It’s been said a thousand times before, but Hannibal is the best television show you’re not watching. And by “you,” of course, I mean the non-Fannibals who have stumbled upon this post and said to yourself, “Oh yeah, Hannibal, the show about that cannibal guy who threatened that Clarice chick with fava beans and a nice chianti.” Except no, this Hannibal isn’t your peepaw’s cannibal shrink. The vision Bryan Fuller (the auteur behind Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies) hath wrought is a lucid nightmare. His Hannibal is a macabre menace out to deconstruct love, trust, and hope, to shatter and pulverize our humanity, and to force us to redefine what precisely makes humans human, through psychological warfare and emotional torture. It’s an oasis in a desert of mediocre television, and you’ve never seen anything like it.
The first season began as a sort of crime procedural: half standard brilliant detective investigates creepy crimes while his equally brilliant nemesis looms in the season arc mystery, half Tom Harris fanfic. By the time the second season rolled around, however, the case of the week was little more than a plate on which to serve the real meal—Hannibal and Will’s black hole of a relationship. We all know Hannibal will eventually be captured, but like Game of Thrones, the route our beloved showrunner takes to get to that destination isn’t immutably bound to the source material. The first half of this season is borrowed from the fourth book in the Harris series, Hannibal, while the latter half introduces Richard Armitage’s serial killer the “Tooth Fairy” from the second book, Red Dragon. Frankly, with a journey this spectacularly jaw-dropping, Fuller can take all the circuitous side trips he wants, and I’ll be with him every step of the way. The more time we get to spend in this nightmarish heaven, the better.
The trouble with reviewing the new season of Hannibal is that it makes me want to go back and binge the previous seasons. It’s that good. I had to force myself to watch only the season 2 finale last weekend. It physically pained me not to go all the way back to the beginning and marathon it. There are a ton of reasons to be jazzed not only about the new season, but about the show as a whole. Hannibal is one of a kind. If you haven’t yet succumbed to the terrifying glory that is Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, here are 5 reasons why you should.
It’s Frakking Gorgeous
Watching an episode of Hannibal is akin to watching a fever dream unfurl. Flashbacks blend with symbolic hallucinations and portentous memories. The camerawork and editing are superb. Fuller still favors extreme closeups to discombobulate the viewer and to force us to see the world in a different way. He never rushes a shot; he lets it fester in the scene with just enough context to let the viewer create their own suspense. The set, costume, and production design continues to be astonishing. Only Hannibal could make the baroque opulence of Florence feel like an inexorable descent into Dante’s inferno. A nighttime motorcycle ride through the City of Lights becomes a race, a chase, a hunt. Hannibal is a darkness staining the world.
Even the sound is a wonder to behold. The Japanese-esque score last season was haunting and foreboding, like a kabuki performance writ large. It crept up on you, teasing and taunting in the background then pounding and smashing like something straight out of an epic battle scene in an Akira Kurosawa movie. With its Italian setting, the third season’s score is an opera gone horribly awry. It’s classical music with a discordant flair, simultaneously lush and frightful, enchanting and disconcerting.
Hannibal’s extravagant taste in suits and home decor are probably the only genuine thing about him. He believes himself to be better than everyone, Will and Bedelia included. In the first two seasons, he expressed that haughty disdain through old-fashioned wood paneling and towering bookshelves—what better way to show off your refined intellectualism than by literally showing it off—and the sharp contrast of stainless steel and mid-century modern-esque furniture. With his ego newly inflated from winning his chess game with the FBI last season, he needs an environment to match his pride, and the gaudy elegance of the Italian renaissance fits the bill.
Food has always been the show’s playground. Fuller’s Hannibal is the kind of foodie most foodies would regard with fearsome awe, and not just because you’d never know if your meal was once a person. In “Antipasto,” Hannibal once again shows off its flair for the dramatic and lust for the grotesque by breaking down a course into its parts. The snick of a knife on a champagne cork and the slow dripping of the overflowing liquid is more nerve wracking than blood pouring out of one of Hannibal’s victims. Playing the voyeur to Hannibal preparing a meal made of a kidney from an unknown source, watching him heat, spice, and slice the blood-red meat leaves me with a profound sense of dread and a major case of the munchies.
