“Extreme acts of cruelty require a high level of empathy. The next time you have an instinct to help someone you might consider crushing them instead. It might save you a great deal of trouble.”
– Bedelia Du Maurier
If Will Graham came across a little bird on the ground, would he have the capacity to crush it? Throughout Hannibal Will is presented as the show’s pure-hearted antagonist, a man who collects the abandoned and downtrodden because he feels their pain, and yet we’ve seen him commit all the series most gruesome murders by way of the show’s stylistic choice to visually represent his hyper-empathy for dangerous minds. He is a man who intimately understands the act of killing innocents, and so the most pertinent question of his moral character is whether or not he has the capacity to put that knowledge to use. And if he can, will you, as an audience member, be able to understand him like he has done for those who showed him the way?
The last of those questions is critical as we enter the final episodes of the Red Dragon arc, and consequently all of Hannibal, because a showdown is being forced between the most painfully innocent character on television and the most heartbreakingly despicable. I’ll let you decide who you think deserves to which of those labels, but I contend that they are interchangeable between Francis Dolarhyde and Will Graham.
“… And The Woman Clothed in Sun” is the first Red Dragon adaptation to truly capture the essence of Francis Dolarhyde, despite there being two films based around his moonlit killing spree. Essentially split into three plot threads, the episode dedicates the majority of its time making you fall in love with a killer in the same way you might a stray and traumatised dog. The rest of the hour presents two alternate ways of thinking about him but in the end, thanks to an entire series worth of appropriated murder on Will’s behalf, the only lens through which to view the terrible Tooth Fairy is one of sympathy.
We begin the episode with the first of many expressionist flourishes that accentuate the hour. Francis breaks into Hannibal’s old office and makes a call under the assumed identity of Byron Metcalf, Lecter’s attorney. When the incarcerated doctor begins speaking, Francis visualizes himself sitting across from Hannibal in the office’s chairs as so many doomed patients have before.
The conversation presents the first and most traditional perspective on Dolarhyde, which is that he is the Jesus to Hannibal’s John the Baptist; that is: a successor for the great beast for which the men are vessels. Flames illuminate the face of the observing Francis and the imaginary Hannibal as a darker allegory is presented — referencing a William Blake painting — and the chair opposite becomes a fiery cliff upon which stands The Great Red Dragon. As the two behold the monster inside of Francis, a legacy is evoked. Hannibal is the Father, Francis is the Son, and The Great Red Dragon is the murderous Holy Spirit.
Later in the episode, we see that this is most definitely the way that Hannibal is understanding his relationship with Dolarhyde. He has always placed himself on a divine level, a peer of God who constantly flaunts his colleague’s hypocrisy. Now, with Francis under his influence and clearly possessed by something very Lecter-esque, Hannibal has seen his power grow. Hacking the phone that was brought to his cell for an incoming call, Lecter outdials Chilton’s office and gets Will Graham’s new address.
It is with this new information that Hannibal, like God, can sit back and watch his divine retribution take place. When Will comes to visit near the end of the episode and talks about the symbol he found carved outside of the Leeds house (the Mahjong tile representing Red Dragon), Dr. Lecter reminds him that there are only eleven days left until the Red Dragon will kill again.
Graham has no clue that Hannibal knows his family’s address, and perhaps has only an inkling that the Cannibal is in contact with Francis. These secrets play under the scene to expert effect, feeling like a bomb under a table as Mads Mikkelsen playfully tics and tocs away the seconds. Will is motivated by the empathy he feels toward other families, unaware that thanks to the unholy trinity established in this episode the next slaughtered home could very well be his own, having chosen to worship the false idol of Molly instead of the show’s one true God.
Prior to that scene, Will spends the hour catching up with Bedelia Du Maurier, first ambushing her at a lecture, and then interrogating her in private. The conversation proves to be less on-the-nose in terms of how to view Francis, but an electrifyingly tense scene in which we flip between Will and Bedelia in present day and a flashback to the murder of Zachary Quinto’s tortured Neal, illustrates the other way to think of the Red Dragon: as a bird fallen from a tree.
Gillian Anderson, once again, is magnetic. Her character is the only recurring one in the show who is a completely original creation and yet she still feels like the most important person in all of her scenes. Bedelia speaks to Will about the letters she still gets from Hannibal on Christian holidays (each containing a recipe as a quaint and darkly hilarious threat), about her time with their mutual ex behind the veil, and about the empathy it takes to kill something smaller than you.
All the while, we are treated to the events leading to Bedelia’s first murder. Neal, a patient recommended to her by Dr. Lecter, had become paranoid about what Hannibal was doing to him through treatment. Their therapy comes to a boiling point when Du Maurier asserts that she will be prescribing Neal the same treatment as Lecter and he begins to swallow his tongue. Under the performance of trying to save her patient, Bedelia pushes her arm down his throat instead of clearing his airway.
Neal’s death is a living example of Bedelia’s empathy problem. She saw in Neal a fragile creature that was being toyed with, and decided the best way to help him was to crush him. For Will (who still doesn’t know the circumstances of Neal), her line of reasoning is one of justification, but for the purposes of the story it sets up the primary conflict that will inevitably serve as the series’ climax.
