If this season of Hannibal has fully given in to avant garde proclivities, then this week’s “Dolce” is the height of Bryan Fuller and director Vincenzo Natali’s madness, offering the most sweetly intense and deliciously WTF episode to date — both visually and narratively speaking.

I skipped out on last week’s episode and nearly did the same this week due to Comic-Con, but there’s just so much to discuss with “Dolce,” an episode that shows off Natali’s Italian sensibilities with utterly graceful and morbid artistry. It makes sense that Fuller would lean so heavily on Natali this year for Season 3, which has primarily kept us in Italy. The surreal, dream (and nightmare)-like visuals have escalated to this, a kaleidoscopic woman-on-woman sex scene that’s far more erotic and interesting than any other sex scene in the last year.

Perhaps the only thing that comes close is Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, a similarly Italian-influenced film that explores the relationship between two women — one eager, demanding submissive and one wearily dominant. That film and this particular sequence rely heavily on mirrors to artistic effect. And both that film and this season of Hannibal are borrowing influences from classic Italian genre fare, and there’s a specific, startling artistry to the visuals on display.

Of course, Alanna sleeping with Margot Verger isn’t just for the titillation of viewers, and presenting this sequence in such a gorgeously inventive way is a two-fold endeavor: not only does the sequence avoid coming off as crude or ill-advised, but it reinforces this season’s theme of duality — the duality within each person, and the duality that exists in a relationship. Alanna and Margot are, essentially one, and while Mason and his attendant make dinner plans for Hannibal, Alanna and Margot have plans of their own: for Alanna, she needs Margot on her side to ensure the CIA can stop Mason and secure Hannibal in custody; for Margot, she needs Alanna’s distinct charms to help her secure Mason’s sperm.

Like The Duke of Burgundy, Season 3 of Hannibal is exploring what is, to the outsider, a peculiar relationship, and Fuller has made the correct choice in treating the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham as a romantic one.

“Dolce” finds a beat-up and gloomy Hannibal (or as gloomy as Hannibal can be) returning home to allow Bedelia to lick his wounds before she sends him away. After asking questions of agency and participation throughout Bedelia and Hannibal’s time in Italy, it’s almost breathtaking (and a bit unnerving) to watch the former bid the latter adieu with graceful and near-effortless composure. Hannibal promises that he will concoct whichever story suits Bedelia “because you asked,” he says, and it’s the closest thing to an admission of love that Hannibal can offer.

As Bedelia predicted, Hannibal has drawn all of his significant others to him — there truly is no other way to describe who Will, Chiyo and Jack are to Hannibal Lecter, though Chiyo and Bedelia’s conversation comes close to defining it: they are birds that Hannibal has placed in individual cages, where he waits to see if they will fly or beat themselves to death against the bars.

As with Will previously (and somewhat still, currently), Chiyo’s mind has been warped by her former “nephew.” She is irrationally protective of the man who left her locked in a cage, though Hannibal knows she will keep Will from killing him — when Will tells Hannibal that it was Chiyo who killed their prisoner, Hannibal bemusedly responds with “Atta girl,” another example of the ways in which this series has grown to express an entire paragraph of psychology with few words.

When Will finds Hannibal, sitting in front of the Botticelli (as if he would be anywhere else), the pair share an exchange that is nothing short of romantic, for their relationship transcends traditional conventions. It is neither platonic nor romantic, really, but something else entirely — it’s fluid and visceral, constantly shifting as the two drift to and away from one another, forever caught in the same, bloody tide.

Natali illustrates this with a visual sequence evocative of a Rorschach ink blot test — what do you see? — and again by combing Will and Hannibal’s faces together into one. If Hannibal is God to Will, what does that make Will to Hannibal? In “Dolce,” Will intimates that perhaps he himself is the God figure, too.

Will cautiously ponders their separation in the museum, wondering if either of them can survive once their conjoined twin-like bond is severed. There is a sullen if optimistic trepidation to Will’s end of the discussion, while Hannibal’s eyes sparkle with a reality that he finds morbidly rewarding, but one that Will would find quite grim.

The ink blot sequence gives way to this season’s second nod to the demise of Paul Krendler, played by Ray Liotta in the film version of Hannibal. Jack arrives (and scares Chiyo off in the process) to find that Will has been drugged and strapped to a chair, with Hannibal feeding him an herb broth to sweeten his taste. Will slurs a warning but Jack isn’t quick enough to dodge Hannibal as he slices into Jack’s achilles tendon.

That’s gruesome, but not nearly as horrific as Hannibal’s attempt to saw Will’s head open:

Fuller’s choice to co-opt Krendler’s demise for this particular climax is exceptionally clever — of course Hannibal would choose to consume Will in such a horribly poignant way; eating Will’s brain would allow Hannibal to achieve ultimate dominance and ownership of his mind.

But just as the splatters of blood suspend and freeze in midair, there is another fluid shift — we do not know how, but we do know why: Mason Verger has collected his prized pig, with an added bonus. Welcome to Muskrat Farm.

Additional Thoughts:

  • It appears that Alanna’s new, seductive Season 3 style wasn’t an attempt to appeal to Mason’s tastes (as if anyone could appeal to that psychopath), but to Margot’s. I’m glad that Fuller decided to retain Margot’s sexual identification from Thomas Harris’ novels. Like the narrative and visual motif of this season, her sexuality is fluid.
  • Oh, Bedelia: she drugs herself with the same cocktail Hannibal used on a previous victim, “imbibing her alibi” to prove that she was an unwilling participant.
  • I am very curious as to what might have happened if Chiyo had entered the apartment with Jack. Would she have protected Hannibal or stopped him?
  • So, how did Hannibal and Will end up on Muskrat Farm? I have a theory: Jack. Earlier in the episode, Jack tells the Italian Polizia that he can’t blame Pazzi at all for attempting to collect the bounty on Hannibal. I think Jack is working with Alanna to get Will and Hannibal back to the US, together, and this theory seems to be supported by an earlier episode this season when Alanna and Jack spoke to each other cryptically about whether or not Will could do the right thing with Hannibal. I think Will is in on this plan, too.
  • Between Alanna and Margot’s sex scene and Hannibal taking Will’s clothes off, I think it’s finally that kind of party.