You might say that NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ is a criminally underrated TV series. Although considered one of the best scripted dramas currently on television by critics and by its avid fan base, the show’s ratings have been terrible all along and it’s been completely ignored at Emmy or even Golden Globes time. Nevertheless, the network has stuck with it enough to grant a third season, which premiered last Thursday.
Throughout most of Season 2, nobody would listen when disgraced FBI profiler Will Graham insisted that Hannibal Lecter was a serial killer. Lecter had carefully manipulated everyone into thinking that Will was insane and in fact the killer himself. In the finale, however, the diabolical doctor’s true nature was finally exposed to Jack Crawford when Lecter attacked and nearly killed him, then fled the country with his own therapist, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson).
The Season 3 premiere, called ‘Antipasto’ (all of the show’s episodes are named after food), finds Hannibal and Bedelia in Paris under new identities, posing as husband and wife. By design, the show has always played rather fast and loose with the original Thomas Harris novels that introduced the Lecter character. I suppose this storyline is roughly drawn from the third book, called ‘Hannibal’ (adapted previously into a poor movie by Ridley Scott), in which the fugitive Lecter started a new killing spree in Italy.
The episode focuses solely on Hannibal and Bedelia, with no appearance from Will Graham, Jack Crawford or any of the other regular characters – save one. In a series of flashbacks, Eddie Izzard returns as the demented Dr. Abel Gideon, whom Hannibal captured and slowly dismembered a bit at a time, cooking the parts and forcing Gideon to eat his own flesh. Gideon maintains a detached sense of irony about his situation. He predicts that someday, Hannibal will find himself in a similar bind where someone will kill and eat him.
The exact nature of the relationship between Hannibal and Bedelia has long been a mystery. She clearly knew and kept his secret all along, but seemed uncomfortable around him and tried to help Graham and Crawford uncover him. Yet she then ran off to Europe with him at the end of last season. Over the course of the episode, largely through flashbacks, we gain a better understanding of how that happened. Years earlier, Du Maurier had been attacked by a patient in her office and had to kill him while defending herself. At least, that’s what she claimed happened. The death may not have really been self-defense. (The precise details are still ambiguous.) Lecter stepped in immediately afterwards (he probably arranged the scene) and helped her to prepare a story that she could stick to. He has held that secret over her ever since. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem to be entirely just a hostage or blackmail victim. She offers herself willingly as Lecter’s lover, and is still fascinated by his pathology even as much of it disturbs her. (She refuses to eat the meat in any of the dishes he cooks for her.)
Honestly, the premiere is more about atmosphere than plot, of which it doesn’t have much. Lecter murders a university poetry professor so that he can claim the man’s job lecturing about Dante Alighieri. This draws the animosity of a rival professor who doesn’t believe that non-Italians are qualified to understand Dante at all, much less teach him. Lecter of course shows him up. The new job also fosters the admiration of a young man named Anthony Dimmond (Tom Wisdom from Syfy’s ‘Dominion’), who formerly served as a teaching assistant to the dead professor Lecter has replaced. Dimmond becomes obsessed with Lecter and quickly figures out that he’s not who he says he is (perhaps with some clues dropped by Bedelia). He tells Lecter that he’s onto him, and offers to help any way he can. Lecter makes a point of attacking and murdering Dimmond in front of Bedelia, so that it’s clear that she’s complicit in his death and that she can never escape from him.
Directed by Vincenzo Natali (‘Cube’, ‘Splice‘), the episode is very artily photographed and edited, with an emphasis on extreme close-ups shot from odd angles in slo-mo. The flashbacks are all letterboxed to scope aspect ratio, some of them in black & white. Even by this show’s standards, it comes across as overly-affected and kind of pretentious. Honestly, Natali’s episodes are rarely among my favorites. I can usually pick them out even if I don’t notice the director credit.
Regardless, even a weak episode of ‘Hannibal’ is still more interesting than just about anything else on television. I’m glad to have the show back and can’t wait to see where this season goes.