July 25, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), NBC
Depending upon your approach to Hannibal and your feelings about the work of Thomas Harris, “The Great Red Dragon” may feel like either the cherry on top of the sundae this show has been, or like the main course is finally arriving just before the restaurant closes for good. In some sense, everything to this point has been a building action to that moment when Will Graham finally greets Hannibal Lecter with a wall of glass separating them. It’s an iconic moment, and its one that signifies everything is in its right place. One of the things “The Great Red Dragon” does incredibly well is signify the emotional and temporal space between it and “Digestivo” (an explosively marvelous episode I unfortunately didn’t get the chance to write about). Yet as the opening act of what will be the most direct adaptation Hannibal has yet done, the episode gives every indication the show won’t lose itself in the source material.
The cold open, which introduces us to Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) is fascinatingly eerie, a wordless evocation of madness rising up in the man who will be the tragic antagonist of this piece. Dubbed The Tooth Fairy by the media, Dolarhyde has ritualistically slaughtered two families already when the story opens, forcing Jack Crawford to track down Will Graham and bring him back into the fold to catch a monster so operatic in his madness, only the man who crawled inside the mind of Hannibal Lecter is capable of comprehending the depravity. We find Will married to Molly (Nina Arianda, granting the character the sort of grounded inner light she needs to work within the narrow confines this story has for her, while also imbuing her with enough humanity you can imagine her as a person rather than a trope being exercised on the audience) and enjoying a modicum of peace, such that even Hannibal (disingenuously, one must imagine) suggests Will not answer Jack’s call. “As a friend, I would encourage you not to step back through the door he holds open,” Hannibal writes. “It’s dark on the other side, and madness is waiting.” It’d a beautiful, terrifying idea, and that line alone gives real weight to the moral decision Will makes here. Paradise is his to lose, but Will Graham is a world-wear hero. He’ll go demon hunting once again, no matter the toll it takes. It’s a job that may destroy him, but someone has to carry that weight.
“The Great Red Dragon” is structured to make us feel an emotional distance from “Digestivo,” even as the episode aired just a week ago. I watched the two back-to-back (due to the hectic schedule that kept me from writing about that episode), and yet I still felt a rush seeing Will and Hannibal meet after so long, despite the fact that “so long,” for me, was about 43 minutes. This is because the episode nakedly evokes some of the trappings the show has shed so far this season. Seeing Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams back as Jimmy and Zeller for the first time this season, or seeing that pendulum swing as Will forces himself to relive Dolarhyde’s crimes pulls us as an audience into a headspace we haven’t occupied in quite some time. It’s a neat trick, and one that mirrors Will’s journey as he steps reluctantly back into a world he long ago left behind. It also gives the emergence of Dolarhyde as an antagonist a lot more weight than he might have had arising on a show that had remained a killer-of-the-week procedural to this point.
For all the issues the first half of this season had, and there were many, it served to give both “Mizumono” and “The Great Red Dragon” room to breathe and to function on their own as momentous chapters in a larger narrative. If Hannibal looks more like it did in its first two seasons for the rest of this one, that will feel both fresh and comforting after our European adventures. Slipping into this case after time away also has the feel of cracking open a new crime novel featuring favorite characters you haven’t visited in a while. Red Dragon was the first book to feature Hannibal Lecter, yet the character is one with a history there, a history this show has been playing out for us for seasons now. The moment when Will sees his old friend, colleague, and greatest catch is one that has weight in the story because Lecter has been built up for us; we understand his significance in the narrative and are excited to see him actually arrive on the scene. Here, it has much greater import because we have seen the tumultuous, nuanced relationship between Will and Hannibal for years now. We know the exquisite torture Hannibal has put Will through firsthand. We have seen the carnival of horrors, so it means something that it has come back into town.
The fraught relationship between Will and Hannibal is a central dynamic of the source material, but its one that Bryan Fuller has wrought beautifully so far on this show. We know what each of these men is going through when they meet for the first time in years. We know the mixture of nerves, excitement, and dread that this meeting must evoke in Will. We know that Will’s arrival is giving Hannibal exactly what he wants, and what he has put himself in a cage to achieve. So much has happened between these men; so much is broken that can never be fixed. The teacup will never come back together, but to stop the Red Dragon from rising, they will have to learn to sweep up the pieces. It’s incredibly exciting stuff, and after wandering a bit in the first half of the season, the show seems fully equipped to deliver it at the top of its game.
- “Blood and chocolate. That should have been the title of my book. But I promised myself I would never use a colon in my titles. Colons lose their novelty when overused.”
- “You, with your fancy allusions and your fussy aesthetics. You will always have niche appeal.” Chilton, basically speaking on the show itself
- “I would be cautious. The Young Turk may inspire the Old Lithuanian to keep himself interesting.”
- “I’ve come too far to let the cold stop me.” “Why should the cold stop what common sense couldn’t?”
- “If I go…I’ll be different when I get back.”
- “Is there an opinion that you want, Will?” “There’s a mindset I need to recover.”
“The Great Red Dragon” is structured to make us feel an emotional distance from “Digestivo,” even as the episode aired just a week ago.