For its first two seasons, Hannibal has been the sort of show that’s trafficked in world building and atmosphere. For season one, that meant a “Monster of the Week” narrative featuring gruesome deaths by different killers in nearly every episode. Besides pleasing network executives by bringing a recognizable format to a show which would otherwise be hard to categorize, it placed us in a universe where such murders are a fact of life. In the first half of season two, the focus shifted to the terror brought to that world specifically by Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen). By contrast, its second half zoomed in on the convoluted relationship between him and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) by revealing plot points and details without always tying them together. As a result, the narrative disoriented us, as we imagined the characters were disoriented themselves.
The disorientation continues in “Antipasto,” although it does so in a very different way (more on that in a bit), and with a magnified sense of setting. Prior to this season, Hannibal has tended to stay clear of visual location markers, relying on text and the occasional bit of expositional dialogue to remind us of the show’s D.C. area setting. Incidentally, the establishing shots in the teaser of “Antipasto” (making it clear that we’re in Paris) give an idea of the different sort of world that will soon be built.
It continues as Hannibal arrives at a fancy party, happily throwing back a glass of champagne as he converses with the bright-eyed scholar Anthony (Tom Wismond), to whom he introduces himself as Boris Yakoff. Dumond tells him of his dislike of the scholar Dr. Roman Fell, for whom he worked as a TA at Cambridge. We get no sense of whether Hannibal dislikes Dr. Fell, since he’s soon gorging on his flesh in what looks to be a delicious, buttery sauce.
Hannibal isn’t content just to eat the doctor, as he also uses his identity to win a job as a curator and translator of Renaissance Italian, despite the objections of a fellow scholar. Here, although the setting moves a bit east, the gorgeous shots of the Italian architecture and food tell us that we’re still in a classy Western European environment.
“Antipasto” isn’t entirely limited to this setting, although it doesn’t use any comparable establishing shots to let us know that we’re leaving it. Instead, it features sumptuous black and white photography to reveal more details of Abel Gideon’s time as Hannibal’s hostage. The same visual clues can’t be seen, however, when the episode shows the history of his relationship with Bedilia (Gillian Anderson), abruptly transitioning to the past with only verbal clues to tell us we’ve arrived there. As a result, the back story becomes chronologically unclear, bringing the series back to the feelings of disorientation from the end of the second season.
Without a definite timeline to hold onto, we’re left to focus on the visual minutiae, and, as always, this might be the most fascinating aspect of Hannibal. The shot of Lecter washing off what we’re led to assume is the blood of Will, Alana, Jack and Abigail makes for a nice callback to the gorgeous shot of Hannibal standing in the rain at the end of last season’s blood-soaked finale. It gains even more resonance when Bedilia washes blood off herself in a similar fashion, symbolizing her association with the brutal psychopath.
Still, “Antipasto” isn’t just an origin story, as Hannibal has no choice but to return to his murderous proclivities. Once Anthony discovers that the killer has taken on the identity of his former boss, it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a victim. Hannibal spares the man when he and Bedilia have him “for dinner,” but he becomes a meal himself after the doctor bashes his head with a gorgeous bust.
Despite Hannibal’s gruesomeness, he, like the show, turns gore into art, and “Antipasto” concludes with a shot of his latest victim on an easel. He, like so many others, serves as Hannibal’s canvas, and “Antipasto” provides a hint of the canvases that are soon to come.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.