A review of tonight's “Hannibal” coming up just as soon as the blood is from a cow, but only in the derogatory sense…
“If I go… I'll be different when I get back.” -Will
Bryan Fuller has said that the plan was originally to devote the bulk of this season to Hannibal's fugitive adventures before he realized they couldn't sustain it that long. As it was, there was a definite strain just in the seven episodes we got of it, in part because the show grew even more abstract and philosophical than ever before, but more because the structure of the story – Hannibal free until almost the end, no Monster of the Week stories in between – reduced Will Graham into an incredibly passive figure. The show has two leads, and if anything, Hannibal was a supporting character for much of season 1, but the scales tipped way too much in favor of Hannibal, rendering his arch-nemesis completely impotent, to the point where the only thing Will has to do with Hannibal's capture is that it's a thing Hannibal is doing to him.
With “The Great Red Dragon,” we have a clean break from the Euro trip. Not only has the show, for now, abandoned the practice of naming episodes after courses of meals, but three years have passed for the characters, Will has acquired a family, Hannibal has settled into a routine with Drs. Chilton and Bloom at the psychiatric hospital, Jack is back with the FBI (and we get our first glimpses of the season of Zeller and Price), and there's a hot new serial killer on the loose.
At one point, Chilton taunts his favorite patient with the suggestion that this new killer (played by British actor Richard Armitage) – whom the media have dubbed the Tooth Fairy, but whom we already know thinks of himself as the Red Dragon – will interest a much wider demographic than Hannibal the Cannibal: “You, with your fancy allusions and your fussy aesthetics, you will always have niche appeal.”
It's an amusing meta-comment on “Hannibal” itself, where Fuller and company have taken an almost defiantly anti-commercial approach to one of the most popular movie villains of all time. But it's not a signal that the series is suddenly – at a date likely far too late to ensure its future – going to start pandering for a bigger audience. Parts of “The Great Red Dragon” – particularly anything to do with Will – are far more straightforward than what we got for most of the season's first half, but the presentation of the episode's title character is deliberately challenging and opaque, at least to any viewers who haven't already read the first Hannibal novel, or seen either of the previous film adaptations.
Armitage barely speaks at all in the episode – really only enough to establish that the character has a bad speech impediment – and is alone in the majority of his scenes, putting in all the prep work (exercise, mirror work, securing the proper set of teeth with which to leave his signature) necessary for his particular ritual, and struggling with whatever psychological problems require him to do all of this. Having read “Red Dragon” (and watched “Manhunter”) several times, I could follow all of what was going on in his head, and recognize all the visual signatures the episode was playing with (the scar on his lip, the William Blake painting from which the killer draws his new name), but I wonder how much of it was comprehensible(*) to whichever viewers are left who haven't already immersed themselves in all things Hannibal. But Armitage is an arresting enough screen presence, and was placed in enough visually fascinating contexts (the creepy and animalistic yoga poses, or his face appearing to be trapped inside a mask of celluloid, with the light of the film projector bursting through) to carry us through this week, at least. And though the character's fascination with Hannibal Lecter also comes from the source material, it's nonetheless amusing to think of him as yet another Fannibal.
(*) One area that was tricky for Lecter layman and expert alike: the Red Dragon's reactions to sudden sounds that only he could hear, which were so close to the show's usual creepy sound design that it was hard to tell where the score ended and his aural hallucinations began.
Charismatic as Armitage is, and as pretty as the various rooms of Hannibal's mind palace look, the most exciting part of the episode was watching Will Graham get his groove back.
Again, the imbalance between Hannibal and Will was perhaps the biggest issue with the first half of the season. The time jump allows us to return to a Will who has healed physically, and on some level emotionally, to all that Hannibal did to him. He's not eager to return to profiling, and is happy with his life taking in strays just as Molly and her son took him in. Molly, of course, has no idea just how bad things got between Will and Hannibal – even if he told her every detail, she still couldn't properly appreciate it without having been there – but she's also wise enough to recognize that the moment Jack showed up, Will had to go with him or risk ruining everything they've built together.
And in having Will visit the second of the Red Dragon's crime scenes, we got the return of the active Will, and the original core idea of the character on the page, the previous screen adaptations, and the way he was written for most of the first two seasons. Remember way back in the spring of 2013, when the big set piece of the week tended to be Will imagining himself committing the crimes of his latest quarry? I hadn't realized quite how much I missed that structure until I saw the pendulum swing effect and Will began taking the Red Dragon's place in this horror show. (The image of the red ballistic strings forming a pair of dragon's wings behind Will was a particularly stunning image.)
And after the show gave us an inversion of Will and Hannibal's first “Red Dragon” encounter at the end of season 1, we got the proper arrangement of it here, with the promise of all kinds of new mind games between these two.
A very promising start to this new arc.
Some other thoughts:
* Welcome back, Jimmy and Zeller! It's good to have Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams back not just for a bit of comic relief (the show was funny without them, but usually in extremely disgusting ways), but to once again provide a relatively sane and human perspective on all the borderline supernatural madness that everyone else is wrapped up in. Jimmy's been promoted to special agent, but I gather his “assistant” has not?
* Gillian Anderson remains listed in the opening credits, but sometimes shows don't tweak those in-season. I wouldn't be surprised to see Bedelia pop up again at some point, but nor would I be surprised if the show is done with her for now.
* That's Tony winner Nina Arianda as Will's wife Molly, a role played in previous films by Kim Greist and Mary-Louise Parker. (And the Red Dragon himself has, of course, been previously played by Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes.)
* We have yet to see Freddie Lounds this season, but I laughed at the headline on her website about Hannibal's capture: “Kitchen Nightmare.”
* Fuller has talked about his aversion to adding to the long list of TV dramatizations of rape, and said that he had to be very delicate with how he portrayed the Red Dragon's crimes, given that women are among his victims and that he does more than just kill the women. So as Jimmy and Zeller are explaining what they found at the Leeds crime scene, there's a quick mention of a mirror shard being wedged in Mrs. Leeds' labia, and we also see a shot of Mrs. Leeds lying on the bed while the bodies of her husband and children are propped up to watch what happens to her, but the show doesn't really dwell on it here.
* I understand that Chilton has a blind spot when it comes to Hannibal – and to the prestige and money that come with being his keeper and chronicler – but even given that, it's hard to fathom him allowing Dr. Lecter access to any level of food preparation, even with a watchful eye on him, the ingredients, and the utensils.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com