“Coquilles” may not make the strongest impression upon first viewing. In the context of only the four previous episodes, it initially appears as just another crime of the week. One of the most intriguing crimes of the week—flayed bodies on network television!—but a crime of the week nonetheless. With the benefit of knowing the entire series, however, “Coquilles” proves itself a potent narrative omen and one of the most compelling episodes of the season.
Of the many portentous scenes that occur, none fascinate me quite like the imagined exchange between Will Graham and Elliot Budish, also known as the Angel Maker. Team FBI arrives at Budish’s childhood farm to find their target strung from the barn rafters by his own hand—the Angel Maker’s final transformed sinner. Following a tense conversation with Jack Crawford, in which Will urges Jack to understand the incredible and irreversible toll that his involvement takes on him, Will finds himself face to face with a reanimated Budish.
B: I see what you are.
W: What do you see?
B: Inside. I can bring it out of you.
W: Not all the way out.
B: I can give you the majesty of your becoming.
What does Budish see exactly? What is the antecedent of “it” here? The series most often interprets Will’s becoming as his tolerance if not appetite for committing violence. That is certainly the becoming Hannibal hopes for—a Will that acts as God. Will identifies a similar divine self-determination in Budish. “Can’t beat God, becomes him?” he asks of Hannibal. “In his mind, [Budish] was doing God’s work,” he tells Beverly.
But Budish does not corrupt; he absolves. The “majesty” he speaks of is not Will’s embrace of darkness, but rather his deliverance from it. What he sees inside Will is then his potential for ill, his sin to be excised. To further illustrate this, the show gives us a rare point-of-view shot from Budish. From his perspective, Will is “monstrously distorted,” with “rippling trails of heat [emanating] from his body as his skin roils with flame” (Final Shooting Script, 37). Similar to his other targets for beatification, Budish believes Will a demon whom he seeks to make an angel.
The show thus offers Will not one but two rival becomings: one alongside Hannibal, one executed alone. One that enables violence against others, one that demands sacrifice of self.
By series end, Will momentarily reconciles the irreconcilable to achieve both. At this point, however, he seems rather dismissive of the Budish option. Beyond Will’s defeated response of “not all the way out” to Budish’s offer, there is this earlier exchange between him and Hannibal:
H: So God has given this person insight into the souls of men.
W: God didn’t give him insight. God gave him a tumor. He’s just a man whose brain is playing tricks on him.
H: You’re not unlike this killer.
W: My brain is playing tricks on me?
H: You want to feel such sweet and easy peace. The Angel Maker wants that same peace. He hopes to feel his way cautiously inside and then find it’s endless, all around him.
W: He’s going to be disappointed.
Like the phantom Budish, Will recognizes the existence of his own metaphorical “tumor.” But he rejects both the possibility of its removal and the redemption that follows.
This repeated acknowledgment of Budish’s illness and its influence on his actions calls attention to another puzzling aspect of the scene between Will and Budish—the fact that it occurs completely inside Will’s head. I attribute these few lines to Budish but he does not actually say them; Will imagines them. Is this how Will believes Budish would judge him, or does Budish simply serve as the means by which Will judges himself? Is there a difference? Perhaps more importantly, is this exchange just another empath vision, or is it a hallucination caused by Will’s undiagnosed encephalitis? We will soon learn that Will’s “tumor” is not entirely metaphorical.
One argument for seeing this exchange as more mad hallucination than controlled vision is the fact that we do not see Will conjure another target of his empathy in this way again. Will typically casts himself as the killer within his empath visions. Garret Jacob Hobbs makes the occasional unexpected appearance, but Will attributes this to the intensity of his efforts to get close to him. Will also imagines spectres of Beverly and Abigail after their deaths, but their manifestations seem a more purposeful attempt by Will to project what they might say to him in a given situation. He knows they are not real. The phantom Budish, on the other hand, seems to take Will by surprise. Will is both shocked to encounter him walking and talking, and mystified to find him ultimately returned to the rafters.
“His mind has turned against him and there’s no one there to help,” Will says about Budish to Hannibal. Is Will also unknowingly talking of himself? Without a doubt. “The thinking is shutting down,” he urges Jack. The question remains, however, if we can similarly blame Will’s becoming on his own worsening brain disorder. For season one, perhaps. But when do the effects of his untreated illness end?