Every year, NBC’s stylish and ambitious series Hannibal, based on the novels of Thomas Harris, lives on the precipice of death. Its ratings are practically nonexistent, yet it survives (thanks mostly to international funding). In doing so, each season grows bolder, as series creator Bryan Fuller is given more rein to push the boundaries not only of creativity, but simply in what can be shown on broadcast television.
In Season 2, Hannibal moved away from its procedural beginnings, and began focusing on longer story arcs that delved deeper than ever, not only into the mind of Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), but also into the complicated dance between Hannibal and FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Still, the series held on to certain fundamentals of primetime television, even at its most strange. The same is not true for Season 3, where Fuller is completely creatively unleashed (or appears to be).
Hannibal’s second season ended with a gothic slaughter-fest, after which Hannibal fled abroad with his therapist Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). In Season 3, the two are shown in Florence, Italy, living a life Hannibal has created for them through strategic killing. The premiere feels like a very different kind of series than ever before, focusing almost entirely on Hannibal and Bedelia’s new life. But towards the end of that first hour, Will Graham’s name is evoked for the first time, and it’s clear that theirs is still the show’s central relationship.
Hannibal’s third season employs an extensive use of flashback, incorporating scenes from the last season, and expanding upon them in ways that illuminate new facets of the story viewers are now experiencing. Vincenzo Natali (Splice), who directed the first three episodes (available for review) lets the camera linger on feasting snails, or Hannibal’s cuts of meat, or on Bedelia’s face, which is full of conflict over the morality of her choices. The third season is also the show’s most visually ambitious yet, with extremely esoteric aesthetics and a melange of images that wash over viewers like a muddled reverie, both revealing and obfuscating.
Bedelia questions whether Hannibal is now only interested in aesthetic, and it’s a fair question for Fuller regarding the series, as well. Some of the new episodes’ moments are surprising, intriguing, and thoughtful, but a snail is the correct recurring creature. The world of Hannibal has become all-encompassing. The show plays with time, life and death, and the nature of reality as it always has, but now, it’s a constant. No scene or interaction can be trusted. The only truth is the connection between Will and Hannibal. As Will says of Hannibal, “I’ve never known myself as well as I’ve known myself when I’m with him.”
The upcoming season finds Will hunting Hannibal in a new way — by tracking him down through his “mind palace,” and piecing together who Hannibal really is, both spatially and metaphysically. Will broke Hannibal’s heart when he betrayed him, and this becomes a central theme by the third episode, after both men make overtures to the other, unsure of what they might do should they come together again. The game continues, though, with Hannibal killing again (and more boldly) to draw Will and others close to him. But Will, too, gets drawn up in Hannibal’s thought process enough to end up paralleling him, by compelling others to carry through with deadly acts that he set up. It’s a game of manipulation that ends with free will.
There are many conversations about ethics, God, morals, and more throughout these first episodes, but none of them are as convincing as the actions around them. Bedelia is uncomfortable with Hannibal, and even considers fleeing several times, but she is also still curious about him and his motivations. She doesn’t want to be an accomplice, but he forces her to be more than an observer. That tension creates some fantastic scenes, particularly (and fittingly) around the dinner table.
Will, too, walks the same fine line he has for a long time, between understanding Hannibal and becoming Hannibal. The new episodes give him a variety of outlets for his moral questions and feelings (including the return of several former characters), which seem to do nothing by muddy the waters further. But it’s all in line with the show’s own tightrope walk between beauty and barbarism. Hannibal dances a waltz, quotes Dante in medieval Italian, and creates incredibly complex dishes from arcane materials. Some of those materials just happen to be human.
For her part, Bedelia smiles politely as their dinner guests rave over their meal, and continues eating her plate of pescatarian morsels. It is pointed out by one scholar that her dish is what the Romans used to feed their animals to make them tastier. She swallows hard in response and gives a nervous smile. She knows, and yet, she continues.
Hannibal’s third season is certainly shaping up to be its boldest, most ambitious, and most novelistic yet, though it runs the risk of becoming too caught up in its own aesthetic. It’s something that has set the series apart and defined it stylistically; it’s full of symbolism and an exploration of what Emerson might describe as the Over-soul. But it does need to be grounded in some kind of reality (its sexuality and brutality are also complicated by an artistry that renders both cold). There is no sense of how the new character Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) will fit into all of this (he makes no appearance in the first three episodes), but he will more than likely help provided a little more of a real-world connection that the show very much needs.
For now, though, you can do as Hannibal instructs Will: tilt your head back, close your eyes, and wade into the water. The rich tapestry Bryan Fuller and his team have created is unlike anything else on television. This is his design.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Hannibal Season 3 premieres Thursday, June 4th at 10 p.m. on NBC. And don’t forget to come back to Collider after each new episode for weekly recaps.