I saw this gifset of Kutchu’s a while back, which got me seriously thinking about the roles that water plays in Hannibal. The show is filled with water imagery, and it all seems to form this insidious watery web around Will Graham, a network of competing and clashing symbolic meanings, everything from rebirth to annihilation. Together these images form a twofold purpose: water in Hannibal functions as both a motif that underscores Will’s struggle to remain afloat and as a symbol of his instability and ultimate transformation.
As Will descends into madness, scenes such as that in Roti where water is trickling out of the cold chambers at the morgue indicate that the water symbolizes Will’s own mental instability and emotional integrity. Another such scene occurs at the beginning of Roti when Will is experiencing a night terror. He dreams of the façade of a glacier shearing off into the ocean, about water receding from the beach and a tsunami wave crashing in on him, and he experiences a false-wake, only to plunge back into a hallucination of his bed filling with water like a sinking dinghy. When I first watched this scene I thought about it being a dream-state reflection of Will’s actual physical discomfort, i.e. his night-sweats, as the water in the bed seems to be melting out of him. There may be an element of truth in that, but better yet I believe it’s a reflection of the way Will is losing his ability to define who he is, hold his own shape. He's forced to keep taking the shapes of killers, so when he's not being poured into somebody else's mold he's formless, directionless, like water being poured out of a glass. In fact, at the end of the scene Will’s body bursts apart like a water balloon, apparently transforming and melting away. This, along with the running-water scene in the morgue, supports the idea that Will perceives the outlines of his identity to be breaking down, and indeed in a later conversation with Hannibal in that episode he remarks, “I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I’ve been gradually becoming different for a while. I just feel like somebody else.” We know that Will is unable to build 'forts' in his mind to shield himself from the horrors he observes on a day-to-day basis; this is an explicit declaration of his perception of the lost sense of self and integrity of his own form.
Minor scenes like the ones with Will showering or washing his hands work to reinforce water as a leitmotif. You can't have water working constantly as a full-blown metaphor or symbol, because it'll get old and too obvious to the viewer. But you still need to keep reminding the viewer of the general idea, so when Will has his night-terror scene where he’s writhing, almost drowning in a flood of water, the viewer doesn’t think Wait, THAT came out of left field. So Will Graham is woven into this net of water images, from tsunamis in his nightmares and the simple sheen of his own fever-sweat.
As far as the motif goes, there’s not a significant difference between tsunamis and sweat, since they perform the same purpose of keeping the imagery fresh in the viewer’s mind. But the show differentiates between these images symbolically: some water is real, and some water is not real. The moments when Will hallucinates these raging floods and quiet trickles of water are the times he's most unstable. (Or moist and unstable, if you will.) He's experiencing serious breaks from reality that pose the biggest threat to his mental health and well-being. Other times, like the scene in Apertif where he’s dunking his head in a sink full of water in the bathroom inspired by The Shining, combine elements of the real and the unreal, resulting in in a sensation of the unheimlich, the uncanny and uncertain, the border between fantasy and reality. This scene occurs after he has a nightmare about Elise’s dead body lying next to him. Now, we get this great underwater shot of his face as blood blossoms up around his head. Is that something he's actually imagining or is it merely a creepy cinematic trick on the viewer? Probably a combination of both, and certainly the vividness of the blood mirrors the crimson hue of the bathroom walls, but if he's hallucinating (or if it's at least an indication of how he's feeling) then it's safe to say he's feeling like his reality is tainted by the unreal or that the miasma of horror is seeping in. He’s starting to feel the first pinch of desperation, responsibility for the deaths he’s forced to investigate.
On the other hand, there are scenes where no hallucination pollutes the water, and these occur at points when he's feeling on edge but he's still himself. The water becomes a tangible assurance of his innocence. After he contaminates Georgia Madchen’s crime scene in Buffet Froid, we see him washing the blood from his hands in the kitchen. There’s still a taint there – the viewer will notice that he leaves a long streak of blood on his upper forearm. But the viewer knows, and even Will assures everyone that he’s sure he is not responsible for Beth Lebeau’s death.
