The way we kill now

After the state of Arizona injected 55-year old convicted murderer Joseph R. Wood III with an untested 2-drug execution cocktail (hydromorphone, an opioid painkiller that suppresses respiration, and a sedative called midazolam), it took him nearly two hours to die. He also “gasped and snorted” over 600 times before expiring. These things should not have happened.

Wood was convicted in 1989 of murdering an estranged girlfriend and her father. Wood, Dennis McGuire of Ohio, and Clayton Lockett of Oklahoma men whose executions were also disturbingly and recently botched, were the sort of criminals that a reliable, reasonable, sometimes-exacting, but theoretically humane justice system are intended to process and punish. All three executions used a sedative called midazolam, a sedative that doctors know little about when applied in large doses.

President Obama has said he will review how states use the death penalty. But he is likely to run into stiff opposition from departments of corrections that will resist the imposition of federal authority. As has been well-documented, a number of state legislatures have also passed or considered legislation to keep secret their execution protocols. That veil of secrecy would also cover the sources of their drugs.

Several years ago, I compiled a massive tranche of reporting on the dwindling market for lethal injection drugs. Some of this material pertains directly to the state of Arizona. The story I traced takes us back to the night of October 26, 2010, when the state of Arizona initiated the execution of Jeffrey Landrigan. Per protocol, the 50-year old native of Oklahoma was injected with the three ingredients of the widely used execution “cocktail”: sodium thiopental, a fast-acting barbiturate used to induce anesthesia; pancuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which triggers cardiac arrest, killing the inmate. Considered a more humane approach to execution, the three-drug process is intended to render the inmate completely vegetative and impervious to pain by the time the actual killing stroke is applied.

The case against Landrigan was strong. Police discovered his footprint in the home of Chester Dean Dyer, a 42-year old man who had been found stabbed and strangled to death with a wire. Investigators arrested Landrigan, accusing him of murdering Dyer after the victim made an unwelcome sexual advance. Dyer’s was not Landrigan’s first murder: in 1982, he stabbed a childhood friend to death, was found guilty of first-degree murder, and received a life sentence. But the conviction was overturned, and pled down to a second-degree charge with a twenty-year prison term. But Landrigan escaped in 1989, and fled to Arizona.

At his trial, Landrigan initially claimed that he had beaten Dyer, but that someone else had murdered him. Still, he told the judge, “If you want to give me the death penalty bring it on, I’m ready’; the judge obliged.

Not all the relevant facts surfaced at the trial. Nine later after his sentencing, Landrigan revealed to a neuropsychologist that his mother abused drugs and alcohol while pregnant with him, and gave him up for adoption soon after his birth. His biological father, too, wound up on death row in Arkansas, where he died of natural causes in 2005. But thanks to shoddy, court-appointed representation, those details never surfaced at his trial.

But the Arizona Federal Public Defender’s Office, which took on Landrigan’s case in 2010, was determined to mount a far more formidable challenge against his execution. In September 2010, the Arizona Department of Corrections rejected a request from Landrigan’s attorneys for more information about the source of the drugs to be used to kill their client. In response, his attorneys asked the Arizona Supreme Court to order the Department of Corrections to disclose the information.

In oral arguments before the court, Arizona’s attorney general revealed that the drugs were not made by Hospira—at the time, the sole domestic manufacturer of sodium thiopental— suggesting that the thiopental was foreign, and potentially unregistered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If so, it could be in violation of federal standards for safe human use.

Arizona’s failure to provide information about the drugs, Landrigan’s attorneys alleged, violated his Fourteenth Amendment-guaranteed rights to due process. They also alleged that the state’s use of a batch of potentially unapproved, unsafe sodium thiopental demonstrated “deliberate indifference” to the possibility that it might subject Landrigan to cruel and unusual punishment. If so, that would violate his Eighth Amendment rights.

Five days prior to his death, Landrigan’s attorneys filed a civil rights complaint with the US District Court of the District of Arizona, challenging the source of the thiopental to be used in the lethal injection. In response, Judge Roslyn Silver agreed to issue a temporary stay, ruling that Landrigan’s attorneys had not received enough information about the nature and origin of the drugs to be used. Her ruling was affirmed/upheld by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

But in a 5-4 decision handed down on October 26, the US Supreme Court overruled the lower courts, finding that “there is no evidence in the record to suggest that the drug obtained from a foreign source is unsafe” and that “[t]here was no showing that the drug was unlawfully obtained, nor was there an offer of proof to that effect.”

Landrigan ate a final meal of steak, fried okra, French fries, strawberry ice cream, and washed it down with a Dr. Pepper. After thanking his family and friends for attending his execution, his final words were “Boomer Sooner,” a popular University of Oklahoma cheer. At 10:26 p.m. on October 26, 2010, Landrigan was pronounced dead by the state of Arizona.

In late March 2011, the ACLU of Northern California obtained a trove of documents confirming that Landrigan had been executed using imported drugs. The documents showed that Arizona had made two foreign purchases from a UK-based supplier called Dream Pharma: one for all three ingredients of its execution cocktail, including thiopental, and an additional one for thiopental.

Why states have resorted to unapproved foreign drugs for their lethal injections has everything to do with simple supply and demand. Diminishing supplies of drugs used for lethal injections have pushed states to turn to unapproved overseas sources over the past several years, even as federal courts seek to curb their access to these unapproved products. To stave off the shortfall, Nebraska, California, Arizona, Kentucky, and others have turned to a questionable source: foreign drug distributors from overseas.

