Oftentimes, the best horror stories are fairy tales — and vice versa. What is the Big Bad Wolf, after all, but an example of all of the terrible things that lurked in medieval forests, just waiting to snatch up the unsuspecting?
Horror stories, then, tap into our old unease about dark places, about the sway death holds over the living. They are elemental in a way lots of other stories aren't. Fear is one of the most basic of emotions, one that we can feel from almost the moment our emotions come online. That means horror stories can get away with things lots of other stories just can't.
You can see how this is true the longer Hannibal runs. In its first season, the show maintained some semblance of a relationship with the actual practice of crime solving. Will might have possessed near-magic powers that allowed him to imagine what serial killers were thinking and doing, but the show at least pretended to play the "search for clues to find the killer" game.
That approach has grown less and less prominent with every season, to the degree that season three is now basically an elaborate recreation of the Book of Revelation, casting done by Hannibal Lecter. The show's dreamlike atmosphere has so successfully become its reality that it's hard to fathom how any of the people in its universe even survive.
"The Number of the Beast Is 666," the next-to-last episode to ever air (most likely), is thick with biblical suggestion, to the degree that Hannibal actually nods toward Will standing in as Jesus in his little passion play. But this whole Red Dragon arc has also been filled with fairy tale resonances, with the idea that the Big Bad Wolf can lurk around any corner and the woods are filled with danger. Here are some of the best of them.
1) Will is a pure innocent who is pushed too far
Hugh Dancy often didn't get much to do in the season's first half, often seeming as if he were completely without agency. Will Graham had been so tortured and wrung out by Hannibal that he almost took as a relief the notion that Hannibal might finally kill him. Hannibal, meanwhile, turned himself over to the authorities, rather than live in a world where Will wouldn't know how to find him.
In this second half, however, Will has seized what was left of both his own sanity and his own ambition. He's gotten back to solving terrible crimes. He's seemed ready to punish Hannibal. And he's gotten closer than anybody else to catching the Red Dragon. In a show filled with Big Bad Wolves, Will remains the closest thing we have to that Third Pig who built his house out of bricks.
The show has always played up Will's innocence, relative to those around him. Yes, he's been tempted by Hannibal throughout, but he's never actually killed someone who wasn't actively threatening him or someone else. And yet this episode is filled with characters suggesting that Will has the blood of others on his hand, particularly when it comes to poor, endlessly manipulated and tortured Chilton, who ends the episode without lips and horribly, horribly burned (but still alive, because of course he is).
Just how innocent is Will? Left unstated in many fairy tales is the idea that the Big Bad Wolf dies horribly after he gets what's coming to him. Yes, the Wolf "deserves" it in the moral universe of these tales, but it's still a horrible thing that happens to him. Hannibal would rather liken Will to the Lamb of Revelation — a figure of pure justice who blasts those who are evil with his divine wrath.
2) Bedelia is Bluebeard's wife
Bedelia and Will make finding the fairy tale connection easy for us in the first of two psychotherapy sessions they have in the episode. Will compares Bedelia's European adventure with Hannibal to the fairy tale of Bluebeard, a famed nobleman known for killing his several wives. In the story, the woman he's newly married attempts to avoid the fate of her predecessors and eventually succeeds. Bluebeard's wealth and property become hers.
That, Bedelia says, is what she wants. To not simply be Bluebeard's wife, but Bluebeard's last wife. She knows that so long as they're both alive, Hannibal will never send some other killer after her (as he did with Will's family), instead preferring to keep her alive so he can kill her himself. That gives her a kind of power, a certainty that she will either be his victim or the one to kill him.
But it also unites her with Will, who similarly has a dull certainty that he might be the only one who can rid the world of Hannibal — and the simultaneous fear that he won't be able to. On Hannibal (as in fairy tales), love and repulsion are all mixed up in each other. Both Will and Bedelia just might feel too much of the former to be able to survive Bluebeard's wrath.
3) Frederick Chilton can survive any kind of punishment
My god does this show take a kind of delight in dishing out punishment to Frederick Chilton. After the previous season — in which he survived being shot in the face — it seemed as if Chilton would be protected from any worse fates by the fact that he's present in later Hannibal Lecter novels (including Dragon and the yet-to-be-adapted-by-this-series Silence of the Lambs).
But no! Chilton steps into the role of the person Francis abducts when he wants to send a message to the authorities, occupied by Freddie Lounds in other adaptations of the story. (Gender-flipping Freddie likely made this a necessity, since this victim must be glued, naked, into a wheelchair, and Hannibal has done its level best to avoid even the suggestion of exploiting women for titillation's purposes.)
But because he must stay alive for future installments of this story, Chilton not only loses his lips — to Francis, who gnaws them off — but also gets badly burned when he's set on fire and sent hurtling down a hill in a wheelchair, only to land in a fountain that douses his flames. Fairy tales are full of figures like this, who survive almost supernatural amounts of punishment simply because the plot requires them to. Chilton, always so suave and funny, has become Hannibal's ultimate punching bag, in a way that toys with our expectations for adaptations.
4) Reba is the princess, abducted
The princess taken by the dragon is such an old idea that it pops up in texts that predate fairy tales, that play off of old myths and religious ideas that only exist in our collective unconscious now. (The direct reference is to Revelation, wherein the dragon stands over a woman who's about to give birth, in a passage laden with symbolism.)
What makes this all work is that Reba and Francis's relationship has had elements of genuine sweetness to it, while Reba herself is a thoroughly modern figure. Even as she slowly comes to realize who her ex-boyfriend truly is — a murderer of at least two families — she's figuring out ways to keep herself safe. He's slowly slipping into his delusions of grandeur, while she's buying herself time.
Of course, that's another trait she shares in common with fairy tale heroines. Finding the loophole or the way to stave off the dreaded beast is something these fictional women all have in common. But because we know Reba and have seen her in contexts that aren't so deliberately mythological, she rises above the archetypal. In every adaptation of Red Dragon, the question of Reba's survival becomes of utmost importance as the story thunders toward its conclusion. That's exactly what happens here.
5) And still the woods are filled with Big Bad Wolves
Nobody's hands are clean. Jack has dragged Will into this mess. Will potentially set Chilton up to be the "pet" Francis kills first. Alana seems to exist almost solely to needle Hannibal. And Bedelia toys with the idea of having been a participant in Hannibal's murderous games.
But let's be honest here: The true monsters are Hannibal and Francis, one behind bars and the other quite certain of his dread becoming. The very structure of Red Dragon necessitates that Hannibal spend a lot of time off on the story's fringes, but Hannibal has found a way to keep him active within the story's main action, to have him continue to experiment with making this all some massive adventure in aversion therapy for his favorite patient.
That's come, however, at the expense of Francis, who has finally given himself almost totally to the Dragon. His dark fantasies of what he's becoming dominate the hour, to the point that he tries to show Reba, as much as possible, who he truly is.
Transformation almost never ends well on Hannibal. Those who indulge in it are often punished, while those who resist it and cling to their humanity are rewarded. So even if we haven't seen previous adaptations of this story, we know where this is headed. But it's still riveting to watch these final moments play out as we head into the show's final episode ever (barring future movies or miniseries, which I would imagine are at least somewhat likely).
The Wolves are on the prowl, but there are still those who can stop them. Let's hope the finale leaves a little room for hope and even more room for closure.