A rare installment: a series that’s currently running.

Everything about HANNIBAL works: the deliberate pace befitting the slow elegance of the show’s proto-antagonist; Hugh Dancy’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Will Graham, a man tortured by his own mind; the supporting cast from Laurence Fishburne to Scott Thompson to Gillian Anderson as the modern epitome of Hitchcock’s icy blonde ideal; the fact that you have to watch every frame. There’s no fluff on HANNIBAL. Every frame matters and could be framed as a piece of art (morbid, horrific art, in many cases, but we’re talking beauty here, not pretty). Easter eggs, call-backs and call-forwards abound: “I’m having an old friend to dinner”; the opening chord of Patrick Cassidy’s achingly beautiful “Vide Cor Meum” from Ridley Scott’s 2001 film as the underpinnings of Hannibal’s motif; the piece’s full flowering upon the conclusion of Season One: Dr. Lecter’s visit to Will Graham in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and mythology-reversing imagery of Lecter free, Graham in prison.

HANNIBAL rewards attention while daring you to watch. The show is a 20th-century French opera with penny-dreadful accents of horrific violence; visceral, the real beneath the person-suit. In shows like CSI or CRIMINAL MINDS, the violence and gore is shock, of no coincidence except to move a pre-ordained plot populated with cardboard cutout characters forward to its inevitable conclusion of arrest or self-inflicted bullet to the head. HANNIBAL casts no such aspersions towards the tolerance and intelligence of its audience: it can be unpleasant, it can be horrific, but it is never thrown in for shock value (ok, maybe a little bit, but that’s the penny dreadful-ness coming through). Murder is an ugly thing, and HANNIBAL dares you to love a protagonist unrepentantly capable of unspeakable acts of physical, culinary, and mental violence; Dexter would be flambéed and served as an amuse-bouche at one of Hannibal’s legendary dinner parties.

The true horror of HANNIBAL comes from the mental torture Hannibal inflicts on Will, on his obsession with his “friend,” and it’s in that obsession, in that quid pro quo, that Mikkelsen and Dancy shine: Mikkelsen is the best Hannibal we’ve ever had, making the most of an opportunity that Hopkins (and Brian Cox before him; we’ll forget about Gaspard Ulliel in the atrocious HANNIBAL RISING) never had: to play Hannibal before he was the Dr. Lecter behind the glass, the caged serpent ready to entrap Jodie Foster or Edward Norton or William Petersen or Julianne Moore in the coils of his mind, to infect them. HANNIBAL is where we see him shape the fascination with mental torment he perfects on his therapist, Dr. Bedelia Du Mauer and on Will, disguising it in a helping hand before inflicting the physical violence of shoving a tube down his throat and dropping an ear down it to frame his “friend,” save his own ass, and see what happens.

The power of Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham is that he gives the impression of one that is helped to be whole by the mental torture Hannibal inflicts on him. His first display of great mental strength, of having his unique abilities in check and in full command of them, comes in prison, in Season Two’s second episode, where he uses Lecter’s weakness–his “obsessively intrigued” fascination with him–to lead Lecter down the road to entrapment; Hannibal gives Will the strength to capture him, for them to be together forever.

There’s an undeniable anticipation to see Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Hopkins’ Hannibal, to see him as the caged serpent, finally free of his person suit. Should the show last for its intended seven seasons, we’ll get to see that. Should it not, let us revel in being the old friend invited for a dinner that never fails to surprise.

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