America’s lethal injection drug-supply gap dates back to late 2010, when the Illinois-based Hospira, announced that it was experiencing “raw-material supplier issues” in the production of thiopental. At the time, the company did not offer a more comprehensive explanation for its abrupt decision. But the Associated Press obtained a letter from the Kentucky governor’s office, explaining that Hospira had lost its supplier of one of thiopental’s key ingredients. Hospira, the only stateside producer of thiopental, said it would have no new batches available until January 2011.

To fix its supply problem, the company planned to transfer production to a plant in Italy, but was rebuffed by the Italian government, which—like much of Europe, including the UK, Germany, and Denmark—opposes capital punishment, and threatened to block export of the drug for use in capital punishment.

“Italy’s intent is that we control the product all the way to the ultimate end user to prevent use in capital punishment,” Hospira said in a statement. “[W]e could not prevent the drug from being diverted” and could not “take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment.” As a result, Hospira chose to stop producing thiopental altogether.

With a lethal injection crisis looming, the federal government sprang to action. In June of 2011, then-US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke asked former German health minister Philipp Rosler to help fill the widening thiopental gap. As Der Spiegel reported several years ago, Rosler declined the request, and instructed German pharmaceutical companies to not sell the drug to the United States.

Ultimately, the company decided it didn’t need the headache. As Fordham law professor Deborah Denno explained to me, profits on sales of sodium thiopental were low for Hospira. Its manufacturing problems and the increasingly negative, execution-related spotlight cast on sodium thiopental likely forced its hand. “Sodium thiopental was a very small part of their business…so I don’t think it was worth it for them.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) began to feel the pinch in September of 2010, when it announced that it did not have enough thiopental to conduct a scheduled execution. Fortunately, an Indian telemarketer named Chris Harris came calling, twice. In December 2010, Harris brokered a sale of thiopental made by the Mumbai-based Kayem Pharmaceuticals to the NDCS. According to documents obtained by Jerry Soucie, an attorney with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, the purchase was for 500 grams, at a cost of $2,065.15.

But the deal with Harris—a “guy with a cell phone and the gift of gab,” Soucie says—ended inauspiciously. Because thiopental is classified as a class III controlled substance, Nebraska could not obtain it without first receiving a valid DEA license. Under the Controlled Substance Act, any entity that handles a controlled substance must register with the agency. That registration must specify how the importer plans to use the drug, as well as the location where the activity is to be carried out. According to documents obtained by Soucie, the NDCS did apply for the necessary importation license.

Kayem CEO Navneet Verma also told Soucie that Kayem was not registered with the DEA or FDA as a foreign pharmaceutical manufacturer or distributor. Soucie also learned from Verma about Kayem’s director of sales and marketing for US operations: a man named Wayne “Tony” Atwater, the owner of a Maine-based concrete-pouring company. Soucie discovered that Kayem’s US address was, fact, a mail forwarding service called Mostly Mail, located in a shopping mall in Las Vegas. Even though the NDCS did not yet possess the proper importation license, the FDA ultimately struck a deal with the NDCS allowing it to retain the Kayem shipment, as long as it agreed not to use it for lethal injections.

In a statement attached to the released shipment, the FDA said that it “does not review or approved[sic] products for the purpose of lethal injection [and that it] has not reviewed the products…to determine their identify, safety, effectiveness, purity or any other characteristics.” But the agency also wrote that the release did not “preclude action should the product later be found violative”—stating, in other words, that it would let the state have the drugs, but would not vouch for them.

Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, meanwhile, was incensed. “We’re a sovereign state. You don’t need to come in and treat us like, you know, we’re Joe’s Pharmacy, hiding out in some ramshackle house out in the country. I mean, this is the state of Nebraska, doing this the right way,” an indignant Bruning vented to a local radio station on July 22, 2011.

“Why is it that…I had to go ask permission for anything that the State of Nebraska does, according to the State of Nebraska’s laws?…This isn’t being purchased for somebody’s backyard barbecue…We’re a sovereign. We don’t report to [the DEA]. The whole idea that I have to even deal with them at all bothers me. I’m working on behalf of the people of Nebraska doing a job that I was asked to do by the people of this state.”

Casting aside its poor luck, Nebraska went back to the well, finally obtaining a DEA importer license and purchasing another shipment of thiopental through Harris in November 2011. On November 3, 2011, the NDCS announced the purchase of 485 grams of thiopental for $5,411. This time, Harris obtained his supply from a Swiss company called NAARI AG (Harris and Atwater had a brutal falling out with Kayem).

Bruning wasted no time getting back to business: on the day of the purchase, he filed a motion requesting an execution date for Michael Ryan, one of Soucie’s clients. But the Nebraska purchase was news to NAARI CEO Pritihi Kochhar. Not long after the NDCS announced that it was locked and loaded, Kochhar wrote to the Nebraska supreme court, explaining that his company had been duped by Harris. Harris was “not authorised [sic] to sell the product to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services or to anyone else in the USA,” Kochhar wrote.

According to Kochhar, NAARI had supplied Harris with thiopental in order to get it registered in Zambia, where the company hoped to eventually market the drug. But Harris instead sold it to Nebraska—at markup of roughly 142 percent. Kochhar requested that the NDCS return “the thiopental which was wrongfully diverted by Mr. Harris.” Harris, meanwhile, claimed he had delivered the thiopental to Zambia as promised, but that an interlocutor had sent it to the United States. Though the FDA ordered Nebraska to return the thiopental to NAARI in response to Kochhar’s recall, the state refused.

