Everyone on Hannibal longs for one of two things — connection or control.
They want the former, because they're always looking for some perfect opposite who will make sense of their own disjointed lives. But they want the latter, because they fear (or desire) that without it, they will give in to their own worst impulses or crumble to their basest desires.
Hannibal Lecter, of course, wields the promise of connection to weave a spell of control over his friends and patients. Even though the time when Hannibal held him in his thrall is long past, Will Graham continues to feel the after-effects of it, to see images of his own personal devil when he closes his eyes, the brightness of a lightbulb still burned upon the retina. He's moved on, but some part of him hasn't. And until he finds his way past that part, he'll never have complete control.
And that scares him.
This latest episode, "... And the Woman Clothed in Sun," finds a nifty way to depict this battle between connection and control, and it's a scene that has bearings for the rest of the episode and, indeed, the rest of the show. And all it took was one anesthetized tiger.
Reba and Francis meet a drowsing tiger
The impetus for this scene is that Francis has taken Reba to the zoo, where one of the tigers is resting before a medical procedure. Reba runs her hands over the tiger. Later, back home, their relationship turns sexual. That's about it, but it seems to exemplify so much of what the show is about.
As I mentioned last week, Red Dragon is so impressive because it has ticking clocks buried inside of its ticking clocks. One of these is the very genuine romance between Francis and Reba, which we want to see go well, even though we know the former is a horrible murderer. When they have these tiny moments when they grow ever closer to each other, we thrill, just a little bit, at the thought of them falling in love.
Of course, the homicidal Red Dragon growing within Francis (personified in this episode by him literally devouring the William Blake painting that gives the dragon its name) will eventually ruin this coupling. We know it has to happen, and all we can really hope for is that Reba escapes with her life. It's the central tension of the whole story, and it's part of why Francis is such a memorable villain.
But let's return to that tiger. As director Guillermo Navarro lights the beast, it seems almost as if it glows from within, lighting up the room around him like a softly glowing paper lantern. The connection between fire and a tiger and William Blake — the man who wrote "Tyger, tyger, burning bright" — should, hopefully, occur to the audience.
But that sleeping tiger is symbolic of more than just a ferocious beast laid low for a little while. In almost every way, Francis seems to accept the tiger as a kind of symbol of himself. Reba is allowed to touch it where most others would not be, and she's even allowed to run a few fingers over its lips (something Francis does with her hand to his own lip while she sleeps later in the episode). Her connection with the big cat grows more and more intense, more and more intimate, until it finally explodes in a burst of sensation.
Navarro portrays this with the colors and lights heightening, to play up the intoxication of Reba feeling the tiger beneath her touch. She cannot see it, but in some ways that makes her better able to appreciate its raw size and strength — and appreciate how rare it is that she would be able to approach it.
The characters struggle for control
It's appropriate that the visit to the tiger is followed up by Reba and Francis's first time in bed. So much of what's wonderful about sex is the feeling that you're losing just a little bit of yourself in the process, and it's easy to imagine this is the first time Francis has lost control in a way that hasn't ultimately proved destructive. (Also, like everything else in the episode, Navarro shoots the hell out of it.)
The question, of course, is to what degree Francis is aware of his inner demons and to what degree he's encouraging them. There's the very real suggestion that Reba is the first thing he's ever had that makes him think his constant string of murders isn't the path of his life. But he's also someone who seems to be trying to control those demons — and the loss of control that occurs during sex might scare him, just a bit.
That, of course, resonates with Will and Bedelia, two of the characters most caught in Hannibal's web.
Bedelia suggests to Will that he's not a killer, that Hannibal simply twisted the profiler to his own diabolical ends. Will, she insists, is deeply compassionate. And that fits with what we know of the character, and what he knows of himself. But in the very same scene, she suggests that great cruelty requires great empathy — that there's only one step between seeing a wounded bird lying on the sidewalk and wanting to help it and seeing that same bird and wanting to crush it.
Indeed, there's the suggestion (and has been throughout the season) that Bedelia is fascinated by Hannibal more than she is repulsed by him — and that fascination repulses her more than his actions.
One of the great things about this Red Dragon arc is that showrunner Bryan Fuller and company are playing up more and more resonances within the text of the book that were always there but were easy to miss in prior adaptations. In particular, the line between Will and Francis seems blurrier than ever before. Both consult with Hannibal. Both are incorporating women they've recently met into their previously quiet, hermetic lives. And both are struggling to suppress certain things. But one is succeeding and one is failing.
Perhaps Will succeeds where Francis fails (for now, at least), because he knows the tiger won't be asleep forever. Eventually, the medication wears off, and the beast must be fed. Francis has turned that feeding into a ritualistic murder, but Will has turned it into an existential game of chicken with his own darkest self. And by engaging with Hannibal and Francis, he's spiraling ever closer to the abyss.