Previously on Hannibal …
At the end of Hannibal’s sensationally sordid season-two finale, “Mizumono,” the good Doctor Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) left his best friend Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) filleted and bleeding on the floor; Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) nursing a punctured neck in the pantry; Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) shattered on the sidewalk; and the thought-to-be-dead Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), whose purported death has haunted Will incessantly, split from ear to ear. Series creator Bryan Fuller was unsure if Hannibal would be picked up for a third season — its ratings are subpar, to put it kindly — so he and Steve Lightfoot (one of the great current TV-writing duos) penned a series finale that has as many slit throats as it does loose ends. Had Hannibal been canceled, the most lugubrious show of the last 20 years would have left us with the most ferociously violent series finale to ever appear on a network channel. It makes Twin Peaks’s “Beyond Life and Death” look jovial. Lucky for us, Hannibal was renewed. Luckier for us, season three seems to be going in a markedly different direction.
With Brian Reitzell’s cacophonous percussion and sinister synths accompanying him like devoted acolytes, Hannibal Lecter glides through the rain-slicked Parisian streets, the yellow headlight of his motorcycle resembling the bloated moon above. Hannibal’s traded in his person suit for a gleaming black helmet and snug leather jacket; when he dismounts the bike and removes his helmet, his usually immaculate hair hangs at a haphazard slant across one eye. We follow him from behind, the camera smooth and slow and somehow sensual. Less than two minutes into the new season and we’ve already been drawn into a foreign land, following a man who only vaguely resembles the Hannibal Lecter we know and fear. He looks almost … human.
Hannibal attends a glitzy party comprising the typical artists and intellectuals one expects to find in Paris. The figuratively incestuous, cannibalistic nature of self-important artists and egotists reflects Hannibal’s literal cannibalism, as well as his own God complex. Yet somehow, the serial killer comes off as the least deplorable person in the room. For all his lies and grotesqueries, Hannibal has a genuine affinity for culture. He’s not faking that. Hannibal meets a pernicious young poet named Anthony (Tom Wisdom), who describes him as having a “thinly veiled disdain” in his eyes. The young poet won’t make it to the second episode.
With a series of dissolves and nonlinear cuts, Hannibal moves to Florence, immersing us in this new world in which Dr. Lecter ostensibly fits — a palace of enlightenment, all gauzy lights and chandeliers and long, looming columns and pretty people in fancy garb. It’s all artifice, Hannibal knows; for once, he’s the honest one. As in Thomas Harris’s tar-black comedy novel from which the show derives its name, the exiled doctor sets his gaze on a prestigious position as a library curator. The position is currently filled, but Hannibal, assuming the identity of a Dr. Fell, takes care of that little inconvenience.
The rest of the episode follows a nebulous structure. It jetés forward in time; like a world-class ballerina, it leaps and spins in different directions, drawing our attention one way before swaying in another, yet you never doubt whether it’s in control. Hannibal, now dancing with (of all people) Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (the great Gillian Anderson), whom he addresses as his wife, is approached by a snide, bearded man who questions Hannibal’s erudition. Hannibal isn’t a real Italian, which intrinsically lessens his ability to properly understand Dante, according to this soon-to-be-sorry academic. The emulous doctor says he’s willing to earn his meal, and agrees to do a presentation on Dante to become the full-time curator of the library. Fuller and Lightfoot slowly strip away Hannibal’s veneer, as if peeling away the cover-ups on a Renaissance painting. Whereas Hannibal has, until now, been a cipher, a Devil in disguise, he now finally resembles a person in a suit rather than someone wearing a person suit. We’re finally privy to his emotions, able to see the cracks in his self-esteem. Mikkelsen has always been dashing and devious, the kind of stoic turn that goes ignored by awards committees, but he really digs into the role here, his eye flittering, giving away the emotions he previously concealed. The careful way he lets his voice break with anger belies the enunciated, antiquated gentleman persona. If Mikkelsen’s fetching Hannibal Lecter has, up till now, been considered second to that of Anthony Hopkins, this season promises an imminent usurpation.
