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By Becky Kifer · March 4, 2014
As Dick Wolf’s career can attest, fictionalized killing has become its own art form. Graying corpses on stainless steel tables, internal organ close-ups, Q-tips prodding oozy orifices—it’s a murderous world out there. Yet it’s Hannibal, NBC’s riskiest broadcasting venture since Whitney, that takes murder to an avant-garde level of serial killer artistry.
Crimes of passion are so pedestrian—what we need are more psychopaths inspired by Martha Stewart Living. Throughout Hannibal’s first season, every crime scene looked like the thesis project of an art school grad student. To butcher an Arthur Conan Doyle quote: art in the blood does indeed take the strangest of forms, and on Hannibal those forms are a torso totem pole and a bunch of marionette meat angels. Season two’s opening salvo isn’t looking to stray from that pattern: We see your season one mushroom gut garden and raise you a people pinwheel that’s color-coded by skin tone. Forget dark prison cells, these murderers need open floor space at the Guggenheim.
None of these particular artisanal crimes are perpetrated by the show’s namesake, however. Just as brutal but better at keeping his killing a secret, Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) starts this season once again cooking a cannibalistic meal so beautiful you’re torn between abject nausea and “… I’d try that.” We don’t know there are people parts in it, of course, but when prompted about the mystery meat Hannibal claims: “He was a flounder.” When Hannibal Lector gives a fish a pronoun, I’m guessing “he” was an accountant named Jim with three kids and a mortgage.
Moments before said fish, the episode opens with a tease of what’s to come later in the season. After a brutal hand-to-hand brawl between Hannibal and FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), a bleeding Jack locks himself in Hannibal’s kitchen closet. As Hannibal flings himself at the door like a salmon headed upstream, the scene shifts to the two men sharing a pleasant meal and discussing the arrest of their friend, former criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).
Clearheaded and free of the encephalitis that left him a manipulated hot mess last season, Will begins this season locked in a hospital for the criminally insane. Framed for murdering six women, Will knows the killer they’re all looking for is actually Hannibal Lecter. The proof (literally in the pudding, so I guess) is hard to come by, especially when no one believes him.
His last “victim” was Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), the sweet psycho-in-training rescued by Will and Hannibal in the pilot. (Technically, we don’t actually know Abigail is deceased. There’s a severed ear and some blood, but no body. If Alias taught us anything, it’s that nobody is dead until you see a body—and sometimes not even then. For all we know, Hannibal sent her off to some cannibalistic spa retreat in the Andes where she’s receiving placenta facials and bile juice cleanses. Or… she’s the veal Hannibal served in the season finale. God this show is so wrong.) Unless she magically appears, Will is out of Hail Mary’s.
Convincing Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) to hypnotize him, he begins to search his healing mind for repressed memories of the past few weeks. After a season of nobody helping Will Graham, it’s time he saved himself.
Following the short-season cable model, Hannibal’s first year provided a serialized but mythologized story arc with little-to-no filler. Mining Thomas Harris’ book series, showrunner Bryan Fuller has created a vision that’s dark, but never dreary. Knowing the ultimate outcome doesn’t hurt the story; in fact, it makes it more exhilarating to watch Hannibal’s façade start to crumble. Mikkelsen’s Lecter, full of hubris over his recent reversal of fortune, remains an enigma, never winking or playing his villainy up for the camera. Fourteen episodes down and we still don’t know what’s in his head. Dancy, so good last season at portraying Will’s mental descent, will have to prove himself an equal foil to Mikkelsen’s shark-stare, although he’s not helped by some overly ostentatious dialogue this go-around. “I can’t get you out of my head,” he chuckles to Hannibal from his cell. (Ooh mister Lecter.) We need to see Will as a threatening tactician, not coming off like a guy at a Renaissance Faire declaring, “There will be a reckoning.”
For all of its sharp aesthetic and psychological intrigue (there’s no sympathy for the devil, but we’d sure like to figure out what makes Hannibal tick), the low-rated series is tough to pitch. Try as I might, I haven’t gotten a single person in my personal radius to give it a shot. It may be the most visually intriguing show on television, but cannibalism and a Friday night timeslot remain a hard sell to those not already initiated.
Whatever evil artistry appears next, be it a Ferris wheel of feet or a dollhouse made of femurs, nothing can surpass the ultimate culinary surprise still to come. As every episode passes, we get closer to the penultimate day when a whole lot of unsuspecting characters discover a hard truth about Hannibal Lecter’s vegetarian lasagna.