At the end of Hannibal’s astonishing and dense second season, the titular psychiatrist, serial killer, and accomplished cannibal played by Mads Mikkelsen severed his relationship with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in typically flamboyant fashion, cutting him and Abigail open not long after stabbing Jack (Laurence Fishburne) in the neck. The slaughter was grandiose and shockingly tender in the way Mikkelsen’s gentleman murderer showed a deep love for Graham, even if it all felt touched by an insidious madness in the expressive editing and use of slow-motion. And as the stylistically intoxicating third season of the series begins, that madness seems to take full hold, with our stately antihero heading to Palermo with his unsure new bride, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). It’s here that he comes to lick his wounds and carry out a slaughter of villainous academics in the upper echelons of the Italian art world. The show’s meticulous, endlessly expressive style grows to a fever pitch, and the opening episodes of season three offer a thrilling feast of visual and auditory delights.
The season premiere opens with a stunning flash of patient stalking, edited in an almost staccato rhythm, with Hannibal finally killing and taking over the life of an Italian cultural historian, Dr. Fell (Jeremy Crutchley), and finally situating himself in Palermo as a major scholar with a specific taste for Dante. Not long after this, as Hannibal settles into the doctor’s home and identity, Bedelia and her “husband” discuss whether aesthetics is all that matters to him anymore, to which Hannibal unconvincingly suggests that his ethics come from aesthetics. The release of Hannibal into the European wild is mirrored in the show’s own ravishing aesthetic, no longer tied to the slightly stylish realities of F.B.I. autopsy labs and fancy offices. As directed by Vincenzo Natali, the stylized gothic environs and architecture of Palermo evoke an engulfing personal inferno, which Hannibal looks happy to rule over, especially when he starts cultivating his own proteins again.
Bedelia seems far more strained and stressed by her newfound role, and Hannibal’s visual tone switches to a sickly green in scenes where her disquiet is evident. Though the show’s look has seemingly gone unleashed, as obsessively detailed in aesthetic as Hannibal’s new invented identity, the series relies largely on the same deft visual and auditory tricks that have always been part and parcel of its effectively intoxicating style. The preparation of a human liver for dinner features slow-motion shots and close-ups on furious activity, evoking not only the smell and taste of the dish, but the careful brutality of Hannibal’s culinary skills. These still-seductive sequences are balanced nicely by flashbacks to Hannibal using every part of Gideon (Eddie Izzard), one of the few cannibalistic meals that gave the doctor a long, challenging conversation over several courses. This butchery is colder, especially in a scene where Hannibal plucks plump snails off of Gideon’s severed arm, after they’d been feeding off his flesh for days.
According to Hannibal, the taste of the snails reflects what they’ve been eating, something that troubles Bedelia when she realizes she’s been consuming what they feed to prized sows. It’s a philosophy that appeals to Hannibal, which may be why he considers eating Will, who’s survived the massacre at Hannibal’s Baltimore abode and has made his way to Palermo with Abigail (Kacey Rohl) in the time since we last saw him. The writers and Natali do a strangely effective job of evoking the hurt and melancholy that now dominates Will and Hannibal’s relationship, never more so than when Will finds a body carefully folded into the shape of a heart in a cathedral. An Italian inspector, Rinaldo Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino), pegs Hannibal as the Monster of Florence, a serial killer who posed bodies to mimic famous Italian medieval paintings. This, again, underlines the work and slow-moving development of aesthetics, from expertly replicating the style and detail of great medieval artists to folding these stylistic touches into a menagerie of influences that help make up Hannibal’s unique vision, or design.
This fascination with artistic signatures also, of course, reflects how series creator Bryan Fuller has been flirting with similar subject matter and style before this, in Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. But Hannibal has given his more visually flamboyant inclinations a stage to fully bloom into a grand, grotesque melodrama. Just as Hannibal seems to comfortably begin consuming his competition, Will comes across his former psychiatrist’s home in Lithuania, where major elements of Hannibal’s past are uncovered, as well as a history of his psychologically aggressive method of control. No longer chained to its procedural backbone, season three of Hannibal wanders off into dark, unexpected territory in Italy, remaining even more incisively and ambitiously written than the last season, and sporting the most radically expressive imagery currently on television.
As lavish and indulgent as Fuller’s overall style has grown, there’s a painful, swelling center to this storm, involving two men who seem to only be able to really explore themselves with one another. At one point, Will calls out to Hannibal that he forgives him, which only spurs the good doctor to consider devouring his former patient, an exchange of sentiments that could only resonate as deeply as they do in Fuller’s sanguine fever dream.