In which it’s dark on the other side, and madness is waiting.
“One small event, which occurs in everyone, told the seed in his skull it was Time: Standing by the north window, examining some film, he noticed aging in his hands. It was if thought his hands, holding the film, had suddenly appeared before him and he saw in the good north light that the skin had slackened over the bones and tendons and his hands were creased in diamonds as small as lizard scales…..Now in his forties, he was seized by a fantasy life with a brilliance and freshness and immediacy of childhood. It took him a step beyond Alone.”
(Red Dragon/Thomas Harris)
It’s such a simple occurrence, this genesis of the Red Dragon into the life of Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage). The two previously filmed version of the Tooth Fairy’s reign of terror have their disturbing charms, but they’ve both downplayed the power of this brief moment out of time. The manner in which DP James Hawkinson opens “The Great Red Dragon”, with a tight close-up of Francis’s hands, their mildly aging crevices, like those aforementioned Harris-ian lizardly diamonds, bathed in stark Cobalt blue, offers a precise study of the utter banality from whence such monstrous impulses can spring. So trained have we become to expect logical progression of trauma as motivator for psychosis (especially in the serial killer mythos of literature and film), that it’s easy to forget what a potent trigger something as innocuous as a magazine article can be. Of course, we know from his previous incarnations that Francis Dolarhyde comes packed with decades of trauma and repression which act as the tinder for his fiery transformation. But in the moment, in that moment, Harris (and now Bryan Fuller) paints a portrait of the twin universal impulses that are the recognition of age and the fantasy of regeneration.
Or maybe revelation would be the more operative word here, laden as it is with the Biblical overtones that first drove William Blake to commit his apocalyptic visions of that legendary Satanic beast to the canvas. Like the mad prophets and shamans before him, Francis is merely a common man opening himself up as a vessel for the divine message that seemingly has been waiting for him his entire life. Of course, Travis Bickle also opened himself up for a message. But that sense of purpose, that drive to transcend a pedestrian life, is not merely the provenance of the deranged. It’s at the heart of the American Dream, the ability to reinvent oneself at any time and from any strata. The Dream that (as Frederick Chilton notes later on…more on him in a bit) Francis will commit himself so assiduously to shattering with his ritual annihilation of the family unit.
Reinvention and rebirth are key to much of what “The Great Red Dragon” offers up on its menu. Having sacrificed himself at the altar of his twisted relationship with Will, Hannibal now resides, some three years later, in a designer cell inside Chilton’s Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s a wry rethinking of Lecter’s iconic dungeon cell from the Silence of the Lambs cycle (after all, we’ve already covered that ground with Eddie Izzard’s Anthony Hopkins-channeling Abel Gideon) which recasts Hannibal as almost a zoo animal on display, today’s refined cannibal in his natural habitat. On his Twitter account, Fuller notes that the inspiration for the cell is the sterile hotel room/apartment at the conclusion of 2001’s stargate sequence, another venue which symbolizes a profound sense of rebirth. And after all, isn’t there just a bit of Stanley Kubrick in Hannibal Lecter’s extravagant, yet clinical worldview?
Not that such a worldview ensures lasting notoriety, at least in this version of the Lecterverse. One of the great self-reflexive moments of this episode arrives during Hannibal and Chilton’s blood and chocolate suare, when the latter remarks on his new patient’s growing obsolescence:
“Like overused punctuation, the novelty of Hannibal Lecter has waned…The Tooth Fairy. I find folks are a bit more interested in him. He is the debutante. Although he lacks your love of presentation…It is not as snappy as Hannibal the Cannibal, but he does have a much wider demographic than you do. You, with your fancy allusions and your fussy aesthetics, you will always have niche appeal, but this fellow, there is something so universal about what he does. Kills whole families—and in their homes. Strikes at the very core of the American dream. You might say he’s a four quadrant killer”
In a four quadrant-obsessed entertainment market, Hannibal was always going to be a challenging proposition, especially in the major network setting. Creating a Hannibal Lecter (and a Will Graham) whose motivations and predilections are so diffuse and hazy offered little support for the prospects of mass acceptance. But it’s the richness of that character complexity that lends such weight and power to a Red Dragon tale that is drawn so faithfully from its source material. Indeed, it can be surprising for a longtime Lecterphile watching this episode to realize just how much of it they’ve seen before, so expertly has Bryan Fuller crafted the cinematic universe that forms the foundation for the narrative.
