I’ve explained why Hannibal is almost my favorite TV show. It reimagines Tom Harris’ source material in terms of a dark fable, and with an aesthetic that beats anything ever seen on TV. Despite the gore and brutality, what you’re watching doesn’t seem so brutal. But its real genius is how it explores empathy — the flip side of sadism but dangerously connected to it. The series ends up being a love story between two men who need each other despite their polarities.
Season One is about Will’s breakdown, owing to strobe-light sessions on top of his empathy disorder and encephalitis. He loses his sense of identity and is framed for Hannibal’s crimes. It’s the most straightforward of the three seasons, and in hindsight the least interesting though still excellent. Season Two is a masterpiece from start to finish and I could talk about it for days. The first half reverses the conceit from the books, putting Will behind bars while Hannibal taunts him from the outside, and the second half finds the two men exploring the unacknowledged love they have for each other. Season Three is the most esoteric, taking the show’s gonzo imagery to the highest level. It wasn’t a crowd pleaser, but that was its strength; it was as good as anything David Lynch ever put on celluloid.
Here’s how the episodes rank.
1. Mizumono. Season 2, Episode 13. Never mind the best Hannibal episode. This is the best TV episode ever. Yes, even better than Ozymandias and Rains of Castamere. It leaves me crying for the shattered love triangle — Abigail (dead), Will (dying), and Hannibal who sliced them open in an act of heartbroken forgiveness. The pre-credits scene alone is amazing. It beats to the sound of a ticking clock, and flips back and forth between Will sitting across from Jack, and then from Hannibal, each of whom suspects Will will betray him to the other. It’s impossible to predict how Will intends to resolve his double-agent game; his loyalties are evenly divided. The aesthetic is flawless, blending the texture of a thriller with the dream state that saturated season two from the first episode. It’s a season that remained consistent in excellence and complexity, and Mizumono does more justice to it than Will himself could have dreamed.
2. Digestivo. Season 3, Episode 7. The nightmare at Muskrat Farm proceeds much as a nightmare would, with captives treated to a morbid feast before their torture. Hannibal is slated to lose his extremities (feet, hands, arms, and legs) one-by-one as Mason devours them in front of him. Will, for his part, will be losing his face (surgically, while not under anesthesia) so that Mason can wear it while feasting on Hannibal’s body parts. Mason goes sadistic on his sister too. Even though he removed Margot’s reproductive organs back in season two, he kept one of her eggs alive and thriving inside the womb of a surrogate. This “surrogate”, however, is a pig; her baby dead inside. An act of cruelty that gets Mason held underwater and killed by his pet eel. Digestivo is a transgressive masterpiece that caps off an extraordinary half-season.
3. The Wrath of the Lamb. Season 3, Episode 13. I can hardly imagine a more suitable conclusion for the series: “This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For both of us.” To which Will can only whisper, “It’s beautiful,” before throwing them both off the cliff. He does what needs to be done, and while this had been his plan all along (to kill Hannibal while ostensibly taking out Dolarhyde) he pursued it with reckless vengeance, without any regard for collateral. The escape scene on the road conveys this point: dead police guards shown with blurred faces, as if their deaths are hardly important. In the end he goes through with his plan, but at his own expense, realizing that his divorce at the end of Digestivo was a lie: he still loves Hannibal and knows what even worse disaster that spells.
4-10. Kaiseki, Sakizuke, Hassun, Takiawase, Mukōzuke, Futamono, Yakimono. Season 2, Episodes 1-7. According to a critic at A.V. Club, this run of episodes contains “some of the most pulse-pounding thriller TV mounted in the last several years, made all the more harrowing for their intense understanding of the characters’ psychologies and motivations”. He excludes Hassun from this praise, calling it “an ill-advised shift into legal drama”, but I disagree; even that episode is top-notch. From Will struggling to prove his innocence, to Beverly working on his behalf and then ending up on Hannibal’s dinner plate for her efforts, to the assassination-hit Will puts on Hannibal, to the Chesapeake Ripper finally declaring himself — and Chilton taking the fall in the brutal snares of Yakimono — it’s non-stop suspense. In order for all this to work, a near perfect balance must be struck. Jack Crawford must be potentially smart enough to figure out Hannibal for what he is, while Hannibal must be shrewd enough to fool Jack and the rest of the FBI in plausible ways. As if all this weren’t impressive enough, we also get the most demented tableau of the series, the mural killing. The “Eye of God” seriously freaked me out; it’s impossible to repress memory of the hostage who breaks apart from it by tearing off his flesh. Killings of the week are usually window dressing for Hannibal, but the mural killer almost upstages the main events.
