Like Dexter, Hannibal requires us to accept a totally unacceptable character as a sort of hero, and to revel in a level of gore that’s almost too much to stomach (pun intended). That the cannibalistic mass-murderer played with such sang-froid by Mads Mikkelsen is almost sympathetic says something about the monsters he encounters on his culinary odyssey. In incorporating the plots of the Hannibal movies and books into a much more complex and extended ensemble piece, the writers rely on flashback, delayed gratification and elliptical dialogue to such an extent that the casual viewer has no chance of keeping up. Suffice it to say that the first two seasons dealt with forensic psychiatrist and cannibal Hannibal Lecter’s relationship with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), an investigator whose empathy with psychopaths is so overwhelming, that he becomes one. But Graham isn’t the only character to have fallen under Hannibal’s control; his psychiatrist, icily beautiful Bedelia Du Maurier, has also become his puppet.
As this third course begins, fleeing America with Du Maurier in tow, Hannibal ends up in Paris; after an extraordinarily impressionistic opening sequence, we find him at a soiree where he targets and kills a Dr Roman Fell and his wife. Assuming Fell’s identity, Hannibal moves to Florence, successfully lecturing in place of Dante scholar Fell. But he has been rumbled by Dimmond, a louche young man who seems to want to blackmail Hannibal, or to shag Du Maurier, or both. Dimmond, unsurprisingly, ends up battered to death and dissected in a way reminiscent of Dantean traitors.
Du Maurier is complicit in this, and in flashback we see her killing her patient Neal Frank, a crime which Hannibal helped her to cover up. Clearly she knows he is dangerous – she holds a gun on him at one point – but she can’t somehow bring herself to part from him.
The same complex relationship is clear in Hannibal’s dealings, again seen in flashback, with Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard), a mass murderer who Hannibal used as a scapegoat for his own crimes, then dissected and ate. Hannibal fattens up Gideon by feeding him snails which have in turn feasted on Gideon’s own severed arm; Du Maurier is getting the same fattening-up treatment, but has some optimism that she will not be killed. Fat chance. The closing shot sees Hannibal alone on a train with a large trunk, making origami figures in much the same way he has folded up Dimmond.
Much of the enjoyment of Hannibal comes from its arch acceptance of its own grand guignol insanity; dialogue references to dissection, digestion and dismemberment are dropped with knowing precision. It’s also beautifully filmed, with close-ups, slow-motion, lens effects and colour grading rendering every shot a work of art, like an episode of CSI directed by Peter Greenaway. The sound design, too, is stunning, with music, effects and dialogue woven into a slightly cloying, nauseating tapestry. If Mads Mikkelsen’s dialogue is occasionally incomprehensible, it hardly matters.
But in this episode, though for how much of the season we don’t know, the most captivating aspect is the glacial beauty of Gillian Anderson; the planes of her face etched with Du Maurier’s paralysed horror at her own inner darkness, the curves of her body entrapped in restrictive couture. Her every movement is like a scream for release.
Hannibal isn’t art, and sometimes it isn’t even fun, but by God it’s hard to turn away from; it’s like watching a crucifixion while eating popcorn. Maybe suffering is good for the soul.