Closer to home, the London-based pharmaceutical wholesaler and distributor Dream Pharma has sold drugs to be used for lethal injection to Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee, according to the ACLU. On July 15, 2010, the Georgia Department of Corrections disclosed in a letter (addressed to a recipient whose named is redacted) that it was having trouble locating thiopental in the United States. It had already begun its search: just one day earlier, the department’s procurement director had written to a supplier (this name is also redacted) to inquire about purchasing thiopental. A representative of the suppliers responded, saying he was “more than happy to assist” by selling £91.88 pounds worth of thiopental. “We can dispatch the parcel by [REDACTED]. Which ever you prefer,” he wrote.

The supplier also knew its shipment could be obstructed. “[REDACTED] is the cheapest option, but they are very stringent with US customs, this is not to say the other carriers are any easier. . . . If for some reason, you could not release the product from US customs, we would not return the product back to the UK. We would ask for the destruction of the product.”

According to federal court documents and news stories published at the time, Georgia’s supplier was Dream Pharma. But the FDA promptly detained the shipment on July 15, alleging that it was misbranded. Then, in August, it released it to the state.

The story repeated itself one month later in Arkansas, this time with the FDA saying the thiopental was unapproved. But Arkansas appealed that decision, arguing that the drug was necessary for lethal injections, and the agency promptly released the shipment. The FDA also released a Dream shipment the day after it arrived in Arizona in September and another in Tennessee in October.

In other cases, states have helped each other fill their supply gaps, with drugs procured from abroad. But the DEA has been on the case. On February 10, 2011, the Kentucky Department of Corrections placed an order for 18 grams of thiopental (enough for three executions) with Correct Health, a Georgia-based company that provides health care services to correctional facilities.

Four days later, Correct Health FedExed the $90 shipment to Kentucky. The sodium thiopental from Correct Health was manufactured by an Austrian company called Sondoz GmbH, and distributed by a UK-based distributor called Link Pharmaceuticals Limited, renamed Archimedes Pharma UK Limited in 2006.

According to a memo detailing the purchase, Kentucky did not know the source of the drug, or whether it was FDA-approved at the time of the purchase. It also did not know if the manufacturer was based overseas, nor—by its own admission—did it seek answers to these questions. To date, Kentucky has “no documentation that would reflect where Correct Health purchased their supply of sodium thiopental,” according to Kentucky department of corrections public information officer Todd Henson.

But the DEA quickly swept in. On March 24, Martin Redd, a supervisor with the agency’s Louisville district office, emailed his superiors to inform them that he would be heading to the Kentucky State Penitentiary to take custody of the drugs. One week later, the Kentucky department of corrections issued a statement announcing the release of its sodium thiopental for the DEA to “use as evidence in a case in another jurisdiction.” Because the department did not know when or if the drugs would be returned, it planned to continue searching for a new supply. In addition to the Kentucky seizure, the DEA also took thiopental supplies from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee in the spring of 2011.

The DEA declined to comment on the circumstances of these seizures. But it appears to have gone after questionable drug shipments more aggressively than the FDA. “In our view, the DEA has been much more diligent in fulfilling its statutory responsibility,” Brad Berenson says.

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, points out that these states’ willingness to enter into seemingly ill-advised, fly-by-night business deals with unapproved suppliers may strike some as bizarre. “Who do we know in the drug world that could get us some sodium thiopental?” he joked. “There’s this little place in Great Britain that has some, or some place in India. Okay, let’s get it here! FedEx it at night, we’ll get it here tomorrow.”

Why have states clung to thiopental? A resistance to change despite the presence of viable alternatives like pentobarbital. Even this alterative, though, grew less viable after its chief manufacturer, a Denmark-based company called Lunbeck, announced it would block sales of the drug to the US for lethal injections last July.

“They have used sodium thiopental for over 1,000 executions in the United States. They know that when you start changing drugs, that there might be unexpected results or adverse allergic reactions. . . with sodium thiopental, they at least had a track record.

The responsibility for keeping unapproved drugs out of the country is split between the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The FDA’s chief domestic function is to review and approve new drugs for sale. But under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), it also has the authority to regulate the production and distribution of drugs, and to block drug shipments that are “misbranded” or unapproved by the FDA. A drug is deemed misbranded if it is “manufactured, prepared, propagated, compounded, or processed in an establishment” not registered with the FDA, not properly listed with the FDA, or if its packaging is not properly labeled. It is also illegal to introduce a drug into interstate commerce that has not been previously reviewed and approved by the FDA.

For an entity to import controlled substances—defined as buying them directly off the international market—it must file a form with the DEA at least 15 days in advance of the scheduled importation, and notify the agency once it receives the drug. Successful registration with the DEA allows them to possess, manufacture, distribute, or dispense controlled substances.

Both the FDA and the DEA, then, play key roles in policing imports. But the FDA has assumed something of a hands-off approach. Since 1985, the agency has exercised its “enforcement discretion,” declining to review substances whose uses fall outside the public health realm, including lethal injection. That decision not to decide has opened up a vacuum, granting states a certain measure of freedom to obtain their drugs from potentially dubious sources.

And states as politically and ideologically diverse as Texas and California have run with that freedom, failing to divulge the full details of their lethal injection procedures. In response, defense attorneys for death row inmates around the country like Jeffrey Landrigan have challenged corrections departments, filing repeated public information requests and lawsuits seeking details on the source of their execution drugs, and how they plan to administer them.

