A man watches as snails fatten on his own severed arm.
Bathwater blackens as a woman sinks below the surface.
Two corpses pose on a vine-hemmed bower as if Botticelli had painted them there.
Such are the formal flourishes of NBC’s nightmarish “Hannibal,” macabre and magnificent at once—a useful mnemonic for the interior life of its enigmatic title character. As Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) adds onto his “memory palace” in the third season of Bryan Fuller’s daring work of art, “Hannibal” adheres to 16th century Italian missionary Matteo Ricci’s description of the device with startling exactitude. “To everything that we wish to remember, wrote Ricci,” according to historian Jonathan Spence, “we should give an image.”
But while critics are admiring the series, NBC is letting it go, announced the cancellation Monday. So do watch the third season; it will be its last.
The new season’s thicket of allusions, to Renaissance painters and Jesuit priests, the stages of an Italian feast and the Book of Revelation, matches the Old World setting, shifting from the flank of the Eiffel Tower to the Florence skyline, from Palermo’s Norman Chapel to a remote Lithuanian estate. Having eluded capture and fled to Europe with his former psychiatrist, Bedelia DuMaurier (Gillian Anderson), leaving a trail of bloodied victims in his wake, the three episodes provided to critics witness Hannibal retracing the terrain of Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” (2001), albeit with far more vigor than that flaccid, nonsensical dud.
In fact, it’s in a sequence that closely replicates Scott’s “Hannibal” that Fuller’s version displays its aesthetic acumen most prominently. To secure his new position as curator at a respected Florentine institution, Hannibal, alias “Dr. Fell,” lectures on “betrayal, self-destruction, hanging” in Dante before an audience of scholars. Where Scott positions him at the rear of an anonymous chamber, clicking through slides as the dialogue does all the work, “Antipasto,” the season premiere, situates the event amid an exhibition of medieval torture instruments, the demonic face of one aged illustration momentarily flashing across Hannibal’s as he performs his erudition from the stage. By comparison with the film, NBC’s series approaches something like pure style, creating meaning from visual textures—whether in the form of pencil drawings, ornate plates of food, or splayed bodies—that need no explanation.
The result is that “Hannibal,” in technique as in name, inhabits the aestheticism, the interest in psychological extremes, of the iconic villain; part murder, part memory, and part dream, the series is a paean to the power of the image to express that which cannot be said. Our ostensible hero, former FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), survives the brutal attack that concluded last season to pursue Hannibal through Europe, but the dominant perspective is that of the psychopath.
As Fuller recently told Entertainment Weekly, “there’s an irony to cannibalism that I find horrific and amusing,” an irony Hannibal himself clearly appreciates: the series, like the serial killer, revels in the theatrical nature of the beast, attuned to the subconscious states of German expressionism as opposed to the deductive reasoning of the police procedural. In the logic of “Hannibal,” Lecter is closer kin to Dr. Caligari than Dr. House.
While calling the series extraordinarily violent is an understatement, then, the baroque horror of corpses threaded with poisonous flowers or contorted to resemble the human heart situates “Hannibal” firmly in the realm of fantasts. If anything, the first episodes of the third season emphasize this rejection of realism even further, pausing at every turn to slip back into moods, atmospheres, hallucinations, practically embalmed in psychological terrors—”a Valentine,” as Will says in the second episode, “Primavera,” “written on a broken man.”
The decision to slow the narrative almost to the point of stopping, circling back on the gruesome, traumatic tableaux that now invade Will and Bedelia’s every stray thought, is not without risk, and “Hannibal” remains poised, as ever, on the edge of mannerism. Even if the deliberate pacing is more than the product of setting a new season in motion, however, the gradual confusion of “ethical concerns” with “aesthetical ones,” as Bedelia accuses Hannibal, is as enveloping as an Old Master’s still life, always on the verge of decay; Mikkelsen, playing Lecter as a wry humorist, and Anderson, reprising the cool, soft-spoken precision of her performance in “The Fall,” pull the series back from the brink time and again with shivers of sexual chemistry and droll comedy, aided by the knowing script.
If “Hannibal” now seems, at times, so enamored of its own stylishness that it nearly stalls, it nonetheless registers more than ever as the medium’s most artful vision of the human psyche as a memory palace, a fortress of images as impregnable as it is grand. It treads the strangely thin line between Will’s perfect empathy and his adversary’s utter lack thereof, but even as it takes a certain pleasure in Hannibal’s excesses, the series remains cognizant of the difference between the act of killing and the act of comprehending it.
“It’s the only thing that feels normal,” as Will explains to Hannibal in last season’s “Sakizuke.”
“The violence?” Lecter asks.
“The structure of understanding the violence,” Will replies, for the memory palace, as Spence writes of Ricci, is merely a system for “remembering the order of things.” The material it’s made from is up to us.
The third season of “Hannibal” premiered Thursday, June 4 at 10pm on NBC.