NBC’s beautiful and brutal “Hannibal” returns for for its third season on June 4, in which we find our titular cannibal (played with charismatic menace by Mads Mikkelsen) cutting a bloody — if cultured — swath through the opulent palazzos of Italy with his former therapist, Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). The pair are hiding in plain sight following Hannibal’s vicious and potentially deadly encounter with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) in the season two finale, and Dr. Lecter certainly isn’t making any secret of his singular tastes now that he’s escaped the FBI’s clutches.

Variety talked to “Hannibal” executive producer and showrunner Bryan Fuller ahead of Thursday’s premiere, discussing everything from the show’s shift in tone to its loyal fanbase to the ongoing debate about sexual violence on television. Below, Fuller explains why “the third season is really the ‘Hannibal’ series I’ve always wanted to make.”

Now that Hannibal has evaded the FBI and escaped to Europe, the show has seemingly shed its procedural, crime-driven format. How would you describe the structure of this season?

It really transforms from a crime procedural into a soap opera — or, whenever I say the words “soap opera,” Mads Mikkelsen always corrects me and says “opera, just call it an opera.” So I will stand corrected and say it’s evolved from a crime procedural into an opera, just because we had done so much with the crime procedural world and it was always an element that I never fully embraced — I was always looking for ways to subvert it or enhance it with the death tableaus. It was an umbrella under which we would tell the metaphor for Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s relationship. So the context of the show being a crime procedural was always a loose one, and I really always felt the show was a romantic horror, and I feel like this season more than any other fully embraces those elements of romantic horror.

In season three, we’re seeing a Hannibal who has shed all his pretenses and facades; he seems to have been unleashed in a way he never could’ve been while he was pretending to be a harmless psychiatrist. Was that liberating for you as a storyteller, as much as it must’ve been for Mads as an actor?

It felt like it was earned — so much of the first two seasons were about Hannibal obfuscating who he was to his friends, and now all of his friends have found out the hard way, so it allows us to get closer to who the character is — a journey that we set out upon in earnest in the finale of season two. We really got inside Hannibal’s point of view for the heartbreak, when he realizes that Will Graham has betrayed him and he allowed it, he allowed himself to be seduced, and allowed himself to trust. There’s such a humanizing element in that heartbreak that [means] we will both be more drawn to Hannibal Lecter in season three as a character and appreciate the openness of his villainy for the first time in the series.

How does Hannibal’s shift alter Will’s own trajectory?

If the first season was the bromance and the second season was the nasty breakup, I would say that season three is that stage in your relationship when you are haunted by that relationship and need to find closure, so for Will, his trajectory is one of completing the journey with Hannibal Lecter so he can free himself from that insanity.

For Will, can closure be achieved through Hannibal’s incarceration, or at this point, can it only end with one or both of them dead?

I think that’s the central story for the entire third season, in both the chapters — it runs through the Italian chapter of the first seven episodes and is certainly reinvigorated in the Red Dragon arc in the last six episodes. That’s a central goal for Will, to shut down this relationship however he can.

Bedelia has always been a fascinating character, but especially in season three, because you never seem to know what’s truly motivating her or where her loyalty lies…

I think that’s the fun of playing with such an iconic actress like Gillian Anderson who really expands to fill the vessel of whatever role she’s inhabiting. Working with her has been such a joy: A, I love her as a human being and find her to be such a bright spark of light, and B, it’s a ball to throw some absolutely ridiculous dialogue her way and see how it spins off the edge of her bat. If you are watching the show and you see a particularly bloated piece of dialogue, chances are it’s a direct quote from one of the Thomas Harris books that I’ve fetishized over in the process of making the show, and there are some doozies where I’m like, “this is such a great line — I want to make it dialogue but it’s so over the top… I’ll give it to Gillian!” So that’s a joy.