While some attorneys appeal lethal injection protocols as a means of buying time for their clients and delaying executions, others view these challenges as salvos in the broader battle to end capital punishment altogether. But in either case, the information compiled by attorneys in recent years has shed new light on the mechanics of lethal injection in the United States.

The veil of secrecy began to fall with Morales v. Tilton, a lethal injection case that came before the District Court for the Northern District of California in 2006. In the case, attorneys for death row inmate Michael Morales were challenging California’s use of corrections officers, rather than medical technicians, to administer lethal injections. Such untrained hands, they alleged, could make mistakes that would subject inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Jeremy Fogel’s review of past death row cases seemed to affirm that suspicion. He found that in six of California’s eleven previous lethal injections, the “inmates’ breathing may not have ceased as expected,” convincing him to rule that the state’s lethal injection procedure violated the Eighth Amendment. The key implication: that a state’s execution methods—both the drugs used and how they are administered—must pass the Eighth Amendment smell test. While the federal government cannot micromanage the state-by-state details of capital punishment procedure, it can weigh in on anomalous, alarming results, Fogel ruled. Since Morales, similar litigation has surfaced in Missouri and Arizona.

In addition to its role in reviewing and approving new drugs for sale, the FDA also has a separate responsibility to screen imported drugs at the border. “It doesn’t matter what your purpose is in screening the drug,” Berenson says. “If that drug is unapproved—is not legal to import—you cannot import it. Period.” How the drug will be used and by who becomes is irrelevant.

The agency’s position to decline to review products used for lethal injection dates back to the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Heckler v. Chaney . In the case, attorneys for convicted murderer Larry Chaney and over two-dozen fellow death row inmates sued the FDA, in an effort to block the use of lethal-injection drugs until the agency had ruled on whether the drugs in use were safe for humans.

In the majority opinion ruling in favor of Chaney, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that “an agency’s decision not to prosecute or enforce. . .is a decision generally committed to an agency’s absolute discretion.” By not ruling on a “drug that produces a 100 percent death rate,” the FDA exercised its power of discretion, legal scholar Garrett Epps wrote in The American Prospect several years ago.

Brad Berenson says that Heckler had a relatively narrow implication, and did not mean that the FDA cannot choose whether or not to follow the law as set forth by Congress. “It’s very particular to the exercise of certain kinds of enforcement discretion, where the statutory regime makes it clear that the agency has got the ability to decide whether or not to pursue a particular investigation or case,” he explains.

But the FDA also wants to preserve and project a certain image. “This is a federal agency designed to protect the health of the citizens,” Richard Dieter says. “The death penalty is not at all where they felt they should be. That was their position in 1985, and that was their position even recently.”

As recently, in fact, as January 2011, when the FDA put out a statement explaining its position on releasing shipments of imported thiopental. Issued in response to an inquiry from the Wall Street Journal, the statement suggested that it would defer to “law enforcement in the use of substances for lethal injection.” But it also reiterated that “[r]eviewing substances imported or used for the purpose for state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of FDA’s explicit public health role.”

“It’s like telling doctors they have to monitor lethal injections. [FDA officials] don’t want to be part of it if they can help it,” Dieter says.

The FDA’s refusal to inject itself into the broader debate over capital punishment came to a head in March 2011, when a group of death row inmates in Tennessee, Arizona, and California, sued the FDA and Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to block the use of foreign-produced thiopental in lethal injections. They argued that the FDA had violated provisions of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by allowing misbranded thiopental to enter the country.

As their attorney Brad Berenson explained to me, the basis of the plaintiffs’ suit was simple: there is no legitimate reason for the FDA to allow states to import unapproved drugs. Berenson also says that the FDA let the drugs into the country despite a long, contentious history of blocking states from importing prescription drugs from Canada (Vermont v. Leavitt). The FDA, in contrast, held that drugs used for this purpose were not their concern, and that states were choosing to use them for such purposes at their own risk. In July of 2013, a federal appeals court ruled that the FDA had, indeed failed in its responsibility to block misbranded and unapproved imported drugs.

For defense attorneys, procedural reform of lethal injection is not the sole objective. Their motive in challenging death sentences—leveling objections over procedure or tainted evidence—is often to delay, in hopes of ultimately convincing a judge to throw out a death sentence. Challenging the execution protocol itself, the type of drug to be used, or its source, becomes the logical, final roadblock.

But prosecutors “want to be able to trump that, and to have the drugs and not be stopped by drug companies or by defense attorneys,” Richard Dieter told me. “Both sides are trying to upset the other, either with a motion, a new twist on the law, or. . . using all the powers that they have.”

It seemed time to unearth all that material. The growing catastrophe surrounding execution in America may be reaching something of an inflection point, and it felt silly to continue sitting on it. I’ll leave you with this sobering graf from the keeper of the American conscience, Amy Davidson:

[Wood] lost, but the manner of his death suggests, at the very least, that there needs to be more transparency about the means of execution. . . . It has become hard for states to get what they need to kill people; companies don’t really want to go into the business, or if they do they don’t want to advertise it. That is not tenable, when we are all being asked to be complicit in a death. Or perhaps it is a reminder that we might choose not to be.

In praise of Hannibal

There is a confounding, nearly two-seasons-old experiment underway on American network television. It is a hypnotic swirl of delirious, corporeal excess. No image is too grisly, no sensation too unnerving, no taboo too forbidden. I write in praise of the lyrical horror of NBC’s Hannibal.

