Recapping Dante: Canto 31, or Dante the Television Writer


Arts & Culture


Gustave Doré, Canto 31

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the thirty-first canto as explained by a breathless contemporary TV critic.

By now it is clear that this season’s sleeper star is the breakout show-runner, Dante Alighieri. His show The Inferno, an unlikely gem of narratological genius, has consistently stood out from the televisual pack, relying for the most part on the rarefied taste of its audience and the poignant, lyrical style of the head writer. This most recent episode, canto 31, is no exception.

This divine segment uses, as ever, a canny rhetorical device to dispense with exposition: the question. In this case, our hero, Dante, entering the next circle of hell, gazes through a thick fog, through which he can faintly perceive the outline of various towers. So what does he do? He asks a question about them, of course, and his companion Virgil helpfully informs him—and us—that these are giants, not towers. Simple! Elegant! Where other shows go in for flash and gimmickry, The Inferno just tells us what’s what.

Likewise, the show’s oft-criticized habit of alluding to classic texts is, in this viewer’s opinion, a refreshing break from the crude, pseudo-mythological subtext of HBO’s Game of Thrones. This week, Dante compares the sound of a bugle in hell to the resounding bellow of Roland’s horn in the Chanson de Roland, the French epic poem: an apt comparison, even if it’s lost on a contemporary audience.

As Dante and Virgil continue through the infernal domain of giants, the first giant they encounter begins speaking in gibberish: Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi. It’s a phrase that fans around the world have been frantically attempting to decode, to no avail. After all, the giant who spits out this nonsense is Nimrod, who built the tower of Babel. (It’s my opinion that Dante means to use hell as a sort of moral landscape, in which punishments reflect a sinner’s crime—but this is pure speculation.) The ultimate genius of The Inferno may be that it brings an intellectual component to one of the oldest adventure stories in history. Odysseus and Aeneas traveled through hell, and here Dante has crafted a Christian notion of the underworld without disregarding these ancient traditions.

At the end of this episode, Dante and Virgil speak with a far more reasonable giant, who takes them into his hand and carries them, lowering them gently into hell’s final circle. Of course, the action breaks off there—Dante knows a thing or two about cliffhangers. And so we wait with bated breath for the next installment of this national treasure.

Never has an adventure story been so intellectually rewarding, and seldom is a theological and lyrical masterpiece ever so thrilling to read. It is probably true that there won’t be a Dante line of clothing at Banana Republic, and there certainly won’t be a fleet of Dante cosplayers at next year’s Comic Con. But I feel certain that the lone fan will show up in a red bonnet, and that a discerning few will get the reference right away, even though the shortsighted network will probably cancel the show. In time the one season of The Inferno will be remembered as fondly as all seasons of Breaking Bad. AMC might have had Walter White, but Dante has Lucifer himself.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.