“You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.”
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
If Hannibal Lecter is the Monster of Florence, Hannibal is the Monster of Network television, doing to TV tropes and standards what Dr. Lecter does to the rude. After the exordium “Antipasto,” whose slow-mounting, ponderous tension acts as a sort of overture for the season, one might think the next episode would return to the gleeful perversion and torrents of blood that mark the first two seasons. But “Primavera” somehow manages to usurp expectations again. Rather than a return to normalcy or further centrifugal experimentation, the second Vincenzo Natali–helmed episode of season three glances back at the final moments of “Mizumono” with uncomfortable intimacy; it wades into the quiet stream, as Hannibal puts it. If you were hoping for giallo-inspired histrionics, you may be taken aback: “Primavera” has the slow, veronal pacing of dying thoughts, as if what we’re seeing is emanating from the mind of someone bleeding out on the floor.
We return to the green-hued halls of Hannibal’s house, floor mottled with blood, bodies dying in the shadows. Having carved a half-moon slit into Will’s belly, Hannibal cradles his friend. “Now you see me,” Hannibal intones. He asks Will why he wanted to deny Hannibal freedom when all Hannibal wanted was to help Will. “I forgive you, Will. Do you forgive me?”
And Hannibal cuts Abigail’s throat.
The CGI moose-as-metaphor, which has become gradually less annoying (in season one, it often felt intrusive and stupid), appears on the floor beside Will, blood spilling from its wound. This is one of the first instances in which the moose doesn’t look ridiculous, partially because Natali shrouds it in darkness, partially because it arrives at an emotional apex: Hannibal for the first time, asked for forgiveness.
The look of well-considered sorrow (as if he can only have feelings after having cogitated about them for a certain amount of time) on Hannibal’s face is a slight but stark contrast to the subtle, murderous flitter of his eyes in season two’s “Tome-Wan,” when he watches Mason Verger stab his lovely leather chair, over and over, each downward jab pushing Hannibal’s brow up ever so slightly, widening his eyes in a way that at once suggests shock at such boorish behavior, yet a certain ineffable joy at now being able to kill Mason for his rudeness. The subtle quirks and contemplated tics of Mikkelsen’s performance become clearer as time passes. For those who still don’t think Hannibal cares about will, just watch the Mason scenes and the Will scenes back-to-back, and notice the different way Hannibal watches, listens, to these two patients.
Hannibal is, without a doubt, the most incisive, and enlightened, television depiction of a toxic friendship between two men. Hannibal may be bad for Will, and Will for Hannibal, but they have changed each other, and, in their own bizarre way, they love each other. To paraphrase Morgan Freeman in Se7en, Look at all that love all over the floor.
Fade to a hospital room, in which Will, having been stitched-up, now lies, wreathed by so many monitors and computer screens. A young girl steps into the room, growing lucid as she moves closer to the screen. (Vincenzo has become a master of the rack focus and shallow focus techniques.) It’s Abigail.
Abigail tells Will that Hannibal didn’t mean to kill them. He cut them with surgical precision, giving paramedics enough time to save the pair, the closest to family Hannibal has.
“He left us to die,” Will says.
“But we didn’t,” Abigail retorts.
In any other show, one of lesser vision and less deliberate emotional inveigling, this reveal could’ve been, “Ugh, they lived?” Instead, it turns into, “Wait, why did Hannibal let these two live? And where are Jack and Alana?”
In a dreamscape version of Hannibal’s ornate office, perhaps Will’s version of what Hannibal refers to as a Memory Palace (a mnemonic device also known as the Method of Loci), Will watches himself speak with the doctor, as sheets of paper fall like snowflakes, or ashes. Will sees, remembers, the prescient Hannibal talking about how he wants to go to Italy when the time comes for him to flee.
The credits don’t play for nine minutes, almost a quarter way through the episode. Natali & Co. are taking their time, though what they’re setting up, and planning on tearing down, is tough to ascertain.
Eight months later, Will and Abigail are in an old gothic cathedral in Palermo, Sicily*. The way “Antipasto” mostly focused on Hannibal and Bedelia, “Primavera” focuses mostly on Will and Abigail and their theological discourse in the House of God. Hannibal is now wading into even murkier waters: Will talks about how God isn’t interested in him, how “Even in an enlightened world,” people run to religion for hope. “Elegance is more important than suffering.”