Food isn’t just a means of disposing of the bodies of the people he kills. Hannibal also uses it as a way to torment those around him. We see in the flashbacks how he gradually fed Gideon his own appendages, a slow, agonizing attempt not to convert him to Hannibal’s viewpoint but to show Gideon the futility of, well, everything. We’re all going to die, so why shouldn’t the survivors get a delicious meal out of it? With Chilton and Jack last season, he used food to tease and taunt, swapping human flesh for animal meat and watching them scurry and fluster about.
Bedelia has her own food issues to worry about this season. She makes the offhanded comment that she doesn’t eat anything with a central nervous system, to which their sexually adventurous dinner guest, Anthony Dimmond, points out what Hannibal has offered her as an alternative is the same foodstuffs the ancient Romans used to feed their animals to make them taste better. She can either participate in Hannibal’s violence by killing and cannibalizing, or she can remain a passive observer, in which case she’s only as valuable as she tastes. Food for Hannibal is a craft and a weapon. He puts as much care and attention to detail in the cultivation, harvest, and preparation of his meals as he does in his appearance—his human suit—in society.
One of the great things about Hannibal is that not only are the episodes as a whole great, but there are more than a few times when a scene stands out so much that it puts lesser television shows to shame. The corpses, from living tree to beehive to fungus food to skin angels to a human mural, are so monstrous they verge on the fantastical. It’s a poisonous Pushing Daisies. Sometimes the the show leans a little too far into the fantasy—you mean to tell me a frail old man built a totem pole out of human corpses then hoisted the thing upright all by his lonesome?—but the end result is so heart-pounding that quibbles fall by the wayside.
And then there are those scenes that make your heart stop. Beverly fighting for her life in Hannibal’s cannibal pantry. A pair of guys “birthed” from a dead horse. Will’s descent into madness via hallucinatory ravenstags and fly fishing. The dreamy four-way sex scene between Hannibal and Alana and Will and Margot. Mason Verger slicing off pieces of his face and joking about how he’s so full of himself. The whole final confrontation in the season 2 finale between Will, Hannibal, Alana, and Abigail. That epic fight scene between Jack and Hannibal (a year later and it’s still has me biting my nails).
Fuller treads a narrow line between not enough and too much, but while it the show is graphic it steers clear from pornographic. No matter how dire it gets, the exploitation never comes off as gratuitous shock value. The vicious murders are written, directed, acted, and shot just as exquisitely hauntingly as everything else. It’s not a show for the faint of heart, but trust that Fuller knows what he’s doing.
The real reason we tune in every week is because of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. Will may be the hero of the show and Hannibal its villain, but Hannibal is also the protagonist and Will the antagonist. It’s contradictory in a way we don’t usually get to explore on network television. (Side note: I still can’t believe Hannibal is on NBC of all channels. Thank the Vulvalini for the Byzantine studio deal that lead to low production costs and even lower studio interference.) Hannibal wanted to see how tightly he could coil Will’s psyche until he snapped, and Will thought if he was going to break at least he could take Hannibal down with him. Meanwhile, anyone and everyone unlucky enough to be caught between the two battling giants suffered the ultimate consequences. Trouble was, Will wasn’t even the second giant—his fragmented self was. Sane!Will was no match for Hannibal or Dark!Will.
Bryan Fuller likened the saga of Will and Hannibal to a chaotic relationship. “If the first season was the bromance and the second season was the nasty breakup, I would say that season three is that stage in your relationship when you are haunted by that relationship and need to find closure, so for Will, his trajectory is one of completing the journey with Hannibal Lecter so he can free himself from that insanity.” And if that isn’t the perfect analogy for Hannigram, I don’t know what is. Hannibal respects Bedelia in his own horrifying way, but he loves Will. He desires intimacy with both of them in different ways, and they return that desire in their own complicated ways. Bedelia reciprocates in order to survive, while Will’s sense of betrayal overrides all positive feelings he once had toward Hannibal.
