To this day, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris remains one of my absolute favorite books of all time. In a broad pop culture context, it’s essential in that it’s the novel that introduced the world to the Hannibal Lecter character. In a more macro sense, it marked one of the first modern-day, best-selling books to truly add an intensive psychological element to the detective novel in the form of its unorthodox hero. As presented in the novel’s pages, Will Graham is a highly damaged man cursed with the ability to delve into the minds of the sick criminals he pursues. Reading about Will’s mental state, it’s not at all hard to believe that, given the right circumstances, he might very well have become one of the disturbed individuals he helped put away.
Since then, this trope of a specialized investigator who can “get into the mind of the killer” has become such a trite and hackneyed premise of so many various novels, film and TV shows that it’s perhaps inevitable that some of Red Dragon’s initial impact has been diminished in the decades of creative photocopying.
As good as the original source material remains, it would take a real visionary to make such a story feel original and relevant again. Enter Bryan Fuller and the rest of the Hannibal creative team. Presented as the first installment of a six-episode arc, “The Great Red Dragon” quickly dives into the heart of darkness, resulting in a truly unnerving but visually sumptuous hour of television.
The tone is set right from the start, with the pre-credits teaser quickly stabling the “origin story” of Francis Dolarhyde, the man who will become known as “The Tooth Fairy.” In the course of a few minutes, we see Dolarhyde become captivated by a Time magazine cover of William Blake’s “Red Dragon painting,” engrave an elaborate tattoo on his back as to better resemble the drawing, buy a pair of crooked teeth dentures and awaken from what appears to be a splitting headache covered in the blood of his victims.
From here, the show establishes that it has been three years since the events of “Digestivo.” Hannibal is locked up in his iconic transparent prison, having beaten most of the ensuing murder charges due to an insanity defense. A visit from Frederick Chilton finds the good doctor learning of a hot new murderer set to dethrone The Chesapeake Ripper’s place as the media’s most talked about serial killer.
What’s interesting about these early scenes with Chilton is just how meta the show seems to go. Indeed, this is like latter half of Arrested Development Season Three-level meta. “Like overuse of punctuation, the novelty of Hannibal Lecter has waned,” Chilton comments before adding that The Tooth Fairy has a “much wider demographic…you, with your fancy allusions, fussy aesthetics, you’ll always have niche appeal.” The Tooth Fairy, in summary, is a “four quadrant killer.” At this moment, Chilton may very well be a network executive explaining to Bryan Fuller why his weird ass show will never be a hit with mainstream audiences. At least the Hannibal crew is having fun with its self-proclaimed “niche” status.
Will, meanwhile, has tried his best to move on from the madness that had engulfed him. In the interval time since “Digestivo,” he has met and married a woman named Molly and is now serving as stepfather to her young preteen son. Just as in the book, Will is brought back into the fold after a visit from Jack Crawford, who explains that several families have been found massacred by The Tooth Fairy and they need Will’s help to locate him before anyone else dies. Given all the hell that Jack knows Will has gone through as a result of his various investigations in Season One, it’s a bit odd that he can be so casual in making this request, even if it is an urgent matter. Then again, it has been three years so perhaps Jack believes Will is healthy enough to handle one last case.
Will, however, is not as confident. As he relates to Molly that night, he’s almost positive that, if he accepts the assignment, he will come back to her a very different person. Molly ultimately gives him her blessing and he travels to the scene of The Tooth Fairy’s most recent massacre. In what feels like the first time since early Season Two, we again bear witness to Will’s mental reconstruction of a crime scene. It’s both a thrilling and horrifying prospect—thrilling in that such sequences are such technically lush feats of filmmaking and horrifying in that you end up with the visuals of Will slitting people’s throats and shooting children. As one would expect, the episode all builds to the moment that Will realizes that he needs help and pays a visit to Dr. Lecter’s cell.
Because it acts as the opening entry of a long-form story, “The Great Red Dragon” suffers from a few inherent issues; namely, the episode must spend a good chunk of its running time catching audiences up on where each of the characters have ended up. It’s here that one realizes why Season Three’s technique of gradually revealing the fates of each of its characters proved to be such an effective strategy. As such, certain scenes, including Alana’s conversation with Hannibal towards the beginning, feel a tad clunky in execution.
That being said, any nitpicks are all but overwhelmed by the way the episode handles its titular character . As Francis Dolarhyde, actor Richard Armitage delivers an all but silent performance, communicating almost solely through grunts and body language. What’s more, episode director Neil Marshall films Dolarhyde’s pre-kill hysterics almost like the moment in a horror movie where a man starts transforming into a werewolf, complete with a quasi-epileptic filming style and a pain-stricken performance from its actor. Time will tell how well Armitage holds a candle to his predecessors, including Manhunter’s Tom Noonan and Red Dragon’s Ralph Fiennes but he’s certainly off to an impressive start.
“The Great Red Dragon” provides an excellent intro to the season’s final big arc. From a writing standpoint, I’m just happy that the show will now be using episodes titles that don’t require me to cut-and-paste and/or constantly spellcheck. In all seriousness though, it’s an exciting prospect to see one of my favorite novels being filtered through the mind of one of my favorite TV scribes. It’s truly a fan fiction-esque melding of minds that I couldn’t be more excited to see play out.