is made up of philosophical conversations, generally ones in which Hannibal leads someone inexorably towards the conclusion that they should embrace their most murderous selves, it comes spectacularly close to simply being murder propaganda.
There are some hedges, certainly. For one, there’s a campness to Hannibal that pervades everything and flags nothing to be taken as quite sincere, which blunts the argument. For another, the argument Hannibal ultimately makes for his propensity to eat people is idiosyncratic. As he notes to Abel, “it’s only cannibalism if we’re equals.” Which is not to say that Hannibal views his victims as less than human; at least, not in the case of his “big ticket” victims. (The rude people who make up his everyday murders are pretty clearly less than human to him.) Rather, it’s that Hannibal is superhuman.
I do not mean this in a crassly supernatural sense, although nothing in the narrative rules this out, and there are numerous regards in which one might as well just treat Hannibal as a literal demon. Instead I mean that Hannibal is presented as a perfected man; a figure of innumerable artistic talents with impeccable taste and limitless capacity for sensual pleasure. In other words, the reason that Hannibal gets to eat us with impunity is that he’s going to enjoy the taste of us much more than we enjoy our lowly little lives.
In this regard, then, it’s almost the perfect answer to True Detective. Certainly it’s difficult to imagine Hannibal responding to any of the six main True Detective characters without deciding to eat them about three lines in; only Rust seems likely to have any serious odds of survival, and that’s more in the Bedelia Du Maurier sense of being someone Hannibal would want to ripen a bit before consuming. Their fumbling around for some intrinsic notion of grace that redeems a fallen world is wholly pointless in the face of Hannibal, who, as Will observes (shortly after profiling God: his design is that elegance is more important than suffering) wants to defy God and reveal His own cruelty to Him. (Which is, of course, just his usual psychiatric practice.)
But there is a fundamental optimism to Hannibal here that True Detective lacks. Recall the nature of a true detective: to have seen the awful truth of the world and thus be unable to stop seeing. Hannibal, however, is the ultimate False Detective. This is, as my title suggests, on one level simply a literal truth: he impersonates a detective repeatedly in Hannibal, pretending to be on the side of Jack Crawford while quietly undermining the FBI whenever it amuses him to do so. But there’s something larger to it – Hannibal pretends to be interested in the matter of observation, when in fact he is only interested in participation. He wants to act and shape, not to reason or compare. His business is to create.
On one level this is simply because Hannibal is the awful truth of the world, but of course, he’s not awful, at least not in the sense of “a thing that is fundamentally repulsive” that awful truths in True Detective are. Which is to say, he’s a very different awful truth than that of True Detective. Hannibal does not take place in a fallen world. It does not particularly take place in a redeemed world either, although messianic reading of Hannibal is certainly possible if you want to imagine a monstrous God. (Which is largely what Will does.)
Rather, it takes place in a world where such concerns are largely immaterial, simply because it is itself a material world. This is perhaps a strange thing to say of such a hyper-stylized show, but it remains the case. Indeed, Hannibal is almost hyper-focused on the material – a show that’s fixated on the act of reminding its audience that they are meat. Its logic is repeatedly that of animals, predators, and prey. It is not a show that rejects consciousness in a Ligottian way – its aestheticism doesn’t permit that, ultimately. But consciousness, in Hannibal, is firmly a phenomenon of flesh.
But this does not actually address the critique raised against True Detective – that its worldview is insufficient in the face of its own nihilistic counterargument. To some extent Hannibal simply sidesteps this by never nicking large swaths of Thomas Ligotti, and thus never raising the question of how it adequately formulates a response to intense philosophical pessimism in the first place. But that’s a boring answer, and moreover one that doesn’t work here, in the context of pitting the two shows against each other.
Which is to say that I think, in a real sense, Hannibal does offer a meaningful engagement with the eschatology of 2015. If we take seriously the idea that the anthropocene extinction poses a fundamental challenge to the basic value of the anthropic, then Hannibal’s solution – don’t be human – becomes difficult to entirely reject. We ought, perhaps, find a different approach to our inhumanity than becoming a cannibalistic serial killer, although on the whole even that is probably a lower priority than, say, abolishing capitalism.
Or perhaps more to the point, we ought, perhaps, follow Bedelia’s observation regarding Hannibal in the third season premiere, and recognize that this is not so much a show about ethics as it is about aesthetics. And in many regards, what’s important about the idea of inhumanity is its coherence and existence. Put another way, Hannibal creates a situation where we empathize with the inhuman, thus forcing us to acknowledge that humanity is not intrinsically an end in itself; that a world without us is both viable and potentially preferable – indeed, potentially preferable even according to the values imposed by consciousness – the cultivation of beauty, most notably.
In this regard, it differs in a key regard from the position espoused by Cohle and Ligotti, which suggests consciousness is fundamentally abhorrent to nature. But it also differs from the sort of “ticking clock for humanity” position typically linked to eschatological fears. The threat that Hannibal represents is not annihilation. It is, as always, consumption – that humanity will find itself to be nothing more than prey to be hunted down and eaten by nature and by history unless we prove ourselves rather more worthy than we have thus far. The danger becomes, simply put, that causing a mass extinction is rude.