I think first and foremost with Bedelia, she will always be Hannibal Lecter’s psychiatrist; she’s fascinated with the man. She’s not one of those women who falls in love with serial killers in jail. She has a great intimacy with Hannibal but she is not in love with the man, she is seeing him, and I think that’s where she gets her power — she is always thinking one step ahead about where he’s going to go and what she has to do to subvert his intentions. And that builds to wonderful scenes, in particular in episode six where Gillian is laugh-out-loud funny with her take on the material, so it was great to see. I knew when we were writing it that we were tipping the character into some black comedy, but I had no idea how skilled Gillian is at comedy and also how authentic she is at comedy — she’s actually a really funny lady, and when she turns that spark on it’s hard to not watch.

The show has had that undercurrent of dark humor from the start, but it does seem more overt in season three — was that a particular goal, and something you felt like you had license to do now that Hannibal is really embracing his urges?

It’s always something that I’ve found in writing the show, as somebody who likes to lean towards the comedy whenever possible, and really resisted that instinct in the first two seasons. There’s a lot of black comedy in the first two seasons, but it’s much more pronounced in the third season and I think the third season is really the “Hannibal” series that I’ve always wanted to make, and the first two seasons felt like they were earning that right to turn it into a full-blown character drama as opposed to a procedural.

Richard Armitage is joining the show as “Red Dragon” villain Francis Dolarhyde this season; what’s his dynamic like with Will and Hannibal?

It’s interesting to read the novel “Red Dragon,” which has relatively limited exposure between all three men; Hannibal doesn’t have much exposure to Will Graham in the story, who doesn’t have much exposure to Francis Dolarhyde until the last big moment, so it was about breaking down what was in the literature and looking for ways that we could put these men in the same space and have them communicate in a way that the book didn’t facilitate and the previous adaptations didn’t facilitate. We’re looking at really connecting those three men in a way that they haven’t been before. And for me, Dolarhyde really represented a version of both Hannibal and Will that [they] both needed, in that… it boils down to Francis Dolarhyde being a version of Hannibal that Will Graham might be able to save from himself, and Francis Dolarhyde for Hannibal being a version of Will Graham that he can corrupt wholly. So each of those men is getting something out of their relationship with Francis Dolarhyde that they can’t get from each other, and that for me was an exciting triangulation of these characters in this series, which really is an exploration of male friendships. As a gay man, I’m fascinated with straight male friendships and often don’t relate to or understand them, so this was an attempt to dig deep into heterosexual male intimacy.

One of the things that we’ve really got to highlight in a way by separating Will and Hannibal for a good chunk of the first part of the season was to illuminate how much they meant to each other and how much they missed each other, for the audience to want — as much as the characters — that reunion. There’s a scene in episode six where Will and Hannibal are reunited and there’s a coziness to it and a sadness that really exemplifies not only how much Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter mean to each other as friends, but the real chemistry of Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy – who are real friends offscreen. They bring that energy to their performances, which is why it’s so easy to relate to them and root for that friendship — we get to see an authenticity to their relationship both on-screen and off.

I was heartened to read your recent comments in EW decrying the abundance of rape storylines on television, especially in regards to crime dramas. It’s something that’s put me off procedurals as a genre, and I’ve always appreciated that “Hannibal” has never gone that route. For a show that fetishizes the human body, whether it’s through the presentation of death tableaus or Hannibal’s dishes, it still never sexually objectifies the victims or wallows in their suffering. You really explore mental and emotional violation as much as physical acts of violence, which is a much more interesting storytelling choice, I think.

For me, I think there’s a proliferation of sex negativity in the country and I think too many times, women — especially young women — have their joy of sex taken from them, whether it’s slut-shaming, which is if you dare to enjoy sex, you’re branded a certain way, and that translates on-screen and off-screen: look at the weird sense of proprietary ownership of another person’s body by someone that has no business dictating what they do with it in our government, and then that translating to a different kind of violation of the female body … I think it’s really f—ed up.

