The finale of this season of Hannibal isn’t titled “Imago” because it wouldn't have fit the season’s theme of Japanese food preparation. However, about halfway through the season’s final episode, two characters let us know why it would have made a perfect alternate title. For those who don’t already know it’s the final form of an insect’s transformation from larva to adult and bringing it up anywhere in the second season would have been appropriate. The fact that the Bryan Fuller and his team of writers decided to keep this conversation close to the chest until the finale was a great idea though. It packed far more of a wallop when it arrived because Hannibal allowed itself to change this season. It stopped being a series that followed a case of the week formula (albeit a more gruesome take on the recipe than any on record) and only allowed itself a thin overarching season plot. I can’t stand television like this but Hannibal did it so well that it became a tolerable formula. From week to week the show presented its viewers with a ballet of blood that turned murder into a legitimate art form in every way that shows like Dexter, which frankly can go fuck itself, managed to fail at. But by changing the formula that the series' fans had come to know and love, season 2 of Hannibal knocked our expectations of the show on their ear. The show slowed waaaaaay down. No more was it merely a killer of the week kind of show. Hannibal tried for a new kind of horror. It took Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who we’d all begun to rely on as an infallible source of true justice and has him switch sides with Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). The pair begin taking pages out of each other’s books and the result is a season that shows us what can happen when two men who are each incredibly dangerous in their own way begin to allow the boundaries between them to blur.
Hannibal got itself famous (at least with critics) for being one of the most beautifully shot and beautifully violent (again, just with critics) series to ever grace the small screen. The fact that it lives on NBC is a mystery to rival the Tunguska event. I watched the series after having seen all but the latest Hannibal film (Hannibal Rising) and enjoying all of them despite Brett Ratner’s horrific track record as a filmmaker - Red Dragon is by far his best film - and the pure awfulness of the series’ final chronological installment, 2001's Hannibal, which is up there with Ridley Scott’s worst films. It got me wondering why none of the films, with the exception of Hannibal, ever attempted anything as inventive as the visual style that the TV series has made its bread and butter. Director of Photography John Mathieson uses the already gorgeous palette provided by Florence, Italy to help Scott's Hannibal take on new life as a thing of visual beauty. Hannibal’s series cinematographer James Hawkinson seems to have taken brief inspiration from Mathieson before going off on a wild quest to create a show that would rival even Game of Thones in how painfully beautiful it was to look at.
That visual style really ends up being the only thing about Hannibal’s second season that resembles its first. The plotlines this time around have felt more like Lecter himself was listening to music and painting to the tempo. It began at a fairly rapid clip with familiar faces dropping like flies but as it carried on it began to slow down and spend a lot of its time meditating on Will and Hannibal’s relationship. Hannibal tries as hard as he can to drag Will down (or up?) to his level and become a killer while Will resists. We, of course, begin to see cracks, sometimes big ones, in Will’s defense and we begin to genuinely fear for him in a way we never had to in season one. We now have to fear for his very soul.
This season also manages to invert the previous season’ structure by making Will a reliable narrator once again. When we first met Will in season one he was a good but troubled cop who was beginning to unravel by the end of the pilot. We had to watch over the subsequent twelve episodes as Will came completely apart at the seams due to his time in therapy with Hannibal Lecter. But after last season’s left field (though not unwelcome) finale, we got to watch Will rebuild himself back into someone who’s both sane and very dangerous to those who continue to walk the earth doing evil. He becomes the only person with enough mental capacity to outsmart Hannibal but because the writers never make it easy on him we really never know how it’s going to go down. This matching of wits may actually be why the writers decided to make Hannibal and Will some kind of genius sadistic team in the season’s latter half and pit (sorry for the incoming pun) them against Mason Verger (Michael Pitt) whose appearance represents both a wonderful callback to Gary Oldman’s stellar performance but also a unique source of total fear. Mason is a dangerous foe and even though lovers of the film series know his fate we still aren’t quite sure if the tv version is going to take the same road to get there so all our favorite characters are suddenly in harm's way.
Watching the season back in a rapid fire fashion results in some very thrilling television. Apart from a court room drama episode (the season’s low point for sure) the first half of the season moves incredibly quickly and the framing device presented in the premiere’s opening minutes keeps you aching to get back to it at the end of the season. Hannibal plays a much larger role this season than he did before. He gets his hands far more dirty and doesn’t just come off as some kind of god that the law abiding characters of the series waste their efforts trying to stop. Instead we see Hannibal as a fallen angel who's so enamored with humanity that he allows others to see a very human side of him and even though he rarely makes a mistake, he’s a much more sympathetic monster than we got in the first season and it makes it that much more interesting when Will finally goes toe-to-toe with him. The odds are finally evened up. Fuller and his writing staff have established that they like their creative liberties, which means the stakes are quite high.
Hannibal’s second season allowed itself a lot of creative license and I applaud them for doing so. The show pulled back on its gruesome nature but it traded a gimmick for far better long form storytelling. Not to beat a dead horse but I can’t believe this show ran on NBC. It’s astounding when you think about the kinds of themes this season focused on and how many times it made its viewers stare into the heart of human darkness and didn’t let them look away when it opened its eyes and stared back. The second season is the series’ imago; its final transformation. I have no fear for the third season but it became clear while watching the finale that the writers were prepared to throw in the towel. The series was renewed but extremely late in this season’s run and the finale’s final moments are certainly geared toward the idea that they could have been the shows last. I await it excitedly but I think Hannibal will be forced to reinvent itself again in order to keep becoming the best thing it can be.