Season premiere review: ‘Hannibal’ – ‘Kaiseki’

“Hannibal” is back for a second season. I posted an advance review yesterday, and I have some thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as the light from friendship won't reach us for a million years…

“Will is my friend.” -Hannibal

If “Kaiseki” had just been the three-minute brawl between Hannibal Lecter and Jack Crawford, followed by an hour of a test pattern, or Raul Esparza and Hugh Dancy having a staring contest, or Mads Mikkelsen reading every “Amelia Bedelia” book ever written… dayenu. That was a spectacular opening to season 2, as both a bit of action – with Jack and Hannibal using every bit of the kitchen and its many implements of death to try to eliminate the other – and as a way to ratchet up the tension of the season. We all know, given the general shape of the Lecter legend, that Hannibal will be found out in time. Seeing Jack and Hannibal fighting to the death doesn't change that knowledge, nor does it tell us anything about how and when (in episode numbers, since the chyron tells us it's 12 weeks in the future) Jack finds out, or even what exactly he finds out. (That he framed Will for his own crimes? That's he's the Chesapeake Ripper? That he's been serving Jack human meat?) But it adds juice to every scene between the two men later in the episode, and really to any scene involving Lecter interacting with the rest of the FBI, or Will in the psychiatric hospital. It's Bryan Fuller and company simultaneously giving us our catharsis and teasing us with it, with a scene that's exciting on its own but will require many episodes before we can get the full context of it.

Fortunately, “Kaiseki” did not stop at that point to allow Laurence Fishburne and Gina Torres to perform a puppet show(*), but instead gave us more of the things we love about this show: stunning imagery (from the appropriate season-opening shot of meat being cut to Alana Bloom turning into smoke in Will's mind to the horrific final image of the bodies arranged like an eyeball), finely-tuned performances, psychological gamesmanship and killers with M.O.s that make me fear for the sanity of the entire “Hannibal” writing staff.

(*) Though admit it: you'd watch that.

Even more nightmare-inducing than that corpse-eyeball shot was the earlier sequence where the disgusting hospital food (the exact opposite of the gorgeous presentations Lecter serves) inspires Will to remember exactly how Lecter planted the severed ear in him, though that was as much a triumph of sound design – the overwhelming plasticness of it evoking someone wrestling their grandmother's couch to death – as the look. (And as I noted in the advance review, the show puts so much care into every shot that something as basic as Katz taking a DNA swab from Lecter's cheek looks like modern art.)

But of course the pretty pictures and nauseating sounds ought to be in service to an actual story and characters, and they absolutely are here. The shots of Will mentally escaping the hospital to do a little fly fishing were lovely, but also tell us so much about his state of mind, and how even behind bars, his life destroyed by Dr. Lecter's cunning, he is finding ways to take control of his surroundings. He is, for now, the iconic movie version of Hannibal Lecter – with Beverly Katz standing in for Clarice Starling(**) – and if he doesn't have a way out of the hospital yet, he's not the helpless, hopeless victim Lecter needs him to be.

(**) Her line to Will, “Tell me what you see,” is one that Jack utters to Clarice in “Silence of the Lambs.” 

Of course, there's what Lecter needs and what he wants. And as monstrous as he is, I genuinely think he's conflicted in how he feels about Will Graham, and about how slipping into Will's shoes as Jack's new profiler makes him feel about murder. If Will hadn't been such a convenient patsy, I imagine Lecter would have loved palling around with him forever, and he feels badly for Will even as he wouldn't do anything to alter his expert frame job. As Lecter tells his own psychiatrist – the one human he can be even vaguely honest with (or, at least, the one human he isn't about to kill) – “I saw death how I imagined he would see it,” and you can tell that putting himself into Will's head has had some unexpected repercussions for the good doctor. I wonder if, by the time we get to the Jack/Hannibal brawl, Lecter will have given himself in some way because he's started to take his new role too seriously.

Add in more fine sparring between Mikkelsen and Gillian Anderson, and the introduction of Cynthia Nixon as the federal examiner who just wants the Will Graham mess to go away, and you've got a marvelous opening course of season 2.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at