At once airy yet calculated, the aptly named “Antipasto” is, to date, the most subtle, least claustrophobic episode of Hannibal. Hannibal’s dark, dour office and the lifeless chrome halls of the FBI building give way to the lush romanticism of Florence. As an introduction to the new season, the episode offers little action, instead giving us fleeting glimpses behind Hannibal’s cracking façade. It eddies elliptically, gliding from past to present. The episode’s director, series regular Vincenzo Natali, uses a widescreen aspect ratio to denote flashbacks, showing us the purported last days of Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard), whom Hannibal has abducted and from whom Hannibal is slowly flensing bits of body and appendages. Izzard’s return, however brief, is most welcome; his calm back-and-forths with Mikkelsen have a distinct, disquieting rhythm. “You’re the devil,” Gideon tells Hannibal, who has lopped off one of Gideon’s arms (Gideon now has one arm and no legs) and has been feeding it to snails so that he can dine on said snails, along with Gideon. Gideon knows he’s going to be eaten, unlike the snails, which slither around in blissful, slimy ignorance. Hannibal, Gideon theorizes, is like a snail in that he doesn’t want to eat alone. Hannibal doesn’t deny this.
“I can’t wait until this happens to you,” Gideon says to Dr. Lecter, eyeing the snails exquisitely laid out before him. Is that a glint of trepidation in Hannibal’s eye? Has Gideon gotten to him?
Another flashback, this one in color, shows us an event that has been alluded to multiple times throughout the show. We finally get to the attack that forced Bedelia to give up being a therapist. Until now, we’ve been led to believe that Hannibal showed up and saved Bedelia by tearing the tongue from the would-be killer’s head, but now it appears that Hannibal’s involvement may have been more limited than initially insinuated. The sensuous appeal of violence, of voyeurism-as-participation, suffuses the whole episode.
Natali, who directed the first three episodes of season three, has become the series’ finest director. He may not have the name recognition of David Slade (who directed the pilot and the second season finale), or the copious television credits of Michael Rhymer (who directed this season’s finale), but Natali’s vision melds perfectly with Bryan Fuller’s. His work on Hannibal far surpasses his films (Cube, Splice). He helmed last season’s standout “Su-zakana,” in which we met the elusive Margot Verger (Katharine Isabelle). It showcased one of the best gross-out (but not gratuitous) shock moments of the show when a monstrous social worker clawed his way out of the carcass of a horse, having been sewn in by a mentally handicapped man who was emotionally and mentally abused by the social worker. The hyperstylized visuals and moral ambiguity – will Will kill this guy, who so clearly deserves a bullet in the brain? Will Hannibal let Will? – and introduction of Margot marked a turning point, aesthetically and tonally, for the season. But with “Antipasto,” Natali shows surprising restraint; the lack of visual indulgence and the bizarre serenity of the episode are almost jarring, so accustomed are we to the fever-dream ferocity of Fuller’s work.
Natali channels the classic Italian filmmakers of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly Bernardo Bertolucci circa The Conformist, in his careful compositions and subtle camera movements, pushing closer to characters, capturing the diffused light spilling from lofty windows, using the environment to sustain a mood more than before.
Most of the episode is Hannibal and Bedelia talking, but it’s not just Hannibal and Bedelia talking: We learn as much about Hannibal in these 40-something minutes as we have in the past two seasons. As Bedelia says, Hannibal is no longer dissimulating or hiding himself behind that stoic non-smile. He lets us see him. Hannibal has been criticized for its lackluster female characters, which isn’t totally fair, since the show has primarily been concerned with the psychological, pseudo-psychosexual relationship between Hannibal and Will Graham, while Alana Bloom gets relegated to the background. But in “Antipasto,” Mikkelsen and Anderson get to play off of each other. They have spectacular chemistry: She brings out the darkness percolating behind those eyes but seems to also get at something almost human lurking inside Hannibal. In a deliciously sadistic scene, Hannibal’s young poet friend joins the pair for dinner, pointing out that Hannibal is serving foods that Romans used to use to make people taste better.
“My husband is very particular about the way I taste,” Bedelia intones.
“Is this that kind of party?” the poet asks, after a beat.
Hannibal and Bedelia exchange glances; with a stiletto stare, Hannibal says, “No, it’s not.”
Bedelia adds, “It’s really not.”
“Antipasto” isn’t that kind of party, either: With just one onscreen murder — and a strangely mild one, at that — the episode is disconcertingly placid, with tension manifesting in the unexpected, sustained tranquility. Thanks to some sharp dialogue pleated with myriad meanings, Mikkelsen and Anderson enthrall just as much as the show’s usual histrionic, CGI-addled murder-as-performance-art setpieces. The transition to demure feels so natural, and Mikkelsen and Anderson are so good, you may not even notice that Will and Alana don’t appear at all in the episode, and Jack only appears in one brief flashback. We don’t even know who survived the “Mizumono” massacre, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Hannibal has moved on. So do we.