WARNING: This review contains spoilers
The teaser of The Great Red Dragon is not an unfamiliar one to fannibals who saw this as a promo for the SDCC 2015 Pannibal. This sequence of pure television (see Alfred Hitchcock’s idea of Pure Cinema) introduces us to Francis Dolarhyde; the much anticipated serial killer from Harris’s first Lecter novel, Red Dragon. Dolarhyde is introduced to us through a typically incontinous montage. He is encoded immediately with the disequilibrium that he will bring; we find Dolarhyde in alien surroundings, at least to those unfamiliar with the canon. His environs are meant to be strange to us, and his buttoned down and restrained appearance conjure connections with the dystopian vision of 1984. Here we see him study an article in Time magazine on the work of apocalyptic painter William Blake. He is drawn to the image of one Blake’s most famous works; The Red Dragon. It’s not made clear if this is the first time that he has seen this image, but we know that it speaks to him; we see him exercise in his attic in shots that draw attention to his musculature in a manner which mirrors the painting. This is followed by shots which depict the process of him being tattooed, and then a reveal of the tattoo; a replica of the body of Blake’s Red Dragon now laid onto Dolarhyde’s own back. We see him procure a set of uneven and imperfect false teeth. Initially, this seems an enigmatic act but is explained by the end of the episode. Another metamorphosis is being conveyed to us, one that it is similar to the transformation undergone by Randall Tier; Dolarhyde is attempting to externally manifest his internal identity. Later, Dolarhyde is revealed naked and covered in blood, animalistically communing with the full moon. As ever, the crimes have happened in the off screen space, but he is clearly the new killer on the block, and one who will become a primary focus for the subsequent episodes.
Of course, this introduction is not an unexpected one even if you haven’t been paying attention to the publicity surrounding the show. Following on from last week’s climactic and game changing Digestivo, The Great Red Dragon conveys for us (and not just through the new approach to episode naming) the factors that will be narrative shaping in the back half of this third (and with any luck, not final) season. Dolarhyde is foregrounded, but we also have a complimentary montage which takes us and Hannibal from his arrest outside Will’s Wolf Trap home to incarceration in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. We see him processed, whilst newspaper headlines are layered behind him reinforcing the conventional tabloid attention in such figures. Tattle Crime is a contributor, which forewarns us of the reappearance of Freddie Lounds in latter episodes. The accompanying score is calmly classical and there are shots of locations we know to feature as part of Hannibal’s mind palace. The message is that Lecter is in no way distressed or perturbed by his incarceration. His ultimate accommodation is a far cry from the damp, dank and dark cell that Will occupied in the first half of season 2. In fact, his ‘cell’ is not dissimilar to his Baltimore house; roomy with classical styling. This luxury, we assume, is motivated by Chilton’s need for Hannibal’s cooperation in exploiting his notoriety.
A black screen gives us a significant intertitle: “Three Years Later”. We learn that Alana is now head of the BSHCI and so there is likely some reflection in Hannibal’s state of incarceration of the debt she feels she owes him for admitting to Mason Verger’s murder. He reminds her of this debt and then reminds her of his promise to kill her. It seems likely that she will not survive the season. We need our cannibal to continue to be the ‘apex predator’ to remain even remotely threatening. Their quietly hostile conversation delivers some exposition – Hannibal has escaped the death penalty as he successfully used insanity as a defence plea.
During this exchange, Alana describes him as “entirely other”; an apt identifier, despite his status as a white male. This idea is useful in understanding both Lecter and Dolarhyde; Lecter is othered not just because of his nationality and the brilliant casting and performance of Mikkelsen in the role, but in the rational, quiet and nonplussed way in which he conducts himself in his incarceration.
Dolarhyde is othered differently to Lecter. Through the lack of dialogue which dehumanises him, his cleft lip and the way that Armitage’s performance as well as the technical and creative language of the episode, we recognise a character who is disciplined and controlled whilst also clearly conveying his psychological turmoil. The sequence which shows him covered in film stock of his crimes with the light of the projector shining though his eyes and mouth clearly help us see him as monster-like. Similarly, his MO which includes smashing mirrors allows for some shots of him which clearly connote his fractured and disturbed personality. What makes him more interesting, though, is that he is clearly shown to be struggling with the more monstrous side of his personality; his reaction to the seemingly external sounds of a dragon-like creature and deafening ringing relate the internal battle Dolarhyde wages.
