The Killing of a Sacred Ravenstag

In “Stuck in the In-Between with You,” I wrote about how I still puzzle over the meaning of the Ravenstag even after multiple rewatches. What is its narrative purpose? What does it convey to and about Will Graham? And part of the reason why I continue to ask myself these questions is that the significance of the Ravenstag to both the story and to Will evolves from season to season. 

That earlier post concluded that the Ravenstag primarily functions as a liminal marker—a figurative signpost conjured by Will’s subconscious to identify the moments when he has journeyed into the transitional space separating dreams from reality. When he has wandered into the proverbial woods. As both Amina and I argue, the Ravenstag also serves as a harbinger of doom, warning Will about both his relationship with Hannibal as well as his worsening physical and psychological condition. 

But that is what the Ravenstag conveys in season one. Season two is a different beast. Apart from fleeting appearances in “Kaiseki” and “Hassun,” we do not properly see the Ravenstag until the opening scene of “Shiizakana.” And what a scene. Will dreams of tying Hannibal to a tree and progressively garotting him with a rope pulled taut by the Ravenstag. One final tug on Will’s command and the Ravenstag separates Hannibal’s head from his body with a “fan of blood” (Final Shooting Script, 2). Talk about a flair for the dramatic.

The next episode also starts with a scene starring the Ravenstag. In “Naka-Choko,” Will reimagines his deadly confrontation with Randall Tier from “Shiizakana.” But instead of Tier, it is the Ravenstag that bursts through his window. Once inside, the Ravenstag becomes the Stag Man. Then Hannibal. Then the Stag Man with the face of Hannibal. Will tackles his attacker to the ground, punches him, grabs his antlers, and snaps his neck—killing Hannibal with his hands just as Will told him he fantasized about in “Su-zakana.”

It is hard to imagine a wilder sequence than these two, but then “Ko No Mono” happens. The snowy forest scene that opened “Shiizakana” has transitioned from day to night. The Stag Man slowly approaches the Ravenstag, which is bleeding and bellowing in pain. Did the Stag Man injure the Ravenstag, or is it merely a bystander? Uncertain. The beast rears up on its hind legs and collapses. Its corpse made cocoon, antler points followed by human hands tear their way out of the Ravenstag’s form, harkening back to the coffin births of “Su-zakana.” At last Will emerges, gasping and screaming, cradled in the Ravenstag’s bloody carcass as the Stag Man looks on. Damn.

Needless to say, this is not the same Ravenstag that haunted Will’s waking dreams in season one. This Ravenstag takes on a decidedly more active role. An often gruesome one. 

The general function of the Ravenstag remains the same: liminal marker, harbinger of doom. What changes is what threshold it bridges, what ruin it portends. If the Ravenstag of season one indicates the “growing liminal space between Will and those with whom he empathizes” and the subsequent “encroachment of his nightmares upon reality itself—and his increasing struggle to tell the difference,” then the Ravenstag of season two signifies the growing liminal space between Will and the guise Will assumes. And his increasing struggle to tell the difference. 

To apprehend Hannibal, Will makes himself the lure. He pretends to be what Hannibal perceives and hopes him to be: a Will that follows and cultivates his murderous urges. A Will that embraces rather than represses that which makes him worthy of Hannibal’s attention. Of his friendship. Will woos Hannibal with the false promise of mutual understanding and previously unimaginable companionship. 

But in wearing the mask, Will risks becoming the mask. And until that final confrontation, no one knows for certain which Will will ultimately prevail. Least of all Will. “Hannibal thinks you’re his man in the room,” Jack says to Will in “Mizumono.” “I think you’re mine.” Subsequent split frames, however, make clear Will’s dual loyalties. And dueling identities.

The Ravenstag moves in the nebulous space between these two personas. But instead of warning Will about Hannibal or his deteriorating physical state, it warns Will about Will. About the perilous consequences of playing this game. About the heightened risk of his becoming. About his nearing the point of no return when performance merges with self. 

As with season one, Will finds these encounters with the Ravenstag and the liminal space it represents increasingly disturbing. He awakens from his blood-filled dream in “Shiizakana” calm but “sweat-soaked” (Final Shooting Script, 3). The script for “Ko No Mono” reveals that Will’s grisly vision of rebirth was similarly conceived as a “fevered dream” that abruptly ends with Alana’s not friendly visit (Final Shooting Script, 2). By relocating the scene in which Alana rouses a disoriented (and even sweatier) Will—now from a different, unseen nightmare—the show suggests that night terrors starring the Ravenstag are becoming a recurring trend for Will. And this time there is no encephalitis to blame. 

The presence of the Ravenstag, however, implies that the pursuit of Hannibal is. Will’s subconscious created the Ravenstag out of elements from one of Hannibal’s murder tableaus. And it is the Stag Man—a Hannibal proxy—that takes the place of Randall Tier in “Naka-Choko” and approaches as a reborn Will emerges from the belly of the Ravenstag in “Ko No Mono.” This becoming is Hannibal’s design, not Will’s. If Will were to transform, he would become the person Hannibal perceives him to be. Which, contrary to what Hannibal may believe, is not quite who Will is. 

Will attempts to quell any chance of this becoming from transpiring in “Mizumono.” With the ghost of Garret Jacob Hobbs by his side, he aims a rifle at the Ravenstag and pulls the trigger. By episode’s end, Hannibal succeeds where Will fails. When Hannibal stabs Will, he also deals the Ravenstag a fatal blow. The Will Hannibal once perceived is gone. 

We do not see the Ravenstag in season three beyond a brief appearance in “Contorno.” Perhaps that is because Will’s season three becoming is driven by his own actions, not Hannibal’s. The time for Ravenstags is over. Now Will is the architect of his own transformation.

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