“…this fellow, there’s something so universal about what he does.”
“…my dear Will, if this pilgrim feels a special relationship with the moon he might like to go outside and look at it.”
-Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon p. 85
Hannibal Lecter is Dracula. The reason we keep remaking Thomas Harris’s stories is because they fit into a tradition much deeper than the serial killer thriller — they are centered around the Gothic horror story. Hannibal is a foreign entity, beholden to byzantine ritual and deep seeded vanity, has hypnotic powers of persuasion and, most importantly, he eats people. He is a romantic and brutal being who hates God, and if you accept his rare invitation to partake in his unholy communion, you can consider yourself transformed. Lecter is a modern study in vampire kingship, but he’s not the only Universal-esque monster in Hannibal.
“The Great Red Dragon” is our introduction to Francis Dolarhyde — the greatest adversary Will Graham will ever face. A delightfully speechless cold open shows us a man tortured by an internal demon, obsessed with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Captivated by it, he has the titular monster tattooed on his back before purchasing a set of hideous dentures. In his attic, inked and ear-plugged, he works out to the point of spasms in front of a broken mirror and a print of the Blake painting. He is a man who walks among us with a writhing monster inside that we later discover comes out to kill when the moon is full.
The symbolism is rich, but because Dolarhyde is nearly on the same level as Hannibal Lecter in terms of horror iconography, it’s easy to overlook the glaring allegory: The Terrible Tooth Fairy is the Wolfman, plain and simple.
A vampire is an outside force, but a werewolf is internal. A vampire is calculating and careful, a werewolf is ruled by elemental forces. Both beings are sexual, but where a vampire is seductive, a werewolf is violent to the point of mutilation. To adopt an old-timey world view for the sake of this argument: a vampire is the fear that an outsider will seduce and corrupt us, but a werewolf is the fear that we contain the uncontrollable urge to destroy what we most desire.
So welcome to the back half of Hannibal’s third and probably final season in which we will see the most artful telling of a conflict older than living memory: vampires versus werewolves.
After the short film detailing how Francis got his tattoo and snaggleteeth, we see a similarly beautiful montage of Hannibal Lecter being processed and placed in custody before a massive three year time jump. It’s the kind of plot device that has become commonplace in serialized television — with Battlestar Galactica and Lost being the most famous shows to popularize the trope and True Detective (and to a lesser extent Fargo) being the most brazen with its use — but very rarely does such temporal play happen mid-season, especially on network TV.
It’s thanks to this time jump that “The Great Red Dragon” feels like a season premiere. The hour, which can be counted among the most psychedelic and heartbreakingly violent episodes of television, is in every way the first chapter of a new story. In addition to seeing the birth of new main villain, we catch up with characters we already know, but each has changed enough that we need reintroductions. Will is married, Chilton is working for Alana Bloom and eating on the regular with Hannibal, who is in an extremely comfy asylum cell (regularly escaping into his mind palace).
Jack Crawford is back in behavioural sciences at the FBI and is charged with the episode’s narrative thrust. Two days after the Tooth Fairy killed and mutilated the Leeds family in their home under the light of a full moon, Crawford shows up on Will’s new doorstep. The hunter of men needs to bring his old empathetic friend back into the terrible world of crime solving, preferably before the modern werewolf kills again in just under a month.
The encounter between Jack and Will is where the Red Dragon plotline traditionally starts, though the show has two main differences to the books and movies. First, in the novel Will Graham lives in Florida, and the Tooth Fairy strikes in the heat of summer, but Bryan Fuller has kept with the ice cold aesthetic that comes with shooting in and around Toronto, Ontario (an aesthetic I happen to prefer). Second, and more importantly, we now for the first time since 1981 truly understand what’s at stake for Will Graham in the Tooth Fairy case.
Crawford is brought into the Graham house. He meets Molly, Will’s wife, and Walter, her eleven year old son. With the presentation of the crime scene pictures of the Tooth Fairy’s two victim families, Jack plans to exploit Will’s love of innocence, now emboldened by his own family. In the book that’s enough for Will, but now that we know who he was before this new call to heroism, we have two and a half seasons worth of television to back up why this might not be such a good idea for America’s best criminal profiler. At his best Will is an unstable and unreliable agent, easily sucked into the mindsets of monsters. Jack, positioning Will’s own family as surrogate personal stakes in the Tooth Fairy case, is in effect asking Will to understand the mind of a person who could kill them. It evokes the fear that a monster inside is more dangerous than one outside; lycanthropy is contagious, after all.
