When we first see Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), he’s sitting in what appears to be a cafeteria, having coffee, looking over a Time magazine with rapt fascination. On the cover is a reprint of William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, one of several paintings the poet and artist produced depicting images of a seven-headed, 10-horned monster from the Book of Revelation. Francis turns the magazine’s pages and finds within them an even more striking image in the series, a reprint of the nearly identically titled The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. The paintings cumulatively dramatize both sides of a single image: In the first, we see the front of a woman as she’s descended on by the dragon, and in the second, we’re behind them, looking predominantly on the dragon’s powerful, startlingly sexualized back, which is rippled with muscle, supporting great sprouting wings and a coiled tail that suggests a phallus. In the first painting the woman is accorded dramatic agency, and our empathy is drawn to her; in the second, she’s seen cowering between the dragon’s legs, our senses primarily taken with its power over her. It’s this power that transfixes Francis.
“The Great Red Dragon” opens on a close-up of Francis’s hand, as he’s contorting it, stretching it, striving to render it larger beyond the limitations of its corporeal form. Something about the tone and tenor of this sequence recalls the first time we see the Joker, his back to us on the streets of Gotham City, in The Dark Knight. Both scenes connote the tension of a certainly catastrophic Beginning, the image of Francis’s hand segueing into a phenomenal, wordless pre-credits montage in which we see him becoming the Red Dragon. We see Francis in an attic, clad only in tight, rump-hugging black underwear, bending his considerable back, legs, and arms in wavy, undulating, yoga-esque fashions that mirror his prior movements with his hand. Frustrated, or ashamed of his cleft lip and palate, Francis smashes a mirror, looking into its shards, over which we hear subtle sounds of stirring. Francis is searching for the Dragon in these shards, and we’re searching too (most notably when the stirring sound later intensifies over suggestive images of film flickering in and out over the light of a projector). Then, we’re in a Chinese tattoo parlor, as an artist goes to work on Francis in close-ups that emphasize his skin as merely fabric for a needle, as material necessary for a Becoming. Then, a pawn shop that appears to have sprung straight from the realm of noir-tinged nightmares, as the world beyond its windows, which we should be able to see from inside, are shrouded in fog, red light, and darkness. Francis buys a pair of snaggle-toothed dentures, then unveils himself back in his attic: a strong, frightening man with Blake’s dragon now on his back. Of course, it’s clear that something’s been on this person’s figurative back for a great long while.
In just five minutes, Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller and his many collaborators, including this episode’s director, Neil Marshall, capture an element of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon that has mostly eluded its two prior film adaptations: Francis’s pitifulness and operatic self-loathing. Audience members who’ve read the book will admittedly have a head start over everyone else, reading into this montage facets of the antagonist’s personality that have yet to be parceled out by the showrunners. But Francis’s torment comes through in these scenes either way, particularly when he smashes the mirror in his attic with a close-up tying that action to his cleft lip. Immediately, this episode establishes a pull between objective and subjective reality that’s always been important to Hannibal and that will particularly serve the Red Dragon arc. Francis clearly sees himself as hideous, while we look upon him and see a man with a remarkable body and commanding gait. The notion of Francis as a hunk came as a quiet but pivotal shock in the book, when he began a relationship with a blind woman who told him how their co-workers saw him; until that point, via words, we only had Francis’s horribly unflattering view of himself. This surprise can’t be maintained in a visual medium, but the loss of this perspectival rift—as a twist, at least— reaps other, richer resonances.
Francis is estranged from society, destined to regard it from the outside, because he’s imprisoned like most of us (hopefully in considerably less dramatic contexts) within a version of life produced by his mind. Fuller and Marshall point this irony up whenever given the opportunity. The papers reporting the Tooth Fairy’s murders (an inadvertent nickname that only affirms Francis’s hopelessness and righteousness) mention that the victims were “perfect families.” The two families that Francis murders each had an assuring nuclear arrangement that he feels a freak like him can never enjoy, and so a ledger-settling reckoning must occur. The Red Dragon’s rise suggestively parallels Will Graham’s (Hugh Dancy) own feelings of uncertainty. Early in the series, Will said that he barely knew what a family was, but now, three years after the events of the prior episode, “Digestivo,” he’s married to a beautiful woman, Molly (Nina Arianda), living a rustic, romantic cabin life. Though one senses, especially in an awkward line about the height of Molly’s son from a previous marriage, that Will doesn’t feel he deserves this arrangement. Or, perhaps more exactingly, he feels as if he’s inadequately playing a role that wasn’t written for him.