Has any network TV show been ballsy enough to flat-out discuss skepticism and the conjured-up superstitions of faith with such earnest, unflinching severity? Completely uninterested in galvanizing new fans, Hannibal is, for all its Grand Guignol gore and sumptuous violence-as-sex imagery, one of the few network shows that has atheist leanings, which is impressively bold regardless of one’s personal beliefs.
A police officer named Rinaldo Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino) appears in the cathedral to question Will about Hannibal Lecter. (People have a way of appearing and reappearing like apparitions in Hannibal.) Lecter, it turns out, is probably literally the Monster of Florence; his artisanal style of body mutilation has a certain Botticelli quality to it, the way the bodies are positioned, the use of flowers, the disquieting beauty and deliberation of the crime scenes as spectacle. Will shows up in Palermo; a murder happens a day later. That’s suspicious, Pazzi says. That also means that the events of “Antipasto” and “Primavera” are chronologically entwined, as the dead body we briefly see at the end of “Antipasto” has been discovered about halfway through this episode. Discerning who and what we should trust in Hannibal is becoming increasingly difficult.
In “Antipasto” and this episode, several lines, shots, images, and mannerisms keep recurring, popping up from last season’s “Tome-Wan” and “Mizumono” in particular, as if Will and Hannibal are engaging in an eternal, Sisyphean dance. Will and Bedelia both mention that a single moment of conscious control while under Dr. Lecter’s care is miraculous, while Hannibal mentions the relationship between aesthetics and morals. Some of the lines Hannibal repeats verbatim over the course of “Tome-Wan,” “Mizumono,” “Antipasto,” and “Primavera” insinuate that he really is controlling and manipulating Will and Bedelia’s every last action, and yet his behavior in this season’s first two episodes displays a sort of … hesitance? Diffidence? The ecdemic doctor is hiding in a city he loves, but he seems to be missing whom or what he loves. Whether that’s murder, or Will, or some combination of the two remains to be seen.
Hannibal season three feels more like a dream than ever before. The idea of a city, Florence (or Palermo, depending on how one reads the episode), as a massive memory palace, at once intimate yet vast, claustrophobic and confined yet labyrinthine and sprawling, is a classic romantic notion that draws from Italo Calvino as much as it draws from Argento and Bertolucci. The already surreal show has now plunged completely into the mystical murk of memories, which warp and wane like echoes in a tomb as time goes on. The different scenes are all thematically and tonally linked, but their significance feels difficult to grasp upon first view (I watched it three times, for whatever that’s worth). They pass by with the ambiguity of an anxiety attack, as Will remembers, with undetermined clarity, all of the good things, and all of the bad things, that Hannibal has done to him and the people he loves.
Will asks Abigail what would have happened had no one died in Hannibal’s house — what if they had gone away with Hannibal, as planned? Where would they have gone? What would they have done? As he looks longingly upon Abigail, a slim stream of blood begins to spill down her throat. A collarlike gash appears, and her eyes go wide. Will doesn’t react; she disappears, and he’s left alone in the cathedral. Abigail left Hannibal’s house in a body bag, the look of heartbreak set permanently into her eyes, while Will watched from behind a blood-spattered oxygen mask. Will’s revival — the tube sliding down his throat, the thread suturing his wounds — is juxtaposed with Abigail’s eyes and mouth being sewn shut, the scalpels and knives slicing her and removing her organs. It’s not the actual murder that’s most upsetting but the wake of the murder, seeing the detachment and clinical precision with which both Abigail and Will’s bodies are treated. We dissolve from Abigail lying supine on a slab to Will lying on the church floor. Fuller and Lightfoot invert the show’s tendency to revive characters thought to be dead and take away from Will, from us, the sole sliver of hope offered by this episode.
Will rises. He knows Hannibal is in the cathedral, prowling in the shadows, watching like a spectral entity. With Pazzi, he follows Hannibal down into the underground tunnels, where, amidst cobwebs and derelict relics and so many circuitous corridors in which Hannibal could be hiding, Will has his epiphany. Standing alone in the catacombs, with two red lights sitting atop each of his shoulders like two little Devils, Will says to the darkness:
“Hannibal, I forgive you.”