Horror is everywhere on television lately, but how much of it is actually scary? Or even disturbing beyond the occasional, momentary cringe or slight gasp? Take The Walking Dead—aside from the many gruesome and crowd-pleasing ways its character turn zombies’ heads into piñatas, are you ever legitimately terrified when someone’s surrounded by a bunch of walkers? Of course not, because another character is always nearby to save the day at the last possible second. And how about American Horror Story? As reckless as it is campy, the FX anthology series is too playful to ever truly frighten. If, by some chance, one scene unsettles, there’s always an uncomfortably funny one-liner or a scenery-chewing performance on deck to off-set the scares.
There’s none of that, however, on NBC’s Hannibal. The only laughs in creator Bryan Fuller’s exceptional horror-drama series come from viewers who appreciate a nice, morbid in-joke, like seeing a suave serial killer cook human innards with the class and precision a chef at Nobu would exhibit while making the fanciest duck platter imaginable. Come to think of it, if cannibalism humor is your bag, Hannibal could possibly rival Parks and Rec.
Humor like that is simply a bonus in Hannibal, Fuller’s ambitious and, so far, brilliantly executed TV adaptation of author Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon—also the source material that led to movies like the Oscar-winning 1991 The Silence of the Lambs. With Hannibal, the M.O. is ghoulish elegance. From its hypnotic pilot episode to tonight’s go-for-broke season two opener, the show has mastered a dreamlike tone, balancing Emmy-caliber acting with grotesque yet beautiful images you’d be lucky to find in even the strongest of horror motion pictures, let alone anything else on TV.
In any episode, Hannibal can easily engulf your senses and leave you quaking with a strange blend of fear and fascination. And for that, it’s the best piece of horror entertainment on TV, something comparable to HBO’s True Detective at that show’s cosmic-horror-mythology best but, frankly, something altogether better. A confident, audacious storyteller, Fuller immediately shows off in tonight’s return episode. Prefacing the opening title sequence, there’s a gnarly, furniture-breaking scuffle between Mikkelsen’s Hannibal and third lead Laurence Fishburne’s FBI boss Jack Crawford. What starts off as suspicious in Crawford’s eyes devolves into a survival mode for Lecter, reaching a potentially fatal last note when one gets stabbed, starts bleeding badly, and flees for his life into a wine closet.
And then, boom, “12 Weeks Earlier.” Only the most self-assured show-runner would kick off a 13-episode season with such an alarming bit of foreshadowing. And also release it online more than a week before the episode airs.
At the show’s center are two gifted actors trading one show-stopping scene after another. The man of the hour is Mads Mikkelsen, the perennially underrated Danish master of simmering menace and disarming charisma, doing his best to consistently one-up Anthony Hopkins’ Academy Award-honored work as cannibal/mass murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Unlike Hopkins’ performance in The Silence of the Lambs, which, while superb, leans more toward the theatrical, Mikkelsen’s Lecter is a quiet, calculating type. His madness is downplayed by the fact that he’s the most debonair and interesting man in any room. He turns the slickest of punchlines into icy yet endearing statements.
His Hannibal foil is Hugh Dancy, playing the emotionally tormented special agent Will Graham, who, by season one’s end, saw his toxic friendship with Lecter culminate in the doctor framing him for every homicide Lecter either committed or hands-off orchestrated. Similar to Mikkelsen, Dancy internalizes all of Will’s flaws, of which there are many, chief of which is his inability to prevent his immersive crime scene investigation tactics (he’s able to put himself in the killer’s body and reenact every grisly action) from destroying his sanity. There’s always an art-house horror film screening in his mind, and he can’t turn it off.
Together, their performances set Hannibal’s cerebral mood. And by “cerebral,” think “oozing into your head and turning everything pitch-black.” Tonight’s hour provides a pair of chilling sequences that make its genre TV peers like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story seem like Good Luck Charlie. The first continues Hannibal’s use of surrealism, with Will (who’s now a mental hospital patient and facing criminal charges) put under hypnosis. As a Medusa-like woman slides into his body, Will envisions himself seated at a long dinner table with his old friend Hannibal as an all-black, antlered demon, one that looks like the lovechild of Mikkelsen and Baphomet. On Will’s dinner plate is the incriminating ear that Hannibal somehow placed inside Will’s body last season and is the defense’s key tool for keeping Mr. Graham in the clink.
That same ear is the main ingredient in tonight’s episode’s second horror death-blow. In black-and-white, we see just how Hannibal got that cranial appendage into Will’s throat. It’s all sideways camera angles and extreme close-ups, coming off as a hallucinogenic snuff film, a lost reel from the movie those unlucky characters watch in The Ring before their final week alive.
And that’s just the beginning. Next week’s episode opens with Hannibal’s most fucked-up sight yet. Without spoiling the demented surprise, let’s just refer to it as the show’s characters do: “the human mural.” Treated with maturity by Fuller and his team, a revolting image that The Human Centipede writer-director Tom Six wishes he could pull off is, well, breathtaking. Gorgeous, even. It’ll make taking any indelible Walking Dead or American Horror Story image seriously difficult, but, when considered along with Mikkelsen’s and Dancy’s acting and the show’s overall sophistication, it’ll also leave you wondering why Hannibal isn’t talked about as much as True Detective or whatever other prestige genre series.
Hannibal is more than just TV’s best horror show—it’s the medium’s best-kept secret.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)