If you thought the first season of “Hannibal” was intense, you haven’t seen anything yet.
That’s the message being broadcast loud and clear in the second season premiere, an episode that moves remarkably fast for such a deliberately paced show, charging through plot twists and neatly setting up multiple subplots to develop over the course of thirteen weeks. From the no-holds-barred opening fight scene between Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to the final shot of a grotesque human art project framed like an eyeball, you can feel creator Bryan Fuller teasing, daring the audience to keep watching. Get ready, he seems to be saying, because this season is a whole different animal.
For starters, there’s that opening fight. It’s one of the most brutal hand-to-hand combat scenes I’ve ever seen on television, perfectly framed by director Tim Hunter and cinematographer James Hawkinson so that each move puts us inside the characters’ heads. It’s as much a surprise for us as Crawford when Hannibal grabs a heavy spice shaker, his arm hidden behind his body, and when Crawford manages to block a knife with a cutting board in the span of a few milliseconds, his relief is palpable. The progression of the fight manages to feel intricately choreographed yet driven entirely by instinct and desperation, a feat few directors can pull off.
Of course, it’s a flash forward, and we most likely won’t know the outcome until the season finale. Whether the decision to let the audience know what’s coming pays off will depend on how the next twelve episodes are executed. It’s certainly an exciting way to kick things off, but I can’t help but wonder if a lot of the show’s tension will now be sapped. There’s a big difference between flashforwards that tease vague, mysterious images and leave the audience to guess at the context — think of those used by the second and fifth seasons of “Breaking Bad,” for example — and those that reveal specific actions in a way that leaves little to the imagination.
There’s really only one reason Crawford would attack Lecter, and while I’m guessing there will be some sort of last-minute twist that changes our perception slightly, I can’t help but worry that a major moment of catharsis has now been ruined by teasing it too early. The first season used dramatic irony to ooze suspense — anyone who has heard of Hannibal Lecter or seen one of several films knows that he’s a serial killer, which makes the characters’ inability to see it deliciously frustrating. But why should I care about Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) sitting in a cell if it’s been confirmed that eventually Jack discovers the truth? I know he won’t be in there long.
Speaking of Mr. Graham, when we last saw him he was behind bars at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, framed for multiple murders. He’s stuck there for now, but this episode does a fine job of finding ways to make him integral to the plot. He enlists his former colleague and potential love interest Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) to help him rebuild some of the memories he’s lost. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a subplot like this to drag on for a few episodes before getting anywhere, but “Kaiseki” moves fast, and after a particularly disturbing flashback involving a funnel and a human ear, he becomes certain of Hannibal’s involvement. I was one of the few critics who didn’t mind it when Bloom functioned mainly as a friend and potential romantic partner for Will last season, but I’m glad to see she’s getting more to do this time around.
She isn’t the only one. Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) also pays Will a visit, bringing along some photographs of a new crime scene to get his input. She and Bloom still seem to harbor doubts about his guilt. Meanwhile, Hannibal’s psychotherapist Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) continues her mysterious games with him. It’s still not clear what all she knows, and they’ve clearly bonded over a shared past trauma, but Anderson’s nuanced performance suggests there’s more to her than just a stony facade. There’s also a new party that could add a few more wrinkles: Kate Prurnell (Cynthia Nixon), an FBI administrator who wants to stifle any internal investigation that might damage Crawford and the bureau’s reputation. Between these four characters, it looks like a lot of this scene’s suspense could revolve around multiple strong women closing in on Hannibal.
As for Hannibal the Cannibal himself, he’s now taking over Will’s duties as a psychological profiler. It’s a brilliant bit of writing that adds new layers to the irony and themes that the first season developed so well, further establishing Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham as two sides of the same coin. They are perfect doppelgangers and reflections of each other, one with no empathy and the other with nothing but, linked by more than they’d care to admit. Will is in a cell while Hannibal works the crime scenes. “I got to be Will Graham today,” Hannibal tells Du Maurier, but anyone familiar with the characters knows this will one day be reversed.
“We can’t define Will only by his madness status,” Hannibal tells Crawford. “We can’t define Will at all,” comes the response. But that’s not true. Will is defined by Hannibal, who has manipulated him so completely that he now hears the psychiatrist as his own inner voice. Hannibal, in turn, has grown so attached to Will that on some level he considers him a friend, at least as much as he can understand the meaning of that word. They’re trapped in a twisted psychological dance, doomed to keep spinning through the same motions and getting inside each other’s heads, perhaps forever.
The final shot drives the theme home, zooming out from one victim of a new crime spree to reveal an elaborate pattern of bodies that when viewed from above looks like a giant eye staring back at us. He’s just one piece of a larger puzzle. Right now each character in “Hannibal” is only seeing fragments of the truth. They’re finding their place in the big picture. How long will it take before they (and us) achieve a bird’s eye view of things and finally realize what’s really going on? If Will’s visions can tell us anything about what to expect this season, it’s that they need to hurry. There’s a smorgasbord of death on the horizon.