[This is a review of Hannibal season 3, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
After several weeks of Hannibal running around Europe, while the narrative adapted/played with story elements from Thomas Harris' Hannibal novel, the series has seen fit to make a significant time jump of three years, in order to bring about the next storyline from the novels, and with which to end the season (and perhaps the series on). It seems a little odd to have Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel become what may very well be the last story Bryan Fuller and company apply their unique aesthetic to, but, in its own looping, dreamlike way, it would make for an oddly perfect conclusion to this strange yet beautiful series, the existence of which, even as you look at it now, defies all logic.
Early on and with great ease, the storyline settles into its new but slightly familiar rhythms. Will has found himself a family of actual people – not just dogs (thanks to the presence of Nina Arianda as Molly Graham) – Jack is back at the FBI, and Hannibal has settled into a comfortable, tension-filled existence with Dr. Chilton and Dr. Bloom at the psychiatric hospital, where they have gone out of their way to make his cell as reminiscent of his old office as possible. The episode even features the welcome return of Zeller (Aaron Abrams) and Price (Scott Thompson), as the narrative's focus on the BAU's pursuit of the Tooth Fairy (a.k.a. Francis Dolarhyde – played here by Richard Armitage) brings the eighth episode of season 3 even closer to one of, say, season 1.
'The Great Red Dragon' is an introduction. The episode is tasked with bringing the audience up to speed on what's been going on in the lives of these characters since the events at Muskrat Farm, while also dividing the narrative's focus with Dolarhyde's evolution into the titular Red Dragon. And perhaps knowing that there would need to be a level of exposition necessary to help announce the status quo, Fuller and co-writers Steve Lightfoot and Nick Antosca, made several important choices when it came to the specificity of dialogue.
For instance, if you're Fuller and company, how do you introduce a well-known character, previously played by the likes of Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes, and make that presentation memorable? You give the actor playing him no actual lines of dialogue, so as to allow him to standout against an episode rife with exposition. The effect is as striking as the poses Armitage twists himself into. Most striking, though, is how his performance vacillates between sadness and rage, and the lack of spoken words (though he makes a pitiable effort at one point, and its hard not to sympathize with him) underlines the distinctiveness of Francis' mental malady.
To counter that, there are discussions between characters that not only explain their relationships with the world as it has changed for them, but also their relationships with the people they have become. After Jack pays him a visit, Will tells Molly, who encourages him to go help with the Tooth Fairy investigation, "If I go… I'll be different when I get back."
The line is almost like Hannibal itself is discussing the previous seven weeks, but with the advantage of hindsight. "I'll go to Europe. I'll track down Hannibal Lecter, and almost get swallowed whole by my own abstractions and gorgeous aesthetics… but I'll be different when I get back." The clever thing about the line is, if we choose to look at it as hindsight, is how much "different" resembles Hannibal season 1.
It's a welcome change that becomes inexplicably and inappropriately wistful, as the gruesome nightmare that is Will Graham's mental reconstruction of a family's bloody murder brings with it the painful sting of nostalgia. That is, thanks to the shrewd direction of Neil Marshall, 'The Great Red Dragon' reminds the audience of why they fell in love with Hannibal in the first place.
As sure as the bar of light wiping across the screen keyed into the audiences' pleasure centers, it also signified a journey into the dark recesses of Will's unusually empathetic mind. The moment's emotional impact – on both Will Graham and the audience – was likely all part of Fuller's design. That design feels like Hannibal, as a show, had something to get off its chest, and the only way to do that was through a shrewd meta-conversation between Hannibal Lecter and Dr. Chilton over a decadent dessert eaten with a plastic spoon.
While there's plenty of symbolism swirling around the consumption of a gorgeous, succulent product by way of a functional but perhaps second-rate delivery system, it's really Chilton's pointed words he uses to get a rise out of Hannibal that perk up viewers' ears. Raúl Esparza might as well be talking directly to Hannibal the television series when he says the new killer on the street has "a much wider demographic than you do."
The conversation becomes particularly personal, as Chilton chides his patient by saying, "You, with your fancy allusions, your fussy aesthetics; you will always have niche appeal." Meanwhile, there is something "so very universal about what [the Tooth Fairy] does." Of course what the Tooth Fairy does is kill "whole families in their homes." Chilton's dialogue feels like the show's creators' cheeky nose thumbing at the bean counters who ostensibly sealed its fate when, after three seasons, Hannibal's fussy aesthetics failed to appeal to a wider audience.
And yet, almost right on cue, that's precisely what 'The Great Red Dragon' does. Last week's 'Digestivo' was by far the most direct episode this season has offered. This time around, though, the narrative is given its abstractions – i.e., Hannibal's sumptuous mind palace – but the story itself feels even more accessible to a wide audience, not just the trustworthy few who have clung to the series from its inception.
With Will stepping back into the swing of things, the welcome return of the BAU's ancillary members, and the introduction of Dolarhyde, the episode's offerings were at once new and intriguing, yet comfortably familiar at the same time. Even the exposition between Chilton and Bloom felt compelling, as it worked the underserved angle of their need for revenge, while also reminding the audience that Dr. Lecter is not so easily bested. Even within the confines of his rather posh cell, Hannibal the Cannibal remains a threat to those around him. He may not be able to bite as he once did, but his mind and his tongue remain as sharp as ever.
Hannibal continues next Saturday with '…And the Woman Clothed with the Sun' @10pm on NBC.
Photos: Brooke Palmer/NBC