Hannibal’s third season opens on a close-up of a key inserting into an ignition and turning, triggering a series of reactions within a metallic labyrinth that’s revealed to be the interior workings of a motorcycle. The symbolic association is blunt and unmistakable: This is a beginning, a kick-starting of something larger. This impression is affirmed by the episode’s title, “Antipasto,” which is taken from the name of the course that initiates a traditional Italian meal. The motorcycle’s driver is Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), and the sight of the great psychopathic mastermind cruising around Paris in chic leather duds is a deliberately sensual departure from the tradition of the series up to this point. We’re accustomed, after all, to seeing Hannibal in impossibly well-tailored suits that attest to his impression of a brilliant, functional professional. The suggestively kinky leather affirms the release that was achieved at the end of season two, when Hannibal outed himself as the Chesapeake Ripper, brutally assaulting Will Graham, Jack Crawford, Alana Bloom, and Abigail in the process, before fleeing to parts then-unknown with former shrink and possible beard and lover Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson).
Last season’s finale offered a weirdly heartbreaking split between Hannibal and Will; both are correspondingly intelligent, empathetic, deranged individuals who, together, comprise the very definition of a union that can never be sustained. When Hannibal stabbed Will in the gut, he spoke of a rare gift he offered the tormented F.B.I. profiler, a gift which the latter refused, and the most disturbing element of this exchange was Mikkelsen’s willingness to inform Hannibal with subtle but palpable pangs of longing that rendered the character scarier, with this unexpected acknowledgement of common humanity, rather than softening him. “Antipasto” complementarily follows a man who’s recovering from this breakup. Hannibal showed Will a glimpse of the depths of his depravity and was rebuffed, so now he goes about contemptuously reveling in the freedom made possible by said depravity’s exposure. Living up the pretentious, palatial high life of Florence’s artistic elite (after a brief stop in Paris), Hannibal’s an even more ostentatious hunter than he once was. As Bedelia remarks, he seems to be “more interested in making appearances than maintaining them.”
Riffing on early portions of Thomas Harris’s novel of the same name, Hannibal is similarly liberated by its protagonist’s unmasking. The series has always scanned as an expressionist merging of the crime-show procedural and the giallo, the Italian serial-killer horror mysteries that are most prominently associated in this country with director Dario Argento. In “Antipasto,” creator Bryan Fuller and his collaborators discard the crime procedural trappings almost entirely, moving further into giallo terrain that’s characterized by wild, fetishistic visual flourishes that are more concerned with capturing a state of mind than relating traditional narrative beats. Here, a visual signature of Hannibal’s is stretched to the near breaking point of repetition: a slow-motion close-up of liquid, usually wine or water, as it’s poured into a glass or sprayed across the screen. At the beginning of the episode, Hannibal’s stalking a character with the cheekily debauched name of Dr. Roman Fell (Jeremy Crutchley), whose identity the former steals after murdering the latter for the crime of bad aesthetics.
Waiting for his opportunity to spring on Fell, Hannibal strikes up a conversation with the egotistical, flirtatious Anthony Dimmond (Tom Wisdom), who claims he was Fell’s TA at Cambridge. While the characters discuss the overrated academic, hitting on the word “dissect” with notable glee, there’s a cut to a bottle of champagne as it’s opened with a saber, seemingly beheaded, its contents bubbling forth in an image that conjures a distinctly Hannibal-esque atmosphere of orgiastic dread. When Hannibal eventually kills Dimmond in his and Bedelia’s lush Florence flat, first hitting him over the head with a bust of Aristotle, there’s another close-up of fluid: Dimmond’s blood, which sprays across the viewer’s screen like viscous ejaculate. The shape of the blood drops almost suggests bullets, and the close-up of the fluid’s movement brings to mind the famous image of a bullet in motion from Argento’s Four Flies on Gray Velvet (which Quentin Tarantino also directly quoted in Kill Bill: Vol. 1).
One could devote a few thousand more words to the incredible imagery in “Antipasto,” which is startling and beautiful even by Hannibal’s already rarefied criterion: the brief juxtaposition in which Hannibal’s face is supplanted by the image of Lucifer accompanying his Dante lecture is bone-chilling, and the recurring motif of fetishizing ovals and cylinders, particularly in how Hannibal is filmed wearing his motorcycle helmet in a manner so sleek and decadent as to occasionally render a resemblance to H.R. Giger’s Alien. These images, sexual with an intensity that’s relatively new to the series (there have been hints of it all along, but this symbolism grew exponentially more pronounced with “Mizumono”), complement the narrative, which is divided into three primary threads.
First, there’s Hannibal’s aforementioned assumption of Fell’s identity in Florence, his ingratiation into Italy’s art culture, and the blossoming of a new murder spree to protect the ruse and entertain him during his presumable downtime. Second, flashbacks provide context as to how Hannibal coaxed Bedelia to accompany him on the lam, implying that she wasn’t always the sleeper agent that “Mizumono” implied her to be, suggesting their relationship to be based on a Faustian bargain rigged by Hannibal from the outset. Finally, a different set of flashbacks unexpectedly elaborate on the presumed murder of Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard), who was last seen eating his own leg, lovingly roasted by Hannibal. Turns out, Hannibal lovingly prepared and ate quite a bit more of Gideon than that, with the victim’s resigned, bitter, yet admiring accompaniment (a detail pertaining to snails is one of Hannibal’s queasiest flourishes of Grand Guignol).
These threads share the imagery’s sex obsession. Gideon voices the episode’s subtext when he says that he knows Hannibal wishes that Will were here to eat with him. Will doesn’t appear in “Antipasto,” but he’s all over the episode, his absence pointed and rued. Dimmond, a hunky brunette who’s into some potential three-way action with Hannibal and Bedelia, even looks a little like Will, though he lacks the latter’s tormented profundity. Hannibal’s destruction of Dimmond, reducing him to a stripped torso that awaits public discovery in an ornate cathedral, is nothing less than a challenge, a rallying cry, and a call for help—a summoning for Will. After a necessary dormancy, Hannibal’s ready to play again.
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