Leave it to ‘Hannibal’, the strangest and most experimental show on any of the major broadcast networks, to open an episode with a five-minute, completely dialogue-free sequence in which a character we’ve never seen before acts like a total weirdo. I assume this is a mark that show-runner Bryan Fuller just plain doesn’t care about ratings anymore. Bless his heart.
Even though it comes in the middle of the season, episode ‘The Great Red Dragon’ is a major turning-point for the series. For one thing, it’s the first episode with a title that isn’t related to food. The narrative also takes a big time-jump forward three years after the end of the last episode. More importantly, this is the first time the show has attempted a direct adaptation of the original source material (the novel ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris). Up to this point, Bryan Fuller has grabbed bits and pieces of Harris’ four Hannibal Lecter novels and rearranged and repurposed them as he saw fit. From appearances, it seems that the remainder of this season will be dedicated to the ‘Red Dragon’ story, which has already been told in two separate feature films (Michael Mann’s 1986 ‘Manhunter’ and Brett Ratner’s 2002 ‘Red Dragon’). While I’m sure that he’ll still have some surprises in store, the biggest danger Fuller faces is venturing into familiar territory.
That opening sequence introduces us to a new serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), and the episodes wastes no time letting us know that he’s a massive freak. Without hearing him speak a word, we watch as he develops an obsession with William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun.” Feeling a kinship with the beast depicted, he tries to emulate it by building up his muscles, contorting his body into a similar pose, tattooing his entire back with a huge image of the painting, and purchasing custom dentures with a monstrous bitemark. Also, in case you didn’t get that he’s nuts, he murders people on a lunar cycle, whole families at a time. He bites the corpses to leave his imprint, which has earned him the nickname “The Tooth Fairy” in the press. He does not care for the name.
Three years have passed since Hannibal’s capture. He resides in a curiously baroque and well-appointed cell in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (The room seems to change appearance in different scenes, which suggests that the show is just being fanciful and we’re seeing the way Hannibal envisions his accommodations.) Alana Bloom informs him that his insanity plea has been successful and he will be spared the death penalty, though she knows that he’s not insane. What he is cannot be easily defined.
Hannibal is allowed to cook for Dr. Chilton, and cheekily serves him blood pudding – made from animal blood this time, he assures him. The last time he made the dish for Chilton, not so much. Chilton has published a bestselling book about Hannibal the Cannibal that made the both of them celebrities, but he gloats that his next book won’t have anything to do with Hannibal. His novelty has worn off. The public has moved on to other interests. These days, the Tooth Fairy is the hot new serial killer that has captured the public’s imagination.
It turns out that Chilton was just visiting the hospital. Alana is in charge now. She informs him that Hannibal has written an article that will be published in a prominent psychiatric journal to refute the lies and exaggerations Chilton told about him in his book. Chilton is unconcerned that anyone would believe a serial killer over him.
Lecter has naturally taken an interest in the Tooth Fairy as well, and saves newspaper clippings about the murders. In a montage, we see that Dolarhyde is saving the same articles in a crazy journal.
Will Graham doesn’t appear in the episode until halfway through. He’s left the FBI. He still lives in the woods, but now has a wife named Molly and an 11-year-old stepson. When Jack Crawford visits, he knows exactly what he’s there for and immediately refuses. He doesn’t want to be dragged back to his old life. However, Molly tells Will that he’ll never forgive himself if the Tooth Fairy murders another family and he didn’t do anything to stop it. When Hannibal sends him a collection of the newspaper articles with a very nice letter suggesting that it would be better for Will’s mental health if he stayed away from the case, that of course pushes Will to accept. This was no doubt Lecter’s intent, and I’m sure Will knows it.
Soon, Will finds himself examining the house of the Tooth Fairy’s last victims, and reliving the crime in a detailed vision. Doing so leads to the discovery of a fingerprint on the dead wife’s eyeball, which was missed during the initial autopsy. Will tells Jack that in order to fully get back into the old mindset, he will have to talk to Hannibal Lecter again.
This is a very good episode overall, but I must admit that it’s very strange and a little uncomfortable to watch the show tell a story that most fans surely already know, either from the book or the previous two movies. Also, if this is the direction the show has to go, the episode feels very much like a season premiere, as if a whole season should be dedicated to this. Coming in the middle of the season with no break since the last episode is jarring. Of course, I suppose that couldn’t be helped. NBC has canceled the show, and the episodes we have left this season are all we’ll get. There’s no time to do it but now. I just hope Bryan Fuller has some tricks up his sleeve that he plans to pull out.