You have seen and read much of this before: Thomas Harris’ cannibals, serial killers, debauchers, and lawmen, breathed into cinematic life by Anthony Hopkins, Edwards Norton, Brian Cox, and William Petersen, and now titrated into an eccentric-detective procedural by Bryan K. Fuller. The show’s mood could best be described as “nightmare, most constant.” Chocolaty purples, reds, and long shadows drape scenes in Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s therapy sessions. It is the beast’s lair. It is terrifying.

Out in the world—the beast’s playground—victims are re-cast as angels, obelisks, tree-human hybrids, even cellos, often inflected with religious or spiritual iconography; each victim becomes a new, lurid way to conceive of our relationship with the world, its objects, its beliefs, and contradictions. The death-images are carbon-based monuments to physical beauty, horror, nature, contortion, fluidity, all things organic and corruptible and corrupted. The myriad ways we can be twisted, carved out, spliced, diced, Fuller suggests, become Banksyesque objects. There’s a supernatural beauty to us strangled by our very desire to live (New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz described the murder scenes as “art-directed-to-the-nines aftermath, lit in such a way as to highly the artificiality, the art-like quality, of the prosthetic bodies and organs and blood”).

Perhaps the show’s most omnipresent thematic thread is what its characters refer to as “psychic driving,” where experts of the mind slither into the damaged psyches of victims, murderers, and shadowy heroes, to bury insidious seeds of self- doubt. It is a decidedly nightmarish spin on Inception: rather than planting inspiration, you inject a moral poison causing your unsuspecting victim to believing the worst possible things about himself are, indeed, possible. Your most venal and socially corrupting impulses? Not only encouraged, but praised, as your grip on reality is slowly, masterfully destroyed.

Our master is a brilliant psychiatrist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, a creation so sexily and persuasively realized, you’re not so much rooting for him as you’re trying to evade his seduction. He masquerades as the ultimate sybarite, aping the rituals of fine society: preparing a foie gras au torchon, hosting the most civilized dinner parties, mastering the harpsichord along with the perverse cadences and blandishments of sophisticated conversation. Even moments that feel concrete—Hannibal’s latest cannibalistic masterpiece, juxtaposed against a garishly lit autopsy scene back at FBI HQ—mock your sensibilities of decency and social order. The harness of civility that we impose upon our basest impulses comes to feel like a joke. Our conventions, our consciousness of them, fractured.

While Hannibal’s ultimate motivations remain unclear nearly two seasons in, we assume he’s in some part disgusted at the detritus of society, at the masks worn in polite society. He craves authenticity. As his sinister ruse unfolds—supposedly assisting the FBI on a series of gruesome murder investigations—we can only watch, suspended in hushed horror. One assumes we’ll learn more in the recently announced third season of the show, particularly as he and Will square off against the pedophiliac, cackling meat mogul and torturer Mason Verger.

It is in Will Graham, his grizzled, self-righteous, arrogant, tortured nemesis and moral soul mate, that Lecter seems to see the promise of truth. In Fuller’s story, Will is a marvelously damaged creation. Wracked with a Twitchy genius mined by the FBI’s behavioral crimes specialists, Will’s terrible gift is the power to drink in the aftermath of murder, deconstruct it, and replay the act in his mind’s eye—to divulge its “grand design,” via a most terrible, perfect empathy. The killer’s eye, his bloodied hands, his diabolical motivations, mutate into Will’s own internalized experience.

The most prominent and pervasive artistic touchstone for Fuller’s show would seem to be Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona, a creepy, masterful study of the exchanging and blending and fracturing of identity, well-summarized and praised in this short Criterion video essay:

Note the unsettling, sharp cuts. All are closeups of Liv Ullman’s damaged countenance, but from slightly adjusted angles; they force the viewer to re-consider how shadow falls across her face, sometimes dominating, sometimes receding, sometimes in harmony, something we see often in Hannibal. The sterile quality of her hospital room reminds us of the FBI autopsy lab in the show. Then, around the :42 mark, a most direct connection with Hannibal‘s visual iconography: a scene at breakfast between Ullman and Bibi Andersson, a horizontal two-shot with the characters in the foreground, casta against a window looking out onto the coastline. It is much like the mise-en-scene in this early meeting between Will and Hannibal. I highlight the visual callbacks here only to point out that cinema’s been probing for ways to tell the story of mental bisection and amalgamation for decades, and that these two works share some strong DNA.

Will also likely dwells somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, which impairs his ability to relate to the still-living. In fact, he fits into a tradition of homage to Sherlock Holmes, whose pop-culture legacy Laura Miller describes in the latest Harper’s. The Holmes of BBC’s popular Sherlock comes off to his peers as “patently dysfunctional and perhaps even dangerously so. His Watson suggests he has Asperger’s, based on his apparent “lack of empathy, obsessive interests, and, occasionally, savantism.”

All this applies to Will as well. It makes him able, valued, and brilliant. But in his universe, such brilliance makes him a target, a fascinating intellectual prize to be needled, provoked, and unlocked, by Lecter. They are a study in physical contrasts—manicured vs. scruffed, epicurean vs. backwoods—and intellectual confluence. Lecter’s fascination with Will spills into full view early in the show. “God forbid we become friendly,” Lecter muses to Will over breakfast. “I don’t find you that interesting,” Will retorts. “You will,” Lecter replies. Soon, it becomes apparent to our hero that the psychiatrist has been brought into the fold to assess him, rather than vicious perpetrators they seek:

“What you see and learn touches everything else in your mind. Your values and decency are present, yet shocked at your associations, appalled at your dreams,” Lecter tells Will. His words often sound over determined, canned, and voluptuously entranced. Lecter will frequently speak in this manner: the world, it minds, and those who act on it, are objects of fascination, particularly those who seem to deny an impulse or an obfuscated brilliance.

