Having narrowly dodged being devoured by NBC for the second time, Hannibal once again lent credence to the idea that only the good die young (and messy). Just not yet.

After a stellar first season, Bryan Fuller’s take on Thomas Harris’ world of cultured intrigue and cannibal carnage took things even farther for its second outing, setting up a ticking clock from the start while Hannibal and his frienemy Will Graham engage in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Like season 1, Hannibal’s second outing is saturated in the same expressionist visuals and psychological madness as before, and while it doesn’t all work, this new season ramps things up with urgency and a genuine uncertainty at how far things will escalate. And who will be left in one piece.

Hannibal is a weird show — unlike anything on TV, even. As much as it hurts to say it, it’s a little understandable why it’s not doing well in the ratings. It’s tone is so far outside the normal realm of television standards that it can come off as off-putting. What it really is is challenging.

At every turn (well, almost), Hannibal stretches the boundaries of comfort and convention. In a television landscape of noise and over-explanation, the show basks in quiet, mumbly reflection. We the audience have to work for answers as we are rarely are given an omniscient look into the situation until the characters are — we know what’s going on when they do. Like the titular character, Fully and company craft a sophisticated show that does not baby its audience.

The relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lector is a wonderfully complicated one, and one that defies every archetype of male interaction on television (brilliantly explored in a recent NPR article). The entire heart of the show is these two having deep, philosophical conversations that outline the larger themes at play, over some of the most artful meals ever put to screen. They do not need to posture their masculinity to each other, as they understand one another too much for that sort of thing.

Instead, the dichotomy between the two carries the show. Will and Hannibal are two sides of a coin — dark and light, heaven and hell — and watching them play tug of war with ideology is fascinating. It’s just one of the things that puts this show so far beyond regular crime dramas and while the actual interplay often needs subtitles (the entire show operates on a softer volume than the average bear), Mads Mikkelson and Hugh Dancy kill it on a routine basis.

Season one made a name for itself with its ridiculously artful gore. Season two looks back and says “what, you thought that was gross?”. Nearly every episode features some assortment of stomach-turning carnage, that is executed so beautifully that it looks as if it should be in a museum somewhere. Last season’s champ was the mushroom corpses (by a narrow margin) — this season features too many to count, but as someone with an aversion to bees, one episode had something special just for me.

Structurally, season two follows a mostly similar pattern as season one. The first chunk of episodes sees a series of gruesome crimes occurring while Hannibal operates in the background. A sort of shift happens midway through and the third quarter sees a lot of reality twisting and blurred lines before things intensify in the last couple episodes and end on similar notes. This season has its share of weak episodes (the courtroom episode and all involving the animal-man didn’t measure up) but the overall arcs succeeded, as both halves of the season ended on game-changing twists that nobody saw coming.

The major failing of season two has to be its female cast. Next to the main relationship between Will and Hannibal, the women on the show suffered. The general trend seemed to be “get gone or get dumb”. Smart, able characters like Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki) and Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) were absent for large chunks of the season, but were allowed to keep their wits about them. Meanwhile, previously sharp female characters like Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and Beverly Katz (Hattienne Park) were present in big ways this season only to make one incredibly stupid, out-of-character decision after another that would bring doom upon them even faster. For a show that is so progressive in how it handles its males, it seemed odd to sacrifice the women players’ agency. Thankfully, there’s always next season.

But the one wild card that came in like a storm and revitalized this season was Michael Parks’ performance as Mason Verger. The psychotic, pedophilic meat-packing heir from Harris’ Hannibal novel made an unexpectedly early appearance on the show and what an appearance it was. Parks is essentially playing The Joker here but Verger’s gleeful depravity is a perfect foil to Hannibal’s controlled, sophisticated madness. Fuller and company utilize the character perfectly and Parks steals every scene he’s in. His implied presence down the road is all the more reason to tune in.

Hannibal still has stories to tell and with this season pulling the rug out more than once, next season promises to be a different beast altogether. The road getting to this point wasn’t perfect but it was always engrossing. Hannibal is never content to play it safe and because of it, it’s all the more easy to let go and embrace the madness.


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