What. The. Freaking. Hell?
In a blurb I wrote this week for Paste’s Best of 2015 (So Far), I argued that Season Three of Hannibal marked the show’s strangest series of episodes yet. Even then, I was not prepared for the cornucopia of crazy that is “Dolce.” The hour finds the creative team taking its more unorthodox tendencies and promptly pumping them up to 11. What’s all the more amazing then is, in spite of the massive amount of gleefully indulgent craziness, the episode never veers off-track and becomes shocking for the sake of being shocking.
First of all, just for fun, let’s list out a few choice lines/exchanges that could only make sense in the demented world of the show—
“I know you intended to eat me and I knew that you had no intention of eating me hastily… I have not marinated long enough for your tastes.”
“The last time you said you wanted to have a baby, you removed my uterus.”
“In my defense, you weaponized your uterus. You shouldn’t have been waving it around like a loaded pistol.”
In a landscape where so many “prestige” programs take everything so damn seriously (cough True Detective cough), Hannibal’s brand of macabre humor is second to none. It’s a cerebral crime drama, that’s also a tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy, that’s also an exploration of the nature of evil, that’s also the story of a man discovering that he may or may not have something approaching romantic feelings for a people-eating psychiatrist. Hannibal’s ability to be all these things at once and not be an utter trainwreck of conflicting tones continues to baffle me even after three years of close inspection.
If there’s any overt, overarching theme in the hour it’s the concept of blending or mirroring. Several times throughout the episode, Will and Hannibal acknowledge how they feel as though they are blending and becoming the same person. This message is further stressed via several creatively rendered visual animation bits wherein the two’s visages are quite literally melded together and sent spinning like water going down a drain.
The episode picks up shortly after the events of “Contorno” with a bloodied Hannibal dragging himself across the scenic Florence city streets and back to his apartment where Bedelia helps clean and stitch him up. It’s here that she announces her intention to leave him (hence, the aforementioned dialogue about him eating her). From here, she injects her arm with some kind of strange chemical (according to Jack, it’s the same mixture that Hannibal used on Miriam Lass). The result is that she appears to completely disregard her own identity and become convinced she is “Lydia Fell.” How much of this is a put-on and how much is truly a result of the drug is not immediately apparent.
Back in America, Verger is disappointed to learn that Pazzi failed in his task and he will not be dining on Hannibal’s flesh anytime soon (equally devastated is his nurse/cook who had prepared some delicious recipes for Hannibal’s amputated appendages). Adding to the drama, Mason and his sister, Margot, start discussing the idea of having a baby together. Whereas Mason expresses a desire for a family, Margot only seems interested in her brother’s sperm (thus, the “uterus dialogue”). Indeed, as we soon learn, Margot is getting her sexual thrills with none other than Alana Bloom. In what appears like an attempt to one-up the elaborate three-way sex scene from Season Two, director Vincenzo Natali stages the two’s love scene as though the viewer was looking at porn through a tin kaleidoscope. Alana has certainly come a long way from being the show’s token stable character.
Of course, these moments, however bizarre and strange, merely serve as appetizers to the episode’s true entrée. After five episodes spent circling each other, Hannibal and Will finally come face-to-face. Both—appropriate, given the “mirroring” theme—boast similar facial abrasions and cuts (Hannibal from his Jack fight and Will from being tossed off the train by Chiyoh). All the more fitting, their long-awaited meeting occurs in an art museum. If not for the sheer amount of gore and psychological manipulation that has characterized their relationship, the reunion has hints of a loving couple meeting each other after a devastating fight—there’s still love in their voices, but not without a definite undercurrent of tension. They even touch upon the idea of how, given their unorthodox emotional bond, either would be able to truly survive following the inevitable “separation.” Not that they get a chance to dwell on this question long, as Will’s initial attempt to cut Hannibal down is foiled by a sniper bullet from Chiyoh. With Will incapacitated, Hannibal takes the opportunity to put his friend in place for dinner.
At this point, Will’s last hope appears to be Jack, who promptly follows his friend to Hannibal’s lair. After a tense standoff with Chiyoh in the elevator, Jack enters the building only to have Hannibal pull a Pet Sematary and slice his Achilles’ tendon. With both Will and Jack tied down, Hannibal looks to have finally gotten the meal he’s long desired. As Jack screams in horror, the doctor takes a buzzsaw and begins to slice open Will’s skull, promptly calling back to that hilariously infamous scene in Hannibal where Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta in the film) gets the top portion of his head removed so that the doctor can dine on his brain.
Then, believe it or not, things get extra bonkers. After a trippy, blood-themed psychedelic montage after which I was actually left dumbfounded as to how Will escapes this, our hero wakes up to find himself hanging alongside Hannibal in one of Mason Verger’s meat lockers. Greeting them into consciousness is a very gleeful Verger.
How this happens, I have no idea, except that either Chiyoh or the Italian police (after getting intel from Bedelia) must have interfered and sent them over to Verger. Now, given how Verger tends to alienate those around him, it’s not hard to predict that he will inevitably be usurped by Alana and Margot. Nevertheless, this effective cliffhanger is presented merely as the cherry on top what must stand as one of the most hardcore, extreme Hannibal entries in recent memory. Granted, the Season Two finale, “Mizumono,” still holds its own, but that one was defined primarily by emotional intensity, whereas “Dolce” puts itself forward as a quite literal manifestation of psychological warfare.
I pity any poor soul who turned in to Hannibal for the first time after hearing of its cancelation and subsequent petition to keep it around, and it should come as no great surprise that the series was canceled. This is the kind of subversive, challenging and altogether insane content that even cable programs with no boundaries would have trouble properly executing.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.