In Harris’s book, and in Michael Mann’s film Manhunter, Will was tormented in a conventionally macho, man-of-few-words fashion. But Dancy has always played the character with a more compelling degree of vulnerability. Will’s power to “empathize” with killers, which occasionally resembles astral projection, is likened to the behavior of a sensitive, gifted, often frightened child. Which is to say that we’re actually afraid for Will when he’s inevitably recruited by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), who’s somehow magically the director of the F.B.I. again, to hunt the Red Dragon down. Will is being forced, in the manner of a recovering addict, to do battle with the demons of his past in a showdown that threatens the stability he’s finally managed to achieve. Francis and Will are simpatico, and that was always underscored by the book and the movies, but, for once, this similarity is imbued with real emotional undertow. Will’s new endangerment only exacerbates the disillusionment and self-pity that drive both him and Francis: They know they are never meant to have what the squares accept as a given.
Another telling deviation from Red Dragon: Here, as Molly wants Will to go after the serial killer, she’s essentially on Jack’s side, while she was a standard-issue disapproving wife in the book. Superficially, this change registers as a progressive unwillingness to paint Molly in a reductive corner, but, textually deeper down, it echoes a gifted person’s fear that their gifts are the only reason anyone might be attracted to them, which is a roundabout way of acknowledging one of the reasons that men often come to greatly resent women: because they feel the latter are only after what they can quantifiably offer (a sentiment Francis understands all too well). This alteration informs Will’s search for Francis with that much more urgency, particularly when the former explores the house where the latter murdered the Leeds family, having to relive, in essence, his own prior life as a suggestive outsider.
This longing intensifies the dread of a terrific set piece in which Will shines his flashlight over the empty Leeds bedrooms. Briefly, within the strand of his light, are the ghosts of the Leeds corpses, which disappear to show the room as it presently is—bloody, with an elaborate sculpture of string to illustrate splatter patterns—as soon it shines elsewhere. It’s a brief, chilling effect that primes the aesthetic well for Will’s total projection into Francis’s psyche. When we finally see the telltale image of a golden pendulum swinging, it suggests a transformation of Will that mirrors the early scenes where Francis contorted his body. Both men are trying to will transcendence out of emotional desolation. When Will looks upon the Leeds corpses, with shards of mirror placed on their facial orifices, he senses the humbling appreciation that Francis sought. (We’re also allowed to see an image to which Will isn’t yet privy: of Francis immediately in the wake of one of the murders, outside the victims’ house, shivering from the coldness of the weather and from a sense of orgasmic completion, bathed in blood in a manner befitting Countess Báthory.)
“The Great Red Dragon” underscores a basic, rarely acknowledged truth of serial-killer stories, fiction and nonfiction alike: that they’re about class. There’s a reason some people on the fringe of society have unconscionably embraced Charles Manson as a hero, for instance: He went to the house of rich, good-looking people and destroyed them, acquainting them with a pain that brought them down to size. This is why serial killers are often portrayed, even in Hannibal, as über-brilliant rock stars, though this embittered, morally unjustifiable tendency is slyly subverted in the portion of this episode that pertains directly to Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen). Officially ruled insane and un-executable, our titular prince of darkness is now housed in the Baltimore State Hospital in quarters that surpass the living conditions of most people in the world. Hannibal’s cell isn’t the dungeon seen in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, but a large, chic study with a drafting table, books, and artwork. Furthermore, Hannibal uses his own gifts for actively controlling perspectival rifts to imagine the cell as a great Florence flat with a wide, walk-in fireplace. This is how we usually see the cell, as an apparition of Hannibal’s memory palace, which allows Fuller and company to stage Hannibal’s scenes as if he’s barely been imprisoned at all, preserving the balance of his power relationships with the other characters.
As a prisoner, Hannibal still manages to upstage Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raúl Esparza), who was once his rival and colleague and is now his captor. Chilton wrote a book about Hannibal that no one respects, while Hannibal publishes greatly anticipated articles in The American Journal of Psychiatry. Chilton, ever envious, does land one good punchline at Hannibal’s expense, telling him that he’s yesterday’s news in the wake of the Tooth Fairy: “He does have a much wider demographic than you do. You, with your fancy allusions, your fussy aesthetic, you will always have niche appeal.” Chilton is also obviously talking about the series we’re watching, now canceled and potentially finishing its final season, in a meta wink that offers a dark gallows reprieve from the despairing Will/Francis storyline, which burns at a slow, obsessive pace that contrasts pointedly with the quasi-comic excess of “Digestivo.” Though Hannibal, as always, gets the best line, telling Chilton that the dessert he’s now eating (yes, Hannibal’s even allowed to cook in this one-percenter pleasure cruise that Chilton calls institutionalization), was once served to him with the blood of a cow that was only a cow “in a derogatory sense.” Now that Hannibal has become the ultimate celebrity leach, will Francis reawaken his artistic instincts?
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