11. Dolce. Season 3, Episode 6. This one contains my favorite scene of the series: Will and Hannibal’s reunion in the art gallery. It’s their long overdue reconciliation during which Bach’s Aria Da Capo plays over their dialogue. I finally “got” their relationship in this scene; Hannibal’s psychopathic love for a man who can understand him, and Will’s empathy disorder which allows — no, requires — him to ignore the worst in Hannibal so he can benefit from the best. There’s plenty more to savor, not least Hannibal’s sawing open Will’s head in front of Jack. Also Margot and Alana’s kaleidoscopic sex scene, a stunning metaphor for them being “as one” on the same side (against Mason as much as Hannibal). Dolce is undiluted excellence.
12-13. Relevés, Savoureux. Season 1, Episodes 12-13. Let’s be clear that Savoureux isn’t quite the masterpiece it’s made out to be. Yes, it’s outstanding but it can’t compete with the three finales at the top of the list. In fact, if you really forced me to choose between Relevés and Savoureux, I’d probably go with the former. The penultimate episode is a cascade of revelations that come too late: Will realizes the Cotard-Syndrome woman (Georgia Madschen) was killed by the same person who killed the neurologist (Sutcliffe); which means that person had been copycatting Georgia when he killed Sutcliffe; it then hits him that this copycat is the same copycat of Garrett Jacob Hobbs, who killed Cassie Boyle and Marissa Shore, since in all these cases the copycat takes the grotesque a bit further. Unfortunately, Will ends up indicting himself, as Hannibal sets his fall in motion, telling Jack that Will seems to be suffering dissociative personality disorder, and plays a recording of Will saying that he felt guilty when he saw Marissa Shore because “it felt like he killed her”. Jack suddenly realizes that Will was in Sutcliffe’s office the night he was killed, and that Will was also the last person to visit Georgia before she was burned alive. And so forth. It all comes together incredibly well, and while I don’t want to detract from the thrilling way it all explodes in Will’s face in Savoureux, for me the high points of season-one’s end game are in the convolutions of Relevés.
14. Contorno. Season 3, Episode 5. In which Jack beats the shit out of Hannibal — his delayed retribution for the outrages of Mizumono. The slow burn of season three up to this point makes the sudden showdown a ripper. My favorite part is actually Will’s night on the train, gorgeously shot, with subdued conversation used by Chiyoh to create a false sense of solidarity. She seems to know that Will wants revenge on Hannibal as much as a reconciliation, and so pushes him from the train in a sort of symbolic prophecy. Then there is the Italian inspector, whose bounty greed gets him instantly subdued, thrown from a balcony, and disemboweled.
15-19. Su-zakana, Shiizakana, Naka-choko, Kō No Mono, Tome-wan. Season 2, Episodes 8-12. The first half of season two is phenomenal, but the second part is amazing too, and needs rescue from mediocre assessments. Some have criticized the killers of the week and the annoying character of Mason Verger, but as far as I’m concerned, you could almost throw them out and leave the meditations between Will and Hannibal. Their sessions together are spellbinding, and it’s the first time we’ve seen them engage like this as equals. In the first season Hannibal was just using therapy to tear Will apart and frame him for crimes. Now he genuinely wants Will to become a killer like him, and while Will is playing along as a mole for the FBI, he is also starting to sincerely identify with Hannibal. By the time of Mizumono his allegiance is evenly split, and these five episodes build to that point with a near esoteric perfection. I do not agree with objections to Mason Verger, whose obnoxious behavior is rather hilarious and irritating manners the whole point. The scene where he cuts his face off and feeds the pieces to Will’s dogs is (obviously) one of the best of the series.
20-21. Entrée, Rôti. Season 1, Episodes 6 and 11. Before I knew about the six-season plan, I thought Entrée was intended as “Silence of the Lambs”. It features a colorful psychopath under care of Dr. Chilton. He taunts those who engage him through his glass prison. He fakes a seizure, and attacks a nurse when rushed to ER. Meanwhile, Jack Crawford pulls an attractive FBI trainee from her routine, and enlists her help in finding a serial killer. I was sure Miriam Lass was “Clarice Starling”, but later learned that Silence of the Lambs would be covered in a fifth season which we now know will never be. That being the case, I’m sticking to my original idea: Entrée is a strong enough episode to be worthy of Silence, and it introduces the Chesapeake Ripper. That’s Hannibal of course, but Abel Gideon is suspect and evil enough to qualify. Rôti is his sequel and also the point at which Hannibal’s manipulations of Will reach a critical mass. Will’s hallucinations are out of control, his memory shot, and his sense of identity shattered. And with Gideon on the loose, Hannibal capitalizes on this by sending Will after him. These episodes are the unquestioned high points of season one before the end-game takes over.