As the first season progresses, Fuller takes great pains to use imagery—close ups of a cold, sweating clammy, deteriorating Will—to suggest the damage wrought by his gift of his gift. Ultimately, the central arc of season one revealed itself to have to have been Lecter’s (temporarily) successful framing of Graham for his own crimes. But he succeeds in this by uncoupling Will’s genius and detachment from reality into the belief that he is a cold-blooded psychopath. Psychic driving, laid bare:

It is my belief that Lecter does want to help Will. But only, in the end, to help himself. “This, cannibal you have him getting to know,” Lecter tells Will’s superior, Jack Crawford, “I think I can help good will see his face.” The cannibal of whom he speaks isn’t himself, in the end; but in another way, he is talking about himself, explaining in plain language why Lecter wants and needs Will to embrace his demons. Only by doing that, will Graham be able to use his perfect empathy to see Hannibal. Which, I suspect, is our prized cannibal’s chief motivation.

Through the second season, an imprisoned Will figures out how Lecter framed him and used his devices to fracture Will’s sense of self and convince him that, perhaps, he was capable of all the terrible things Hannibal himself did. Lecter, meanwhile, works even more closely with the FBI. Graham is eventually freed, but only after attempting to murder Hannibal from inside prison. If he can get Will to kill again, then perhaps he’ll be able to corral his gift of empathy to help him grasp why and how he is the beast that he is. But Will is composed, angry, and hungry.

Hannibal is emphatically not for everyone. Even as a fan, I couldn’t describe its intended audience to you, other than show maestro Bryan Fuller and his fellow producers, frolicking gleefully in their truly bananas-level haze of weirdness.

In case you were taking Dexter Filkins for granted…

There’s his profile of Nuri al-Maliki-slash-grim assessment of Iraq’s present and future. And these grafs near the top:

I saw Maliki in his office in February, and he appeared as stiff and colorless as he did during his televised speech—an apparatchik become the boss. Wearing the same navy-blue suit and purple tie, he spoke in a monotone, his face blank, his body seemingly fixed to his chair. The office, a sterile room without a trace of warmth, had no windows, presumably because windows could be shattered by bombs.

When I asked Maliki about Anbar, he offered muddled explanations for why his forces had apprehended the Sunni parliamentarian. “Nobody could deny it—he and his brother were carrying guns against the Iraqi government,” he said. He brightened when I asked him about his reëlection prospects. He told me he had earned the right to keep his job because, among other things, he had pursued policies that treated Iraqis equally, regardless of sect, and he had resisted the forces that were pulling his country apart. “First of all, we have kept Iraq united,” he said.

As Maliki spoke, a low-pitched rumble shook his office. Our tea glasses rattled. It was a car bomb—a few hundred yards from the fortified compound where Maliki lives. It was one of eight explosions that struck Baghdad that day, leaving thirty-four people dead. For a moment, everyone sat in silence. Then Maliki turned to an aide. “Go see what that was,” he said.


The words I bolded, I loved for their visceral, scene-setting impact. And their simplicity.

It feels like Maliki is  that room, and vice versa.

Through the piece, Maliki speaks in spare (translated, presumably) language; these grafs set that tone and expectation.

The New Yorker  doesn’t *do* nut grafs, but these three are nuts. Scene-setting, character-establishing nuts. Bravo

Character Sketch, 3/13/2014: Curly Nickerson

  • 48, Filipino-Irish.
  • prize fighter, quit at 25.
  • favorite books are nature books.
  • master Italian chef.
  • grew up in Tampa, hung along the Gulf coast.
  • worked barges, owned a raft, got destroyed in Andrew.
  • shrimp shack bouncer; once saved an heiress to a shipping fortune from 3 bros.
  • Met some Hindu swamis building a temple on island off the coast of Alabama; related stories of potato/farmer famine, American savagery
  • Curly’s parents: refugees who met in Iceland, wound up on a merchant marine ship headed for Panama;
  • Settled for a time in corpus.
  • fought encephalitis as a kid, gave him colorful visions of utopia; consumed with worry about meting his opposite one day, he or she that sees the end in their vision; ontological opposite.
  • wants to meet holy men, take some part of their good with him.

Character Sketch, 3/11/14: Janessa Quayle

  • 29, white child of apartheid; adopted by Indian parents; came to the US circa 92/93.
  • works in a Foley’s, suburban Raleigh.
  • went to NC state; dropped out after 1 semester.
  • off the grid for 3 years, lived near Iqaluit for a spell.
  • made furniture for handicapped folks, befriended Aziz,the lord of the land.
  • parents never looked for her; father, diabetic, mother died in car wreck shortly after she left.
  • brother went into tech industry in Charlotte; cashed out of a company before they went huge, worked for the city after that.
  • Janessa’s favorite kind of furniture to make is little kids tea party furniture.
  • got real good with a knife; had to fight a bear, killed it. no one knows about this.

I didn’t draw this

Those backwater places and their marginalizing ways

A stereotypical image of tea plantation workers in Jorhat. via Indium Bound.

In The New Republic, Graeme Wood reports on the horrors facing the Rohingya in the Burma’s Rakhine state:

Muslims and Buddhists who recently lived with each other peacefully now squat on opposite sides of barbed-wire fences and plot each other’s elimination. Old women and children too infirm to run from raiding parties have been speared or beaten to death in their homes. The fortunate ones are fleeing to other countries on overladen, leaky boats.