Complicating things more is the fact that Will’s life with Molly and Walter closely mirrors the one he so dearly wanted with Hannibal and Abigail. They have a place of their own, a damaged and rebuilt family. And yet, after receiving a letter from the incarcerated Hannibal, Will is drawn back into the world of monsters.
Burning the letter, Will makes his decision to go back to the FBI, and under the safety of a three quarter moon explores the Leeds house in the dark. This sequence is arguably the most upsetting of the series so far, with Will following Dolarhyde’s bloody naked footprints through the home, his flashlight serving as a window through time to where the bodies settled. While expertly framed and executed with the caliber of creative style only Bryan Fuller seems to be even interested in bringing to TV, it perfectly illustrates exactly why the Tooth Fairy is a greater class of monster than the Mason Vergers and human-totem pole makers of the world.
When he makes it to the parents bedroom, Will does the most dangerous thing he can do. Silently breaking down at the sight of all the innocent blood, closes his eyes and lets the Red Dragon into his mind. We see the golden metronome for the first time all season, rewinding to the night of the massacre, and Graham then coldly narrates his journey through the home.
Zero compromises are made. Will cuts Mr. Leeds’s throat and shoots Mrs. Leeds in the spine. The father struggles around impotently trying to save his family as Will enters the children’s room. “I shoot one of the two boys in bed,” he says. “The other boy I pull out from under his bed and shoot him on the floor.”
The shot of Will pulling a crying child from under a bed and shooting him dead is nauseating, as is the flailing death of Mr. Leeds failing to do anything of consequence while his family is culled. Will smashes a mirror, inserts shards into the family members’s facial orifices and the mother’s genitals. Before waking from his waking nightmare, Will is framed with the wings of a red dragon, created from the blood spatter strings.
The idea of such terrible violence being exacted on a family for no identifiable reason is a disturbing variation for Hannibal. The titular cannibal’s victims trespass against his rules of etiquette, and the rest of the case-of-the-week killers all have some kind of deranged human motivation (except maybe the muralist from season two, who is in many ways a Buffalo Bill surrogate). Dolarhyde, though, murdered innocents simply because there is something inside him that’s trying to get out.
Will’s empathy trip brings him to the conclusion that the Tooth Fairy must have taken his gloves off at one point during the mutilation process, and sure enough, Jimmy Price pulls a latent thumbprint off of Mrs. Leeds’s dead cornea. Brian Zeller, meanwhile, recreates Dolarhyde’s fake teeth from bite marks found on the victims. Neither lead brings back a match in the FBI’s criminal database, and so the investigating rests on Will’s shoulders.
Falling asleep with the images of the Tooth Fairy’s victims on his mind, Will is brought to the conclusion that he needs to recall that special mindset that made him so volatile and effective years ago. After getting permission from Jack, Will finds Hannibal in his cell — all done up with mind palace magic to look like the Norman Chapel — and they greet each other.
“Hello Dr. Lecter.”
To face the fear of what monster might threaten from the inside, Will has returned to the invader that he once banished. In order to hunt this new werewolf, Will Graham has turned to the only Dracula he’s ever known.
Double Dragon – The very first episode of Hannibal begins with Will lecturing on an unsolved home invasion. In the commentary track Bryan Fuller mentions that this is Francis Dolarhyde’s first murder. The fact that the case isn’t being tied to the Tooth Fairy one currently being investigated makes me wonder if this concept has been abandoned, or if Francis’s modus operandi hadn’t quite been set all those year ago. What do you think? Would be a good idea to connect this new, semi-standalone plot arc to those opening moments of the series?
Monster Mash – The parallels in Thomas Harris’s novels and classic horror literature don’t end with vampires and wolfmen. Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs is a weird self-reflexive allegory for Frankenstein’s monster.
Sibilant S – Due to his cleft palate, Francis Dolarhyde can’t pronounce a sibilant S noise. That’s what he is doing in front of his broken mirror, hissing. Though he hasn’t been given dialogue yet, Francis’s self-consciousness manifests itself through his avoiding words with that sound in them.
Sassy Science – Beverly Katz’s death was on my mind in this episode. In the book, Red Dragon, she is as integral to the forensics on the Tooth Fairy case as Price and Zeller. That said, it was really gratifying to see Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson back on screen together, sassing up the show’s science.
Culinary Arts – Meticulous viewers will have noticed that “The Great Red Dragon” is the first title in Hannibal that isn’t referencing food. OR IS IT? In both the book and Brett Ratner’s film adaptation of Red Dragon Francis Dolarhyde breaks into a museum and eats the William Blake painting that possesses him.
Windows To The Soul – The scene in which Francis has his face wrapped in film and his eyes and mouth begin to emit light is a visual reference to a scene in Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation Manhunter.