By all accounts, Hannibal shouldn’t exist; it shouldn’t work. The Hannibal Lecter movies had gone the way of the books, perfect encapsulations of lesser returns. Add on the fact that the series was developed by Bryan Fuller, whose oeuvre wouldn’t make one consider him as someone to take over the franchise. But the thing is, he really pulled it off—exchanging grim reality for a dreamy nightmare of elevated reality, equally balancing story, character and murder-art. By the end of its first season, Hannibal went from a final attempt at drawing money from a dead franchise to a critical darling.

This season, by the time the thirteen episodes ran their course, the show and its characters had undergone such radical changes that if you watched the season’s first episode and the last, you would think they were from two different shows. That’s to the show’s credit: its status quo is that there is no status quo.

The procedural elements standard to crime shows were less present in this season than in the last. The few standalone crimes were quickly solved so that the focus could be placed on the thematic relevance they had to the characters. This made each case terrifying for what it would reveal about Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).

This season had an air of confidence to it, telegraphing iconic moments – burning corpses in wheelchairs, a young woman starved at the bottom of a pit – knowing that by using them now, they cannot be used when the show enters its retelling of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. These moments aren’t merely fan services, but a promise: We’re doing something different, going somewhere else. They also led to the introduction of Mason Verger, played now by Michael Pitt.

Of the many guest stars and co-stars on the show, only Pitt managed to steal scenes from Mikkelsen and Dancy. Verger is an over-the-top character, and Pitt plays him with a manic energy and ample humor – though his actions are never actually funny. He has sexually abused children and his sister, he collects tears to spice his martinis, he feeds people to his pigs. Pitts plays Verger with no form of sympathy, no unseen level that might allow you to identify with him. When Margot’s (Katharine Isabelle) pregnancy threatens his legacy, he forces a miscarriage and pays doctors to make her barren. When given the choice of invasive versus non-invasive procedure, Verger purposely chose the invasive so it would leave a permanent scar.

The in media res fight between Dr. Lecter and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) suggested a point of no return; by the end of the finale, all the principle characters lay in a bloody mess on the floor while Dr. Lecter symbolically removed the person-mask he had been hiding under and breathed a sigh of relief.

There had been a sense of inevitability initiated by the flash-forward fight scene in the season opener, which carefully weaved throughout the season, as Graham’s methods to catching Dr. Lecter continually resembled the methods used by Dr. Lecter to remain free. Going into the finale, we knew the cost of victory for either one of these men would be high. Rather than end on a standard cliffhanger or some kind of copout, Bryan Fuller chose to raise the stakes, and had Dr. Lecter win. It isn’t until the final credits roll that we see how obvious it all was in hindsight, how carefully plotted and foreshadowed. We were told the teacup would never gather itself up again only to see it do so; we believed what we were told anyway.

In an oily black sea of award worthy preformances, special attention should be paid to Mads Mikkelsen. He’s managed to surpass Sir Anthony Hopkins as the definitive Hannibal Lecter, perfectly mixing cold pathos, warm charm, and bone deep hurt. Mikkelsen’s Lecter isn’t an easily categorized intelligent psychopath. He is a monster, but he does feel. The feelings are hard to identify and fleeting when seen, but they are present and magnified to a powerful degree by Mikkelsen. The actor never emotes, yet leaves you shaken.

If pressed to question this season’s flawlessness, one would have to look at its lack of a female lead. With Beverly Katz’s (Hettienne Park) death early in the season, there’s a vacuum left in her wake. There is certainly still a bevy of strong female characters, but their roles were all supporting, and none appeared in every episode. Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) was the only other female in the main cast, and she was often underutilized or misused. For too much of the season she was either missing or being used as a chess piece by Dr. Lecter and Graham. It isn’t until the end of the season that she becomes relevant, only to become a victim shortly thereafter.

Another flaw is the darkness of the show. Not the content, but the actual lighting. This is not a flaw of the creators involved but a demand of the network. The series airs after primetime, but still on NBC – a network channel. There have been a number of instances where the gruesomeness of a crime has been quickly panned away from or obfuscated in darkness in post-production editing. This flaw is fixed in the DVDs, however, which contain unedited episodes and the unique brutality of the show is uncensored.

Hannibal exists on the event horizon of chaos; its characters can only learn so much and live. The writers have embraced this chaos, allowing them to create their own mythology parallel to the source material, but free to be its own entity. The series intends on running through its own version of the entire Hannibal Lecter franchise. In most cases this would be met with an eye-roll–been there, done that–but if this show has proven anything over the course of twenty-six episodes, it is that we have never had a series as visually arresting or a remake as fresh as Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.

A third season has been ordered, likely to air next summer, and has been indicated to be a new jumping on point; Bryan Fuller has described the first episode as being a second pilot so there’s perfect opportunity and ample time to catch up and no good reason not to.