Witness Frederick Chilton himself, who in past versions of this tale claimed his spot as officious prick extraordinaire…and not much else, save for a future item on Hannibal’s plate. Fuller’s expansion of the character (greatly aided by the arch smugness and dry wit that Raul Esparza brings to the role) gives him room to breathe, to stretch out and become a fully realized human being who the audience actually sympathizes with when he’s framed as the Chesapeake Ripper. So when he gloats over his ownership of Hannibal during their meal, we laugh with more than condescension. He’s already gone through his own physical transformation at the hands of the vengeful Miriam Lass (which requires himself to transform himself every morning for presentation to the straight world), so to see him metamorphosize in the context of the story into the redeemed author of the best-selling Hannibal Lecter tome, returned to the throne of his house of horrors….well, it’s a delight. And he now works alongside Alana Bloom, whose gone through her own complex transformation process from quite possibly the show’s purest advocate for ethics and justice to a much more hardened observer of the human condition (Fuller also notes on Twitter how she’s gradually absorbed Hannibal’s penchant for designer suits.)
But metamorphosis and transformation come most prominently to Will, the character who’s dealt in such matters for most of the series’ run. As Jack visits his home to bring him back into the fold to investigate the Tooth Fairy killings, he’s firmly ensconced in a world of bucolic domesticity that seems entirely in line with the dream visions of fly fishing into which he retreated during his extended stay at Baltimore State in Season 2. But just beyond that sense of peace (what does Will do for money, anyway?), the dark world from which he’s retreated still exists. As he tells his wife Molly after Jack calls the tune, “If I go, I’ll be different when I get back.” She reassures him that she won’t, but in a way she’s ignoring the most glaring fact of the matter: Will may run from the darkness of his old life, but so much of that darkness resides within him. He just needs someone, or something, to draw it out.
And in Francis Dolarhyde he finds it, unwittingly or not. Both men fear the dark avatars of transformation/possession that stalk them (a dragon, a nightmare stag), yet both are also inherently drawn toward the possibility of embracing their primal instincts. We see Will’s happiness with his married life, but we’ve also seen two and a half seasons before this in which he’s found such sustenance and meaning in the embrace of his twin outcast Hannibal. The classic story of Will Graham: Tortured Profiler hunting the Tooth Fairy is compelling in its own right, but having witnessed Will’s fantasies of becoming the nightmare stag adds an entirely different and deeper heft to the proceedings. And in a brilliant sequence in this episode, Francis gains another thread of connection with his profiler, as he’s portrayed being consumed by the 16mm film he watches before eventually merging with the projector itself. What is Will, after all, but a similar projector of dead images from the past, who also projects himself into them. Their shared sense of vision (remember Garret Jacob Hobbs’s “See? See?” that plagued Will) places them both outside of society. Francis’s placement of mirrors in his victims’ orifices embeds him in their view. And what does Will see when he gazes deep within the reflective abyss? Himself. James Hawkinson’s beautiful, haunting framing of him against the blood splatter analyst’s crimson threads (the image that opens this essay) cements him as brother in pain to the lowly film developer, the Red Dragon’s wings fitting him as well as his disturbed counterpart.
If Hannibal is indeed doomed to oblivion following this season, then the Red Dragon story serves as a fitting epitaph for much of the show’s obsessions. For two and a half seasons, Hannibal and Will have debated the nature of God, his vengeful tendencies, his divine view from on high (one which Hannibal figuratively assumes, and once literally does), his theodicical existence. Leave it to the Revelations via Blake-inspired Francis Dolarhyde to bring this debate to a nihilistic conclusion. It’s interesting to note that after so many philosophical conversations between Will and Hannibal, it’s the virtually mute Francis (Armitage utters only a tortured yawp in this episode, no lines) who arrives to serve as the show’s possible final leveler of worlds, a silence that ushers in a void to match the darkest depths of Hannibal’s abyss.