(Warning: this review contains spoilers for “Hannibal” Season 1.)
“Hannibal” comes out swinging. Literally.
“Kaiseki” – the first episode of critical darling “Hannibal’s” second season – opens with a grisly flash forward: A fight to the death between two major characters that completely reshuffles the deck. It’s an interesting attempt at fixing what I imagine will be the show’s biggest problem going forward: namely, the inevitability of Will Graham and his relationship with the eponymous cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Although “Kaiseki” doesn’t quite lean on the pressure valve as much as it should, it releases just enough steam to re-engage its audience.
The story of Hannibal Lecter is almost public knowledge. Even if you haven’t seen any of the films or read the books, you know about the lambs, Clarice and that part where he does the thing with his tongue. Unlike “Bates Motel” – the other serial killer prequel show currently running – “Hannibal” doesn’t seek to explain the origins of Lecter’s madness. Partially because “Hannibal’s” titular character (Mads Mikkelsen) isn’t quite in line with Anthony Hopkins’ famous portrayal, but also because the show is explicitly not a Hannibal Lecter origin story.
The man-eating psychiatrist is already well along in his serial killing by the time the audience joins him. Instead, the show focuses on Hannibal’s almost codependent relationship with FBI consultant Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Will is afflicted with the polar opposite of Asperger’s syndrome: His psychological issues lie in the realm of hyper-sensitivity, not a sociopathic lack of empathy. This makes him an ideal tool for FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), who – as is often the case with shows like these – is often stumped by a particularly horrible case.
This could make for a fairly benign show, if executed poorly. Every new episode would have an increasingly disturbing murder, Hannibal & Will show up at the crime scene, Will tries to solve the murder, Hannibal messes around with him, they catch the crazy person and every 15 minutes somebody looks at the camera and says “Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer who eats people.” Repeat for 13 episodes until cancellation.
And there was some of that early on, but the first season was saved by three aspects. First, the show’s aesthetic is both haunting and gripping, with a deep color palette and a fearless love of gore. Second, “Hannibal” begun to fully utilize its premise fairly quickly, becoming more of a serialized drama than a series of unconnected murders. And third, the relationship between Will and Hannibal is genuinely compelling. Hannibal is clearly toying with his “friend,” but it never seems to come from a place of malice. For all his flaws (murdering people), Hannibal is still a scientist. He finds Will’s mind a curiosity, so he pokes and prods at Will until something happens.
That “something” turns out to be framing Will for all of Hannibal’s murders, which understandably puts Will and Hannibal at odds. This is where “Kaiseki” opens with Hannibal assisting the FBI in Will’s stead, while poor Will is locked in a psychiatric hospital. Thankfully, the first season’s momentum continues into season two, with the killer of the week currently more of a backdrop to the interplay between the characters.
“Hannibal” clearly wants to keep topping itself in terms of horrific imagery, and it succeeds. I almost had to pause the episode at one point, which is a rare occurrence when it comes to media. If you can’t handle gore, perhaps this is not the show for you. Thankfully, all this carnage does not come at the expense of the story.
I mentioned earlier that “Hannibal’s” biggest hurdle is the knowledge of how this ride ends. The show hasn’t quite dropped its obnoxious habit of winking at the audience. At one point, Hannibal is eating with a fellow psychiatrist and sarcastically quips, “Well, I guess you’re dining with a psychopathic murderer,” and literally smirks at the camera.
This kind of thing is too cheeky for its own good, and has a nasty tendency to completely rip me out of the episode.
Overall, “Kaiseki” is a fairly strong opener. I said in my “Kill la Kill” review that a good episodic story balanced character/plot advancement with leaving just enough open to tantalize the audience, and Hannibal finally grasped this technique around the end of Season 1, taking those lessons into Season 2.
Much like early Best Picture-frontrunner, “The Lego Movie,” “Hannibal” is much better than it has any right to be. It’s still an engaging, unforgettably grisly show, but I can’t help but feel like it could maybe speed everything up just a bit.