As a longtime Patricia Highsmith fan, I was excited to learn that producers are currently going out with the idea of a TV show based on Highsmith’s Tom Ripley character (of The Talented Mr. Ripley fame). However, upon watching this premiere episode of Hannibal, with its tales of stolen identity, masterful deception and European sightseeing, it became clear to me that Bryan Fuller and his creative have pretty much beaten those guys to the punch.
“Antipasto” certainly lives up to the series’ namesake, as this is an almost entirely Hannibal-centric entry. When we first meet our favorite cannibal, he is motorcycling across Paris, arriving at the kind of classy, sophisticated soirée he would have held back in Baltimore. Once there, his eyes land on Dr. Fell, a celebrated professor who, according to his disgruntled former TA, is about to accept a position at a prestigious institute in Florence. Hannibal subsequently follows the man home and makes a meal out of him. Adapting Fell’s identity, he promptly weasels his way into his victim’s esteemed job.
Things become a bit more complicated when the TA Hannibal met at the party unexpectedly arrives in Florence and threatens to expose his secret (don’t know why a simple Internet search couldn’t do the same but, hey, dream logic). In one of the few moments of the hour that reflects Hannibal’s predilection for black humor, the doctor invites the TA for a very awkward dinner with his “wife” Bedelia. When the man points out that Bedelia is not eating any meat, she says of Hannibal, “he’s very particular about how I taste.” Looking between the two, the TA wonders aloud, “Is it that kind of party?”
Hannibal ends up sparing the man for the time being, but revisits the matter later when he more directly threatens Hannibal’s livelihood after the doctor delivers an impeccable lecture on Dante (in a bit of decidedly unsubtle imagery, Hannibal is shown against a projected slide of Lucifer).
This main storyline is subsequently augmented by black-and-white flashbacks of Hannibal’s final moments with Abel Gideon from last season. It was a pleasant surprise to see Eddie Izzard again and, certainly after seeing this scene, it’s a shame that he and Mikkelsen were not able to share more of these intimate scenes together.
The subplot begins with an appropriately macabre set-up—Hannibal and Abel share a lively discussion over a scrumptious dinner that just happens to consist of Abel’s amputated body parts. “It’s only cannibalism if we’re equals,” Hannibal tells his victim in what I assume is his particular version of being catty. Yet, despite Gideon obviously being the one in a disadvantaged spot, he nevertheless manages to get under his captor’s skin. Much like the snails Hannibal offers to him, Abel deduces that Hannibal prefers eating with company. In other words, he longs for Will Graham’s companionship. Abel further twists the knife by pointing out that, by Hannibal’s own twisted laws of nature, he won’t be the top predator forever and eventually will find himself in the same position that Abel is in now.
But enough about our main character, let’s talk about Gillian Anderson, shall we? Lord knows, it’s warranted.
Putting aside the luscious imagery courtesy of the cinematography, director Vincenzo Natali’s immaculate compositions and the gorgeous European locations, one of the most enticing elements of this new Hannibal is Anderson’s Bedelia. And I swear I’m not just saying that because I’m a long-time X-Files fan and she looks amazing in her costumes. In a series filled with magnetic performances, Anderson is akin to the kind of massive cartoon magnets typically employed by Wile E. Coyote. Maintaining a steely demeanor without ever betraying the sense of fear and sadness behind her eyes, she has the ability to deftly convey a complex, possibly contradictory, gamut of emotions without uttering a single word. Anderson has had some notable roles in the decade since X-Files went off the air, but this unquestionably stands as the best use of her talents since she the Scully jacket was hung up.
Ultimately, it’s Bedelia’s compelling, yet still cryptic persona that provides the thrust of her subplot. “Are you, in this very moment, observing or participating?” Hannibal asks her after beating down the unfortunate TA. It’s a key question—as much of the episode poses the question of whether Bedelia has somehow been taken in by Hannibal’s orbit, or if she’s merely going along in the hopes of one day finding an escape route. My money is on the latter, as Bedelia spends a good chunk of her time wandering around Paris and making sure she’s captured on surveillance footage, perhaps her own version of an SOS.
Complicating matters, however, is the fact that a flashback depicts Hannibal coming to Bedelia’s rescue after one of her patients turns up dead in her office. She claims self-defense, but Hannibal points out that there’s a controlled sense of violence to the proceedings. Does she, in some way, share Hannibal’s predilection for violence? In any case, the deceased patient, upon close inspection, is played by Zachary Quinto so I imagine we’ll be getting the full picture of this scenario later in the season.
“Antipasto” stands as the most insular entry in the history of the series, thus making it an odd choice for a season premiere. Indeed, despite the wealth of riches inherent in this set-up, the only drawback to this approach is that very little in terms of plot-related significance truly occurs in this hour—though, to be fair, Hannibal has recently treated traditional narrative structure more as a flexible series of check points than a meticulously constructed roadway. Moreover, though I do appreciate the series’ format shift, I am looking forward to getting back to Will Graham (and whatever members of his gang are left) next week.
For now, I am just enthusiastic to have Hannibal back in my life—disconcerting nightmares and all.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.