The most distinctive quality of Hannibal this season is its nearly pure amorality. There might not be another series on television right now in which no interior value system is courted or pandered to, apart from a treasuring of phenomenal aesthetics. Which is to say that we’re placed empathetically into Hannibal’s (Mads Mikkelsen) way of valuing art pointedly over life. What is one of his succulent human meals but the fashioning of art from the spare parts of someone Hannibal deems beneath him, representing the sort of transcendence that he and Will (Hugh Dancy) often discuss? Creator Bryan Fuller and his remarkable collaborators never try to teach us a civics lesson, so as to justify the show’s considerable violence contextually in a manner resembling a more obviously violent cop program that might purport to tell us the hard truth about how life really is (on the streets). Fuller’s refusal to apologize for his fantasies or to hedge his bets with a conventional thematic ultimately scans as moral, in a roundabout way. The show’s aversion to platitude awakens our senses. Hannibal’s images are often modeled after paintings, and that’s how one watches the series: with rapt, somewhat distanced appraisal, as one might regard a work hanging up at the Museum of Modern Art. Traditional emotional responses aren’t usually courted, bringing into stark relief how superficially Pavlovian those reactions can be—how they’re used to paper over mediocre craftsmanship and easy rationalizations. Certain Brian De Palma films achieve this same speculative effect, particularly the really crazy ones that are made strictly for his acolytes (Raising Cain, for instance). But Hannibal now renders even De Palma’s work sentimental by comparison.
“Digestivo” is bug-fuck baroque even by Fuller’s incredibly accommodating standards, and the title, which refers to an alcoholic drink that’s served after a meal to aid digestion, is telling and apropos. This episode is the figurative drink intended to help us process the large Italian meal we’ve just eaten over the last six weeks, as we’ve followed Hannibal as a man on the run impersonating a curator in a series of exploits that collectively resemble a great, vast giallo that sprang, with surprising fidelity, from the Thomas Harris novel that gave the series its name (with parts of his Hannibal Rising thrown in mostly arbitrarily for good measure). Fuller and company succeeded where the makers of the 2001 film adaptation failed by embracing the author’s most unhinged impulses full-on, even topping them. Harris’s Lecter series began, with Red Dragon, as a superb but more or less straight-laced procedural thriller that occasionally detoured into the wilderness of florid excess, gradually evolving, with Hannibal, into a macabre, semi-contemptuous nightmare parody of consumption. Fuller’s series has followed a similar progression, capturing the grand shape of the tonal evolution of the Harris bibliography. What will be interesting now is to watch how Fuller works his way back to the beginning, and full circle, to adapt Red Dragon, reversing the chronology so as to position the series as a follow-up to Hannibal.
One suspects the Red Dragon arc will be comparatively restrained, because I’m hard-pressed to imagine how Fuller can top “Digestivo” for operatic excess. Mason’s (Joe Anderson) two-season scheming finally comes to a disastrous end, and it’s conceived and staged with just the right tenor of go-for-broke madness. Mason’s never really felt as if he’s a part of the same show as the other characters, even as played by Anderson with a relative element of understatement that distinguished him from Michael Pitt’s season-two scenery chewing. Set almost entirely at Mason’s Muskrat Farms, “Digestivo” plunges us fully into Mason’s head space, utilizing a trick that Harris also incorporated into the Hannibal book: Mason is so gross that he cleanses our titular villain by comparison, temporarily turning the latter into a hero with a heightened gesture of relativism. Muskrat Farms suggests a luxury, 1930s-era Universal Studios monster-movie set as designed by the Marquis de Sade. Hannibal is chained in a crouching position in a pig pen that’s shown in master shots to include various glass cages and walls that appear to exist for no other reason than to connote a sense of spikey, German expressionist irrationality. The predominant color of this habitat is red, which is so obscenely bright as to connote fluorescent menstrual blood. Captured, Hannibal suggests a human version of King Kong, and Mikkelsen plays him here with a terrifying sense of contemptuous remoteness, receding from the spotlight of his own series. Mason has the run of things, briefly, and we wait for Hannibal to even the ledger.
