Obscure spoilers for the series finale. You were warned.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis approaches the idea of transformation through individuals given a chance to escape their dreary world for one day and dwell on the outskirts of a higher plain. Some of them retreat back to the bus, to return to the dismal world “below,” because they cannot endure the pain of walking on the grass. It is so much more “real” than they are, that though they are like ghosts in this place, it pains their feet. Only a few choose to walk toward the distant mountains and endure the pain, growing “more real” with each step. Lewis is illustrating the idea that our journey into eternity begins here and now. To borrow my favorite quote from Gladiator, “what we do in life echoes into eternity.” Once we make the decision to follow Christ, we begin our transformation into realness; for we are but ghosts, a pale imitation of our desired form, and it is through our steady walk toward the mountains and eternity, enduring each agonizing experience of becoming more “real” that we begin to BECOME.
All of us are in a state of “becoming” – either transforming into realness, or fading away. We are either walking toward our true purpose and form, or away from it into… well, to borrow another quote from Gladiator, “shadows and dust.” Meaningless specks cast into the wind. In the act of doing, we BECOME… more like our Lord or more like the forces of evil.
Hannibal also illustrates this point, albeit in a grotesque manner, but tragically, it is in an act of BECOMING that has no happy ending, for it is a steady process of disintegration rather than ascent. Where Lewis gave hope, Hannibal gives emptiness. One nudges the characters toward becoming more real, the other turns them into hollow beings. The books and films have always incorporated “transformation” (BECOMING) into their overall themes, both in a symbolic and literal arcs. Francis Dollarhyde literally believes he is “becoming” the Red Dragon; Buffalo Bill wants to “become” someone other than he is; even Dr. Lecter is in a state of gradual transformation, as Clarice Starling inevitably fills the void in his life that causes him to kill, and brings him to wholeness.
These themes are carried much further in the television show, where the art of BECOMING is a central focus throughout, both in the transformation of bodies into grotesque works of art, and the gradual process of Will Graham “becoming” Hannibal. The result is an emotionless void utterly bleak in its cruelty, without a single character capable of genuine empathy; it is a figurative depiction of HELL, because none of the characters can FEEL anything anymore, and without empathy, they are inhuman. They have become monsters. Where once Will confessed that it was painful to look upon a crime scene, for he could feel the human suffering so much that it threatened to overwhelm him, he closes the series finding blood “beautiful” in the moonlight. Alana was a force of moral reason at the start; by the end, she is incapable of feeling. Bedelia has toyed with darkness all along, and is now paying the price, awaiting her downfall, living in terror.
Will sold his off his humanity in degrees, first in finding a dark temptation in Hannibal, someone who utterly understood him, and then by his single-minded pursuit of putting him behind bars, inching further and further into hell by mirroring his evil, and using it to achieve a “moral” end; he tried to fight evil using evil, and became evil in the process. He rejected salvation by plunging into the darkness, by choosing to turn away from all those things that once made him whole, by embracing Hannibal one immoral decision at at time. Will has become… less than before, a ghost of what he was at the start. He has gone the way of Abigail before him and given in to temptation, to blood-lust, to seeing humans as playthings, finding hell in the process. It’s a horrifying thing to watch, a show utterly without moral convictions or empathy, with a cast of characters that are utterly dead inside – emotionless beings drained of all hope, beauty, mercy, goodness, or happiness.
These characters have become like Hannibal, who has from the start been desirous of ripping away their humanity and remaking them in his own image. He succeeds. They are now in hell with him; but unlike them, he finds fulfillment in the darkness, a sense of completion in it, a satisfaction in their transformation, and they are just… empty, because this is not who they were meant to be. They are void, made in his image but hollow, far less “real” than before. Hannibal is victorious, and they are stripped of all that it means to be human, forever robbed of any chance at lasting happiness or even hope. Hannibal is disturbing not merely for its gruesomeness, or its subject matter, but because in the end, evil wins. The series has never been about Will defeating Hannibal, but Hannibal defeating Will. By the end, Will is what Hannibal envisioned for him from the start.
BECOMING is a vital stage of human development, for each choice makes us more real, or less real. It is painful to become more real, because gradually you find that in following Christ, the world pains you intensely… all its evils, its sufferings, its cruelties. It is as if the veil is ripped away from your eyes and you see things in their true form, in all their misshapen emptiness. Pain becomes more intense, loss greater, each day simultaneously more agonizing and more glorious. The grass shreds your feet, but you never want to turn back, never want to return to the shadows, because it is in spiritual pain that we find truth and become… real.
If our journey into eternity begins in what we do in life, it is possible we are building it around us, simultaneously dwelling in the present and in eternity. Either we are becoming more REAL or we are becoming shadows and dust.