(S P O I L E R S)
In which now, my inner voice sounds like you.
If Season 1 of Hannibal traced its overall narrative arc in the pattern of Will Graham’s gradual mental collapse (and Hannibal’s gradual enveloping of his mind and the lives of the other characters), then Season 2 is where Bryan Fuller fully commits to plumbing the phantasmagoric depths of the darkness into which everyone has descended. As I mentioned in my introductory essay to this series, what began in 2013 as a psychological thriller/police procedural with heavy shades of the grotesque seems over time to have taken on the properties of Hannibal Lecter, almost as if he’s been a virus infecting all aspects of the story. Characters who originally have strong bearings on the world begin to lose their grip, or to fall into a haze of mild confusion. Plot chronologies become fractured, with jump cuts in time eliminating key moments in several lives. And James Hawkinson’s cinematography and Brian Reitzell’s sound design, always lush to begin with, become nightmarishly, surreally decadent and unnerving. As Will says to Jack in this episode “You have let the fox into the henhouse.” And just as Hannibal has wormed his way into the good graces of the FBI, so too has his character and his show also done so to us.
The key development in Hannibal’s takeover is Will’s near total cognizance of his role in framing him for the Minnesota Shrike copycat murders. Watching the show during these two first seasons has always been an interesting exercise in mixing prognostication with pragmatism. We all know that Will must eventually emerge from his exile in the Baltimore State Psychiatric Hospital’s maximum security wing/torture dungeon in order to catch Hannibal and go on to tangle with Francis Dolarhyde and the manifestation of the Red Dragon. Fuller has been explicit about his long term plans to retell the classic beats of the Lecterverse over multiple seasons. But Hannibal’s ratings have also been sketchy enough so far that any faith in the actual progression of that plan is always up in the air in the viewer’s mind (although the show’s foreign financing has given it much leeway in its content and general survival.)
Which is what lends so much of this season its demonic power and allure. We know that Will is searching for the answers that will free him and finally condemn Hannibal. But we also know that even at its best, his mind can be a funhouse of mirrors on the verge of cracking. So the possibility that low ratings or a sudden creative shift might lead to major changes in the narrative seems to always be a very plausible prospect. Will’s method of easing his psyche while incarcerated (by escaping into visions of him fly fishing) is a beautiful counterpoint to the stark ugliness of his cell. But even in that pastoral beauty, he can't escape the Wendigo, whose emergence from the stream immediately before the opening credits offers a stunning image that foreshadows the epic battle of wills that comes to dominate this season. But the question of who’s fighting who and what for will become much hazier before the apocalyptic events of the finale.
And speaking of the finale…there are the powerful opening moments of “Kaiseki”, which in time will be revealed as the beginning of the bloodbath awaiting at season’s end. Teasing the climactic scene at the beginning of a narrative has become somewhat of an overused trope in modern television and film, but it works like gangbusters here. For one, it upends the expectations set up by the first season, in which Hannibal’s icy, controlled demeanor helps to shape the slow burn tension of the plot. Seeing Mads Mikkelsen gracefully vault over his kitchen counter to engage in a brutal melee with Laurence Fishburne runs completely counter to the general restraint we’ve seen him display so far (one or two murders aside). It also firmly ties him to the animalistic vision he holds in Will’s eyes, while also establishing a fascination with how these two men eventually end up literally at each other’s throats.
The cinematic language used to paint this enigmatic portrait is direct, yet still complex. The opening shot of Hannibal slicing into a prime slab of red meat from the left side of the frame is mirrored after the Twelve Weeks Earlier title card with a similar shot of him slicing a pale cut of fish from the right side, evoking the relative placidity that will eventually build towards matters most bloody. Hannibal and Jack are both framed in tight, wide angle close ups, their faces framed slightly off kilter in almost Leone-esque fashion (appropriate for their preparation for a duel.) Reitzell’s koto drum-inflected music establishes the Japanese motifs that will be featured this season (in a nod to Hannibal’s Aunt Muraski from Hannibal Rising, mentioned here at the dinner table), while also lending the two men’s brawl an air of the martial arts. This koto drumbeat will also be repeated in military form when Hannibal visits the river crime scene in Rockville, MD, a steady rhythm Both men’s faces are reflected in Hannibal’s knife, violence now the connecting force for their relationship (and possibly a mini-reference to the samurai sword.)
The clear fissure in time of this scene, and all of its attendant complications and implications, is also a fitting reflection of how time and perception in general will be distorted throughout this season. Embarking on his quest for the truth, Will is a man unstuck in time, his ability to reconstruct the past only at its most effective when used for others’ lives. The journey down his personal rabbit hole constantly threatens to warp his view of the world even further. When Alana puts him in a hypnotic state to job his memory (using a metronome that mimics the pendulum he sees in his hyper-empathic fugue states), the darkly gorgeous image of her as an inky siren, enveloping Will with her kiss is but the first of many flirtations with the abyss that he’ll have. In the midst of his long game of hunting Hannibal, there are so many moments where it’s unclear if he’s in character or completely succumbing to the doctor’s seductive charms (the hazy memory of Hannibal implanting Abigail’s ear into Will’s stomach via feeding tube takes on an almost rape-like connotation here, while also reinforcing some of the homoerotic tension that exists between these two men.) And the audience is drawn right in too, images both fantastical and nightmarish threatening to obliterate any trace of the fairly linear story of the first season.
When he confronts Hannibal in the depths of the hospital, Will tells him “I’m going to remember Dr. Lecter. And when I do, there will be a reckoning.” His words ring true on the personal front, but his long path toward the truth will also prove to create a reckoning for all of the characters in Hannibal’s thrall, and a powerful reckoning for the show as a whole.
Bring on the leftovers:
*Leave it to Beverly Katz, the eternally pragmatic voice of reason, to be the one who’s able to calmly examine the case against Will, enlisting his help in analyzing the gaggle of missing persons who will turn out to be the Boschian wheel of bodies. Too bad that her pragmatism will lead to her demise at Hannibal’s hands.
*I sometimes feel like I give Bedelia short shrift in these essays, although her presence so far has been somewhat fleeting and in service of moving the plot along. But as this episode shows, her understanding of Hannibal’s threat continues to grow, especially as he pushes her to lie to Jack about him. I do love when he tells her "I'm being as open and honest as I know how", which is a perfectly true and Lecterian thing to say.
*”The irony is that he is my patient, but he refuses to speak to me. Makes me feel like I'm fumbling with his head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.” (Chilton, speaking to Hannibal about Will. It’s a direct echo of Lecter’s description of Chilton to Will in Red Dragon.)
*The dynamic between Jack and Alana is realistically complex and satisfying, as she reports him to the FBI (and Cynthia Nixon’s Kade Prurnell) for lack of judgment (or is it misconduct) in his handling of Will, even as the two of them maintain their joint familial protection of Will’s legacy (symbolized here in his dog Winston, who keeps running back to Chez Graham while under her care.) That dynamic will get even more complicated this season, especially when Alana falls under Hannibal’s spell.