Just in time for the show to play out the string of what might be its final run of episodes ever, Hannibal is on one hell of a hot streak.
Its latest episode, "The Great Red Dragon," kicks off the very first Hannibal Lecter story. The novel from which it takes its basis, Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, was the very first book to feature the character, and though Hannibal the TV series has delved into the backstory Harris only hints at, the episode's greatest success is in approaching the story almost as another pilot.
Indeed, if you had friends who were curious about the show and looking for a place to jump in, this would be a good one, if the show's end weren't imminent.
"Great Red Dragon" takes place three years after the last episode, and though only a week in time has passed between their airdates, the episode's script (credited to Nick Antosca, Steve Lightfoot, and Bryan Fuller) does a great job at suggesting that things have changed.
Will Graham has left behind criminal profiling in favor of a quiet life with his new wife and stepson. Hannibal is wasting away in prison. And in the shadows, a new killer arises.
But another reason this episode works so beautifully as the start of a new chapter in this story is because of director Neil Marshall. The Brit has directed episodes of Game of Thrones in the past, but his primary qualification for directing Hannibal is likely his work on The Descent, an absolutely terrific horror film about cavers who encounter something horrible while on an expedition. (I wrote a little more about the film here.) Marshall's shots are exquisitely composed, something that fits perfectly within the gorgeously ornate world of Hannibal.
If last week's episode was the show reasserting itself as TV's most messed up, "The Great Red Dragon" reminds us it's one of the most beautiful, too. Here are nine moments where Marshall found the beautiful in the horrific.
1) The Red Dragon awakens
The villain of Red Dragon is a man named Francis Dolarhyde, who carries himself more or less normally much of the time, except for the fact that some dark side of himself is awakening inside his brain. Imagining himself the "red dragon" depicted in William Blake's paintings (and dubbed the "Tooth Fairy" by the media), Francis assaults and kills whole families at a time, working out his own horrible psychological issues.
What's key, then, to any portrayal of the character is the divide between his "normal" self and that darker side. Some of that is helped by the voices in his head (manifesting here mostly as unearthly growls), but the temptation might be to, say, portray an actual dragon or something. On a TV budget, Hannibal can never give in to that idea.
Instead, Marshall focuses on Francis's hands as the dragon awakens, the way that he contorts them into rigid claws, his imagination trying to create the beast he feels within himself. Fuller has frequently talked about the element of transformation that underlies essentially all of Harris's villains, and Francis's attempts to turn himself into a literal dragon are expressed perfectly here, in a long, artful montage that captures how his day-to-day life is being snapped in two by these growing feelings, or the process that results in his massive dragon tattoo sprawling across his back.
2) Hannibal opens up the memory palace
While enclosed in a cell, Hannibal Lecter imagines a kind of freedom by retreating to what he calls his "memory palace," a place where he can experience some of the wonderful places he visited while he was not imprisoned.
Marshall portrays this via an elegant dissolve, as the space behind Hannibal at first stands as a barren, mostly functional cell, before being replaced by the decorations of Hannibal's old dining room. Marshall will play around with perspective throughout the episode, occasionally showing us events as they appear inside Hannibal's brain and then showing as they actually are, in reality. It's a nifty trick, and it sets up what comes later perfectly.
3) Will has a whole new life, too
In some ways, the character of Molly (the woman Will marries in between the arrest of Hannibal and the beginning of Red Dragon) is a thankless one. She and her son exist mostly to give Will something other than his work, and in places she mostly seems to be around solely to fulfill the role of "light in the darkness" that women have so often occupied in crime fiction. Yes, as one of the first serial killer novels, Red Dragon invented how this trope would be used going forward, but it's still become a trope.
Still, the character is played by Nina Arianda in the series, and Arianda's a good enough actress that she might pull this off. Similarly, notice how Marshall often films the character as if she's the stable tether to reality Will has been searching for so long. Marshall presents her not as something Will can lose (as previous versions of the story sometimes have), but, instead, as his strength.
4) The stark reality of Hannibal's new life is apparent
This scene, in which Hannibal dines with Frederick Chilton (who is the head of the psychiatric hospital where Hannibal is held) is one of the episode's best, even if it's slightly unbelievable that Chilton would allow Hannibal to prepare food in prison.
Chilton ribs Hannibal about how much more popular the Tooth Fairy is now (in terms that seem to grouse about the low ratings of the show itself), while Hannibal's mind keeps switching between the stark reality of his surroundings and the more opulent world he used to occupy. It's a sly, funny sequence, and it's a great reminder of how much light Chilton brings to the Hannibal universe.
5) The return of the pendulum
One of the reasons "Great Red Dragon" feels like it takes place three years after the last episode is because it subtly tricks the audience into feeling like the show's been away for a while. It does this by returning to the case of the week format the series employed in its first season (and fitfully in its second).
I opined a few weeks ago that the abandonment of the cases of the week was hurting season three, and I still think that had a tendency to make Will feel like somebody people offered exposition to, rather than an active character. But at the same time, that long pause in his narrative made the weight of this moment, when he closes his eyes and imagines himself at the Tooth Fairy's crime scene (as he did back in season one), so much more powerful and potent.
Or, put another way, the listlessness of the early portions of the season has made these last few episodes feel all the more powerful. That doesn't forgive what came before, but it does paint it in a more sympathetic light.
6) All of that blood
It's tempting to forget, sometimes, that Hannibal is about murder, because the murders are presented as almost supernatural in nature, as events that happen because normal people met the wrong sort of demon at the wrong time. "Great Red Dragon" uses the Tooth Fairy's crime scene to remind us that these deaths might be over the top, but they're real. A family died in horrible fashion, here, and nothing will restore their lives.
7) Will sees himself in the shards of mirror
The sequence where Will examines the Tooth Fairy crime scene is filled with tremendous shots, in which Marshall shows off his visual gifts. Here's one of them, as Will sees himself reflected in the tiny shards of mirror the Tooth Fairy uses to cover his victims' faces.
It's all in Will's head, admittedly, but it's still an especially potent image, especially when we factor in the ways that Francis Dolarhyde feels like he's transforming into something more than human.
8) The strings marking blood spatter become Will's own dragon wings
This shot is almost too cool to exist on television. In particular, take note of Marshall's use of light, which slowly rises to accent the red in the strings that make up Will's "wings."
9) "Hello, Will."
We know Hannibal and Will are going to meet and talk again. Even if we haven't read Red Dragon (where this happens frequently), we know how television works, and we know the series is going to return to this dynamic again and again.
But the choice to end the episode on their first meeting in three years (and Marshall's choice to shoot it via shots that hold both characters in frame at the same time but only have one in focus at any given moment) gives everything a gravity that almost leaps off the screen.
Something went terribly wrong between these two men, but if they're going to have a prayer of putting the Tooth Fairy in prison, they're going to have to find a way to put at least some of it right again. That's the dynamic Harris exploited in his novel, and it's a dynamic that has gained so much more power on this series for knowing the backstory. The pages of Red Dragon are in good hands.