All good things must come to an end.
Last weekend, NBC’s Hannibal came to an epic and stunning close. And though many (including showrunner/creator Bryan Fuller) remain optimistic about the show’s eventual return, it’s probably safe to say it will be a good while before we again get to experience the series’ gorgeous visuals, stomach-churning gore and wondrous food porn.
In honor of the show’s phenomenal three season-run, below is a ranking of every Hannibal episode. It’s worth noting that, in revisiting many previous episodes, some have risen in favor since I initially reviewed them and some have dramatically decreased in favor.
So, let’s pour some Chianti and get to arguing.
To be fair, even the weakest episode of Hannibal stills boasts some unquestionably impressive elements. “Shiizakana” is no different. Unfortunately, it also features perhaps the most ridiculous killer-of-the-week in the series history—namely, a mentally deranged man who builds a mechanical animal suit for himself (say it with me—ManBearPig). Hannibal has always been a show unafraid to risk going hilariously over-the-top, but this just felt like a parody of a Hannibal episode that just happened to be a legit episode. One can just feel Bryan Fuller being antsy to move off the show’s more episodic structure in favor of diving into the more surreal, insular feel of the season’s latter half.
The episode that introduced audiences to Chiyoh, perhaps the most useless, half-baked character in the series history (I know Mason Verger has his haters, but even they will agree he’s at least entertaining in a crazy way). Indeed, the only thing saving this episode from being a complete slog is some of the Hannibal/Bedelia exchanges, particularly during their darkly comic dinner scene when Hannibal abruptly shoves an ice pick into their guest’s temple.
One of the series’ most infamous episodes, “Œuf” was removed from the NBC schedule entirely due to the fact that its subject matter (a group of kidnapped children are brainwashed into killing their families) bumped against the recent Sandy Hook tragedy. Considering this was one of the first season’s weaker entries, it might have been a blessing in disguise. That being said, the episode does feature a chilling turn from comedy actress Molly Shannon as the mastermind behind the murderous child cult.
In the lead-up to a jaw-dropping season finale (more on that later), Season Two indulged in some definite slow stretches. “Naka-Choko” represents the epitome of such an episode. The biggest events that occur in this entry are the long-awaited introduction of Mason Verger and a head-scratching sex scene that takes some liberties with temporality. In between, it’s a lot of repetitive conversations about human nature and long-winded discussions about pigs, courtesy of Mason.
Quite simply, this is an episode that is more memorable for its gross-out imagery (in this case, the killer slices their victims’ faces to form a Glasgow smile) than for what actually happens in the course of the hour. And it’s here where we reach a strange point in the list—despite its flaws, “Buffet Froid” remains an exceptional installment of television. From this point on, this list will mostly focus on which Hannibal episodes are truly great and which ones are just very good.
Primarily, “Potage” concerns Hannibal and Will returning to Abigail Hobbs’ hometown and defending her from an angry relative of one of her father’s victims. The episode was perhaps more intriguing in those early days of Hannibal when fans were still sussing out exactly what kind of show this was going to be. In retrospect, with all the insanity and gore that was to follow, it now comes across as a bit low-key.
This is another episode that would have fallen into the “mostly notable for its stylish kill” category (a totem pole made of human bodies), if not for the added presence of celebrated horror/sci-fi character actor Lance Henriksen. Aside from that, I would be hard-pressed to find anything too exceptional about the main storyline. Elsewhere, however, a subplot involving Abigail unloading her dark secrets to Hannibal makes for a more memorable sequence.
As with most episodes of Season One, the specialized kill remains the major enticing element of “Fromage.” Here, a man is discovered with a cello neck shoved down his throat and his vocal chords powdered in such a way that you could actually make music with them. Likewise, anyone who ever found themselves being annoyed by guest star Dan Fogler’s loudmouthed antics will probably be satisfied with his character’s climatic fate (though, to be fair, he does give a good, effective performance here).
After the one-two punch of Season Two’s first episodes, “Hassun,” with its courtroom setting, is a bit of a low-energy palate cleanser. That being said, it’s still a very solid installment and offers at least one striking image of a de-brained judge character being strung up to look like the spitting image of Lady Justice.
This is an exciting mid-Season One installment that, in the long run, exists mostly to point Will in the direction of Hannibal being the true Chesapeake Ripper. Sure there’s some organ harvesting and a heart extraction to spice things up, but it just can’t hold a candle to the truly sick stuff the series had shown us beforehand.
