Hannibal, Season 3, Episode 8, “The Great Red Dragon”
Written by Nick Antosca and Steve Lightfoot & Bryan Fuller
Directed by Neil Marshall
Airs Saturdays at 10pm (ET) on NBC
The first half of Hannibal season three has drawn criticism from some (though not this critic) for its artistic, avant-garde approach to exploring the psychology and relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. With “The Great Red Dragon”, the series opens a new chapter, returning to its stylistic roots and introducing a new key figure: Francis Dolarhyde. Fans of Thomas Harris’ work have been eagerly anticipating Dolarhyde’s debut and the start of the show’s Red Dragon arc/adaptation, and after this episode, it’s easy to see why. Being unfamiliar with Hannibal’s source material, this critic can’t speak to the faithfulness of showrunner Bryan Fuller and co.’s take on the character, but the glimpses shown here are certainly compelling. Without any dialog, Richard Armitage conveys uncertainty, confusion, compulsion, fear, and power, his animalistic physicality telling viewers all they need to know—for now—about the battle raging within Francis Dolarhyde. Armitage’s intense performance is complemented by fantastic work from composer and music supervisor Brian Reitzell (more on this in Kate’s Classical Corner) and the patient, scrutinizing eye of director Neil Marshall. The episode opens with a closeup on Dolarhyde’s fingers, his skin taking on the texture of scales and, as the camera pulls back, his hand the shape of a claw. As Armitage writhes, Dolarhyde exploring his musculature and connecting to something decidedly less human within, Marshall scans his body, sweeping up and down and displaying the strength and flexibility that allow these contortions. If Hannibal is defined by his mind and Will by his heart, Dolarhyde would appear to be a primarily physical being and seeing how he responds to overtures from both should be intriguing.
While much of the episode is spent establishing Dolarhyde and the crimes of the Tooth Fairy, just as interesting is where viewers find Will, Jack, Alana, and the rest of the Hannibal gang three years after the capture of Hannibal in “Digestivo”. Hannibal’s cell at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is spacious, to say the least, and one can’t help wondering just how he managed such luxurious accommodations. Who in their right mind gives an incarcerated Hannibal Lecter sharpened sketching pencils? Even more puzzling is his apparent access to a kitchen (how else would he know the provenance of the cow’s blood in his sanguinaccio dolce?), though as Chilton spends the scene attempting to butter up Hannibal to get his thoughts on the Tooth Fairy, this may be a rare exception to Hannibal’s confinement in his cell. Three years on, Hannibal is still Hannibal and Chilton is still very much Chilton—Raul Esparza is once again delightful in the role as Chilton taunts Hannibal with his “niche appeal”—but Alana feels decidedly different. The detachment of her earlier season three appearances remains and there’s a hint of her season one inflection when she speaks with Hannibal, but she’s a long way from the warm figure desperate to guide Will out of his darkness in season two. Alana clearly still fears reprisal from Hannibal, and writers Nick Antosca, Steve Lightfoot, and Fuller make sure to have Hannibal solidify his promise to kill her, but it’s reassuring that this fear seems to inform, rather than define her. With yet another fascinating, larger-than-life figure added to the already crowded field of characters, hopefully the writers will still make time this half season to explore this new Alana.
A breezy breath of fresh air, Jimmy and Z make their return in a mostly successful scene (Jimmy’s opening, “I was told you were told…”, which feels like a strained nod to Albert on Twin Peaks, doesn’t quite land), one of many indications that the Dolarhyde arc will be much more in keeping with season one and two than the first half of season three. It’s nice to be in the lab again, to hear Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams banter and appreciate the smaller things. It’s also nice to see a focused, steady Jack, undoubtedly still mourning Bella, but with enough distance to have processed his loss. Laurence Fishburne is strong as ever, giving weight to Jack’s visit to Will. The contrast between the Jack of season one, who unconcernedly pressed Will into service, and the Jack of the present is stark: he fully understands what he’s asking of Will this time. Will, on the other hand, seems well suited to retirement; he’s content with Molly, Walter, and their dogs (yay! The dogs are alright!). It’s wonderful to see a well-adjusted Will for once—it makes his decision to return to the FBI infinitely more potent. The audience knows Will won’t stay out of the fray, so the writers immediately make the question whether he will be able to return to the waiting and supportive Molly (the warm Nina Arianda, who we will hopefully see more of soon).