Bedelia the Brave
Bedelia is everything Alana Bloom could have been. Alana believed Hannibal was inherently good—she believed everyone was good until proven evil—and it may or may not have cost her her life (she doesn’t show up in the premiere, though the season trailer kinda spoils who lives and who dies). Alana could blind herself enough to be sexually attracted to Hannibal, but Bedelia is far to aware for such frivolities. Hannibal is basically asexual, so when Bedelia undresses in front of him as she draws a bath, she isn’t doing it to entice him but to disorient him. She uses her sexuality to appear trusting, or at least accepting. She disarms him by disrobing, thus trying to manipulate him in her own subtle way. On Game of Thrones fans like to get down on Sansa for not being as strong as Arya, but Sansa resists the patriarchy in her own small ways. Coming on too strong will assuredly get Sansa killed by just about every male on the show, just as it will lead to Bedelia being eaten, but Bedelia still pushes back. In her case, she sits at a train station directly in front of a security camera hoping that someone somewhere might finally notice her.
Gillian Anderson plays her with a stillness that on the surface could read as cold or indifferent but is really calculated understatement. It’s partly that blank tone taken on by psychiatrists where they give away no emotions in order to let the patient project onto them and reveal more of themselves. It’s also part absolute terror masked by stoicism. Bedelia doesn’t accept Hannibal, nor is she naive enough to think her association with him will keep her alive—remember, he sat at her empty house in his murder suit last season—but she knows as long as she can keep him interested in her she stays alive. And the longer she lives, the more opportunities she’ll have to try and trip him up.
Like Will, her relationship with Hannibal is romantic without the romance. Unlike Will, Bedelia never overestimates her ability to control Hannibal. He’s using her, she knows it, and he knows she knows it, but she’s enough of a blank wall to him that he can’t fully interpret what it all means. They’re still psychoanalysing each other, circling each other, searching for a weak spot to strike. Given the season 3 premiere, Bedelia has a lot more in common with Will than he realizes. Hannibal has manipulated her nearly as much as he did with Will—she tells him bluntly, “I still believe I am in conscious control of my actions. Given your history, that’s a good day.” But Hannibal can’t feed off her emotions the way he does with Will. Will is the thrill of the hunt, but Bedelia is the fox that refuses to run from the hound. She neither stands up to him nor cowers at his presence. She allows him to bend her as he sees fit, but she will not break. She is both an unwilling participant and a terrified observer, and that won’t satisfy Hannibal for long.
- “You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal. You have aesthetic ones.”
- Bedelia: “What have you done, Hannibal?”
Hannibal: “I’ve taken off my person suit.”
Bedelia: “You let them see you.”
Hannibal: “I let them see enough.”
- “If you’re free, my wife and I would love to have you for dinner.”
- “I’m just fascinated to know how you will feel when all this happens to you.”
- The season premiere makes two very striking choices, both of which pay off dividends. First, the opening sequence is nearly wordless, with most of the audio coming from the jarring score and hyped up foley. Second, Will Graham is nowhere to be seen. The only regulars to appear are Bedelia du Maurier and Hannibal Lecter (save flashbacks with Abel Gideon).
- For a moment there I thought we might get the world’s most uncomfortable menage a trois with Bedelia, Hannibal, and Anthony.
- I hope we get to see more of Hannibal’s asexuality this season. He’s manipulative enough to know how to use sex as a tool of control, but it’s clear he has little interest in the physical pleasures. Hannibal is thankfully not the kind of character who can be seduced into becoming a hero through the love of a good woman.
- As always, Bryan Fuller live tweeted the episode, including extra tidbits and behind-the-scenes goodies. Strolling through his feed is like mainlining DVD extras.
- Unfortunately, Hannibal’s ratings still suck. Fortunately, as long as it continues to be cheap to produce (NBC airs it, but Gaumont International Television and Sony Pictures pick up most of the tab) it’ll probably get renewed. And even if it gets cancelled, it’s a prime candidate for pickup by Netflix and Amazon. In other words, I’m not too terribly concerned, but I’m not happy, either.
- I give up. I’m going to go watch season 1. Maybe I’ll just call in sick to work tomorrow…
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.