It’s interesting, because I think when a television show tackles rape thoughtfully, it’s intriguing storytelling. You look at Dr. Melfi’s rape on “Sopranos” which was handled in a thoughtful way. There’s the danger of objectifying the victim and taking the victim’s humanity away and saying “because you were raped, all of these things apply,” that’s also not the case. It takes the heroics one has to muster to overcome such a violation and go on with their life and minimizes the effort that goes into that in stark themes. So I think the crime procedural in general should just stop telling rape stories, and if you want to tell a rape story, tell it on a drama where you can really dig deep with the issues. But because crime procedurals are generally coming from a clinical perspective, I find it incredibly insulting and it’s shallow, it’s thoughtless, it’s lazy. I’m not saying rape stories don’t work — if you’re actually going to do your work as a storyteller and depict what it is to go through a very confusing, unimaginable thing, you have to hit notes that nobody else has hit before in that story, otherwise it’s exploitational. And Hannibal is an exploitational show, we just don’t want it to be sexually exploitational.

You have a fairly laissez faire attitude when it comes to spoilers in that there’s a lot you’re prepared to tease in advance — whereas some showrunners will go out of their way to reveal absolutely nothing about an upcoming season or episode. What’s your general approach when it comes to treading the line between teasing and spoiling?

I’m not somebody [for whom] spoilers ruin a story. I guess when you’re adapting a well-known novel that has been adapted several times before… [Laughs.] I think the closer we get — there were things like, “I hope that doesn’t get out so people can be taken for the journey,” and then when they do slip out or I see it in an ad for the show, I go “oh, well, that’s out!” There’s a part of me that goes “oh, I kind of wanted the audience to enjoy that surprise, enjoy the flirtation of the moment,” and then you’re talking and promoting a show… I get excited about things and I realize there are other elements around certain plot points that are actually the real meat of the story. Saying you’re gonna have apple pie for dessert doesn’t spoil it, because when I serve the apple pie, I’m gonna blow your f—ing mind with the caramel and the sea salt and the pecan crust, so you know you’re getting an apple pie, but I plan on knocking your socks off. [Laughs.]

“Hannibal” also has one of the most passionate, engaged fanbases online, and you and the cast are equally passionate about interacting with the “fannibals” — how important do you think that is?

It’s been wonderful because what I discovered is that in the process of making this show and being a fan of the Hannibal character myself, what I’m doing is essentially a very expensive version of fan fiction because I’m taking the relationships that may not have been as dimensionalized in the books or the adaptations simply because they weren’t thinking along those levels and I was looking for a way to put orange cones up where others had tread in the past and find new territory and find something that validated exploring this character more thoroughly through a television franchise. Right now we’re at 39 hours of our story versus two hours of the other versions … so we have an opportunity to go deeper. The connection to the fans that know the literature very well… I see how they’re channeling their love of the characters in the literature into their own artwork and their own stories and their cosplay — it just feels communal in a really warm, satisfying way.

I’d say 99 percent of my interactions with the fan community have been incredibly positive, and if there’s been one percent that thinks I’m a misogynist and a racist for killing off Hettienne Park’s character, that is misdirected and I know that it’s misdirected so I don’t take it personally. I focus on the bundles of joy that every time I go on to Twitter to Tweet something, it’s like walking into a room full of friends who like the same thing. The Twitterverse has made fandom a very small community with direct access to the storytellers, and I love sharing the story so I love seeing what people do with expanding what we’ve done, and I love playing in the same sandbox … I’m a fan who had my dream come true. I was somebody who was a “Star Trek” obsessive, so much so that I wrote “Star Trek” spec scripts and I got invited in to pitch and I sold stories and I sold scripts and then I was on staff, so I’m still connected to that person who first drove through the arches of the Paramount lot and had a dream come true, so I realize everybody is one event away from achieving a dream, and I’m happy to share it.

“Hannibal” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.