22-23. Primavera, Secondo. Season 3, Episodes 2-3. Some judge these episodes among the weakest in the series, but I strongly disagree. They take the kind of risks I like. Gone are the procedurals of the first two seasons, and in their place a dreamscape of doubt and nightmares. I was fooled by Will’s hallucination of Abigail. It makes sense that Hannibal cut her as he did Will, with the surgical precision that would allow them both to survive. When the hallucination finally dissolves in the Palermo chapel, it’s like Abigail died now (yes) three times. The Lithuanian chapter of Secondo gets a lot of hate, but I like the character of Chiyoh and love the way the episode serves as a rebuttal to Hannibal Rising. In the book and film, Hannibal’s sister was murdered and eaten by a group of Nazi deserters, which explains why Hannibal snapped and became a cannibal-killer himself. That’s always been a rubbish explanation, and when Will in this episode is presented with a similar account (here it’s one man, not a group of soldiers who is apparently responsible) he dismisses it out of hand: “Misha doesn’t explain Hannibal. She doesn’t quantify what he does.” And indeed we learn that Hannibal ate Misha himself, not the caged man who is innocent; Hannibal was born fucked-up, as most psychopaths are. The Lithuanian castle that belonged to Hannibal’s family looks like something out of Pan’s Labyrinth, and works brilliantly in the context of Will’s soul-searching.
24. Fromage. Season 1, Episode 8. Killers of the week are usually eye-candy that supplement Hannibal‘s main story arcs. In two exceptional cases they steal the show. The mural killer of Sakizuke is one, and the musician killer of Fromage the other. Will is called on to interpret a corpse that has a cello neck rammed through its mouth and its vocal chords splayed out like cello strings. It turns out a psycho-musician named Tobias likes turning people into human instruments, or, in Will’s words, “to open them up and get a decent sound out of them for a change”. There are shocking moments that come out of left field, as when Hannibal suddenly snaps the neck of his own patient who is trying to reason with Tobias. Fromage also marks a dramatic escalation of Will’s mental problems, as he begins having auditory hallucinations of animals in pain.
25-26. The Beast from the Sea, The Number of the Beast Is 666. Season 3, Episodes 11-12. There are two memorable Hannibal quotes here. One is spoken to Alana when she asks if Hannibal would have ever told her the truth. He replies, “In my own way, I always have.” Which is indeed true, and one of the things that makes Hannibal so intriguing. Lying is common and healthy in the human species; too much honesty is antisocial if not pathological. Hannibal is, however, that rare pathological breed who esteems the purity of truth. His other quote is “Kill them all”. I always thought Dolarhyde’s attack on Will’s family was lame, and Manhunter wisely omitted it. The TV series makes it work, not only by use of darkness and quiet stalking-scenes throughout the house, but because Will doesn’t come to the rescue; Molly and Walter barely escape alive. It’s an extremely uncomfortable sequence and very effective. As for the penultimate episode, the centerfold is Chilton’s abduction by Dolarhyde — his subjection to the Dragon, his tongue bitten out, and then burned alive in a rolling wheelchair. As if this poor guy hadn’t been trashed enough in seasons one and two.
27-28. Apéritif, Potage. Season 1, Episodes 1 and 3. The overrated and underrated are equal in my eyes. While I thoroughly enjoyed the series premiere, it didn’t hook me on the show. I had to watch it a second time months later, and it was the third episode Potage that got me officially addicted. This is not to damn Apéritif with faint praise; it’s a very good episode. But it certainly doesn’t belong in the top ten where many fans place it. Like many premieres, it shows fledgling syndrome as the show was finding its footing. What it does do well, it does very well by its presentation of the Minnesota Shrike and a copycat whose obscenities will drive the season. Potage is the unsung gem that establishes the love triangle between Will, Hannibal, and Abigail Hobbs, the consequences of which steamroll into all three seasons. The whole episode is focused on the trio (no killer of the week), which makes it unique. They return to Abigail’s hometown and are confronted by Nicholas Boyle, whose sister was killed by Abigail’s father. Abigail ends up killing him, and when Hannibal decides to help cover it up, the awful chain of events is set in motion. Great character moments here.
