Expectations have weighed heavily on Hannibal since NBC first announced the project. Did we really need another procedural about serial killers, even when it's the genre's most notorious antihero? And how could Hannibal, on network TV, hope to stay true to the source material in Thomas Harris' novels? Despite these challenges, Bryan Fuller's insanely stylish thriller delivered a grim and sophisticated meditation on the corrosive power of violence—with one hell of an impressive cast.
Renewed at the last hour after disappointing ratings, however, Hannibal's second season comes with different aims. Its new low-pressure Friday night time slot offers space to maintain high dramatic standards and serve fans of the Silence of the Lambs canon.
And now Hannibal isn't even the only literary-minded, antler-showcasing, serial killer series in town. HBO's True Detective is so unrelenting in its cosmic horror-tinged existentialism that it wears me out each week. Hannibal's terror is instead painted in big, bold strokes of evil whimsy. Skin angels! Human totem poles! Human cellos! Human carpaccio! While True Detective has allusions to the supernatural, it's firmly grounded in reality. Hannibal doesn't need a King in Yellow when Mads Mikkelsen plays the titular psychopath as the devil himself, brimming with his own mythos and iconography. Both shows have satisfying stories, but beyond the superficial, it's a comparison of apples to mushroom men.
We all know Hannibal eventually gets caught. Fuller used the events of Silence and it's prior companion novel, Red Dragon, as a carrot to lure viewers deeper into his show and generate hunger for his treatment. But whether we ever got there was hardly guaranteed: imagine how big a letdown it would be if Game of Thrones were cancelled before the Red Wedding.
So, in a shocking opening, we get a smaller carrot. Only, this is Hannibal, so vegetable metaphors are not welcome here.
I wish I wasn't spoiled for the huge opening fight scene between Hannibal and FBI agent Jack Crawford because it was so completely opposite to the more psychological confrontations of the show. And it was brutal. And fun to watch (as a film fan) Mikkelsen bust out his Valhalla Rising moves on Morpheus. These are trained professionals, and it showed in every punch. And we don't know what set off the fight: did Hannibal admit to framing Will for the Chesapeake Ripper murders, for being the real Ripper? Or did he confess all those times he fed Crawford and his wife human remains? "Twelve weeks earlier," is the only conclusion we get. And it's a perfectly-timed reminder of the devastating impact this revelation will have on the people in Hannibal's orbit.
Will's already in that space. And while he's consumed by thoughts of Hannibal's betrayal, this is the most clear-headed Will's been in weeks.
"Friendship can sometimes involve a breach of individual separateness," Hannibal tells his own therapist, Dr. Bedilia Du Maurier (a very welcome Gillian Anderson.) As Will distances himself from Hannibal in order to reclaim his mind and prove his innocence, Hannibal creepily worms his way into Will's shoes by stepping in as the FBI's new consultant. I don't think Hannibal liked looking at death through Will's extremely empathetic mind because he might see his own ugliness. Or maybe he doesn't want to reconcile the part of himself that stares forlornly at Will's empty chair during their usual therapy session time with the part that destroyed his "friend." Will Hannibal admit his crimes to Jack in the near future out of some remorse? Doubtful. But with his patsy behind bars, Hannibal seems a bit more confident and that cockiness could get him in the end.
What gives Hannibal it's distinctive style is how much takes place in the imagination. Will just sitting in a cell is only interesting to the most die-hard Hugh Dancy fans, so instead we get treated to elaborate visual metaphors. See: the man-stag. Dr. Alana Bloom literally breaches separateness when she washes over Will like a wave during a hypnosis session. While Crawford remains resigned to accept Will's guilt and struggles with his own, Alana at least thinks Will didn't mean to brutally murder all those people. That's as close to a real friend as Will's got right now. And that sure sucks.
All told, "Kaiseki" was a cathartic coda to last season. It's not much for new viewers, but rather an resetting of the chessboard. These are people reeling from a new reality and careening towards even further tragedy. We got a brief introduction to Cynthia Nixon's character, FBI investigator Kade Prurnell, who wants the media shitstorm surrounding Will Graham to go away. Yeah, good luck with that. I guess she's never met Freddie Lounds? Also introduced was Hannibal's biggest tableaux to date: dozens of plasticized corpses arranged as a giant eyeball. And one seriously unlucky live person stuck in the middle.
I'm ready for another helping.
• As scary as the giant corpse-eye was, it still wasn't as horrific as Will's recovered memory of Hannibal force-feeding him an ear like something out of a Nine Inch Nails video. Or, more fitting, a duck getting fattened up for foie gras. That. Noise.
• Is the flounder people, too?! All of this season's episode titles come from courses in a Japanese kaiseki menu, a nod to Hannibal's beloved aunt Murasaki. Fuller has confirmed he's asked David Bowie to play Hannibal's uncle and that's how I'll choose to picture him until he's cast otherwise. Because Hannibal has the best guest stars on TV.
• "I never feel guilty about eating anything." The first cannibal joke has been made. Hannibal is officially back.
• We got more confirmation that Bedilia knows what Hannibal is. Or she at least thinks she knows. She's lied to cover his involvement with the patient who attacked her and subsequently swallowed his own tongue. Could this be the first time we've seen a look of slowly-dawning horror as one of Hannibal's friends peeks under his carefully constructed mask? And maybe questions her veal? Or did she know about the veal all along? Of all the things I'm excited for this season, Gillian Anderson getting more screen time is high on the list.
• And yet, it's deeply unsatisfying that the least likeable characters on this show are also vegetarians. It's just another reason to not like them. Dr. Chilton is and always will be a snake.
• Palate Cleanser of the Week: The thought that faithful dog Winston's reunion with Will will be happiest moment of this show.