I liked the third season of "Hannibal" about as much as I liked the first, which is to say I enjoyed it sporadically, and felt that it was wildly uneven. There were terrible episodes and concepts that simply didn't work, but there were also very good ones containing some of the show's best moments. This season was split into two distinct parts, so let's take them separately.
When last we left "Hannibal," most of the cast was on the verge of death and Hannibal Lecter was en route to Europe with the lovely Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). I liked the portrayal of Hannibal and Bedelia's strange relationship and where it went, but these episodes were altogether a little too meandering and a little too unfocused. The show doubled down on its obtuse arthouse stylizations, which increasingly felt like a desperate bid to hide weaker scripts and a decreased budget. Was there ever any question that the really important characters from last season would survive? Was it necessary to shoehorn Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto), Hannibal's childhood friend into the story? Nothing about her worked at all. I did like some of the material involving the Vergers. Joe Anderson replaces Michael Pitt with hardly any fuss. There are some good shocks to be had. However, the crazy events of the finale aren't as effective without the proper narrative buildup that previous storylines had.
What should have been a nice break from the show's formula, a change of scenery, and an opportunity for more character development instead becomes a bit of a slog. "Hannibal" reintroduces all the players one by one, and is more interested in hearing them talk out their interpersonal issues than bothering with the whole manhunt storyline. It's a relief to discover that some of last year's doomed minor characters are finally, really dead, though there's a lot of time devoted to saying goodbye. Again. There is also the change in the visual style - most episodes were directed by Vincenzo Natali, who put in a lot of murk and distortion, removing a lot of the viscerality. The gory tableaux, which were often the centerpieces of early episodes, have been severely cut back - technically there was only one in the premiere, plus a few later kills that you could argue fit the pattern. Du Maurier was the centerpiece of the marketing campaign, and she gets plenty of time and emphasis in these episodes. No one else, including Hannibal Lecter, comes off nearly as well.
The second half of the season, retelling the events of the Thomas Harris novel "Red Dragon," is altogether cleaner and more satisfying. After a multi-year time jump, Will Graham has married a woman named Molly (Nina Arianda), and Hannibal is incarcerated. Will is drawn into the search for a serial killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy," Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), and enlists Hannibal's help, which introduces complications. Roles and events are switched around to better reflect the relationships that have been established in the show, and some familiar events are given unexpected new twists. Raul Esparza's Dr. Chilton shares the Freddie Lounds role, for instance, and there's much more interaction between Will Graham and Hannibal. I also appreciated the casting of a black actress, Rutina Wesley, as Reba McClane, Dolarhyde's blind love interest, and Alana Bloom getting the more beefed up role of Hannibal's jailor.
This is the third filmed version of the story I've seen now, after "Manhunter" and the "Red Dragon" film. It's the least of them, but that doesn't mean the adaptation isn't worth a watch, especially in the context of the rest of the show. Richard Armitage is an excellent Francis Dolarhyde, and briefly becomes the show's third lead. The increased running time allows for much more character drama and psychological exploration. Boundaries are pushed, and some startling questions asked. Where "Hannibal" really can't match up, however is the production quality. Despite the good use of stylized visuals and CGI fantasy elements - this is the first version where the Great Red Dragon gets literal wings - the events are smaller scale and staged much more simply. Also, a huge amount of the tension and the terror is diffused by the story being told over so many more episodes, and so many more characters and side-plots being involved.
I can't say I'm sad to see the series go at this point. It definitely peaked in year two, and the creators clearly had trouble maintaining the show's quality. The shocker of an ending they came up with feels like the right one anyhow. The series was about the relationship of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, and the later Thomas Harris books beyond this point are not. I'm more than satisfied with this season of "Hannibal," and I think it's time to say goodbye.