However, in Savoureaux, Will doesn’t receive that assurance the way the audience does. In this scene he drinks water right from the tap and splashes his face to wash away the night-sweat. After he vomits and looks down to find the ear, he's horrified, thinks he's done this awful thing (or at any rate isn't sure of what happened), but the viewer knows he's innocent, in part because we know the water is both symbolically and literally real. He's not hallucinating at this point. He might have lost time, but in this moment he is himself. In fact, he's both nourishing and cleansing himself, which is incredibly potent imagery in itself. The effect is that the scene is shockingly real. It's partly what gives it its visceral impact, because we know for once it's not a hallucination, there's actually a goddamn human ear in his sink, and that makes it feel incredibly out of place alongside his nightmare and hallucinated murders. That out-of-place feeling is a huge narrative clue that Will Graham is innocent. But he's been primed by Hannibal to doubt his sanity completely, to doubt his distinction between real and not-real, so the symbolic effect is lost on him, as it often is for literary characters.
A Brief Discussion of Baptism and Sacrifice in NBC’s Hannibal
I’d like to change tack here with some observations on water as a cleansing symbol. We get a lot of images of Will cleaning himself throughout S1, some of which I’ve already outlined. The source material doesn’t shy away from Biblical imagery, especially in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and Mads Mikkelsen has mentioned in interviews that he plays Hannibal as if he were Satan. I would argue that Will Graham’s cleansing is ritualized, a parallel to the ritual cleansing of the Old Testament and the New Testament sacrament of baptism. The main difference is that in the OT, ritual cleansing had to be performed over and over again according to the law with every transgression; in the NT, baptism was the one cleansing that symbolically wiped away all sin. Will washes himself over and over throughout S1, as if he can wash away the images and associations that cling to him like burs every time he brushes through a crime scene.
On the other side of that coin, animal sacrifices were performed over and over again in the OT to demonstrate the price for every individual sin, whereas in the NT, one sacrifice – the sacrifice of the god-man, the blood of the proverbial Lamb – is enough to pay the debt for all sin. We can liken the death of Abigail Hobbs to this death of the Lamb. Perhaps it’s an oblique parallel, because Abigail is not a spotless sacrifice, but it is her death that opens Will’s eyes to Hannibal’s machinations. Hannibal has been trying to change him throughout the show, trying to transmute him into something he considers real and eternal. If there is one major theme that unites all four books, it’s transformation; just think of the infamous death’s head moth motif in SotL, and the fact that Lepidoptera are classic symbols of metamorphosis. Jame Gumb, Clarice Starling, Frances Dolarhyde, and Hannibal Lecter himself all undergo massive transformations throughout the saga. Additionally, Hannibal the show is very much invested in the transformative effect of both water and blood on Will Graham. Since episode one, Hannibal the Cannibal has been guiding Will through a transformative process via constant exposure to and reexamination of these dozens of deaths. However, such little deaths aren’t enough – they bear a high cost for Will’s sanity, but they’re just a taste of what to come. Hannibal needs a truly efficacious sacrifice, one that will change, elevate Will forever, and this is why Abigail’s death is so much more important than all the others: it’s through Abigail’s death that Will is going to experience ultimate change. The question remains: will that change result in Hannibal’s nefarious endgame, or will it result in Will’s mental, spiritual, and physical emancipation?
I don’t think it’s too bold to say that Will is going to be moving from an Old Testament world of fear and blood sacrifice to a New Testament one of purification and ascension in the next season or so. He’s figuring Hannibal out and assuring himself of his innocence once and for all, which sets him up not only for a redemption arc but a serious ascent to power and glorification. While Hannibal has engineered Abigail’s sacrifice with the intention of transforming Will, ultimately – so long as Fuller and Co. stick loosely to the books – I believe that transformation will be Hannibal’s downfall.
As a parting note: there are a lot of excellent meta on the subject of Schroedinger’s Abigail, so to speak, so I won’t go into detail on my madcap theories here. HOWEVER, we shouldn’t forget: the sacrificial Lamb was raised from the dead. It wouldn’t be blind hope to look for a resurrection in Abigail Hobb’s future.