HANNIBAL: A Season 3 Primer

Few shows have mastered the build to an explosive finale like Hannibal has, and tonight the show turns the page on its latest macabre chapter.

Game of Thrones’s infamous “Red Wedding” was probably the most brutal experience I’ve ever had as a television viewer. The sheer savagery of the scene was enough to scar me for life, but what made it so much worse was the quick descent into total chaos it initiated in the world of the show. Characters you had developed an attachment to disappeared in a sudden splatter of blood and tears, and the episode’s abrupt end meant you had to spend seven agonizing days waiting for the red mist to dissipate. Thrones has had its share of horrific, stunning turns since then, but the Red Wedding occupied a special place among my most difficult entertainment experiences.

After finishing the finale of Hannibal’s second season, I was struck by how quaint the Red Wedding seemed by comparison. (The house band in that scene featured Coldplay, after all.) Hannibal is probably the most gruesome show on television – a vivid nightmare that crafts gory scenes with the imaginative delight of a toddler stacking LEGOs and the clinical precision of a maestro conducting an orchestra. In two seasons that were somehow aired on network television, bodies and their normally unremovable parts have been used as fungus farms, angel wings, bee cages, and cello necks. The brutality is so outrageous that it goes beyond savagery, past silliness, and into another realm altogether. The show knows how insane this all is and colors every scene in the disconcerting haze of a waking dream. With a different palette, the show would have descended into camp long ago, but it has set roots in a terrifying space, where its characters are developed enough to give teeth to the horrific hallucinations and graphic violence. Like True Detective, Hannibal has succeeded by pulling vibrancy from a world of dirt and shadows.

I recall thinking after the Red Wedding that seven days without answers would be unbearable, but Hannibal’s finale was so much worse. The comparison is only appropriate for the gore, really, since Hannibal had the audacity to orchestrate an even greater cliffhanger without knowing if it would be renewed for a third season. Imagine watching that Thrones season end without confirmation of the show’s renewal and without any source material to comfort you. Then imagine waiting a full year to see the show return.

I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers in urging you to watch the show’s first two seasons ahead of tonight’s premiere, so suffice it to say that the show managed to put every single character (well, other than Mads Mikkelsen’s titular villain) in a hemorrhaging state of limbo as the credits rolled. Up until the promos for this season began, there was no telling who had actually survived the stunning finale.

For two seasons, the show has brilliantly toyed with the line between insanity and genius, suggesting that each needs the other enough to render the line invisible. Dr. Lecter wages psychotic war against the just and evil alike, moving the pieces on his chessboard to great delight, each leaving a bloody smear as they slide across his board. Just when it seems that Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham has found an angle or earned Lecter’s respect, the board resets, and the players realize they’re in a different game altogether.

Few shows have mastered the build to an explosive finale like Hannibal has, and tonight, Bryan Fuller and his crew turn the page on their latest macabre chapter. After two seasons of tormenting viewers with horrific visions and the dangled promise of resolution, it’s clear that the team has full control of their world, every piece in its proper place, moving in perfect harmony. And after watching this grisly game, I have two suggestions for those tuning in tonight: don’t blink, and don’t watch on a full stomach.

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