I’m going to start off this recap with a confession: Bryan Fuller’s approach to depicting the world of Thomas Harris’ novels is my favorite of the lot (including the one taken by Harris himself). While Harris’ imagination and deft plotting are to be admired, he doesn’t bring us inside the heads of his characters quite the way Fuller and his crack team of writers and directors do. Although Hannibal certainly has its flaws (more so than Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, for example), its vivid, grotesque and psychological imagery bring the viewer into Dr. Lecter’s universe in a way which no one else has.
This is all to introduce what makes “The Great Red Dragon” such an effective and engrossing hour of television. Although both Harris and Michael Mann give the viewer time alone with “Tooth Fairy” murderer Francis Dolarhyde in their tellings of his story, neither presents a visceral depiction of what it feels like to be him.
The same is not true of “The Great Red Dragon.” The teaser has more scenes than the average Hannibal pre-credits sequence, but it uses all of them to focus on various aspects of Dolarhyde’s life. The extreme close-up with which the show begins brings us not quite under, but directly next to, his skin, and his absorption with a Time article on William Blake shows us his visual obsessions. When he gets Blake’s painting tattooed on his back (shown through another gorgeous extreme close-up, this one phallic, of the tattoo pen), his obsession becomes even clearer.
But of all the images in the teaser, none are quite as powerful as the anguish on his face as he works out and his creepy, ballet-like return to an upright position. Richard Armitage’s visceral performance works wonders for evoking a deeply disturbed man, even without the aid of dialogue. Something is rotten in the Denmark of Dolarhyde’s mind, and Armitage’s pained faces and terrifying movements make that abundantly clear.
After the opening credits, we’re given a peek at the psyche of the murderer who’s dominated the show to date, but in a quite different way. Even though the initial image of Hannibal locked up shows where he now resides, he appears to be back in his office after the “Three Years Later” title card, talking to Alana about their sordid past with his straitjacket swapped for a suit.
But before we have too much time to wonder about how Hannibal got free, a clever bit of editing shows us where he really is: locked in a ward, declared “officially insane,” and forced to converse with Alana behind protective glass. His freedom was merely a fantasy of his, and perhaps a depiction of the effect life in custody has had on him. For the first time in Hannibal, we see a chink in Dr. Lecter’s armor: his situation makes him desperate, and his desperation drives him to fantasize about escaping the asylum.
This profile of insanity is followed by yet another one: that of Dolarhyde. As he stares into a broken mirror, he convulses over the buzzing sound in his head that he can’t seem to shake. It appears Fuller has added a new aspect to the character: he suffers from tinnitus.
The sound of Hannibal has always been one of its strongest elements, thanks in large part to Brian Reitzell’s terrifying score, and the auditory depiction of Dolarhyde’s plight is no exception. Although the usual intangible percussive sounds are there, the sound inside his head cuts through the music and gives the viewer an explicit taste of his suffering. Hoping to distance yourself from Dolarhyde? Too bad, say Fuller and Marshall, because you’re led directly to empathize with his experience. Like Will at crime scenes (including the one with the Leeds in this episode), the viewer enters the mind of the killer.
The same is true of the final scene of “The Great Red Dragon,” in which Will and Hannibal come face to face for the first time since his capture. Once again, he appears to be in a suit and out of custody at first, but the slick editing soon shows otherwise. Unless we’re supposed to assume that both Will and Alana have the same daydream, the two scenes together confirm that the fantasy is firmly embedded inside Hannibal’s mind: he wants to be free so badly that he can see it.
So can we, and our ability to see his thoughts (and Dolarhyde’s) make “The Great Red Dragon” a promising start to Fuller’s take on the episode’s titular story. Its basic events have been told several times now, but never quite like this.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.