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Well-chiselled Dane Mads Mikkelsen plays the psychiatrist slash serial killer with smouldering sophistication, managing to make him look dapper even in a clear-plastic murder suit.

There is a jarring moment in the season-two finale of Hannibal that I've been carrying around in the months since it aired. Jarring not because of its violence, which the show is drenched in, but instead because a calm, collected Hannibal Lecter finally loses his trademark cool. Infuriated that FBI agent Jack Crawford has secured himself in the pantry after a spectacularly choreographed kitchen knife fight, Hannibal hurls himself repeatedly against the locked door like a lunatic. It's only when he is caught by his sometimes lover, Dr. Alana Bloom, that he realizes he's lost himself. Uncharacteristically dishevelled and drenched in Crawford's blood, Hannibal resets, straightens up and returns to the thoughtful stoic unmoved by emotion.

"Walk away," he coldly tells Bloom. "Be blind, Alana. Don't be brave." As the episode closes, we are left with a slow-motion image of him walking in the rain, pulling on the coat he's lifted from her incapacitated body, serenely departing the bloodbath where his colleagues have finally discovered who he really is. What he is not – at least in this particular adaptation of the Thomas Harris novels – is a madman.

As the third season of Hannibal approaches, the allure of the unruffled cannibal in a three-piece suit is reaching near hysterical levels. It's rare that a character with so little authentic human emotion is this compelling, encouraging a rabid fan base who've branded themselves "Fannibals."

Well-chiselled Dane Mads Mikkelsen plays the psychiatrist slash serial killer with smouldering sophistication, managing to make him look dapper even in a clear-plastic murder suit (American Psycho's Christian Bale just looked ridiculous in his). This new rendering of the iconic character isn't unstable like Brian Cox in Manhunter or unpredictable like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs – instead he's a flawless professional, a Grim Reaper equipped with a waitstaff. Hannibal sketches portraits in pencil, plays the harpsichord and is, of course, a master chef. The drawn-out kitchen scenes where he prepares lungs, hearts and limbs for lavish dinner parties, delicately plating and serving them with sides of witty banter, are accompanied by orchestral music and shot more like a high-end cooking show than Hollywood torture porn.

Created by showrunner Bryan Fuller and shot in Toronto, Hannibal is arguably the most violent show ever broadcast on prime time. Where it departs from run-of-the-mill gratuitous slaughter is in its artifice, tolerable to the squeamish because its lusciousness is so far removed from our collective experience of violence. The grotesque becomes dreamlike and treads into the sublime, with imagery so far beyond the pale that it's no longer possible to disturb. A dead woman is stitched inside a horse carcass with a bird fluttering in her chest. A man's lobotomized skull becomes an active beehive. Corpses are piled into totems and spirals. It's hard not to wonder why the main characters don't just go on psychiatric leave after all the bizarre tableaus they've seen.

Fuller, who has worked on such suspension-of-disbelief shows as Heroes and Dead Like Me, has transformed the aesthetic of death into a Renaissance still life rendered in oil paint. It's gore horror shot in hyper-surreal cinematic glory. Mikkelsen's subdued, chilling poise echoes his early training as a gymnast and dancer – every movement is considered, with nothing messy or spontaneous ever coming to the surface. There's something sexy about that deliberateness, even if his character is not sexual. (Hannibal's lovemaking scenes are some of the most unconvincing I have ever seen.) Watching him prepare a liver and sweetbreads omelette for a guest becomes a meditative experience, as he dishes out soothing psychiatric platitudes such as "memory promotes immortality, but forgetfulness promotes a healthy mind" and "a life without regret would be no life at all."

It's not that Hannibal is a sympathetic character – that's too basic – it's that he's a manipulative character, and we are happily fooled to be entertained. Against all presented evidence (I mean, he eats people), the viewer trusts Hannibal, the narrative working precisely because he's soothed us into believing his cruelty is necessity. He's the humane butcher, commenting that meat garnered from animals under stress (including humans) just tastes bad.

In the second season's finale, he holds FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) tenderly in his arms after stabbing him in the gut, whispering soothing phrases about the comfort of death. The calm, righteous brutality Hannibal exudes is in polar opposite to empathetic Graham's anxious energy, infusing their dynamic with a near-sexual tension that is the driving force in the show. Given how many times they've tried to hurt and then forgiven each other, it's amazing that the creators have pulled off such a troubled romance.

Hannibal is at its very best, and most manipulative, though, when it pursues the fantasy of revenge, its titular character acting more as a balancer of scales than a deranged, aimless killer. This is not the clownish villainy of the Saw franchise's Jigsaw, or the insane Dr. Josef Heiter of campy Human Centipede fame. Hannibal just being "bad" or "crazy" wouldn't be compelling, nor would a lazy depiction of him as suave vigilante with a nose for fine wines. There is a vague method to Hannibal's madness, his primary pleasure garnered from destroying those who destroy others.

This is a show preoccupied with the hard question of who deserves what, and how unreliable lines of good and evil are. "When feasible, one should eat the rude," Hannibal tells Will – a darkly funny phrase that reveals a preference for retribution, but not a belief in its necessity. Although Hannibal's higher-profile criminal activities imply a sense of extreme justice (a wife-killer turned into a living meat source, for example), his parameters for punishment are too wide to call noble.

Mikkelsen said he intended to play the character as much more than a psychopath, a sort of fallen angel who finds that "life is most beautiful on the threshold to death," which is the precise reason the show hasn't descended into exploitive shock. The viewer has been tricked into admiring the philosophies of a serial killer, no small feat in a genre so often lacking in complexity. Hannibal, the man and the show, forces us to wrestle with difficult ideas, which is the hallmark of any meaningful media.

As Will Graham says, "Hannibal has a certain personality style we can all learn from – in moderation, of course."

Hannibal returns for season three June 4 at 10 p.m. on CITY-TV.