Il Monstro/The Chesapeake Ripper and The Tooth Fairy are connected in the narrative more directly. A conversation between Lecter and Chilton illuminates Hannibal’s awareness of Dolarhyde, and in a sequence which intercuts Hannibal reading about ‘The Tooth Fairy’ with newspaper clippings about Lecter in Dolarhyde’s chronicle of his own becoming. There is a reciprocal interest between the two killers which lays the groundwork for a mentor/mentee relationship. Chilton characterises the two as a pair in the episode as a “Young Turk” and an “Old Lithuanian”.
The latter half of the episode shifts focus to Will and Jack. Will is implicitly introduced by a wide wintery establishing shot of a substantial rural homestead and the barking of dogs. His new-found equilibrium is disrupted by Jack, ever the dispatcher and herald. Jack’s plea to Will to help out with the Tooth Fairy case not only allows for further exposition but also re-establishes Jack back in the FBI. Furthermore, these moments mirror the first interaction the two had in Aperitif which allows the audience to see how different this Will is; he doesn’t shy away from eye contact, and has a wife and a step-son conveying his ability now to be “sociable”. This Will is more stable and settled, despite his ordeal. Jack still pushes for Will’s participation, except now both Will and he recognise the cost of that for Will. Molly Graham is introduced as Will’s moral anchor. She encourages him to agree to Jack’s request because it is the right thing to do.
It seems that Will’s participation in the Tooth Fairy investigation is not cemented by Jack or Molly though. Instead a warning from Lecter not to get involved is the deciding factor. By burning the letter which contained the warning, Will signals his rejection of his old friend’s influence.
We then cut to Will at the Leeds family crime scene. He walks through the dark and empty house. He momentarily sees the bodies of the family without the pre-cursor of the light pendulum suggesting his abilities are coming back easily to him. Finally, though, in the bedroom of Mr and Mrs Leeds, he focuses and the familiar light, change in colour palette and thrumming sound give us Will Graham properly on the case again. He walks through the crime as Dolarhyde explaining his actions. Conversely to the expectations of the show, there is no aesthetic pleasure in these crimes. These are brutal murders and thankfully there is no overt revelling in the violence and no focus on the particular ordeal of Mrs Leeds, unlike in the canon. There is no beauty until we have a wide shot of Will following the murders, with the red thread markers splaying out behind him like dragon wings, emphasising the mythic quality of this killer. However, this moment is subverted as Will spots something which seems incongruous to the crime scene which is conveyed to us through a corruption of his usual affirmation whilst in light pendulum mode; he says “This isn’t my design”.
His confusion following his walk through is emphasised through a conventional post-mortem dialogue scene with Zeller and Price. This is a scene which allows some hint of the sexual violence from the canon without explicitly depicting it. This will please many viewers who have praised Fuller’s efforts to not fall into the conventional crime trope of exploiting female victimhood and equating this with sexual violence. The reintroduction of Zeller and Price help to re-establish Will’s new equilibrium and ability to be a valuable and functional asset to the investigation, even if they, like us, find this return to normality a bit strange.
Of course, though, the enigma posed by crime scene for Will will only lead him in one direction. Interestingly he doesn’t need to be coaxed or coerced to walk through that door. He asks Jack to see Lecter. The final scene of the episode mirrors the final scene in season one, with Will and Hannibal on opposite sides of barriers of incarceration. The greeting dialogue is mirrored too to further reinforce how far they’ve come. Interestingly though, Will’s approach to Lecter is located not in the BSHCI but in the Norman Chapel in Palermo, a key location in the first few episodes of the season. It’s significant because we know that this location is part of both Hannibal and Will’s mind palaces. Therefore, it’s inclusion here for this meeting suggests the two meeting emotionally and intellectually in the same place with full knowledge and recognition of their shared past. Neither will deny the significance of each other. This is made slightly more bitter for Will knowing that Hannibal’s surrender was about facilitating this exact reunion, motivated by Will’s rejection of him. As always, we can expect no happy or bloodless resolution.
Check back with us next week for a review of episode nine …And the Woman Clothed with the Sun on Thursday 30th July, City TV, 10/9c in Canada, Saturday 1st August, NBC 10/9c or Wednesday 5th August Sky Living at 10pm in the UK.
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