Sometimes the scariest thing in the world is that lucid moment, when everything snaps together, and you understand the great pattern of your reality. Things pull back, and you get a bird’s eye view of how your thread fits into the proverbial mandala that represents our Universe.
Twelve weeks from now, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) will have this moment of clarity in the kitchen of a man who has ruined his life more times than one in a long running string of grotesque humiliations. It will be while preparing a dinner with his friend and colleague Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and the results will be bloody.
Two shots frame Jack and Hannibal’s faces in the knives they are using to cut meat. Ostensibly they suspect this moment of clarity is on the verge of revealing itself and presumably the meat is human – the same humiliating atrocity that Jack has willingly devoured countless times, alone in a room, sitting across from the man who killed the his protege Miriam Lass and scrambled the brains of her successor Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).
The men fight in a wonderfully choreographed sucker punch of a cold open. They alternate using clothing and knives in an attempt to murder the other. These are the archenemies NBC’s Hannibal circles. Two powerful animals in convincing people suits who have been trying to destroy the other for years through the system of civilization, conducting a cold war over countless dinners.
It’s only fitting that when Jack chokes Hannibal out with his tie, the doctor plays possum. Last season was the time for solving problems like humans, with clothing and traditions and psychoanalysis. Now, like the Jack of the future, we know all about Dr. Lecter’s machinations (almost). There’s no reason to hide who these people are, so they conclude with a shocking decisive blow from Hannibal that punctuates what the show is going to be.
Lecter finds a jagged piece of glass on the ground and rams it into Jack’s neck, puncturing an artery. Suddenly it’s painfully clear. Jack thought he was the predator, but he sees how he fits into the tapestry of the big picture and runs to hide in Hannibal’s wine closet. Blood spurting in rhythm with his heart, with a high-functioning psycho-predator banging on his door, Crawford understands for the first time that he is the prey.
A title card informs us that that is what will happen later, but for now, the two are civil. They eat the episodes eponymous dish “Kaiseki,” and mourn the loss of their friend Will, who is not dead, but locked away in the Baltimore State Hospital For The Criminally Insane on the five counts of murder that Hannibal expertly framed him for.
Will is gone fishin’ when we catch up with him. He is fly fishing in the river of his mind as the Ravenstag grazes on the shore. It’s his inner workings trying to work their way into a solution as to how he got to where he is: In a therapy cage across from a surprisingly healthy looking Dr. Frederick Chilton. But despite the Frankenstein’s monster of an analyst’s assertions (his organs were removed before his very eyes by Eddie Izzard last season, though he only permanently lost a kidney), Will Graham will only talk to one man: The Manstag that emerges from his mind river.
“I want to talk to Doctor Lecter.”
All of that happens before the opening credits sequence. The great mandala that is Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is only just beginning to reveal itself, and season one was just the edges of the carefully selected pattern. In the cold open, it’s clear that we know slightly more than the characters about the overall design, and this new territory will add a different colour to our palate.
Speaking of colour, it looks like there will be a lot of dark greys and browns this season. With the clip-clop of a Ravenstag’s hoof, Hannibal does visit poor crazy Will in a cell that doesn’t seem like it would be very conducive in restoring someone’s sanity. Hannibal has come here against the will of his psychiatrist Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson).
Du Maurier calls it a chance for the tragic friends to manipulate one another, but Hannibal maintains that Will is his friend, grotesque but useful like a chair made of antlers. Graham does not feel the same. To him they are light years from friendship. The confrontation plays like a terrible breakup: Will can’t get Hannibal out of his mind to the extent that even his inner monologue sounds like the well-dressed devil in plaid.
Will says he has clarity, but that’s not completely true. He knows something is off, he knows Hannibal did this to him, but all he has is the ever increasing presence of the dual shadow-stags (man and raven). He attempts to go deep and find the answers within, getting Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), the only person even close to being on his side, to regress him with hypnosis so that he might find a loose thread that can lead him back to his design-knowing place above the mandala.
The regression scene is nearly as masterful as the eventual result. It recalls the amber metronome that has come to represent Will’s ability to know the designs of others, entering their abhorrent designs and solving their crimes. This time the metronome is real, it is outside of him, and it glows blue as Alana transforms into an enveloping shadow that brings Will to dinner with the Manstag and the million dollar question: If Hannibal is behind this framing, how did the severed ear of Abigail Hobbs end up in his stomach before being vomited into the steel basin of his sink?
That’s the thread, he just needs to follow it.
While all of this is happening, bodies are found in a ruptured beaver dam in Rockville, Maryland. They have all been treated with resin and abducted in their own cars. It looks as if someone is making models.
Hannibal fills the shoes of his complicated best friend. He is forced to see death through Will’s lens of ultra-empathy. Afterward he will tell Du Maurier, as she cosigns a release stating that Lecter has allowed her to speak about their sessions together to aid the investigation against him, that he saw death. There is a respect in his voice, and we see that as much as he is acting in protecting his self interest, he still very much respects Will.
Dr. Lecter’s problem is that he doesn’t care about the well being of his friends. This is extremely clear when Du Maurier shows a terrified resistance. She knows more about him than we do and does not want to lie to the FBI about what he is capable of. It’s a point of pride for Hannibal, but he seems content with pretending it’s not there. He needs to know the big picture and has the best view to it, but there is a sacrifice that comes in the kind of knowledge that allows him to traverse the mandala so deftly.
Will faces that sacrifice head-on as he stares down a Salisbury steak in his cell. He has a moment of clarity, and damn it if it isn’t the most horrific scene in a show that didn’t cut away from a man being shown his own organs as they were removed from him last year.
The most stomach-turning aspect of seeing Mads Mikkelsen force a plastic tube down his dissociated best friend’s throat in order to feed him the severed ear of his surrogate daughter is the sound design. Hannibal proves yet again why it is probably the only television show worth buying on Blu-ray, with the tear-inducing noises of plastic being further muffled by the flesh pillow of Will Graham’s bodily sheath.
It marks a series first: Hannibal Lecter being Hannibal Lecter. This is our moment of clarity. The man is a colourful, well dressed and handsome devil. Everyone he interacts with – friend, foe or dinner is a victim.
The memory isn’t enough for Jack to help Will, but that’s why the Agent in Charge of the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI needed the crazy bespectacled teacher in the first place: A clear memory is enough for Will.
The final scene underscores why this is not necessarily a good thing. Will is finding his place in the mandala of the show at large, but he doesn’t know the big, nightmarish picture.
In a circular barn, in the middle of the night, we find out that what looked like a case-of-the-week is nothing like that at all. A guest star victim, with what his abductor called “Nice skin” on a subway ride, finally gets the kind of clarity everyone else in the show so desperately seeks.
He is part of a larger design, literally: Naked, covered in a hardening resin and sewn in place, the poor, innocent man that will haunt my dreams until next Friday night at 10 PM Eastern Standard Time has been made into a human mandala. He screams as the camera pulls away showing the pattern that he is a part of. Suddenly the heroin he was supposed to have overdosed on seems like a much nicer alternative to the cold, lonely horror of enlightenment.
There is a killer on the loose making patterns out of people, and the characters we care about are trying to see the big picture. Hannibal has fundamentally changed to us, but the design Bryan Fuller has expertly crafted remains unchanged. Ignorance is bliss, but as spine-chilling as enlightenment can be, it sure makes for what’s turning out to be the best television show of the decade.