The fear of displacement is acute:

Virtually every foreigner with extensive Burma experience I met told me a story of hearing ordinary Burmese—even friends and colleagues—speak openly about the “Bengali” problem. . . .The monks peddle implausible theories of how Muslims are slowly taking over Burmese society, by seizing land, marrying and converting women, and simply out-spawning Buddhists.

The threat of re-population, exacerbated by the horror of conversion-by-marriage, has stoked the age-old fear that Burma will go the way of ancient Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Afghanistan, countries that were once majority-Buddhist and today are decidedly not. In response, many Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship. Escape—to Malaysia or Indonesia—requires contracting with human-traffickers; all-too-frequently, the journey ends in death.

Here, Burma’s broader regional context feels pertinent: its proximity to the backwater states of Northeast India, which have nurtured and exploited a long-simmering resentment towards the refugees that have spilled across its border with Bangladesh since the horrific war of its creation in 1971. Most of these refugees are Muslim. Many are poor. And when discussed derisively by the middle Assamese—their diasporic, jingoistic cousins here in the United States, at least—it is frequently with the bitter language of Theyness. As those “Bengalis,” corrupting the land, their land. The language of Otherness, it turns out, knows no borders.

The reasons for the vitriol are numerous. Those concerning economic stagnation and the dire need for a more coherent immigration policy have always struck me as valid, especially as vivid indictments of a historically negligent central government, one that has preferred to stage-manage this four-decade-old crisis rather than solve it.  In turn, the region has nurtured separaratist militias, student movements, and state governments hostile to the very presence of these Bengalis, these Others. 

It begins with a bitter resentment, and quickly metastasizes into anger and outright fear, the normalization of nativism as a principle. Extreme cultural nationalism deployed as a means of clinging to every last shred of rootedness. It is particularly acute and painful for those who’ve left India to make their homes abroad: We left it all behind and look what happened. They invaded. That resentment sometimes explodes like it did in the village of Nellie thirty-one years ago.

In Caravan, more recently:

The violence in the western Assam districts involving indigenous Bodo tribespeople and Muslims of East Bengali origin, which peaked in July-August this year, has abated. In the weeks that rioting gripped the state, over 100 people were killed and nearly 200,000 people displaced from their homes. . . . 

Amidst incidents of Bodo rebels attacking Muslims trying to return to their villages, leader of a faction of the Bodo rebel group National Democratic Front of Bodoland, Gobinda Basumatary declared that displaced Muslims would have to “prove beyond doubt” their Indian citizenship before they would be allowed to return to their homes.

Worryingly, following the western Assam incidents, the anti-migrant movement is spreading to other parts of Assam, as well as some neighbouring states. In Nagaland, the Naga Council and the Naga Hoho, both powerful local groups made up of local intelligentsia and tribal elders, have called for expulsion of all “migrants” from Nagaland. Nativist groups in neighbouring Meghalaya and Manipur have also called for the immediate detection and expulsion of “foreigners” (read: illegal migrants).

“It looks like a repeat of the early 1980s when the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam spread to other states in the Northeast and led to a lot of turmoil,” says Samir Das, a professor of political science who has authored books on Assam’s nativist movements.

You learn the language for all this in middle-class living rooms and over tea, in newspaper editorials, at rallies for vote-buying local politicians in small villages, at the student meetings in late 1970s and early 1980s that journalists like Sanjoy Hazarika have written about. These are the bourgeois and rural theaters where the urgency to protect your land, your job, your language, your children, is perverted over the decades into a harsh brand of normalized nativism.

What’s tragically ironic about all this is that the children of Northeast should know full well what it is to be unwanted and marginalized. Consider the death of Nido Taniam. In Tehelka:

On 29 January, Taniam was at Lajpat Nagar [in Delhi] and asked a shopkeeper for directions to a friend’s house. The shopkeeper made jibes at his appearance, especially his bleached hair.

After a verbal spat, Taniam broke the glass door of the shop. The shopkeeper and his friends smeared chilli powder on Taniam’s eyes and thrashed him. Soon, the cops landed there and packed off everyone to the nearest police station. The dispute was resolved after Taniam was made to cough up Rs 10,000.

Surprisingly, the police dropped Taniam back at the same spot where the tiff had taken place. Once the cops left, the shopkeeper and his friends attacked him again. The police returned and this time both sides “amicably resolved” the dispute and even signed an apology letter.

After Taniam returned home, his friends claim that he complained of chest pain and went to sleep at around 6 am the following morning. Around noon on 30 January, they took him to AIIMS, where he breathed his last.

Nido was the son of a government official from the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern-most state of the far northeastern corner of India, the vestigial bulb that hangs off the end of the sometimes-widening, occasionally contracting chicken neck. Northeasterners from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, and its sister states, who dare trespass into the mainland, are folding Nido’s death into the larger, troubling pattern of anti-Northeast racism in Delhi:

In February 2013, locals made racial slurs and attacked 10 Manipuri students at Katwaria Sarai in south Delhi. The police had refused to [act] . . . and the Northeast Support Centre had to intervene before a complaint was registered under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which attracts stronger punishment than simple assault charges under the Indian Penal Code. “Whenever we pass through a crowded street, people pass obscene comments like ‘How much for one night?’ as if we are prostitutes,” says Babina, a Manipuri student. . . .

[Assamese artist Utpal Borpujari:] “There is no representation of the history and the ethnic diversity of the Northeast in any school or college curricula. It’s not in history books and you don’t get to know about one whole part of India. Thus, you have people throwing around terms such as ‘Momo’ or ‘Chinky’. The Northeast is full of freedom fighters and other heroes.”

