NBC’s Hannibal ran for three seasons, but its concept called for at least twice as many. Undertaking a freeform adaptation of author Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter saga, producer Bryan Fuller crocheted 39 episodes out of Will Graham’s involvement with modern crime fiction’s most notable maneater without once mentioning the iconic Clarice Starling. In short, the result of the NBC severance was a bridge that reached not quite halfway across the river before being rudely interrupted by lack of funds. Happily, the unfinished symphony yielded great beauty.
In ranking all 39 episodes, the rich, once-in-a-lifetime series leads one down several paths. What’s the most fascinating aspect? Fuller’s fruitfully complex relationship with the source material, switching from solemnly pious to manically freestyle (even openly rebellious) at the drop of a hat? An equally complex study in the dynamic relationship between auteur (and not-so-auteur) directors and a showrunner who needs a stable of weirdly brilliant minds to realize his epic vision? The show’s evolution from vague Mentalist retread—possibly a canny bit of misdirection on Fuller’s part—to the grandest opera dedicated to the destructive infatuation shared by two men ever to air on network television?
Or is it simply about the story, meat and potatoes, and nothing more? Does the series rise and fall based on how tunefully a given episode renders the ballad of Will (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen)? In truth, all these concerns factor into a 39-episode ranking, to a degree that Hannibal makes for a solid, encyclopedic study of the different ways we experience pleasure (or displeasure) with episodic television drama. This ranking will endeavor to adhere to a rough calculus, weighing the complex pleasures from one episode to the next. In preparation, I revisited every episode, in its established order, but also checked in with a selection of isolated scenes, quiet and loud alike.
“Oeuf,” Season 1, Episode 4
The show’s only bona fide stinker. Scheduled to air a few months after the Sandy Hook shootings, the last thing NBC wanted to bring into American homes was images—or accounts—of kids being shot to death. The network pulled it, but it remains available online. Too generous a fate, it turns out, as it should have been lost at sea. Its disturbing content is the least of its liabilities. For a series that puts a premium on the unspoken, “Oeuf” spells everything out, clumsily, and its villain-of-the-week script plays like bad X-Files fan fiction. More like “Ooof.”
“Potage,” Season 1, Episode 3
Hannibal and Will co-establish surrogate fatherhood with massacre survivor Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), but “Potage” shows Abigail prowling the library layer of Lecter’s office, just as Will did in “Amuse-Bouche,” the previous episode. The rhyming image complicates the nascent phantom-family structure by indicating one core truth: As they stand on a stage-like platform above him, Will and Abigail are represented in visual grammar as Hannibal’s lead actors, before they’re anything else. That observation aside, a lot of water is tread in “Potage,” and high points are few, almost as if the series isn’t yet prepared to go off its diet of “killer of the week” and “artisanal crime scenes.”
“Hassun,” Season 2, Episode 3
Another phoned-in disappointment from Peter Medak, with staging so unimaginative one is tempted to forget the inventive stylings wrought elsewhere by helmers Vincenzo Natali, David Slade, and Guillermo Navarro. At one point, Kade Prurnell (Cynthia Nixon) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) hold a long conversation in a hallway, and Medak merely has them stand face to face, like statues, droning dialogue at each other. Medak’s inability (or refusal) to rhyme stage directions with script tenor makes for one letdown after another. This is also the episode where the judge is strung up and has his skull opened; Natali would have located in the event the fleshy horror, Slade the trauma, Navarro the Grand Guignol grotesque. Instead, the gruesome find is a shock without flavor, leading some viewers to label “Hassun” as the series shark-jumper.
“Shiizakana,” Season 2, Episode 9
Will’s head is getting full of traffic, as “Shiizakana” opens with a dream of vengeful wish fulfillment that nevertheless reflects how much he understands Hannibal’s influence over him. His fever is no longer a symptom of illness, but of torment. Apart from that, “Shiizakana” is a minor installment in the second season, with a far-fetched killer—the one with the mechanical beast-jaws—who serves only to clear up a little narrative arithmetic (Hannibal owes Will for the attempt on his life), and whose resemblance to Francis Dolarhyde’s imminent “becoming” does for itself few favors. Competently and cleanly mounted by Vincenzo Natali, this would have been improved had the Splice director extracted it to feature-film form and, shall we say, put some flesh on its frame.
“Amuse-Bouche,” Season 1, Episode 2
Unlike the pilot episode, which opened with a garden-variety home invasion/double murder, the crime scene in “Amuse-Bouche” is a literal garden—of mushrooms growing from corpses. We’re not in CSI: Kansas anymore, Toto. We also meet Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki), who not only isn’t an obnoxious male chauvinist pig, but the personification of much of what previous Loundses would have hated: a lady with an impeccable sense of poise and style, even when she’s up to the same old yellow-journalism tricks. Appropriately, “Amuse-Bouche” is all about planting the seeds that will bloom into a grand design. Memorably, this week’s killer blows somebody away before turning to face Lounds, nonchalantly telling her, “I read your article.”