Francis Dolarhyde is a fragile little bird that is molting into something truly horrific. After his talk with Hannibal, the dragon inside him take a back seat while we continue to see Francis’ relationship with Reba McClane develop across two main plot points.
First, Francis and Reba go to the zoo, where a tiger is undergoing dental surgery. Dolarhyde watches as Reba touches the anesthetized beast, whose fur is colour corrected to glow with intense warmth. This is the most iconic of image in Red Dragon, representing the sublime danger of a beast undergoing a transformation. We see something dangerous, put to sleep, and then are given permission to feel safe thanks to Reba’s exploration of it.
The comparison between the tiger and Francis is one-to-one. He is deadly and broken, but not unsympathetic. He can be pittied, related to, subdued and even fixed (potentially). The allegory is mirrored when the new lovers go back to the Dolarhyde Orphanage and have sex, during which Reba is presented as the titular Woman Clothed in Sun from Blake’s painting.
Thanks to the chemistry between Richard Armitage and Rutina Wesley, and the Pushing Daisies style of high camp that pervades their date scenes, it is easy to fall in love with Francis and Reba. Throw in the fact that we have not seen Dolarhyde actually commit his crimes and what we are presented with is a highly sympathetic misfit couple doomed to Hell. We have been blinded through the show’s framing, only able to see a broken and tortured man, but not the horrible things he has done.
“Clothed in Sun” ends with a confrontation between the bird and the man who must crush him. Will, spurred on by Hannibal’s hints that the Tooth Fairy might be obsessed with William Blake, takes a trip to the Brooklyn Museum, where we have already seen Francis eat the original watercolour of his patron painting. The men come face to face at the elevator for the first time, and Graham knows that this is the person he’s been hunting.
Will is too slow to catch Francis, and the Red Dragon escapes in the digestive system of his host. In this first meeting, Graham and Dolarhyde are positioned on grounds of equal footing in terms of sympathy. Will, having appropriated the only Tooth Fairy murder we’ve seen so far, has absolved Francis of our apprehension. Now, like Will, we are able to see the wounded child underneath the psychosexual terror of the Red Dragon. The question is, will we be able to extend the same courtesy to Will when he is faced with the choice to crush this little bird?
A Good Old Fashioned Doxxing – The scene in which Hannibal rigs the hospital’s phone to snag Will Graham’s address is lifted almost directly from the source material and now stands as one of the only Hannibal Lecter moments played by three different actors. Anthony Hopkins made the call in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, and Brian Cox charmed the receptionist in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. While the scene is always playful, and the dialogue is classic Lecter, Cox still holds the place for having done it best, with Mikkelsen pulling in a close second. Don’t even get me started on Anthony Hopkins in that movie.
Turned Tables – In all other versions of the phone call, Hannibal calls Dr. Alan Bloom for Will’s info (Alana is a gender swapped character in the show). Calling Chilton this time around feels like a stronger choice, considering Bloom and Hannibal are colleagues and that he and Chilton have a much more playful relationship that lends to the scene’s sense of prank-humour. Very few things are as satisfying as Hannibal’s cartoonish humiliating of Chilton.
The Culinary Arts – As I mentioned in the recap for “The Great Red Dragon,” Francis eats the William Blake painting in the book and Brett Ratner’s film. While absurd, it is an incredibly important detail in Dolarhyde’s character development. It also justifies the change in titling scheme for this final sixth of the series, cleverly showing us that paintings can be food too.
By the Book – A significant portion of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon is told from the perspective of Francis Dolarhyde, which helps build the kind of sympathy for the killer that was evoked in this episode. All of the events in “Clothed in the Sun” that take place between Reba and Francis are straight from the book and played for the first time with the amount of sympathy with which they were originally written.
In the films Dolarhyde is made out to be much less of a child and I think that’s because making an audience love a man who slaughters families is pretty horrific. That said, coming to feel sympathy for Francis is the entire point of this story arc, so for my money, Bryan Fuller is the first artist to truly understand what Red Dragon is really about.
Orderly Behaviour – In this episode we are introduced to Denise, Hannibal Lecter’s orderly. In the books, Barney Matthews fills this role (played in the films by Frankie Faison) and becomes an endearing and lovable secondary character. This is another case of Bryan Fuller taking the opportunity to allow for more women in Hannibal than the source material might otherwise permit by allowing for gender revisionism. Alana Bridgewater, despite her short amount of screen time, hits all the right kind-but-ready-to-mace character beats that made Barney so lovable in the books. While it’s just about time to give up hope of a Hannibal revival I hope that Denise is included if we do end up getting to see Bryan Fuller’s Silence of the Lambs.
Do Dragons Dream of Electric Lambs? – Dork Shelf Editor in Chief Will Perkins pointed out to me that Bedelia’s question about the hypothetical little bird is reminiscent of the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner. Was Neal the first victim of replicant on human murder? Submit your Philip K. Dick Thomas Harris slash-fic in the comments.