not in our stars, but in ourselves
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
Revelations, 12:1-4 (KJV)
The first half of Hannibal‘s third season was a dreamy, gauzy exploration of unhealthy co-dependency: between Will and Hannibal, between Hannibal and Bedelia, between Mason and Margot, between Alana and Will. The pace was slow, the action sparse, and the philosophizing heavy. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste (!) – although I loved it all – but Bryan Fuller isn’t interested in serving the same old dish. “The Great Red Dragon” could well be a pilot episode of a new series – but, since it’s laid on the foundation Fuller et al. have built over the past two and a half seasons, it’s immeasurably richer than either of the screen adaptations of the same source material could hope to be.
We’re at the point where Red Dragon the novel begins: Hannibal Lecter is imprisoned in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane; Will Graham has retired from FBI work and settled down with a new wife and stepson (and a new pack of dogs); and Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) has committed two grisly murders. Well, two sets of grisly murders. Known as the Tooth Fairy by the tabloid press, due to the number of bite marks he leaves on his victims, he breaks into a nice family’s house on the night of a full moon, quickly and brutally slays the entire family, and then does things with the bodies. If you’ve missed Manhunter and Red Dragon the book and/or the film, prepare yourself: Dolarhyde breaks every mirror in the house, places shards in the eyes and mouth of each family member, arranges the husband and children to sit against the wall in the master bedroom (so they’re “watching”), and then he touches (and, it is implied here on the show and stated outright in the novel/films, rapes) the wife’s dead body.
Several reviews have noted that these murders feel all the more shocking and gruesome because, up to now, the murders we see committed by Hannibal and other various “monsters of the week” have been more like works of art than acts of rage. This episode has pulled off an amazing feat: it’s not only a fresh take on the Red Dragon story, compared to the two previous cinematic iterations, but it also feels like a revisiting of the main theme in a symphony, after several movements of development. During the first season, the format of the show involved Will and Hannibal working together to solve that week’s murder. Will, with his tremendous powers of empathy, would walk through the crime scene and imagine committing the murder himself. After Hannibal framed Will for the Chesapeake Ripper’s serial killing – a bumpy section in their road to romance, it must be said – the second season necessarily diverged from that format, and applied Will’s empathic powers to other ends; namely, Hannibal. Now, three years after the events of the most recent episode, Will is compelled – by Jack, of course – to examine the Tooth Fairy’s crime scenes to try to catch him before the next full moon.
He doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t want to allow that kind of horror into his mind anymore. He’s happily married to Molly (Nina Arianda), a warm and funny woman who anchors Will to the real world. Molly knows, however, that Will won’t be able to live with himself if he fails to help the FBI, and the Tooth Fairy strikes again. One gets the sense that Molly usually wins the few arguments these two have; it’s a shame that she won this one, too. After the hell that Will has been through, we really do want to see him settled, stable, and happy. If this second half of the season ends as the novel does…well, things don’t look so good for Will Graham. We’ll see what Fuller has up his sleeve, however. In the meantime, Team Sassy Science – which is to say Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) and Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) – is back, since we’re no longer on our Euro trip and are back in the FBI’s jurisdiction. Hannibal is often morbidly (and mordantly) funny, but these two could be on their own sitcom spinoff. Food for thought, NBC.
What of Hannibal, speaking of things that are bad for Will? He is locked up behind his Plexiglas wall, in a spacious but empty cell. In Hannibal’s mind, however, it takes on the aspect of whichever room in his memory palace he likes best that day. Director Neil Marshall (of The Descent fame, the movie that guaranteed my sworn opposition to stepping foot in any cave, ever, for any reason) manages this shifting point of view quite cannily: in two-shots between Hannibal and his visitor – whether Chilton, Alana, or Will – the scenery changes. Hannibal speaks, and he’s in his study or his dining room. Alana offers a rejoinder, and he’s back in his cell, while she’s seated the requisite number of feet away from the glass. Still, Hannibal isn’t nearly as serene as he might seem. Where Chilton fails to get a rise out of him by insinuating that his fifteen minutes of fame are up, since he’s too esoteric and snobby (a not-so-coded reference to Hannibal itself and its failure to hit with mainstream audiences), Hannibal one-ups him by writing a scathing rebuttal of Chilton’s writing, career, personality, etc., in a renowned psychiatric journal. He writes a letter to Will, advising him to stay out of the Tooth Fairy case – almost certainly counting on the fact that Will can’t help getting involved, and perhaps coming to visit. Hannibal is a caged tiger, and he’s doing his best to keep himself from going truly crazy (Chilton and Alana lied in court so that Hannibal wouldn’t receive the death penalty, instead living the rest of his life in an insane asylum) as he paces back and forth in his cell. Three years is a long time.
The real revolution, or revelation, in this episode is of course the Red Dragon himself. Fuller knows that we’re all pretty likely to know something about this particular story, so he doesn’t waste time or energy on detailed exposition. It’s all about Armitage’s brilliant embodiment of a disturbed young man. He barely speaks, and he’s alone almost always. Future episodes may investigate Dolarhyde’s miserable childhood, his mother’s rejection, his embarrassment and lifelong sense of inadequacy stemming from his cleft palate, his abusive grandmother, his crippling fear that she would emasculate him for wetting the bed. There’s plenty to work with – but I get the sense that Fuller assumes we can fill in those details on our own, and would prefer to move the series forward, rather than lurch back into the serial killer’s sad upbringing. Hannibal has never been about retreading familiar territory with these characters: it’s always been about finding the emotional truth in each of them, and surging onward and upward.
And the emotional truth of Francis Dolarhyde is that he’s a shy, lonely person wrestling with some powerful demons. (Wrestling with them powerfully, at that. The opening training montage, featuring strenuous yoga poses and calisthenics, is something of which I hope there will be an extended director’s cut someday.) Is that ever an excuse for someone who commits the heinous acts that he does? No, never. However, that’s what Hannibal has gotten right, time and again: these “monsters” we fear aren’t cartoon villains. Hannibal Lecter is a strange breed, but he’s not a supernatural being. He’s not a moustache-twirling maniac. He adheres to a moral code that none of the rest of us would subscribe to, most likely, but he’s a man with desires and joys and woes. Francis Dolarhyde is an abuse victim who struggles between wanting to be like everyone else, and wanting to Become something greater – the Great Red Dragon, specifically.
In short: this continues to be the best show currently on television. Rather than rehash the same story we’ve heard in two other movies, Hannibal builds on the complex psychological portraits of its main players, established over the past two and a half seasons, and allows those to lend the Red Dragon story real depth – and menace. And even though “The Great Red Dragon” has stuck quite closely to the events of the novel, Fuller has proven to be a gentleman, as ever: a lesser show, or movie, would surely have sexualized Mrs. Leeds and her fate worse than death (after she’s dead). Here, if you don’t know where the labia are (and honestly, I bet most NBC viewers don’t), you won’t even realize Dolarhyde did anything more than touch her face. If this show has to end, I’m glad it’s ending with a roar.