“I’m going to remember, Dr. Lecter. And, when I do, there will be reckoning.”
Hannibal’s Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) utters these lines during his face-to-face with the titular Dr. Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) in the first half of “Kaiseki,” the premiere episode of the NBC show’s second season. While such a statement may sound like the kind of phrase designed to be featured in trailers, it’s a line Will has more than earned following the events of Hannibal’s stellar inaugural season.
Despite early production delays that led many TV critics to fear the worse, the Hannibal pilot—developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls) and directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night)—delivered a knockout police procedural seeped in evocative writing and baroque, David Lynch-like forays into surreal horror imagery. The twelve episodes that subsequently followed further proved to be some of the most beautiful, cerebral and nightmare-inducing works to hit network television since Twin Peaks. Many fans found themselves wondering how the hell such a thing slipped onto network television undetected.
Acting as a prequel to author Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the initial season followed troubled FBI profiler Will Graham as he tracks down all manner of sadistic, yet creative serial killers. Will’s uncanny ability to step into the mind of a killer, however, leads him into dangerous places. Thus, his FBI supervisor, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), places him under the care of renowned Baltimore psychiatrist (and closeted cannibal), Hannibal Lecter. Far from helping him, however, Hannibal subtly plays mind games with Will, driving him further and further into insanity. This storyline culminated with Hannibal framing Will for the murder of Abigail Hobbs, the teenage daughter of a serial killer, as well as several other various individuals who had also served as Hannibal’s victims/dinner. Just as Will recognizes Hannibal’s duplicity, he is captured by the police and placed in a Baltimore hospital for the criminally insane. Trapped in a small cell with the evidence stacked against him, Will is nevertheless determined to prove his innocence and claw his way out. As such, his threat of a “reckoning” serves as much as a proclamation as it does a threat.
We see at least a portion of this reckoning in the premiere’s shocking opening moments, set twelve weeks in the future. (Presumably this will occur in the season’s final few episodes.) Jack Crawford enters Hannibal’s kitchen, a murderous look in his eyes. Sensing danger, Hannibal tosses a knife at him, and the two begin a no-holds-barred smack down. Fishburne might be a few pounds heavier than he was in his Matrix heyday, but here he more than proves he can still brawl with the best of them. Likewise, while he might be better known for his dramatic roles in Pusher and the Oscar-nominated The Hunt, Mikkelsen shows he’s retained some moves since his Valhalla Rising days. The fight culminates with Jack being stabbed in the neck with a piece of glass. As the wounded FBI agent locks himself in a wine closet, blood gushing out of his wound, Hannibal starts pounding against the wall like some kind of blood-soaked version of the Big Bad Wolf.
After this demonstration of grisly violence, the show switches to its second most popular visual: luscious food porn. Moving back to the present day, we see Hannibal cooking up some delicious “fish” (more likely, people) and serving it to an unsuspecting Jack. “I almost feel guilty about eating it,” he says upon seeing the delectable dish. “I never feel guilty about eating anything,” Hannibal replies with a wry smile. Jack then proceeds to confess his guilt regarding Will Graham’s crimes and his subsequent incarceration. In his desperation to catch criminals, Jack believes he pushed Will too hard and the stress drove him too far into the minds of the murderers they were investigating. Of course, the joke is on Jack since the true killer is sitting right across from him. Despite avoiding capture, however, Hannibal gives Jack ample permission to investigate Will’s allegations against him. Everyone’s favorite cannibalistic psychiatrist even finds himself missing Will’s company. Talking with his therapist, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (welcome back, Gillian Anderson), Hannibal claims that he considers Will the only real friend he’s ever had.
Meanwhile, over in Rockville, Maryland, two men end up stumbling upon a series of discolored bodies near a waterfall. With Will gone, Jack calls in Hannibal to act as his criminal profiler. Hannibal correctly assumes that the killer injected his victims with a substance to keep their forms and color intact, much like one would with a fish they wanted to keep as a model. Later, we follow an African-American male who has been targeted by the killer. After being assaulted late one night, he wakes up in the midst of what looks to be a mural made entirely of human corpses, all different skin tones. Even by the standards of Hannibal, which once featured a man’s vocal chords being used as cello strings, this is rough stuff.
Back at the hospital, Will continually reiterates his allegations that Hannibal took advantage of his delicate mental state and framed him for the murders. Naturally, Will’s problem is that he has neither evidence nor any tangible memories to prove his theory. Whatever Hannibal did to him during their therapy, it runs deep. Needing help, Will calls upon the services of his colleague/love interest, Alana Bloom (Fuller regular Caroline Dhavernas). She employs a hypnosis technique designed to locate any repressed memories, but it does not appear to work. Upon returning to his cell, however, Will suddenly has a flash. He recalls Hannibal shoving a tube down his throat and inserting Abigail’s disembodied ear down his throat. Thus, when he woke up and vomited it up, he would truly believe he was somehow responsible for her murder, even if he couldn’t remember killing her.
Ultimately, “Kaiseki” serves mostly as a lot of set-up. It sets up Will’s slow return to (semi) normalcy, the beginnings of Jack’s investigation into Hannibal and the “mural killer” case that will play out in the following episode. (I’ve seen it and, trust me, you don’t want to eat before watching that opening scene.) While, on paper, this makes the episode sound like little more than a necessary stepping-stone, it’s not—not by a long shot. Within the opening seconds, it becomes clear that the Hannibal crew has lost none of the creative flare that defined season one and, indeed, are all too eager to one-up themselves in their second year at bat. Every frame of the episode—from Will’s nightmarish visions to a simple wide-angle shot of Hannibal slamming into a door—emanates a sense of dread the likes of which you almost never see in TV.
“Kaiseki” shows no sign of any potential second season slump and, indeed, sets the bar high for future episodes. Assuming that Hannibal manages to keep going, I firmly believe that this show will serve as the proverbial wrecking ball in demolishing the final barrier in the cable/network divide. Hyperbole be damned—it’s that much of a game-changer. In an age where television offers up a wealth of riches, Hannibal currently stands firmly among the best the medium has to offer.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.