Hannibal is so scary here because he’s understood to be authentically curious as to how the tortures awaiting him will feel, which invests the character with a bizarre kind of stature: He isn’t a hypocrite because he’s willing to suffer the pain he’s so often wrought for the sake of the high art that drives him to kill to begin with. This reveal clarifies why this version of Hannibal is so uncomfortably appealing: He’s a blue blood who’s willing to get dirty in his efforts to screw the lesser over. He’s a refined man with the daring (and the taut body, which Mason’s pig knife finds to be unsatisfactorily larded) of a working-class hood, and we sense, from the Lithuanian interludes, that Hannibal’s somewhat of a self-made man. Mason’s a glorified cry baby, a spoiled brat, a sadist who torments his sister, Margot (Katharine Isabelle), in fashions that are pointlessly petty and revolting. (Even de Sade might blanch at the idea of an incestuously conceived test-tube baby grown in the belly of a pig surrogate—an image Hannibal will probably never top in the department of depravity.) The symbolism with the livestock isn’t subtle: Mason’s a pig, and he has the gall to treat a gentlemanly, first-class über-sociopath like one of his own.
Mason, with help from his doctor, Cordell (Glenn Fleshler), has planned an elaborate revenge in which he will eat Hannibal like the latter did many of his victims, and discussions of this theoretical feast comprise many of the episode’s delirious high points. Every line uttered by Mason or Cordell is a wonder of inventively ludicrous, quasi-pornographic perversity (one wishes that Fuller had gotten the opportunity to write for Vincent Price), but one of the best is relatively simple, sold with the relish with which Fleshler delivers it: Approaching Hannibal as he’s chained to a chair at the end of a long dining table, Cordell says that his hands and feet will be served first, “sizzling on a Promethean barbeque.” Later on, after outlining a cooking plan that sounds purposefully similar to the way that Hannibal gradually ate Abel Gideon, Cordell tells the Cannibal not to worry, “you’ll always be cooked to perfection.”
Punctuating these great Grand Guignol flourishes (and there are too many to catalogue in one semi-succinct encapsulation), which fulfill the fairy-tale promise made at the beginning of the season, is some poignant character work that more or less makes sense in this heightened, anything-goes atmosphere. It was reassuring to see Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) free Hannibal for the sake of allowing him to save Will, who was caught as collateral damage in her vengeful collaboration with Mason, which she justified as a way of pulling Hannibal away from Will to save the latter from his attachment to the former (okay, maybe it doesn’t make any sense; perhaps you had to be there). Though one wonders if Alana released Hannibal because she couldn’t handle Will’s disappointment in her for becoming what’s essentially a James Bond villainess. Alana’s freeing of Hannibal paves the way for the episode’s greatest image: of the killer shrouded in darkness, his eyes emitting a demonic glow, as he rises from the pig pen to re-grasp the harnesses of his own narrative as an avenging Lucifer in a man-made hell. This sets into motion a series of shenanigans that cumulate with the second greatest image: of Mason’s pet eel swimming like a phallus into his puckered, vaginal mouth—a variation of a scene from the book that the movie didn’t have the moxie to include.
As for exchanges that offer more or less conventional, un-alien emotional intrigue, the best was the brief moment between Hannibal and Will, in which the latter gives the former a particularly tortured version of the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech. The orgy of atrocity at Muskrat Farms, which often features pointed cutaways to Will’s increasingly vicious stone face, seems to have woken the former F.B.I. profiler up to the idea that a symbolic love affair with the most brilliant madman in the history of human existence probably isn’t the healthiest or most sustainable of life choices. Will says he will not hunt Hannibal, but that they’re done with each other. Hannibal, never to be topped, surrenders to Jack (Laurence Fishburne) and his armada of police cars, telling him that he’s finally caught the Chesapeake Ripper, setting up a potentially compelling deviation from the source of the upcoming Red Dragon arc. In that novel, Will caught Hannibal, who tried to kill him in retaliation, continuing to conspire against him with the Red Dragon. What will Hannibal do now that he’s been altered to fit the role of willing, spurned, stowed-away lover? Probably the same thing. As precedent has shown, Hannibal prefers to express his love with convoluted, hyper-poetic murder conspiracies. This man doesn’t commit to half-measures, and he doesn’t play by your rules.
For more Hannibal recaps, click here.