How ‘Hannibal’ Dropped the Procedural Structure and Became TV’s Most Original Show

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“I’ve taken off my person suit,” Hannibal Lecter flatly informs his former psychiatrist in the third season premiere of his namesake show, airing tonight. What Bedelia du Maurier currently is to Hannibal — hostage? accomplice? voice of reason? — is no longer clear, either to viewers or to Bedelia herself. What’s obvious is the transformation Bryan Fuller’s fever dream has undergone between installments, mirroring that of Hannibal himself. Lecter no longer wears his person suit, and Hannibal no longer wears the guise of a crime procedural based in Baltimore.

Last season’s cliffhanger saw Hannibal and his surprise companion emerge as virtually the only characters unscathed by the massacre at Lecter’s sprawling manse. With Will, Jack, Alana, and Abigail still bleeding out on the floor, Hannibal leaves their fates to viewers’ imagination and follows Lecter and du Maurier to Europe, devoting an entire episode to their new life while everyone else remains offscreen. The change in both scenery and central players (once a vaunted guest star, Gillian Anderson is now officially a series regular) remains in effect throughout the first three episodes, abandoning Maryland for Italy and therapy sessions with Will for dinner parties co-hosted with Bedelia.

Given its fondness for baroque visuals, elaborate meals, and discussions of religion (or at least the devil), Hannibal unsurprisingly feels far more at home in Florence than it ever did in Charm City. In fact, it’s revealed early on that Dr. Lecter’s already spent a significant amount of time there, even before returning with his “wife” Bedelia. And wherever Hannibal goes, albeit with an eight-month head start, Will Graham inevitably follows. Even when the two men share precisely no screen time, Hannibal thus remains the story of Hannibal and Will’s tortured relationship — always the heart of the series, but with the case-of-the-week structure and many secondary characters cast aside, now more explicitly than ever.

As Will’s quest to find, and know, Hannibal takes him on a solo mission, however, Bedelia takes on a new prominence. In his former patient’s absence, Hannibal is now most himself around her — arguably even more so than he was in Will’s therapy sessions, filled as they were with circuitous double-talk. Season 3 is the first time we see Hannibal almost entirely unmasked, discussing his murderous appetites openly (“Everyone has their flavor,” he says in one scene; “I’ve killed hardly anybody during our stay here!” in another) and even killing for an audience. Bedelia is left somewhere between bystander and accessory, replacing Will in yet another sense: as Hannibal’s self-perceived equal, one he attempts to remake in his image.

Anderson does phenomenal work here, hinting at what’s happening beneath the surface of the carefully poised Dr. du Maurier with the briefest of microexpressions. She even gets the chance to let go entirely in a flashback, another first for Hannibal; the device allows viewers to witness firsthand events that have figured heavily into characters’ backstories, not to mention get in a few more scenes of quality time with dearly departed guest star Eddie Izzard.

Because this is Hannibal, however, the lion’s share of the plaudits belong to the visual effects team. From the prop stylists who arrange (human) meat in the shape of a bird’s wing to the wizards who create the stag that haunts Will’s visions — and makes its most terrifying appearance yet in Episode 2 — Hannibal‘s surreality remains its defining characteristic. Those who’ve stuck with the series this long are probably able to see the beauty in its glory tableaux, just as they’re able to look past its overwrought dialogue. They’ll find plenty to admire in these early episodes, suffused with references to the Titanic and Renaissance art.

Freed of its procedural constraints, Hannibal no longer bears even the slightest resemblance to anything else on network TV — or even TV, period. The terrifying, homoerotic story of a serial killer and his profiler rendered in a thousand shades of gray, Hannibal guarantees that its appeal will remain both as niche and as fervent as it’s been since day one.