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“Will Graham Takes the Beltway: Geography in Hannibal,” by dignityisforotherpeople

I was thinking recently about how different Hannibal would be if it were set in the “real world.” Let me lay some bullet points on you:

  • The show is set in the DC metropolitan area—you would think that would be a basic fact but it’s totally erased. I can’t think of any scenes that take place in the city, or even any conversations that mention it.
  • Will lives in Wolf Trap, VA, which is indeed very lovely, treed and hilly, but it’s much closer to DC than the show would have you believe. His commute to Quantico would be 45 minutes to an hour at best on the Beltway and I-95, two of the most buttstank snarlfuck roads in all Christendom. (He is helped somewhat by his anti-typical commuteaway from DC in the morning and towards in the evening.)
  • Will lives practically next to Dulles airport, which is convenient given that he seems to go to Minnesota and back several times a day (along with the rest of the FBI team). Delta runs a nonstop from Dulles to Minneapolis that’s about 2h30m airtime, which means that, with air travel holdups etc, each journey is probably at least 5 hours door-to-door, depending on where he’s going in MN.
  • Hannibal lives in Baltimore, 60-90 minutes from Will’s house, and at least 2 hours from Quantico—again, via a truly heinous highway grind. He ought to be using a different airport altogether: he’d fly out of BWI (Baltimore-Washington International). But not only is Hannibal logistically far away from the others, he is psychogeographically practically on another planet. The DC metro area regards Baltimore as, for all intents and purposes, a colony of the moon. They have a nice aquarium, I have heard, there on the moon.
  • I’m from the area, but it’s hard for me to remember as I watch that it’s really set in my home, because it doesn’t look like home. Since filming takes place in Toronto, the landscape itself is playing a role: Will’s house is actually Toronto-as-Mid-Atlantic-pastoral. Also, even though I can tell at a gut level that the sets look slightly wrong, I can’t explain why, past “the trees are … different.” Our society is extremely ecologically illiterate, and expediencies like filming off-site both rely on and reinforce that. The landscapes of Toronto, Bloomington, and Wolf Trap actually do look different from each other; film and TV rely on our easy acceptance that a given stand of trees is wherever the chyron tells us it is.

This skates across a combination of logistical, cultural, and ecological aspects of place—all of which the show ignores. But still, place is important in the show; you can hardly find a mention that doesn’t nod to its beautiful sets and intense atmosphere.

What you find in Hannibal, instead of realism, is a radically abstracted, selective version of America. Its Baltimore is a kind of old-world-loving cultural center—opera, string shops, and old brick—with no hint of 21st century commercialism. Its opposite number is the rural, gold-lit countryside where Will and Abigail live; and just as the city is noncommercial, the countryside is nonagricultural. And while there’s no industrial or economic infrastructure in this world, there are institutions. Quantico and the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane are each oppressive, regimented Brutalist spaces (with slightly more comforting public faces: Chilton’s smug office, the still-grim but wood-panelled lecture halls of the FBI).

Each of these spaces has a figure that presides over it: Hannibal in Baltimore, Jack at Quantico, Chilton at the hospital—all of whom seek to control Will. And while the countryside is Will’s home base, it’s also the home of the figure who poses the greatest threat to his own self-conception, Hobbs. None of the others are especially good for Will, but Hobbs is the only one who he’s afraid of being like.

Hannibal is a show about the mind—the engine at its heart isn’t “omg cannibalism,” but the tectonic crashing of irreconcilable worldviews. Geography in Hannibal is not about portraying the world, but about creating functional spaces for the expression and interaction of character.

This is an interesting vantage point for thinking about the other characters, too. Alana’s ineffectiveness is reflected in her lack of her own home turf—she is literally marginalized, always trying to “buffer” for Will, but never with enough authority to out-compete the others. Bedelia is another variation: she has her own space, but it’s sufficiently isolated that her ability to influence, or even observe, is minimal. Freddie Lounds, on the other hand, uses her wily, snoopy, infiltrating unscrupulousness to make herself a potent destabilizing force. She’s a boundary-stalker with no allegiances—or you could think of it as, Freddie rules over the internet: a non-space that’s always close by.

The most interesting case, though, is Abigail in the hospital. This way of thinking about space makes it obvious why she’s in a facility that seems to have no doctors or administrative figures: it’s a neutral zone, controlled by no character, as the others all pursue her for their own (emotional or practical) ends. Hence everyone pulling her out of the hospital hither and thither. And it gives special poignance to her own temporary escapes (which we only hear about incidentally from Jack, and never get to see): what would Abigail look like, under her own dominion?


Will Graham Takes the Beltway: Geography in Hannibal,” by dignityisforotherpeople, was originally posted on October 30, 2013

One comment on ““Will Graham Takes the Beltway: Geography in Hannibal,” by dignityisforotherpeople

  1. Pingback: The Fan Meta Reader 2014 Masterpost | The Fan Meta Reader

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