For a region that knows what it is to bear the brunt of stigma, to know the experience of marginalization: surely there’s some empathy to spare here. A call to re-evaluate how centers of power allow hatred to fester and bubble into an actual politics and policy. Surely there’s room in their hearts for the Rohingya, the “Bengali”? 

An alchemy of apocalypse in ‘True Detective’


As a caveat to this entire post, here’s True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto in The Daily Beast:

I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. The show’s not trying to outsmart you. And really if you pay attention… if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.

Throat cleared.

In its first three installments, True Detective drenches us in atmosphere: a melange of religio-gothic horror, tinges of racial-class divide, the meaty scepter of modern theocracy, a wink at the supposed power of  state-sanctioned Christian rehabilitation. Are these the things that matter for puppet master Nic Pizzolatto? His show’s distinct blend of the macabre, its constant sense of dread—the swampland refineries looming in the background—even the devilishly comic banter (of which there is no shortage), suggest that, basically, this is it–the end is not only nigh, it’s churning away now. Here, 19 years after the murder of Dora Lange, we may well be living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. True Detective is about the end of the world. The alchemy of the apocalypse.

If I understand the nature of novelistic television, True Detective‘s dreadful, gorgeous landscape are meant to inform how we understand the partnership of detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Is their relationship a vector of sorts: a line that starts at a single point, zooming off into infinity in one direction? Or do Cohle and Hart exist on a continuum, some spectrum of human nature, their ramblings mean as proxies for competing remedies for reconciling the horror, callousness, and suffering of the human condition? Do we all have a little Rust and a little Marty in us, duking it out till the end of time?  

I can’t say I understand much of what Pizzolatto says later in the interview:

I think my serial killer’s personal pathology is wrapped in very culturally relevant symbols that may not be immediately apparent. Not just hunting, but the idea of woman as trophy to be stuffed and displayed. The idea of prayer, and one of the necessities of the prayer pose being the blindfold: in order to effectively pray you’re going to have to ignore some very basic facts about the world.

So to me it’s not just that Cohle and Hart are hunting for their savage id or their most destructive portion. It’s that the killer has some resonance in the kinds of shows we’re talking about. We only have the one murdered woman at the crime scene in the entire series. It’s not an unrelenting horror show. It’s meant to stand in for the universal victim in this type of drama. Because while I think we’re doing a good job of telling the story that this genre demands, I think we’re also poking certain holes in it and looking at where these instincts begin, both in the type of men that Hart and Cohle represent—and in ourselves as an audience.

On first glance, the image of the woman-as-hunting-trophy scans like an exploitative source of titillation. We see Dora through the detectives’ clinical gazes, and quickly come to grasp Cohle’s obsession with fitting the grisliness and symbology of her murder into ritual—to understand it as a by-product of that great sickness called religion. For Hart, it’s all just a bunch of crazy; dispense with the theorizing and simply follow the clues where they lead. It’s important to remember that the break in their case at the conclusion of episode 3 comes from basic shoe leather detective work. If anything, it seems to affirm Marty’s distilled, take-things-as-they-are sense of the world.

At the start of the series we don’t know the nature of Pizzolatto’s relationship with Louisiana, poverty, suffering, and violence, or with cultures of violence and wild depravity. It’s difficult to assess what Dora’s body means to him and the story. The antlers, the praying posture, Dora’s chalky nakedness, the blindfold, all seem like details included to to draw attention to themselves, perhaps in the same way that such details do in the world of a CSI. But we assume there is deeper meaning in all this for Pizzolatto, that those “very basic facts of the world” would seem to include the idea that there is hope for our most marginalized and forgotten.

There’s the meaning of the symbols for the detectives. Then there is its meaning for the murderer(s). And, then, there is its meaning for Pizzolatto, and, finally, the audience. Will Pizzolatto’s take on the genre end up subverting the idea of dead-woman-as-object? This is tricky terrain: aiming to use the convention with the full intent of upending how the convention is generally employed in “this kind of drama.”

Our capacity to forget about the Doras of the world should not only shame us. It’s what dooms us. Instead of confronting our failures, we subject ourselves to prayer, to pills, cheat on our loved ones then bathe in the guilt, as if it’s all some bizarre absolution for our moral failings. At least that’s what I want Pizzolatto to be saying.

For me, Cohle and Hart represent unique visions for coping with our civilizational, societal demise. Maybe that reading says more about me than Nic Pizzolatto (I guess that’s always the case with “readings). And I’m quite likely assuming far too much knowledge about our protagonists. What if, right now, all we know is what we don’t know…but, you know, still think we know? I’m prepared to be rebuffed, is what I’m saying.

I do want Pizzolatto to make a distinct choice, though. Each man and the world he’s constructed for himself is utterly flawed, and sometimes horrifically imperfect. These are mechanisms for coping with the worst sort of stuff the world has to offer. If this is a story about the end of decency and the permanence of suffering, circumscribed by the sheer necessity to cope, show me how to deal. I do prefer my television soupy and gray as all get out. But we’re only getting eight hours of Cohle and Hart; arcs, loops, thematic concerns, there must be some closure to these things.

It’s certainly brave, in its own right, to close a narrative with a hushed ambiguity, to end things by calling attention to the fact that nothing really ends, not really. But coming to expecting that out of storytelling as the current Golden Age has done is a sort of victimization, which is a part of the complex of conventions that Pizzolatto could, might, maybe, be seeking to deconstruct.