The strangest thing about the strangest show on network television is its continued existence. Hannibal has transformed, over three seasons, from a borderline procedural to a Mark Rothko painting. To watch the show is to wonder, “Who the hell watches this?” and then think that you probably want to hang out with those people, who all presumably wear clear-framed spectacles and have strong opinions on epistemology.

Historically, NBC’s attempts at high-brow entertainment (St. Elsewhere, 30 Rock, The West Wing) have slipped into middle-brow drag by their third season. Hannibal’s show runner, Bryan Fuller, used the first half of “Antipasto”, last night’s debut episode, to announce his intention to do exactly the opposite. As Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s paramour/captive/psychologist/dance partner put it to our bloodthirsty protagonist - and make no mistake, he is the protagonist - “You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal, you have aesthetic ones.”

Gillian Anderson, who has the bearing of a mid-level deity, delivers that line in a coldblooded vibrato and proceeds to bathe in blood because, presumably, metaphors matter and Kierkegaard is kool. But the admission here is that metaphors, visual or otherwise, have no truck here. Without getting discursive about the objective correlative, we can simply agree that the show is far more about appearances than it is about plot or character.

Hannibal is a nihilistic show about beauty. To repeat a prior point: It’s insane that it exists. It’s also awesome because Mads is great to look at — especially in black and white — like an overfed fish or an underfed otter.

His Hannibal has fled from America to Florence, which is apparently gilded to the hilt, and leveraged his linguistic and social abilities into a position a local museum (a position that came open after he killed its previous occupant). Our main victim in this episode, which plays out as a photo negative of Law & Order: SVU, is a florid English teaching assistant that threatens to out him, but the real focus is Hannibal and Bedelia’s complex relationship. The notion is that she is his psychological hostage and that he recognizes her as a member of his own species, someone he could cannibalize rather than simply consume.

But let’s not fall into the narrative trap. Hannibal’s apartment is beautiful and the scene in which snails crawl all over Eddie Izzard’s former arm (it’s not really his possession anymore) is like a Dutch still life painted by a particularly bloody-minded shark. None of it makes sense, but slow-motion shots of oysters are pretty cool. And truffles!

Where’s Will Graham? Waiting in the wings with his bestiary. The show doesn’t need him for conflict, just color.