By playing in the pre-Red Dragon era of Thomas Harris’ Lecterverse, Hannibal has for a couple of years been able to carve out its (and its title character’s) own identity, giving us a fresh new take on an icon that was etched into the pop culture consciousness 24 years ago. But as miraculous a feat as that’s been, season three is where, as events move our characters toward what we assumed were their predetermined fates, Hannibal has really managed to surprise viewers. Or this viewer, at any rate. Through that prism especially, "Dolce" feels like a turning point.
Showrunner Bryan Fuller knows that Hannibal’s eventual capture by Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and the subsequent pursuit of the Tooth Fairy, comes with a set of viewer expectations. Seemingly in response, Fuller’s thrown everything we’re waiting to see happen into a blender, time-hopping events from the books, swapping out roles, and throwing everything into his weird hallucinatory kaleidoscope (quite literally, in one steamy scene), rolling it around and seeing what new forms emerge. It’s, as we now know, a little too late, and in hindsight maybe this was not the time to get all weird and experimental, but one has to admire the audacity.
A wise woman once said to me, “some people wear they freakies on the outside, and some people wear they freakies on the inside.” Outlandish tailoring aside, the Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) of earlier seasons presented a mask of sanity to the outside world. An exposed Hannibal in hiding means, curiously, a more muted wardrobe for the title character, but this year’s model is expressing himself in other ways, having plum run out of people to whom to lie. Hannibal is free, and has taken his apprehension as a given, so he's more relaxed, more at ease, less cat-and-mouse about who he kills, and where, and in front of whom. He's out and proud. But Hannibal hasn’t just stopped pretending; this season he’s reshaped his entire universe into one where he makes sense. Dr. Lecter has normalized his worldview and sucked into it everyone he cares about, including Will, Jack (Laurence Fishburne), Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto), and Bedelia (Gillian Anderson). He's cultivated a collection of humans who, for better or worse, get him. At one point Chiyoh and Bedelia have an exchange in which they refer to each other as Hannibal’s “birds.” But really they’re all his birds, every one of them, and the weird world they’ve come to inhabit - a much different world than season one’s - is Hannibal’s freaky aviary. They’re all speaking his same strange language now, as if they’re all in the same dream, or maybe having the same dream.
Hannibal's bird collection also has an annex back in the States. After Inspector Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino) was gutted by last week’s events, Mason Verger’s League of Cannibal Catchers comes to the fore this go-round. A deeply tanned Margot (Katharine Isabelle) returns from Italy, joining Mason (Joe Anderson), Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and Dr. Cordell Doemling (Glenn Fleshler). Cordell’s been doing some research into the best ways to prepare Dr. Lecter for consumption, providing Verger with a tasting menu as well as a sounding board. (You might not want Peking Duck ever again after one particular descriptive exchange.) Verger attempts his approximation of patching things up with his sister Margot (his version involves bragging about his “loads” of viable sperm and trying to get her to have a child with him, hysterectomies be damned). Meanwhile Alana and Margot have developed an interesting way of dealing with each other’s PTSD, in a scene that’s equally sexy and vertiginous. In a post-coital chat, Alana and Margot discuss life goals that involve the police, revenge, and the aforementioned loads of sperm.
On both sides of the Atlantic, reality is fading in this show’s rear view mirror, as scene after scene becomes more stylized, more hypnotic, and just goddamn weird. Jack and Will have a conversation about why Jack didn’t kill Hannibal when he had the chance, and Jack says “Maybe I need you to.” This is not an exchange that could have happened in the stylish police procedural of season one. In fact, none of the exchanges last night could have been afforded to us by season one, least of which a “Hannibal breakup scene” in which Bedelia gently breaks up with the man who would eat her, if only they had more time. It’s a scene pregnant with sexuality and violence, ending in a slow kiss that might have you covering your eyes out of pure fear. But the scene is downright Downton Abbey compared to what follows - a dinner scene between Jack, Will and Hannibal lifted right out of Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal. You know what scene. But again, Fuller takes the familiar and uses it against us. Peopled with very different (though equally doped-up) dinner guests than its printed analogue, it’s a final moment of Fuller thwarting viewers’ expectations by playing on, and preying on, what they know.
Several characters spend large chunks of “Dolce” under the influence of powerful narcotics, resulting in maybe the most dreamlike episode of the series (and that’s really saying something). But it’s appropriate, in a way: the trippy quality of this season's proceedings has extended from our viewing experience to the characters themselves, each one floating dreamlike through Florence toward what they, like we, assume are immutable, certain fates. But Fuller has been telling us - passively in the past, aggressively now - that the raw material of the books is all fair game for his sausage grinder. Many post-Silence Of The Lambs moments have occurred already, others are about to, still others have been used as clever fake-outs. Fuller is taking Harris’ stories and arranging them into his own elegant, grisly dinner party, and like one of Hannibal’s dishes, the menu is meant to arouse and surprise, not placate. If we’re truly living in a remix culture, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is proof that that culture needn’t be a stifling one.
In fact, all of Fuller’s rejiggering has me curious to know, as we head (maybe) toward the events of Red Dragon, just how or why this version of Will Graham would ever need Hannibal’s help in catching a serial killer as routine as Francis Dollarhyde. As Will tells Hannibal (in a scene Fuller tweeted was inspired by David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers), he feels like Hannibal’s conjoined twin, and isn’t sure he can survive separation. After tonight’s episode, one wonders if the Tooth Fairy case won’t take on an air of just finding an excuse to visit one’s ex, a glorified version of “you left these belongings at the apartment, so I just wanted to drop them off.” Will, unlike NBC, can’t quit Hannibal.