If you’ve never read Tom Harris’ Red Dragon, you might be a little confused as to just why Hannibal is moving its focus away from its relentlessly fascinating antagonist in favour of a man who seems no different from your typical run-of-the-mill psychopath. Without giving too much away, the answer lies in the fact that the story of Will Graham, seemingly elegantly tied up in the masterful ‘Digestivo’, is not quite done. Three years have passed since the ‘capture’ of Hannibal Lecter, the infamous Chesapeake Ripper, and in those three years, Will Graham has learned his lesson – he has parted ways with the FBI, retreated to his abode far, far away from the seething mess of mankind and seems to have genuinely left Hannibal behind him. A string of murders by a killer nicknamed the ‘Tooth Fairy’, however, forces Jack Crawford to once again turn to his best profiler and coax him out of retirement. ‘The Great Red Dragon’ is almost a reboot of the series in some ways, picking up the story at a point most audience members would be familiar with; Hannibal behind bars, bound but not quite neutered, in the plain drab prisoner’s uniform that Anthony Hopkins made infamous in The Silence of the Lambs. It feels a lot like a return to the real world featured in the first season, before the battle between Will and Hannibal transported the show to strange lands and stranger dimensions. The artistic abandon of the first half of the season is mostly done away with and replaced with a more minimalistic approach, one that is considerably more appropriate for the threat that Francis Dolarhyde represents.
Taken at face value, it seems objectively impossible that this Dolarhyde character can take Hannibal’s place; where Hannibal was intelligent and sophisticated, this man seems crude and unrefined. Hannibal had layers to him, a depth that was shown but never quite explored and that depth gave Hannibal his distinctly inhuman mystique. In comparison, Dolarhyde seems so much more human; he isn’t a man who is beyond comprehension but rather, he seems to exist on the fringes of what we would consider familiar. These differences do not, in any way, make the Tooth Fairy a lesser character; instead, they make him a character that poses an entirely different kind of threat compared to Hannibal Lecter; there is an angry savagery to Dolarhyde’s violence that Hannibal’s, cruel and twisted as it was, did not have. A direct comparison is neither possible nor necessary – the point isn’t about who is more dangerous or who would win in a fight. Dolarhyde is disturbed beyond any sort of reasonable doubt but Hannibal was never recognizable at any point. The episode highlights several aspects of Dolarhyde’s character, both inner and outer. He seems to be a loner of sorts and has an unhealthy obsession with the Blake painting that the episode gets its name from. His tattoos are clearly his way of ‘becoming’ the Red Dragon but his physicality seems to be a step in that direction as well; there are shots of him trying to contort his muscles to mimic the dragon’s form in the painting. It’s possible that his use of dentures with disfigured teeth isn’t just to throw people off; they also make him seem more animalistic and less human. His obsession with broken mirrors seems to stem from his awareness of his physical deformity. It is interesting to note that these little bits of plausible explanation are in essence what separate Hannibal from the Red Dragon – we can make some feeble attempts at trying to understand Dolarhyde, but Hannibal was, and remains, inscrutable.
They say the simplest definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results; by that measure, there’s a decent chance that both Jack Crawford and Will Graham are insane. Perhaps the former is just desperate, but the latter has no such excuse. The events involving Hannibal that comprised the first two and half seasons of this series are not something that Will should be willing to look past even after three full years. Lest we forget, Jack asked Will to join the FBI under similar circumstances in the first season and made similar promises to Alana to not push Will and his fragile psyche too far. While Jack might just be desperate enough to have to drag Will out of retirement, Jack should not forget how very close Will got to becoming a serial killer himself. Will’s track record hasn’t exactly been spotless thus far and while he’s stayed clear of anything that’s too legally questionable, morally speaking, he has certainly crossed some lines. This season alone he forced Chiyo to kill a man by knowingly setting him on her; Hannibal’s mark is clearly on Will and it will be interesting to see how his experience has shaped his empathy disorder. It’s entirely possible that Jack believes that nothing in this world could be worse than Hannibal Lecter; Lecter didn’t just successfully evade police capture for decades, he was able to masquerade himself right under their noses and set up one of their own in his place. Compared to that level of intelligence and sophistication, surely some psycho some likes to bite dead people isn’t going to pose nearly the same sort of threat, right?
The flaw in that line of reasoning is that it assumes that Hannibal is out of the picture. It isn’t clear exactly why Hannibal is interested in helping Dolarhyde out; the latter clearly worships him, to a troubling extent, but Dolarhyde and his modus operandi are far beneath Hannibal’s methods and notions of decency. It could be a fear of irrelevance – for perhaps the first and only time, Chilton was able to get under Hannibal’s skin, by suggesting that he (Hannibal) was no longer the talk of the town and that the Tooth Fairy was getting all the attention. Perhaps Hannibal is just bored and decides to use this Tooth Fairy as a proxy to make good on some of his promises – like his promise to kill Alana – or maybe it’s something entirely; at this point, we just don’t know enough. What we do know is that Will is still on Hannibal’s mind; the latter has wisely realized that the Tooth Fairy is careful enough that the FBI would have a hard time tracking him down and that they will eventually want Will back on the field. Did Hannibal know that Will would ignore his advice and return? Probably; after all those two know each other far too well to be surprised by each other at this point. However, Will rejecting Hannibal’s advice can be interpreted (particularly by Hannibal) as Will tacitly consenting to participate in Hannibal’s little game. After all, if Will had really wanted to stay away, he had plenty of reason and time to but the moment Will reaches Hannibal’s cell, the game is back on again.
It’s for the best really – not so much for the characters involved, but certainly for the audience. We get to see Will’s profiling mechanism once again and its long absence from the series only served to make its use in this episode all the more troubling. Dancy’s acting in the re-enactment of the slaughter in the family’s home wasn’t just convincing; for a moment it felt like Dancy was challenging Richard Armitage and momentarily became the Tooth Fairy himself. Will’s return to the FBI also features the return of other minor, bit part characters and the humour that they bring with them. This episode is firm step away from the surrealism of this season and a return to the same ideas and aesthetics that made the first two seasons so gripping.