This review contains spoilers.
Just like every other devotee to Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, I’ve spent the 12+ months since its last episode trying to convince everyone I know to watch the show. The reasons for this are many.
First, frankly, it is, quite simply, an amazing piece of cinema. Yes, I know it’s on television, but trust me, it might as well be on the silver screen at a film festival for the level of auteuritsm on display. If you aren’t watching, you’re missing out.
Second, many people don’t watch because they are convinced that the show is nothing but an excuse to bring more violence to television. And I am not going to pretend that the show isn’t violent. The season finale last year was nothing less than a bloodbath which shocked all of us. But a large part of the reason we were shocked is precisely because the show is, like Hannibal himself (until that episode), so controlled. So restrained. Violence is not an end to Lecter. Rather, it is largely a means to achieve his final and more aesthetic goal. Thus, what is usually terribly ugly becomes, on Hannibal, terribly beautiful instead.
And finally, if you’re not watching, there’s not enough audience to keep it on the air. We acolytes hold our collective breath waiting for news of its renewal/cancellation each season, knowing that the ratings are just marginal enough that the future of the show rests on an executive’s whim. We also know that this is nothing less than art, and want to see it saved–if only for a little while longer.
So we plead our case with friends and family, encouraging them to check out the first two seasons on Amazon or elsewhere and to tune in this last week when it started its third year. And I was not the only one to feel more than a little hamstrung in my efforts to recruit new viewers into our ranks. Because unless someone has seen a good portion of the backlog of Hannibal, this week’s season premiere, Antipasto, would have been more than a bit of a challenge.
When we last saw Hannibal, he had left most of the rest of the first-string characters in sizable pools of blood as he left to join his former psychiatrist and current to-be-determined on a plane to who-knows-where.
Where, it turns out, is Florence, with a quick stop off in Paris for an almost entirely pragmatic bit of butchery. By doing away with a pretentious scholar (and his wife) there, Hannibal is able to assume his identity in Florence, where his (surprise!) knowledge of medieval Italian and Dante win him a position in as curator and translator at the Palazzo Capponi. There, he insists to Bedelia, he is content to keep his extracurricular activities to a minimum…to “preserve the peace.”
The peace is not to be kept, however, as a teaching assistant (played by Tom Wisdom) who knew Hannibal’s alter-ego, Roman Fell, turns up in Florence and threatens Hannibal and Bedelia’s new life. Lecter dispatches the unfortunate young man. But rather than hiding the body, as he did that of the previous curator who he also helped to some level of Dante’s afterlife, Lecter returns to his more aesthetic compulsions and carves the assistant’s torso to resemble a human heart and places it before the altar of a chapel in another Italian city.
Nor does Hannibal’s idea of peace – up until this point – mean better behavior on his part, although Fuller and writer Steve Lightfoot create an interesting juxtaposition that makes Hannibal appear far naughtier in this period than he is. The episode shifts back and forth between the present day in Florence and the past in Baltimore, where Hannibal has Dr. Abel Gideon prisoner in his home. These earlier sequences, shot in black and white, show Lecter slowly dismantling Gideon, one meal at a time, keeping him quite alive and otherwise hale, and serving the serial killer back to himself – a diet he generally refuses.
As always, these scenes are unremarkable for their gore but fascinating for their dialogue – conversations that seem designed to remind us of those between Dr. Lecter and his former patient Will Graham (assuming we’ve seen those in seasons 1 and 2). The primary difference here is that there is no illusion between the two murderers: any attempt on Hannibal’s part to mess with Gideon’s mind, rather than just his body, is deftly short-circuited. Gideon refuses to let Hannibal play with his food.
The same cannot be said of the relationship between Hannibal and Bedelia. Early in the episode, he asks her how she is feeling, to which she replies, “I still believe I am in conscious control of my actions. Given your history. That’s a good day.” But we soon learn that this is an illusion. As much as Gideon is a stand-in conversationally for Graham, so Bedelia is one when it comes to psychological manipulation. The first two seasons were devoted to Hannibal’s experiment in seeing how far he could get in pushing Graham from a highly empathetic, highly moral person into someone like himself. In Antipasto, we learn that he has largely been conducting a similar experiment on his former therapist. Taken together, these parallel plotlines seem to keep Lecter busily depraved.
And, of course, the latter of the two plot strands raises the question of what Bedelia is doing with Lecter in the first place. Last season, she had disappeared and seemed to have safely escaped only to come back into the danger in Baltimore. We see her in Antipasto warning Jack Crawford sometime before the massacre that, if he believes he is about to capture Hannibal, it is only because the cannibal wishes it to appear so. She then finds him (does she already know?) at her home and they leave together. She has the chance to shoot him and does not. Is her intellectual curiosity too great? Or has she made backup plans with Crawford in case Hannibal has, in fact, set him up? The shot in the Florence train station where she looks up pointedly at the surveillance camera is not exactly the action of a woman attempting to avoid the police but rather something quite the opposite. If she is working with Crawford, does Hannibal suspect? Is this why he lightly touches her shoulder when he uses the word “betrayal” in his lecture?
If it sounds as though I’m dancing around disclosing the fates of those left behind in Baltimore, that’s because the episode doesn’t even hint at them. In fact, almost all the references to the events of the last two seasons are not merely oblique but outright opaque. The only things we see or hear about Baltimore are new things: facts about the death of Bedelia’s murderous patient (played, if you don’t blink, by Zachary Quinto), the slow fate of Gideon, etc. Hopefully we learn what happened to Alana Bloom, Jack Crawford, Will Graham, and Abigail Hobbs next week. But if you were turning in for the first time, these gaps aren’t just a matter of extended suspense. They must be outright confounding.
Unless, like Lecter, the aesthetic is enough for you, because, as always, Hannibal brings the very best to its table. The cinematography of the past made Baltimore and its surroundings stark and gorgeous. There are not words for what the same artist (James Hawkinson) can do when given Paris and Florence to work with. The opening scene of Hannibal’s motorcycle trip through Paris has shots that I’d love to frame and put on my wall and gaze at for hours. Brian Reitzell’s music provides the perfect moody backdrop for every frame, and as always, the acting is impeccable.
And, at long last, it looks as though we finally have the one thing the show really lacked and which Bryan Fuller promised us – more fully developed female characters. This was a subject that I returned to several times last year because it was such a miss. But the addition of Gillian Anderson as a regular is a tremendous boon. They needed not only a great part but a great actress, and Antipasto is evidence of just how much both can add to an already great show. Fuller has promised that Alana Bloom will get greater development as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing Caroline Dhavernas rise to the occasion.
Season 3 looks to be every bit the epicurean delight we devotees had dreamed of. Now we just need to convince more of our friends to go back to the beginning. Because the only way to enjoy this feast is to start with the very first course. And it’s worth every bite.
Read Laura’s review of the season 2 finale, Mizumono, here.
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