If Season 1 of Bryan Fuller’s operatic horror series was about the deconstruction of FBI profiler Will Graham’s psyche, and Season 2’s focus its reconstruction, Season 3 is prepared to deal with the fallout of what’s come before: before now, before last season, before what’s been shown in the series thus far. Lost without each other, the patient and the doctor — television’s most fascinating and flirtatious couple — both delve into the only mental mystery left to uncover: that of serial killer Hannibal Lecter.
Before fans of the Thomas Harris franchise run for cover at the thought of another “Hannibal Rising,” let’s be clear: there’s simply no way Fuller & Co. would let that happen. Two seasons of expertly intense storytelling with honest depictions of extreme characters are enough to dissuade any notion of a grand misstep, even when Season 3 offers a distinct shift in tone. After last year’s action-packed introduction — which teased a showdown between Jack Crawford and Dr. Lecter during the season finale — inaction dominates the first three episodes of the new season. Despite the multitude of cliffhangers from that masterful season ender, “Antipasto” (Episode 1) fails to answer any of the audience’s burning questions. Instead, it slams on the brakes to brace viewers for a slow-burn season — or, at least, a prolonged introduction.
“Hannibal” has always been known as much for its shocking gore as its steady-handed delivery, but make no mistake: a plan is in motion. Much like the Season 2’s heavy foreshadowing of Alana’s demise, Season 3 makes similar bold assertions regarding its future. Starting with an alluring hour in the life of Dr. and Mrs. Fell — false names for Hannibal and new series regular Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) — “Antipasto” digs into how and why Mrs. Fell chose to join her “husband” abroad. Fuller keeps the exposition light; so light, in fact, it can be difficult to separate fact from fantasy until later on.
Any focus given to Bedelia as an empowered individual is a welcome one, especially after a season where the female characters were largely romantic bait or ignorant naggers. Bedelia, a psychiatrist who’s as close to an equal as Hannibal can get, has always been an intriguing, assertive presence (and not just because of Anderson’s nuanced portrayal). Now she’s been elevated accordingly, and the results are as exceptional as should be expected. Though Bedelia and Hannibal’s “sessions” pop up often, she’s more than just a means to draw out our antihero’s inner thoughts. We watch Bedelia run through her own choices, even after she admits she has none.
Not quite a lover, though more than a psychiatrist, Bedelia is still no replacement for Will on a romantic or intellectual level, and Hannibal knows it. The audience can feel it, too, with Hugh Dancy’s presence sorely missing from the first hour even while recognizing the reasons for his absence. “Hannibal” is addressing how the three of them (Hannibal, Will and Bedelia) come to terms with the new dynamics — or fail to — as Hannibal tries to engage with Bedelia and Will finds a new partner (or two). In the climactic confrontation from Season 2 (a scene repeated in slightly more detail during Episode 2, “Primavera”), Will tells Hannibal he’s “changed” him. At the time, neither man may have known how much, but now we see the aftermath of their self-destructive co-dependence. Hannibal is incomplete without his “friend” — more so than he realized when chastising Will for trying to take his freedom — and he’s acting out because of it.
Whether or not Hannibal is trying to get caught is almost irrelevant. Though the gore levels are lower this far into Season 3 (with many of the shocks coming from past footage or the series’ trademarked black humor), Hannibal has set in motion a plan to get back to his man. What’s different about this menu (Italian is the chosen cuisine this year) is its fallibility. Until now, Hannibal has been largely seen as the devil himself — who, like God, is invulnerable — and the religious subtext is made more prevalent in Season 3, perhaps to illustrate the difference between man and myth. Never has our villain — a doctor more cunning and with less emotional than anyone in his world — appeared more human. Partly illustrated by WIll’s intellectual growth (though he’s far from healthy) and partly via direct communication from Bedelia, Hannibal’s capture may come sooner than seemed possible in past seasons.
After just three episodes, Season 3 has its own distinct momentum — a choice that could alienate die-hard horror fans and the broader NBC audience. Gone is the diegetic debate over which character is the real killer. Everyone is hunting for Hannibal, including an Italian inspector haunted by an interaction with “the Monster of Florence” 20 years earlier. Gone, too, is the sense of urgency, replaced by a feeling of daunting inevitability. Waiting for Will and Hannibal to meet may be torturous, but the decisions each make independently from each other (or as independent as they can be) drive up the allure of seeing what they’ll do once united.
We’ve yet to see this side of “Hannibal.” Much like Season 2 shifted from a serialized “crime of the week” to a nearly exclusive examination of the hunt for one killer, Season 3 seems keen to form its own identity. In other words — words fitting for a show in love with its double entendres — the meal being served is different, but the chef remains the same. And viewers need not fear what Hannibal cooks up next.