So many possible headline jokes, so little time. Oh, wait – ‘Hannibal is an acquired taste’…
Let’s get mildly pretentious and a touch florid with our verbiage for *just* a moment here – Hannibal, now in its second season on NBC, is accessibly poetic. It has an aesthetic that is often devastating in its beauty and construction. It turns horror into an enticing, even comforting, milieu.
It is not a contradiction in terms. It strives (and often really, legitimately succeeds) at being a piece of art, an intricately and delicately constructed, cold, constantly flowing expression of madness, the mind, the soul without hammering you over the head with cliches. There is hammering, yes,1 but you won’t recognize what hit you or even that you’ve been struck until afterwards.
All that2 is to say Hannibal is most fun3 when we’re luxuriating in the art department’s justified smugness at pulling off another grotesquely awesome sculpture4 or skating headlong along with Dr. Lecter and his FBI antagonists as the latter grope in a somehow not-eye-rolling manner around but never effectively towards the murderer in their midst. The real fun, of course, is when both threads occur together.5
Such would be the show – a series of grisly murders between quiet, eerie conversations, a few hallucinations, and an elegant master plan that (spoiler) culminates in Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) on the opposite sides of a cell door from where they should be, where we know them to be in the Silence universe. It is plenty for a 13-episode first season, cleanly distinguishing itself from its dark brethren with a stylish aplomb akin to one of Lecter’s suits. For all their (and this is not derogatory) sameness, the episodes of season 1 are best consumed as a whole, in the order presented, so that these subtle builds and spiraling falls keep you whirling in the show’s fever dream.
Hannibal‘s second season, though, is intent on revealing the one fairly-well-veiled flaw in its initial construction: there’s not much threat to Hannibal and his plans. Indeed, Hannibal’s plans ultimately rely on Will being damaged goods – unbalanced physically and psychologically a step too far beyond his presentation on the spectrum – in order to succeed. This Will Graham is more introverted, reluctant to participate in helping the FBI in general let alone taking a difficult stand against one of the few people with whom he forms a connection. It makes for interesting meditations on sanity and soul, an often fascinating character study, but not much of a tool for endangering the title character.6 With Will physically as well as psychologically imprisoned for (at least) the first three episodes of season 2, we’re seeing how empty (if still beautiful) Hannibal, and Hannibal, feels without a reasonable chance of being foiled.
The show looks to be pinning its second season plans on two parallel tracks. The first is Will’s slow transformation into a more active participant in his own defense – and, potentially, an attack on Lecter. The second, teased in the opening moments of the season premiere, is FBI head Jack Crawford’s (Lawrence Fishburne) eventual ability to do what no one could in the first season – see the monster beneath Lecter’s mask. The former is a slow, slow transformation, one that’s also revealing the limitations of the directing and acting choices made with this character. The latter could be spectacular if it ever gets moving – Fishburne is perfect in this role, and matches Mikkelsen in physicality and gravitas in a way Dancy/Graham didn’t or couldn’t.
Three episodes in to this thirteen episode run, I am itching for a sense progress I didn’t consciously realize was frequently present in the first season. In the meanwhile, at least Hannibal still has its sense of visual poetry, still plumbs the depths of human darkness and depravity in ways you wouldn’t think would make for good TV.
Try some. You’ll like it.
Hannibal plays on NBC Fridays at 10pm, and streams on Hulu.