In setting up the events of the “Red Dragon” arc, this entry is just that—a lot of set-up. Dolarhyde meets Reba, Will has his first meeting with Hannibal in many years, Dolarhyde begins his secret correspondence with Hannibal, etc. It’s all material that will have a more powerful pay-off down the line. Overall, it’s about as well-executed as a stepping stone episode can be.
Here we have the episode that truly drove home the fact that Hannibal was not a show for those with weak stomachs, as the killer uses his victims as fertilizer for growing mushrooms. Viewers also got a further taste of Fuller’s predilection for gender and race bending with Freddy Lounds, the slimy, overweight tabloid journalist from Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, being recast as a sexy, red-headed blogger not afraid to employ her sensuality.
In its third season premiere, Hannibal effectively blows up its structure, offering up an episode that focuses strictly on Hannibal and his love hostage Bedelia establishing new lives in Europe. Though more impatient viewers will find certain parts of the hour to be a bit on the slow side, the gorgeous Europe locations combined with Hannibal and Bedelia’s simmering chemistry is more than enough to make this slow burn work like gangbusters.
“Contorno” contains one of the best sequences in the show’s history: the Round Two fight between Hannibal and Jack. Everything leading up to this ranges from very good (the Hannibal/Jack/Inspector Pazzi dynamic) to meandering and momentum-killing (the Will/Chiyoh train scenes). Ultimately, it all balances out in the episode’s favor.
It’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”-Hannibal style! Only, you know, instead of summer vacation, it’s “what I’ve been doing in the wake of a bloody massacre.” Split into different segments, “Apertivo” catches up with Jack, Alana and Mason, with Frederick Chilton being the link between the three. Due to the nature of its structure, the episode is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to tone. On one hand, you have Jack’s emotionally gut-wrenching tale, where he finally decides to euthanize his deathly ill wife. On the other spectrum, you have a deformed (and recast) Mason Verger hamming it up like a classic Bond villain. Despite the clashing tones, however, the good infinitely outweighs the more problematic elements.
After being officially introduced in the previous episode, “Ko No Mono” goes out of its way to establish what a perverse psycho Mason Verger is. Not only does he abduct his own sister and have her unborn child killed in the womb, but he also has her sterilized in the process. Between this storyline and Will and Jack’s attempt to ensnare Lecter by faking Freddie Lounds’ death, the focus of the episode is a bit iffy. Yet, it all comes together well enough due to the assured direction of David Slade, returning to the series for the first time since the Season One finale.
One of the most tragic relationships in Hannibal is that between Will and Abigail Hobbs. “Primavera” doubles down on this, having her appear as a ghostly specter to Will after he awakens from being gutted by Hannibal (granted, it’s initially presented as her having survived, but most fans probably caught on fairly quickly). Aired after the Hannibal-centric premiere, “Primavera” represents the polar opposite of that episode. Whereas “Antipasto,” like Hannibal himself, is all style and carries a sense of cool detachment, this episode, like Will, is overflowing with emotion.
The storyline many Hannibal Lecter fans (myself included) had long waited for finally arrived—Hannibal’s adaptation of Red Dragon. Though burdened by some needed exposition, seeing the character of Francis Dolarhyde emerge so perfectly formed thanks to Richard Armitage’s brilliant performance is more than enough to give the episode a high rating.
One of the most memorable “killer-of-the-week” stories of Season Two, “Su-Zakana” finds comedy actor Chris Diamantopoulos as a psychotic social worker who frames his patient (an appropriately twitchy Jeremy Davies) for his own murders—which includes killing people and shoving their corpses into the bodies of dead horses. You can’t beat that log line. What puts the episode over the top, however, is the bond that Will forms with the Davies character. Like our hero, Davies was a man who found himself under the thumb of a manipulative serial killer. Hannibal is always best when it has an emotional truth grounding its absurd killings, and this is a prime example of that template.
One of the major turning points of the “Red Dragon” arc, this episode finds the Dolarhyde case getting real personal for Will. Indeed, after some encouragement from Hannibal, the Dragon goes after Will’s wife and stepson. The sequence in question is a mini-masterpiece in building suspense.
