In a 42-odd-minute episode, “The Great Red Dragon” immediately outdoes the enjoyable but shallow Red Dragon and, in a few key sequences, is a far more thoughtful and visually daring work than Michael Mann‘s excellent Manhunter. So firstly, hats off to Neil Marshall, the filmmaker behind the new-horror classic The Descent, for creating such a emotionally stirring, hypnotic entrance for Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage of The Hobbit), known in the media as The Tooth Fairy, a serial killer who executes then maims “perfect families” by wedging shards of mirror into their orifices. And although Hannibal now must live life in a cell, and Will has retired to the wintry country with his wife, Molly (Nina Arianda), and his stepson, the series hasn’t skipped a beat and certainly is no less dazzling in its red-tinted, shadowy expressionism than it was when it was just the two lovebirds chasing each other across Italy.
Perhaps the most dynamic element of the episode is the treatment of Dolarhyde, previously played exquisitely by both Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes in the aforementioned films. Armitage doesn’t utter a word as Dolarhyde, and Marshall, working from a script by Bryan Fuller, Nick Antosca, and Steve Lightfoot, smartly accentuates his physicality, his hands being manipulated into a claw-like form or his back muscles flexing, shifting in the hopes of dragon wings sprouting out suddenly. Even in an episode that saw the giddy return of the inimitable Scott Thompson as Special Agent Price and Aaron Abrams as Zeller, Armitage’s instantly unnerving performance dominated the episode, as the introduction of such a major character should, but never overwhelmed the palette.
A great deal of the rest of the episode dealt with the backstory that we missed in the 3-year time jump, but there was never any sense of these characters just pushing out as much story as possible. The action of the episode continued to stress concepts of belief (in humanity and the divine), the hardships and indulgences of craftsmanship, and the great psychological hemorrhages that these characters, with the notable exception of the titular inmate, have suffered. The early discussions between Hannibal, Alana, and the sniveling Dr. Chilton, played by Raúl Esparza, circle around the book that Chilton wrote about Hannibal and is planning to write about The Tooth Fairy, but the more personal undercurrent of these exchanges deals with matters of adaptation, both in terms of the arts and as humans. Indeed, one can nearly feel Fuller sneering at NBC, a network who has yet to adapt to the post-ratings era, when Chilton pontificates about how Hannibal is too “fussy” with his aesthetic and how The Tooth Fairy, in contrast, is a “four-quadrant” killer, utilizing a well-known marketing term to speak of dark, intimate matters of the heart and the brain.
The episode ends with Will and Hannibal reuniting on opposite sides of a cell wall, preparing for another tete-a-tete over a pile of dead bodies and a distinctly gifted murderer. Especially in the scenes involving Will, Fuller, Marshall, and the crew orchestrated a recognizable but purposefully unsteady return to the procedures of the first season and at least part of Season 2, complete with his light-metronome swipe that allows him to envision the Tooth Fairy’s last grisly crime. Life with a wife and son has changed Will, and returning to his dark zone of empathy to relate to these killers is no longer as familiar a process as it was when he was romancing Alana or sleeping with a member of the Verger clan. There’s a great scene where Will is suspended amongst a scattered plethora of crime scene photos, drifting amongst them without any sense of how to connect them to one another and find a path to Dolarhyde’s persona. In contrast, “The Great Red Dragon” seamlessly leads us into the final movement of what might very well be the last season of one of the boldest, most resonant and hugely inventive series to ever grace network television, and the best adaptation of Thomas Harris’ work outside of The Silence of the Lambs.
★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material