Everybody needs to be watching Hannibal. NBC’s shockingly gory, incredible, serial-killer show continues to improve. Watching is now no longer optional. The second season just wound to a close, and it has cemented the show’s quality in such a clear and inarguable way.
The first season of Hannibal was great. It was tense, thrilling, funny, gross, well written, beautifully shot, impeccably acted, and continually unexpected. The second season was even better. This was, in large part, due to the arc of the main character, Will Graham. Hugh Dancy plays Graham. (I like that name a lot by the way… Hugh Dancy. It’s solid.) Anyhow, in the first season, Will was a very broken character. He was emotionally raw, losing direction, losing his grip on his empathetic gifts. He even had a horrifying tumour that was causing some pretty sever symptoms for a while. By the end of the first season, he was the fall guy for all the crimes Hannibal had committed. It was deeply fixating and unpleasant watching this character slowly crumble.
The second season changed Will. He was cornered. He was angry. He was ready to fight back. So battle lines were drawn between him and Hannibal. Unclear, shifting, dangerous battle lines. Watching the power dynamic between Will and Hannibal change was amazing, and it gave the show a sense of purpose that, perhaps in retrospect, was missing from the first season. Will’s character got darker and more fascinating. One of the finale’s (many) memorable images was one of Will’s ever-stunning dreams. This one saw Garret Jacob-Hobbes guiding Will’s hands as he sights down a sniper rifle at the spectre of a feathered deer. Hobbes has haunted Will since the very first episode of the show – Will felt he empathized with Hobbes too much, that he became dangerously close to him. The feathered deer is a slightly transient symbol representing Hannibal or, at times, Will’s understanding of Hannibal. Hobbes, by the way, when he wasn’t using his daughter Abigail to bait and kill young girls, had a habit of hunting deer. It’s a wonderfully evocative summation of Will’s newfound purpose during season two.
The entire finale was brilliant. The first half was slow, scored by a delicate yet ominous clock tick. This half favoured long, quiet, introspective conversations between Will and Hannibal. It’s a fabulous slow burn that leaves you aching and tense and anticipatory. The second half was disastrous. Not in a bad way; it was an incredible piece of television, just explosive and destructive. The show’s creator, Bryan Fuller, does not go easy on his characters. Nor does he go easy on his audience – the finale ended on the cruelest kind of cliffhanger. In theory, there are only a very few ways it could possibly play out, but Hannibal has been nothing if not surprising. (I mean is Doctor Smarmy there really dead? We never heard anyone say he was, but we also saw no sign he wasn’t. That character is meant to be in the books Fuller plans on adapting though. Crazy.)
It’s been a pretty bloody compelling season all told. There haven’t been any missteps yet. And what about the craft on display?
Hannibal has got to be an all-time great piece of television based on the visuals alone. No other show I can think of has such a tremendously vivid and unique style. The first season was an incredibly slick show, make no mistake, but season two was so willing to experiment and push the limits of the show’s look. The result is wonderful. The show’s lighting alone is fascinating, filled with the sorts of heavy blacks and sparse light that bring to mind the late Gordon Willis’s work on The Godfather. Macro shots and soft focus lend the show an impressionistic, abstract quality at times. This quality is made doubly powerful when coupled with the precise visual symbolism employed at other times. Take one particularly important moment in the finale as an example: Hannibal believes Will Graham has killed and fed him reporter Freddie Lounds. Will bends over to drop something in the fireplace and Hannibal sniffs him. Suddenly we see an image of orange fibres swaying across the screen. The camera pulls back to reveal the hair and head of Freddie, her skin painted the same colour as her hair. She opens her eyes to stare at the camera as we cut back to Hannibal. It’s a wonderfully succinct piece of visual symbolism – and the show has the confidence to never explain it. Hannibal never talks down to its audience; it assumes that we will understand what Hannibal has realized without a single piece of dialogue, or even by reinforcing his realization later. All it does is lend his future actions a dimension that might have been lacking previously. The razor sharp symbolism and murky suggestive details combine to create a show with an incredibly unique aesthetic.
The story is even better this season too. With the exception of Eddie Izzard’s character, the first season was largely lacking in interesting side characters. I suppose there was that one patient of Hannibal’s, but that’s about it. This season sees several memorable characters pop up around the edges. That new FBI lady, for instance. The hospital worker Will sends after Hannibal, for another. Dickie Bennet’s cameo. And, of course, Mason. This season saw Bryan Fuller tackle one of the first previously depicted plot points the show is eventually going to cover (in this case from the novel Hannibal). Pig breeding millionaire Mason was played wonderfully by Michael Pitt, creating a hugely impressive character. Mason is like a nutty supervillain. The show has always skirted high-camp but Mason pushes it over the edge. This is a character that feeds people to pigs he bred specially for the job. This is a character that collects people’s tears on tiny tissues and puts them in his cocktails. He’s pretty great.
He also suffered through one of this season’s grossest punishments. (THIS PARAGRAPH HAS SPOILERS.) Hannibal forces some sort of powerful hallucinogen on Mason and then convinces him to cut off his own face. Hannibal may be a shockingly graphic network show, but even it can’t quite get away with showing us this image. Yet also… it can? Mason sits more or less in darkness, with only the edge of his wound visible. What we can’t quite see does have a certain moist quality that’s rather unpleasant. He sits there giggling and muttering and hallucinating. Hannibal calmly commands him, and he grabs a chunk of hanging, silhouetted flesh from his face and cuts it off. At one point he eats his own nose. It’s definitely one of the show’s more memorable moments.
It’s been a great, great season of an already great show. It got renewed, and if season three continues this trend of improvement it might be the best show going. Certainly it’s got to be one of the better network shows out there now. Now to spend the time between seasons stressing over various characters’ fates…