Contains spoilers for season 1
The second season of Hannibal started airing in the UK this week, and to be honest I’m a bit surprised the show got recommissioned. It’s such a gruesomely dark and utterly impenetrable affair that’s it hard to imagine how it could possibly attract the size of audience sufficient to keep the network and studio interested in making it. Those twisted souls who keep faith and continue to be absorbed by the show (such as myself) do so almost like visiting the Tate or Guggenheim to view an exhibition of the works of a particularly unhinged genius: we can admire it without really understanding it, but often the best moment of all is when we head outdoors again at the end and can relish the return to fresh air and sunshine after the complete gloom and despair of what we’ve seen.
The ending of the first season confounded the expectations of those of us who thought we knew how the series would go based on our knowledge of the Thomas Harris book Red Dragon from which the series was inspired. Rather than having Dr Hannibal Lecter incarcerated in a basement cell at Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, showrunner Bryan Fuller’s reimagining of the story instead left FBI profiler Will Graham staring out from behind the wrong side of the prison bars after being framed for Lecter’s own appalling serial murders. Worst of all for Graham, even he didn’t know for sure whether he did or did not do the crimes of which he is accused, thanks to Lecter’s comprehensive shredding of his psyche.
Season 2 opens with Graham ironically in a better place mentally if not physically: away from Lecter’s influence he is starting to rebuild his mind and his memories, and as he does so he becomes increasingly convinced that Lecter is behind it all – even if he can’t convince anyone else of that yet. In one of the few moments of levity in this unremittingly bleak show, Graham insists: “I am not the intelligent psychopath you are looking for,” a lovely Star Wars riff which at the same time concedes that he does indeed fit that description just as well as Lecter does. Even more than the book or the two movie adaptations it spawned, the series manages to convey just how much the two are inextricably linked: we had always understood that Hannibal had managed to ‘get inside Will’s head’, but now we see that Will has also just as successfully managed to permeate Hannibal’s state of mind as well. Lecter seems bereft without his sparring partner and genuinely seems to be missing his ‘friend’, staring at the empty seat in his office where Graham used to sit for their consultations. That sense of loss and emptiness is provoking Lecter to add some fire and excitement to his life by getting increasingly close to the FBI, even stepping in as a replacement profiler despite the danger that his proximity to Jack Crawford’s team has in potentially exposing his own true nature to them..
Mads Mikkelsen is of course note-perfect as Lecter, a terrific and riveting performance that would be utterly show-stealing if not for some outstanding work by the rest of the cast. Personally I always found Will Graham to be the more interesting character in Red Dragon, and Hugh Dancy is doing some incredible work with his portrayal that for me keeps him the true centre and heart of the show regardless of its title. It’s also what I would consider career-best work for Laurence Fishburne as Crawford, who feels responsible for Graham’s apparent breakdown and terrible crimes because he believed he drove his protégé too hard. Similarly, Caroline Dhavernas is coming into her own as Will’s friend and counsellor Dr Alana Bloom, who also blames Crawford and yet at the same time is bound to him as the only person who cares as deeply about Will as she does. Both are having a hard time accepting that Will could have committed the crimes of which he’s accused, but equally neither have real any doubts that he did it. There’s also a return for ‘special guest star’ Gillian Anderson as Lecter’s own psychotherapist Dr Bedelia Du Maurier: the scenes between the two characters are conducted at such a level of professional abstraction as to make it almost impossible to work out exactly what it being said as sub-text underneath the innocuous technical vocabulary, but for anyone looking closely enough the truth is laid bare on Anderson’s face in a masterly performance of micro-expression.
But the show really does make us have to work for even this level of insight, because it’s not about to make things easy for us. Most of the time it’s dazzling us with stunningly beautiful dark visuals, such as Will’s world of the imagination in which he spends his days fly-fishing while being haunted by a stag, or his nightmarish glimpses into his lost memories, or his more perceptive impressionistic thoughts that are helping him inch his way back to sanity. The episode starts with an impressively choreographed slow-motion fight sequence between two major characters, and ends with the darkest image of the episode as the design of this week’s new serial-killer-to-be-caught is revealed in a scene that will send you to bed with nightmares if you’re not careful. Any one of these scenes you could easily screen grab from the high definition source, print out and add to that unsettling Tate or Guggenheim exhibition as a work of true if twisted art.
In fact the whole sense of the show is like being entrapped by night terrors from which you can’t quite struggle free. It’s so jet black and unsettling that it’s truly horrific in the proper sense of the word as opposed to the usual movie genre context: we’d welcome a few deadly space aliens or vampires or werewolves compared with the nightmares that engulf us here. That’s why the show is such a hard sell to a wider mainstream audience, but for those of us who get it there’s no doubt that Hannibal is one of the most strikingly original and compulsive things currently on TV. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but it dares you to take your eyes away from the screen for a single moment – and it absolutely wins the bet, because we just can’t.
Hannibal season 2 airs on Sky Living on Tuesdays at 9pm. Season 1 is out on DVD and Blu-ray and is also available on Sky On Demand.