Coming in during the middle of Season Two, “Futamono” marks the beginning of Jack’s suspicion that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper. Though we have a bit of a ways to go from there, the episode offers an assortment of great sequences and developments to tide us over, including Jack confiscating some of Hannibal’s dinner party h’ordeuvres to test for human meat, Alana succumbing to Hannibal’s seduction and the last-second revelation that missing FBI agent Miriam Lass is alive. Most notable, however, is Hannibal’s final dinner with Abel Gideon, wherein he forces the faux-Chesapeake Ripper to eat his own body parts (it’s worth noting he cooked the leg with clay and it looks delectable).
The Season Two premiere is understandably best remembered for its thrilling opening—a flash-forward fight scene between Hannibal and Jack that the show would return to later in the season finale. Nonetheless, the episode is also notable for how it effortlessly restructures the familiar dynamic of Season One, with Hannibal stepping into Will’s role as investigator. And then there’s that ending—in which a man awakens to discover he’s been attached to a collage of dead bodies; this is the kind of image I will never forget, no matter how hard I try.
As the penultimate episode of Season One, “Relevés” is a doozy. It commences with a literal bang (Hannibal causes a fire that kills a witness to one of his murders), and ends with a hallucinating Will deducing Abigail’s role in her father’s murders. Mainly, it’s a lengthy preface to the finale, but there’s enough gonzo imagery here to make it stand all on its own.
Continuing from where the Season Two premiere left off, the episode finds Will and Hannibal working to uncover the identity of the body collage murderer. Inevitably, Hannibal gets to the killer first and, in a bit of business that is perfectly Hannibal-esque in its poetic yet troubling logic, convinces him to become the finishing pieces of his final collage. Like the premiere, “Sakizuki” has great fun in exploring the ways in which Will attempts to manipulate people and situations from jail, paving the way for an ingeniously structured first half of the season.
Featuring the second appearance of Eddie Izzard as Abel Gideon, “Rôti” presents a frantic, race-against-time manhunt that serves as the final “killer-of-the-week” story of Season One. What’s more, it’s a manhunt where the lead investigator feels as though he’s in a perpetual fever dream state, leading to some thrilling, if somewhat confusing developments.
Three words: kaleidoscope sex scene. I stupidly didn’t see the Alana/Margot pairing coming, so this was a bit of a shock to the system. Besides this, the ending scene, which has Hannibal putting a buzzsaw to Will’s head, makes for an episode ripe with jaw dropping moments.
This episode is structured primarily as a collection of great scenes that manages to cohere together into a satisfying whole. There is the “imaginary” session between Hannibal and Dolarhyde that opens the episode as well as the very real flashback session between Bedelia and guest star Zachary Quinto. The creative team also manages to execute the iconic scene of Dolarhyde and Reba with the tiger as effectively as one would hope. Finally, the episode ends with an unexpected bit of action, as Will and Dolarhyde come to blows at the museum. Again, these scenes work individually as great moments but, put together here, they become all the stronger.
Season Two’s penultimate episode finds Hannibal facing off against Mason Verger. Somewhat predictably, this doesn’t end well for Verger. Indeed, the final reveal that Hannibal has manipulated him into cutting off pieces of his own face is one for the history book, made all the worse when Mason proceeds to cavalierly cut off his own nose and eat it. It’s a bonkers episode that sets the stage for the craziness that will follow.
The “do you see?” sequence from Red Dragon is among the most terrifying I’ve ever read. It’s only fitting then that the Hannibal creative team designs a third of this episode’s runtime around it. By essentially expanding the “Red Dragon” story into a six-part arc, the show’s writers are free to squeeze all the atmosphere, horror and dark comedy they can out of this single passage. Not to mention, just when you think Hannibal could not get any gorier, there’s a moment where Dolarhyde basically bites off Chilton’s face—an action that is shown in vivid, R-rated detail.
Prior to this episode, it was clear that Hannibal was going to be a somber, gruesome program, the likes of which had never made it onto network TV. Few, however, could have predicted how truly far the series could go in terms of gore and dark subject matter. This all came to a head with “Coquilles,” an episode in which the killer attempts to turn his victims into angels by flaying their backs and transforming their loose skin into wings. Filtering religious philosophizing through the prism of horrific gore and exquisite cinematography, this episode made it clear that one could not be a casual fan of Hannibal. Rather, it was an all-or-nothing proposal.
Hannibal is never one to skimp on the “WTF” moments, and as the finale of Season Three’s first half, “Digestivo” is basically one long WTF moment. And it is glorious. The episode is presented as a slightly tweaked adaptation of the climax of Thomas Harris’ much-maligned Silence of the Lambs follow-up, Hannibal. In the hands of Bryan Fuller and Co., this mess of an ending becomes a delightfully campy extravaganza. There are faces ripped off, a fetus put in a pig, death by eel—it’s mass insanity. And nowhere else would this work quite as well than on Hannibal.
