The second-season premiere of Hannibal opens in medias res before cutting back several weeks to pick up the story in the immediate aftermath of season one. It’s the kind of storytelling device that normally irritates by going out of its way to open a potentially slow-building story with a moment of high tension. But it unquestionably works here. For one thing, the sequence that opens the premiere is huge and baroque, both of which make Hannibal so great. For another, the series subtly tweaks the fact that anyone who’s been invested in pop culture in the last 30 years knows where this story is going, but they don’t know the origins of the story. Hannibal is living proof that the fun of TV can be as much about process as results, and if the first two episodes of season two are any indication, then it has its sights set on nothing less than becoming the best show on TV.
Once that prologue is over, Hannibal slips back into what it does so well: telling the story of a deeply damaged crime solver and the brilliant psychopath who’s manipulating him at every turn. Showrunner Bryan Fuller frequently describes the series as a set of novels for TV, which means that each season will boast a subtly different status quo. And there are two major differences this season: First, as shown in last season’s finale, genius criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is behind bars, framed for crimes committed by his therapist, Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), and second, Will now knows that Hannibal is the darkness that haunts his dreams, and it’s something he’s not willing to let go of, no matter how much others insist he must be a criminal. It’s a fascinating dynamic, and Fuller and company have lots of fun with doing visual homages to previous movies featuring Hannibal, only with Will in place of the madman.
At its heart, Hannibal is one of TV’s best examinations of the nature of evil, but it’s also a dark pulp thriller, with a rich sense of momentum and spine-tingling fun. Hannibal never forgets that for all of the emotionally rich scenes of two people sitting together and talking about their weaknesses, it’s a horror tale first and foremost, and these two episodes are rich with disturbing images, as well as moments when Will or another character has a realization that creates heart-thumping terror. The series is also more comfortable with spreading out its “case of the week” structure, with the season’s first case—revolving around a large number of bodies found caught in a stream in odd states of decomposition—taking up the first two episodes and falling largely away in favor of advancing the horror, not the logic, of the story.
The words “dream logic” can be a kind of epithet to some TV fans, often used to excuse stories where the events don’t make rational sense, because there are cool images or plot twists. What’s unique about Hannibal is that it actually becomes better the further it leaves logic behind. It’s careful to always keep one toe in reality—the ways that Hannibal manipulates and casually destroys those around him more or less make rational sense—but for the most part, it feels far more comfortable to pursue the idea that Hannibal is almost a demonic force, sent from hell to corrupt the world.
Thus, the second season creates an emotional battleground even more rife with conflict than season one’s. The question becomes less whether Will is guilty or innocent of the crimes he’s accused of—nearly everyone has at least a vague sense that he might have been framed—and whether they’ll pursue that vague sense to its logical end, which must insist that Hannibal is as evil as Will says he is. Making that leap doesn’t just mean accusing a colleague of being a serial killer; it also means excusing the fact that everyone who worked with him was at least somewhat complicit in his crimes by never noticing the monster that stood before them, by missing any obvious clues because of the surface he presented to the world, by eating at his dinner parties (where they surely consumed human flesh). Fuller has always been canny about using things the audience already knows about Hannibal against it, and he does the same to his own characters here, as everyone from Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) becomes a potential pawn in a game of chess by mail played by Hannibal and Will.
Hannibal has always been beautiful, and that’s still the case. (The image that closes episode one is especially memorable for its raw, gorgeous horror.) It’s also always featured dialogue and plots that stay just on the right side of being too pretentious, and that remains the case. If there are any notable steps up from season one, it’s both in the tension that mounts thanks to the great game played between Will and Hannibal and in the better use of the show’s supporting cast. Characters like Caroline Dhavernas’ Alana Bloom matter so much more now, and the series makes the most of a great performance it was often sidelining last year. (The rest of the acting, particularly from Dancy and Mikkelsen, is typically great.) Most of all, though, Hannibal follows the lead of that teaser: What was a dull roar in season one is now an existential howl out of the demonic dark. The monsters are out from under the bed, and there’s no putting them back there.
Developed by: Bryan Fuller, from the character created by Thomas Harris
Starring: Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, Laurence Fishburne
Returns: Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Hour-long horror drama
Two episodes watched for review