The last time we saw Hannibal Lector, he had made the decision to shed his person suit and reveal his true nature to the world. It didn’t end well, not for the FBI at least; Jack Crawford ended up stabbed in the neck, Will Graham was stabbed in the gut, Alana Bloom was tossed out of a second story window and Abigail Hobbs’ return from death didn’t seem like it would last very long. Hannibal returned to screens on the 4th of June with its third season, but fans who have been waiting to find out who lived and who did not, will have to continue waiting – the season’s opening episode, titled ‘Antipasto’ fills the audience in on what Hannibal was been up to since we saw him last. Like most of the show’s episodes, ‘Antipasto’ is intricately constructed and follows the show creator Bryan Fuller’s philosophy of using allusion and implication in place of actual demonstration. The result is that we see Hannibal worse than he has ever been before; he is no longer even going through the motions of humanity.
Each season of Hannibal follows a culinary theme – the first season’s episodes were named for dishes from French cuisine while the second season’s were Japanese. This third season looks to be Italian; fittingly, since this episode places Hannibal and his partner and hostage Bedelia Du Maurier in Florence. The episode divides its time fairly evenly between past and present. Abel Gideon makes a few appearances in Hannibal’s flashbacks, with increasingly fewer limbs, and as always, the dynamic between him and Hannibal continues to be both entertaining and enlightening. The bulk of the episode though, is dedicated to Dr. Du Maurier and explaining what happened since the fateful night that Hannibal shed his person suit. Hannibal has been impersonating an academic, a man her murdered, and created a position for himself at a university by murdering the position’s previous occupant. The series has reached a point where this is no longer particularly shocking – Hannibal callously murdering people and tossing them aside is very much par for the course now. The intriguing portions of this episode don’t come from the story but rather from the characters, their relationships and their interactions.
Of the lot, Bedelia Du Maurier is the biggest puzzle. She is clearly an intelligent, perceptive woman – on numerous occasions, she has demonstrated an understanding of Hannibal Lector that far surpasses anyone else’s, barring perhaps Will Graham’s. Clearly then, she knows what Hannibal is and that only makes her decision not to kill him when she has him at her mercy, all the more surprising. The idea, of course, is that she has been bound by Hannibal’s spell, that on a symbolic level, the moment she asked Hannibal for help, like Abigail Hobbs before her, she had essentially entered into a contract with the devil that she could not go back on. Even with a gun in her hand, even with Hannibal at his most vulnerable in front of her, she does not honestly unsure that she can kill him, but she knows with certainty that he will not hesitate to kill her should she make the wrong move. There is an argument to be made, perhaps fairly too, that surely she could have escaped at any point during their European escape, that she could have gone to a policeman at any point and ended her involvement in the whole affair even if it meant the possibility of her going to jail for it. One might even say that her decision to protect herself, from a legal standpoint, by accepting Hannibal’s help is an act of cowardice and that she is being selfish by trying to preserve herself instead of biting the potential bullet and preventing any further murders. However, complaints like that are missing the point – at this stage, Bedelia is almost entirely under Hannibal’s influence and the only way that she is able to even marginally resist him in this episode is when she realizes that she is being fattened like a lamb before the slaughter. It is unlikely that she was Hannibal’s target, but it did feel that it was Hannibal’s way of keeping her in line, reminding her that at any time, she could be next. The scenes of her ‘drowning’ in her bathtub were a little strange, but did convey the point that she was feeling overwhelmed.
The relationship between Hannibal and Du Maurier also needs some scrutiny. For Bedelia’s part, she doesn’t really have a say in why she is there or what happens next in their relationship, but Hannibal does. Why does Hannibal want her there? The answer might lie in the sage wisdom of one Abel Gideon. Dr. Gideon did not receive the mercy of a quick death but since he probably didn’t deserve one, it’s hard to feel too bad. Gideon mentions Hannibal’s need for company, that somehow despite his obvious inhumanity, Hannibal is not exempt from that most basic human need for companionship. Is Du Maurier the new Will Graham? No, just the opposite in fact – she was the original Will, discarded when Hannibal found a newer plaything. This episode was careful in distinguishing the observer from the participant and it is a difference that could explain what separates Dr. Du Maurier from Will; the former was always an observer (even in this episode, Hannibal has to specifically define her as a participant even though it doesn’t intuitively feel that way) whereas Will was a participant, or so Hannibal believed. True companionship isn’t about one party doing and another observing, unless you’re into that sort of thing, but about doing things together, sharing an activity. Think of how Hannibal and Will ‘shared’ Freddie Lounds’ meat and you will realise there is nothing of that in Hannibal and Bedelia’s relationship. Yet, when you’re all alone even, it would seem even an observer is better than nothing. On the topic of Abel Gideon however, it’s interesting that Hannibal does not consider him a worthy companion. After all, they are both serial killers and share that decidedly awkward bond of one having tried to impersonate the other. Gideon has an interesting quote in light of this – “It’s only cannibalism if we’re both equal”. His point, of course, is that Hannibal does not consider himself human in the same way Gideon does and so his consumption of Gideon’s flesh is no different to him from eating a side of beef. Gideon takes this in stride, seemingly aware that the entire process Hannibal is forcing him to endure is just the latter’s way of demonstrating his dominance. Hannibal has won their little war of course, but Gideon remains defiant and unbroken (mental, not so much physically) throughout, buoyed by the fact that Hannibal cannot find a handhold to gain a grip on him.
All in all, this was a strong opening episode for Hannibal, complete with all the detailed elements that made the first two seasons as rich as the foods they featured. Dante was a major thematic influence in this episode – from the dialogue, to the architecture and of course, the imagery. The metaphor of the stag has been discarded for something as direct – a full-fledged comparison of Hannibal and Dante’s Satan. Based on this episode alone, the comparison is deserved.