Starring: Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, Mads Mikkelsen
With Will stuck in an institute for the criminally insane, there was potential for things to become a bit static in this second season. But not to worry, showrunner Bryan Fuller and his team do a fine job of ringing the changes, shifting the story through different phases with an audacity that’s all too rare in the world of primetime TV. This time round the series puts the monster of the week format on the back burner and plays more of a long game, but it still manages to be just as tense and disturbing.
Although Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), FBI profiler extraordinaire, is the guy in the prison onesie, he’s not the only one who seems boxed in as the season progresses. His boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) is feeling the strain – under investigation for his role in Will’s crack-up, and with his wife dying of cancer. Struck by how often his patients eat their own tongues, etc, people are beginning to look at Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) funny and think twice before accepting a dinner invitation. As for Will himself, there are signs that he is toughening up, taking a lesson out of the Lecter cookbook – sorry, playbook – and becoming more manipulative and unscrupulous.
Meanwhile the stiffs just keep on coming – a Spencer Tunick-style mural made out of dead people covered in resin, a human honeycomb, a body stuffed in a horse, a tree-man that would go down a storm at the Chelsea Flower Show. Never before has murder looked more like an art form. An early crescendo is reached when Hannibal does a Damien Hirst on one of Crawford’s team – another example of the show’s willingness to bravely up the ante. At the same time (waste not, want not being every good cook’s watchword) the show adroitly recycles material from Season 1, with Eddie Izzard’s Abel Gideon returning for a perversely memorable session at Hannibal’s dinner table.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of this second season, however, is the way it touches base with Thomas Harris’ original material in unexpected ways. Suddenly, there’s Freddie Lounds’ flaming wheelchair, but given a whole new meaning. And a small plot thread to do with one of Hannibal’s patients gradually gains substance until you realize you’re witnessing the introduction of Mason Verger (Michael Pitt), the pig guy from the third Lecter novel.
In you want to quibble, a few of the later twists are a little far-fetched, depending on Hannibal’s ability to second-guess what everyone else is going to do to the minute, and occasionally Will and Hannibal’s shadow-boxing becomes so ambiguous you doubt even the writers knew by the end who was fooling who. But even when the storyline threatens to get out of check, the show is held together by the cool rigour of its aesthetic, by the funeral parlour palette and the noirish lighting which evoke a world of moral twilight and cold intellect. In its subdued way, it’s one of the most beautiful and thoughtfully composed series currently being made. It’s so well done, in fact, the actors can deliver deadpan, with the utmost seriousness, lines that would have to be played for camp under any other circumstance: “We find her kidneys, we find her killer.” “Is your social worker in that horse?”
The DVD comes with three short but entertaining featurettes. Style of a Killer looks at Hannibal’s fondness for handmade three-piece suits cut from the finest cashmere plaid (a taste shared by Bryan Fuller, apparently), and it’s revealed that even his transparent kill suit is tailored for a crisp silhouette. Bodies of Lies examines the subtleties of creating convincingly gruesome corpses out of plastic. Killer Intentions talks about developments in this second season and about the tightrope of making something new and distinctive while pleasing Harris’ fanbase.
There are also a whole set of excellent audio commentaries with Bryan Fuller, Hugh Dancy and others. From these we learn, among other things, that they bring in a calligraphy expert to do Hannibal’s handwriting, and that the dramatic fight scene which opens episode one took two weeks to rehearse.