“The Great Red Dragon” represents a realignment for Hannibal as it enters the last half of its third (and most likely but hopefully not final) season. Hannibal Lecter is now imprisoned behind his glass cage, a familiar sight to those who’ve been through past versions of Lecter’s stories, and there’s a new monster on the loose for Will Graham and the F.B.I. to chase. It’s been three years since Lecter gave himself up to the authorities, and in the meantime Will has healed his wounds, retired peacefully, and is living with his new wife and son. But while Lecter resides in his rather unusually luxurious cell, the new killer by the name of the Tooth Fairy has begun making a name for himself, and the two murderers are curiously interested in one another’s activities.
The arrival of the Tooth Fairy, real name Francis Dolarhyde, also shows a shift in the directorial approach to the rest of the season. Whereas Vincenzo Natali’s back-to-back-to-back opening season three episodes brought the show deeper and deeper into the hallucinogenic mindscapes of its characters, Neil Marshall returns the show to a more grounded state of being. Visually, the show is as magnificent as ever, but Marshall’s work here literalizes the surreal and brings it more definitively into the real world, which is never more apparent than in the Tooth Fairy’s wordless scenes.
Free of any dialogue, Richard Armitage manages to create and solidify the Tooth Fairy’s presence and characterization purely through his physical performance. Dolarhyde is fascinated by the Red Dragon painting by William Blake; he wants to become the Red Dragon, to transform into its very being. Armitage conveys this entirely in his body language and the camera’s focus on his body musculature to portray this “transformation.” Dolarhyde murders his victims in methodically planned fashion, yet the bigger ritual is his personal journey as he obsesses over physically perfecting his body, even as his cleft lip remains a torturous reminder of his imperfection.
For Will, who is pulled out of his peaceful existence by Jack once again, the Tooth Fairy represents a different breed of killer than he’s used to. During the long-awaited return of Will’s “killer vision,” brought forth by the familiar sway of the golden pendulum, the manner in which Will plays out the murders is decidedly different than the bizarre and painterly crimes that the show made its mark with early on. Instead, the Tooth Fairy’s killing of the Leeds family is stark and brutal, fetishistic in its attention to detail but directly violent in a way that highlights the horror of the scenario rather than the detached sense of grotesque beauty that viewers have become accustomed to with the show in prior episodes. The final image of the sequence beautifully connects back to Dolarhyde’s transformation arc as Will touches Mrs. Leeds and the red crime scene strings lift up into wing shapes and glow red.
Given how much Hannibal mixed and matched material from the novels earlier in the season, it’s curious to note how faithful the writers are to Thomas Harris’ original Red Dragon text. Of course, with six episodes to expand the story rather than the two hours of a standard movie, this still leaves room for them to play around with the material to their liking in the future. What sets this iteration apart from previous film versions Manhunter and Red Dragon is the shifted context of characterization that the previous two and half seasons provide to these events. When Jack asked Will to return to the FBI in the past versions, he came across as a friend and a mentor extending his hand out in need of help.
Through Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy’s portrayals, there’s a different vibe to their conversation, particularly since Jack’s use of Will’s abilities in the past has ranged from questionable to dangerously negligent. Then there’s Hannibal and Will themselves, both of whom were merely acquaintances previously but now have multiple seasons of television that fleshed out their relationship in a way that wasn’t possible before. The two don’t come face to face until the last moments of “The Great Red Dragon,” but the connection they share will surely add greater weight to scenes and moments that Harris had not achieved when he originally wrote the novel that kickstarted this entire Lecter franchise.
EPISODE RATING: 9/10