Here is an episode with three distinct layers, and they all work and complement each other perfectly. One, you have the case-of-the-week, concerning an acupuncturist (played to perfection by Amanda Plummer) who lobotomizes her patients. Two, you have a gripping emotional drama involving Jack’s wife and her desire to end her life before the cancer can cause her any more pain. Finally, you have Will recruiting Beverly to help expose Hannibal. All of this somehow coalesces in a truly memorable hour of TV, ending in a cliffhanger that signals the end for one major character.
One of the best things to ever happen to Hannibal remains Eddie Izzard’s fantastic turn as Abel Gideon. Though no stranger to dramatic roles, Izzard truly gave his co-stars a run for their money, channeling both a sense of creepy menace as well as immense charisma. The episode centers on whether or not Gideon is actually the Chesapeake Ripper, as he claims, or merely a delusional copycat. Of course, we all know the truth, but Izzard’s performance goes a long way to convince us that, in another time, he could very well have been playing Hannibal himself.
It’s the episode that started it all. Personally, I distinctly remember watching this for the first time and having my jaw drop at not only its beauty, but the leniency with which it was able to depict violence. After having been disappointed by various Hannibal Lecter-centered adaptations over the years, seeing the world rendered to life in such a beautiful way was nothing short of a revelation. Though better episodes would come and go, the show’s pilot episode will always hold a special place in the hearts of Fannibals everywhere.
Poor Frederick Chilton. Sure, he’s a shamelessly sleazy opportunist who would sell out any loved ones he ever had for some decent publicity, but he really just has the worst luck. But that’s what happens when someone as powerful as Hannibal considers you to be rude. Indeed, the last half of “Yakimono” has him suddenly realizing that Hannibal has set him up to be the next fall guy. Not only that, but his attempt at talking his way out of the situation is instantly canceled when a shell-shocked Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky, doing a complete 180 from her Veep character) shoots him in the face. There is, of course, more to the episode than merely Chilton’s misfortune, but this series of unfortunate events ranks among the show’s best final story acts.
The Season One finale of Hannibal not only serves as a great episode in its own right, but also helps crystallize everything that came before it. For the past few weeks, the show’s creative team had bombarded their audience with surreal, macabre sequences that utterly confounded their understanding of the show’s world. Here, the purpose for this becomes clear—they were putting us into the head of Will, as Hannibal slowly turns him insane. It’s a bold artistic direction for a TV program, but they pulled it off perfectly. What’s more, the decision to put Will in custody left fans dumbfounded for what the series would look like in its second year. As it turns out, the answer was “even better.”
In any other show, Will’s extended time in prison would have been a recipe for disaster. Of course, like they always do, Bryan Fuller and his creative team found a way to not only make it work, but draw out some of the show’s best moments as a result. In going through all of Will’s “prison episodes,” however, none quite goes for the jugular like “Mukozuke.” In a rage after Hannibal murders Beverly, Will crosses a line by tasking an insane orderly with killing the good doctor. It all leads to a nail-biting scene where Jack must rescue Hannibal from danger, all the while Will sits in his cell, contemplating the magnitude of what he’s just done.
Both the “Red Dragon” arc as well as the series as a whole comes to a close in this blood-soaked, high octane finale. And while it’s a bummer that certain characters—specifically Jack Crawford—are not given more of an appropriate wrap-up, the episode’s biggest goal lies in executing the Will/Hannibal/Dolarhyde confrontation in a satisfying manner (which it does with great bombast), as well as giving fans an appropriately bittersweet send-off to Will and Hannibal (gotta love the “Reichenbach Falls” route). It’s one hell of a memorable finale. But there’s one episode that has it beat.
In racking my brain for answers, I can think of only a few episodes of TV that have affected me quite in the same way “Mizumono” did. Everything about it, from the performances to the visuals to the music, is perfectly calibrated for maximum emotional potency. Certainly, after fearing for the entire season that the Hannibal/Jack fight in the premiere was showing too much too soon, I quickly realized my fears were utterly unfounded with the final 10 minutes of the episode leaving me absolutely breathless. There’s not much more I can say at this point—“Mizumono” is nothing short of a masterpiece and a 43 minute master class in how to craft and execute a perfect TV finale.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.