The scene that most signals a return to form for this final portion of the season is Will’s examination of the Tooth Fairy crime scene. Unlike in “Primavera”, Will’s processing of the scene is intentional; he seeks out the Tooth Fairy, rather than having his consciousness invaded by Hannibal’s Broken Hart. The scene is strikingly reminiscent of the opening sequence of the pilot—that crime scene was intended to eventually be attributed to Dolarhyde, a thread the creatives have since dropped—and this tie to the beginning of the series feels appropriate for what may be Hannibal’s final arc. There are a few neat new touches, such as the beam of Will’s flashlight conjuring the bodies of the Tooth Fairy’s victims, but on the whole, this is familiar territory, and that familiarity is exactly what Will struggles against. His begrudging submission to his process is simultaneously a defeat and a victory and the visual of Will standing with the blood spatter threads forming the Dragon’s wings feels like a long-awaited return. It’s unlikely Will can ever be what he was before Hannibal’s influence, but this is the closest we’ve seen him come, dissecting a crime scene and helping to catch a killer. Whether his willingness to go to Hannibal so quickly is a red flag or a sign of maturity remains to be seen.
Worthy of special note is the handling of the crime itself by Antosca, Lightfoot, Fuller, and Marshall, which is incredibly thoughtful and respectful of the audience. Fuller has gone on record as saying he will not tell rape stories on Hannibal out of deference to the Fannibals and this presented a challenge when the series caught up with Red Dragon. The Tooth Fairy’s crimes do not stop at murder, to put it lightly, and the writing and direction of this episode manage to hold true to Fuller’s promise while not erasing or sanitizing Dolarhyde’s compulsions. By cutting away from Will’s recreation when it does and presenting but not lingering in Jimmy, Z, and Will’s descriptions of the crime or the characters’ reactions to it, this episode threads the needle between deference to the source material and acknowledgement of the horrible reality of many serial killers’ actions, and using sexual violence for cheap scares or titillation. Many series could learn from the restraint and awareness shown here by all involved, which should put to rest most fears viewers may have had for how this material would be adapted.
Between its careful handling of the Tooth Fairy’s crimes, its memorable character debuts and reintroductions, and its gentle resetting of so many pieces on the Hannibal chessboard to their pre-“Mizumono” positions, “The Great Red Dragon” is a strong and exciting midseason premiere that promises a confident, more accessible end to a previously divisive season.
—Poor Alana! Hannibal having a private reserve of beer just for her seemed so thoughtful back in season one.
—Speaking of Alana, I absolutely love her red suit and styling here. It combines the strength of her earlier season three costuming with her shorter hair, making the look feel slightly lower maintenance, which fits with her personality.
—Esparza and Mads Mikkelsen’s performances as Chilton discusses dessert and colons are great. Chilton’s super-meta talk about “four quadrant” killers should be too much, but it’s in character enough to work and the annoyance that flicks across Mikkelsen’s face as Chilton dismisses Hannibal’s crimes in favor of the Tooth Fairy’s keeps the conversation relevant.
—A few sequences highlighting Marshall’s direction and the episode’s excellent editing are the sumptuous preparation of Hannibal’s dessert (excellent work as always by food stylist Janice Poon, who always creates such beautiful dishes for the series), the eerie image of light streaming from a film-wrapped Dolarhyde’s eyes and mouth, and Will’s suspension in a spiral of family photos as he tries to rest at the motel. It’s nice to see such different approaches to horrific or psychological imagery on Hannibal from director to director.
—After only one scene together, Molly and Will’s relationship feels lived-in and real. That’s impressive.
—Hannibal’s reverse psychology on Will may be simplistic, but it’s apparently effective.
—The meta moment with Chilton may near the edge, but Jack’s, “Please don’t worry about the dog” is more welcome and feels like a playful shout out from Fuller to the Fannibals. Of course we’re gonna worry about the dogs! Thanks for putting our minds to rest by showing them safely off with Molly and Walter.
Kate’s Classical Corner: Click on for my in-depth look at the score and soundtrack for “The Great Red Dragon”, which highlight the differences between Hannibal and Dolarhyde and see composer Brian Reitzell stretching himself and the series’ sound in new, exciting ways.
For more Hannibal talk, check out the podcast I cohost with Sean Colletti, This Is Our Design!