29-30. The Woman Clothed with the Sun, The Woman Clothed in Sun. Season 3, Episodes 9-10. After catching up on Will’s life in episode eight, he and Hannibal are back together, and in the way we know from the books and films: with Hannibal locked up. Because we’ve seen their positions reversed in season 2, there’s the added thrust of tables being turned, though not really. Will was in a cage because Hannibal put him there; Hannibal is in a cage only because he willingly surrendered. He’s always in control, and he’s bloody patient, content to have waited three years for Will to seek him out and rekindle their romance. These episodes are filled with weird love-bonds. We get a long overdue flashback of Hannibal orchestrating Abigail’s fake-death which convicted Will. He does it with a loving intimacy that makes his real killing of her in Mizumono all the more heartbreaking. Then there is Reba, the blind woman who becomes intimate with Dolarhyde, blind in every way to what he is “becoming”; his romantic ideas include taking her to a zoo so she can pet a sedated tiger. Dolarhyde also connects with Hannibal, who encourages his “becoming”. Will has sessions with Bedelia, and the two compare their relationships with Hannibal. And finally, Dolarhyde consumes the dragon itself (the original artpiece). In the framework of season-three’s esoteric insistence, this is powerful stuff.
31-32. Ceuf, Trou Normand. Season 1, Episodes 4 and 9. These would join the four at the bottom of the list if not for the supplement of Abigail Hobbs. They’re mostly killers-of-the-week (the format that defines season one), and Ceuf was deemed so controversial that it never aired on TV. Which is ridiculous; Americans are hyper-sensitive when it comes to kids. The idea of kidnapped children who help their surrogate mother kill their real families doesn’t warrant censorship. On the other hand, the way this surrogate family is portrayed isn’t terribly convincing. The best part is the sideshow of Hannibal abducting Abigail from the hospital (to Alana’s outrage) and then “treating” her with psychedelic drugs. As for Trou Normand, it’s distinguished by the totem-pole killer, but for me its selling points are the worsening of Will’s hallucinations and sleepwalking, and the way Hannibal suggests his mind is breaking down from dealing with brutal murders and empathizing too successfully with killers. Abigail’s thread is also picked up, as the body of Nicholas Boyle is found, and Will deduces that she’s the one who killed him, which he agrees to keep secret with Hannibal. Jacks suspects the same thing and all but accuses her as they stand over Boyle’s corpse. This is also the episode in which Abigail confides in Hannibal (though not Will) that she helped her father kill the girls.
33-34. Antipasto, Aperitivo. Season 3, Episodes 1 and 4. As a fan of season-three’s first half, I try liking these episodes more than they deserve. One sets the stage for Hannibal’s exile in Florence, and the other is an extended flashback covering the aftermath of season two. The Hannibal material is presented matter-of-fact and almost mundane, unlike the charged esoteric feeling of most of season three. The most gratifying scene is Hannibal teaching Dante’s Inferno at university. Meanwhile, Apervito catches up with Will, Jack, and Alana who are all scarred by the events of Mizumono but coping very differently. Jack is mourning his dead wife; Alana has risen from the ash a severe person — even wearing harsh-colored clothes which seem to broadcast her need for revenge — and has joined forces with Mason Verger in a criminal scheme to capture and torture Hannibal; Will insists on forgiveness, which he defines to her as “a mutually unspoken pact to ignore the worst in each other to continue to enjoy the best”. A pact he will keep until the end of Digestivo.
35. The Great Red Dragon. Season 3, Episode 8. We haven’t seen Will process a crime season since season two, and for that matter neither has he. Three years have passed since the batshit crazy events of Digestivo, during which time he has divorced himself from the FBI and settled into a normal life. Hannibal has been locked up, and Will has made good on his promise to shun him like the plague. Enter the Red Dragon, a serial killer of families in well-to-do homes. This story has been done in two film adaptations, Michael Mann’s cult classic Manhunter, and Brett Ratner’s laughable Red Dragon. Hannibal supersedes both with the darkest interpretation yet. With six episodes to tell the story, however, this first is admittedly a stage-setter with a lot of exposition.
36-39. Amuse-Bouche, Coquilles, Sorbet, Buffet Froid. Season 1, Episodes 2, 5, 7, and 10. It says something that even the worst Hannibal episodes are still quite good. These are purely episodic killers-of-the-week. In one, a pharmacist uses his victims as fertilizer for growing mushrooms. In another, a psycho turns his victims into angels by flaying their backs and transforming their loose skin into wings. Then there is an organ-harvester who extracts hearts and livers. Last is a woman with Cotard’s Syndrome (she thinks she’s dead) who slices her victims’ faces into Glasgow smiles. The imagery on display is brilliant, but these episodes have little bearing on the over-arching season plot involving Abigail Hobbs and Will’s breakdown. Will does begin suffering the effects of encephalitis in episode 5 (sleepwalking) and the character of Bedelia is notably introduced in episode 7. Other than that, it’s standard fare.