Can You Survive if You’re Not a Monster in ‘Hannibal: The Complete Second Season’?

The landmark horror series steps away from crime procedurals and deeper into its inimitable sense of style in a triumphant sophomore year.

To watch Hannibal from its liberating first season to its utterly liberated second is to witness a progression in the approach to murder mysteries that made its debut in the waning winter months of 2013 such a sensation. In the first season, the killer-of-the-week tactic served as a kind of gentle introduction into the world Bryan Fuller and his team were building; one whose mounting sense of Lovecraftian dread seemed to affect Hugh Dancy’s haunted Will Graham as surely as it pulled away from the CSI/SVU model of storytelling.

The production design heightened the unreality of the killings, impossible stagings of corpses like a massive totem pole comprised of cadavers that appeared, overnight, on the beach. What world was this where loners in cabins could conjure up such terrors? One ruled over by the mad psychiatrist of the title, the god who is a monster. And the black mass of the finale signaled his triumph—where could the show go from here?

To tell a story in which Will and his once and future ally Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne) conspired to entrap Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), the series draws back from the hellish first season to show a larger picture of the world, one in which Hannibal still maintains control but evil looks something less like a seductive, overwhelming force. Season one asked whether Will could so often grapple with murder without being affected or infected by it. His brain no longer physically inflamed, Will nevertheless comes up against the choice to murder multiple times in this second season.

The episodes in which he struggles with this choice still incorporate killers-of-the-week, but there is a marked difference in their presentation. They are no longer demonic artists, nor played by actors with the presence of a Lance Henriksen or the unexpected appearance of Molly Shannon. They are sneering young white men who look as though they might be comfortable taking assault rifles to a high school. They are banal in their demeanor, and for once recognizably real. With Will’s finger actually on the trigger, the choice suddenly looks much different.

Of course, the series risks failure whenever it rubs up against the real world, and never more than in scenes discussing Will and Jack’s gambits to entrap Hannibal, which go far beyond the realm of what such a seasoned and principled officer of the law would allow, or in the courtroom proceedings of the third episode, “Hassun”, which skates by on a surprisingly strong strain of morbid humor. Fuller and his writers seem to acknowledge that they have no business entering the realms of judicial process, and dress the hour up as a camp outing instead. They can do a fine CSI, but not The Good Wife.

If the season has an overarching motif, it’s the notion of “best laid plans”. Beginning with a violent overture signaling the calamitous result of Jack’s efforts before flashing back three months, every scene in which characters attempt to deceive each other is flavored with the knowledge of that opening, that all will go astray before the end. De-emphasizing both the case-of-the-week structure and subtracting an element of suspense from the season’s narrative allows Hannibal to double down on its primary modus operandi, its eruptions of aesthetic rapture to which no other series can compare.

Committed as it is to employing vivid metaphorical imagery on a routine basis, Hannibal stands apart from the similarly-inclined Mad Men in its willingness to indulge in such symbols for their own sake, even when their meaning isn’t immediately clear. Will’s routine visions of Hannibal as the wendigo first glimpsed in the first season’s finale recur in almost every episode of the second, culminating in an odd and contradictory hallucination of an ordinary stag in the season’s climax, which the camera contemplates only for a moment before moving on.

Such images allow Fuller and his team a little leeway with the lacking treatment of certain themes, such as the season’s overall subjugation of its female characters to the power struggle between Will, Hannibal, and Jack. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Will’s former love interest who knew Hannibal on a professional level for years before the series began, becomes seduced and deceived by the killer. However supportive one feels inclined to be of televised depictions of professional women standing by their romantic choices in the face of open disapproval, it’s disheartening to see the series’ lone female regular become such a pawn in its lead villain’s ongoing, long-term schemes.

The series’ visual intelligence is such that a single scene and moment of spectacular dream imagery in the finale seems almost enough, at the time, to compensate for a whole season that failed to privilege Alana’s perspective. The territory remains largely unexplored, though. Should the series decide to adapt The Silence of the Lambs, the legally problematic Clarice Starling character could easily be transposed for Alana, and a whole season spent exploring her relationship with Hannibal in the aftermath of traumatic revelations about her lover.

What seem to be flaws and accidents of the adaptation process—Fuller, for all his praiseworthy traits as a writer and executive, seems weirdly beholden to Thomas Harris’s source novels even at their least defensible—reveal deeper thematic resonance on second viewings, such as a four-episode arc involving the sibling Margot (Katherine Isabelle) and Mason Verger (Michael Pitt). Some of Harris’s worst instincts as a writer crop up here: Mason is a campy grotesque who abuses his sister and mixes martinis with her tears, a detail that the series frames in a suggestive series of dissolves without capturing the process full-frame.

Mason’s rivalry with Hannibal is really a tawdry bit of backstory to illuminate a single character detail: Dr. Lecter cannot abide rudeness, and punishes Mason severely for it, in a scene so over the top in its sickly violence that the only possibility seems to be to frame it as an interlude of surreal black comedy. Pitt’s performance, all wild laughter and flat, American vowels, functions as the final iteration in the second season’s series of banal villains, the ugliest and least romantic face of evil imaginable. And it’s he alone, besides Jack and Will, who hatches a plan to ensnare the evil doctor, and rather memorably comes up short.

Yet the impossible complaint about Hannibal’s second season is that no single hour adequately prepares viewers for the finale, “Mizumono”, which is at once the most sustained expression of the series’ particular tone and the best episode of any television show in recent memory. All the themes that previously lurked underneath a layer of smoky effects and lurid dream sequences at last sharpen into perfect focus, the power play between the three male leads finally perfectly balanced with the impact of their actions on the women who have crossed their paths. Imagine all of Hannibal’s mansion as a cavernous kitchen—“women in refrigerators”, indeed.

“The traumatized are unpredictable,” says Gillian Anderson’s Dr. Du Maurier during a prison visit with Will (one of the season’s two evocations of Pickpocket’s ending), “because they know they can survive. You can survive this happening to you.” What was a moral question about exposure to horror in the first season becomes a moral dilemma in the second: when you know your duel with monsters will turn you into one, is it a sin to survive at all?

What makes Hannibal such an essential and worthwhile ongoing project is that it never loses sight of its moral equation, even as it becomes untethered from reality. It does not stop caring about the souls of its agents, doctors, and lonely dog owners, but it also takes an uncommon pleasure in the touch of rain on shattered glass, of blood soaking into wood, of light bending around shadow. When someone says True Detective is the new cinema, show them this. Then pour some wine.

The season 2 set continues the great run of extras from the previous year, this time with another series of engaged commentaries from Fuller and various members of the production team, as well as intensive yet layman-friendly featurettes about various facets of the show. A particular highlight explores the costumes in full sartorial detail, with input from designer Christopher Hargadon as well as producer Martha de Laurentiis, Fuller and the cast. Anyone who has admired the impeccable taste of the production from afar without knowing much about the process or history of costume and production design can dig right into these features and learn a great deal about the craft from the ground up.

RATING 9 / 10