Mads Mikkelsen (NBC)

Early in tonight’s Hannibal season finale, one of the characters introduces the idea of the “imago,” the last form taken by an insect in the process of its metamorphosis from larva to pupa to adult. The imago is a transformation realized, a thing that once was not suddenly taking form, and it’s a fitting topic for the show to raise at this late date. Throughout a tremendous second season, Hannibal has been interested in the usual blood and guts, yes, but it’s mostly staked its true claims to horror on ideas of transformation and codependence. This is a horror story less about what happens when one man slides a knife into another person and more about what happens when the boundaries between two people become porous and permeable. The relationship between Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is meant to terrify us less because the latter is a serial killer trying to seduce the former into his ways but because they’ve grown so close that if the relationship ever ruptures, the damage to the both of them might be irreparable. Each will leave splinters of himself in the other’s soul, splinters that won’t be so easily removed.

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It’s, admittedly, a daring gambit for the show to attempt, particularly when it made its bones in season one as a darkly foreboding case-of-the-week show where the noose tightened a bit with every episode. In contrast, the second season of Hannibal has often felt more freeform than was strictly necessary, particularly in its nervy, hopped-up second half, which left behind the blistering pace of the season’s first half in favor of a series of meditations on the Hannibal/Will friendship as filtered through damn near everybody else on the show. Hannibal wanted Will to become a killer like him. Will resisted, but could feel bits and pieces of himself slipping. And all around, other characters in the show’s world—and the environment of the show itself—reflected and refracted this story via their own mirrors and prisms.

It was occasionally frustrating—especially in the season’s 10th episode, which played horror-movie tricks on the audience by trying to convince it of things it had to know by now couldn’t be true. Yet the season’s final two episodes, particularly the surprisingly realistic and heartfelt finale, pull everything together into a kind of cosmic imbalance. The world suffers because Hannibal Lecter walks in it, because God—wherever he may be—allows this embodiment of pure evil to exist. Will, some version of the most perfect man, spends the season trying to become the one who can finally kill or capture Hannibal, but that means becoming Hannibal’s perfect opposite, something no human being would be capable of. It also means exposing himself to far more Hannibal than is healthy for any individual’s psyche.

This is a neat inversion of season one’s structure, which slowly and deliberately pulled Will apart at the seams, as Hannibal’s therapy sessions with Will were gradually revealed to be ways to exacerbate mental conditions Will already had present. This had the unnerving effect of creating a show with no wholly consistent center, one where whenever the audience thought itself sure of its own footing, the show’s writers would yank the rug out from under it all over again. In season two, it’s Will doing the yanking, trying so hard to outwit and outsmart Hannibal—from the imprisonment of a mental hospital in the season’s first half—that he obscures his true motives from the people who care most about him, up to and including viewers.

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That could prove trying, particularly when the series was introducing, say, the Verger siblings (played by Katherine Isabelle and Michael Pitt)—excellently defined and performed characters who often felt like vestigial limbs within the season’s structure. They could have easily been lopped off to streamline the story, but the loss would have diminished the latter half of the season’s wild, rococo effect, where viewers were forced to confront the horrors of Hannibal Lecter’s treatment of everyone in the show’s universe no matter where they turned. (Even characters who had no contact with the two men seemed to be acting out passion-play echoes of their relationship.) One does not escape from the Hannibal Lecters of the world without scars somewhere, as both Vergers found out one way or another. (It’s worth noting that the second season served its female characters even more poorly than season one did, backing the show’s most prominent woman—Caroline Dhavernas’ Alana Bloom—into a corner where she was reduced too often to a sexual bargaining chip.)

If the second half of the season makes more sense in the context of its final two episodes, the first half needs far fewer qualifications. The first seven episodes of the season—barring an ill-advised shift into legal drama in the third hour—are 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. In a way, Hannibal is built atop a ticking time bomb that constantly threatens to implode the whole show. In order for the series to work, the viewers have to believe Will, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), and all the rest are potentially smart enough to put Hannibal behind bars—where he must inevitably end up—but also believe Hannibal is so much smarter than them that they hold no hope of catching him. It’s a structure that threatens to make the characters too dumb to care about if it skews too far in one direction and threatens to make Hannibal so omniscient that he is without human flaw in the other. Showrunner Bryan Fuller and his writers navigate this impossible task throughout the season, but particularly in those first seven episodes, and to watch them thread the needle is perhaps even more thrilling than anything on the show itself.

If the second season of Hannibal has had more flaws than the first, it’s easy to forgive them—both because of the finale (which is one of the best pieces of television to be broadcast so far this year) and because the flaws in the program are the kinds of flaws more TV (including that first season) could stand to have. At all turns, the second season of Hannibal chases rich storytelling and dark themes to their logical breaking points. It’s always trying to buck convention—including its own convention—and if it occasionally bites off more than it can chew, it’s always doing so in florid, beautiful fashion. It is a show that is not content with what it knows it can do but is, instead, always pushing to find new territory to stake out as its own. That will, inevitably, come with a messy moment or two, but in its unique blend of pulp thriller, chilly psychological realism, and visual impressionism, the second season of Hannibal crafted the unlikeliest of masterpieces. Through blood and strife and flaws, it transformed gradually and hauntingly from the show that was into the best-realized version of itself.

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