Next week, NBC’s Hannibal will debut the episode “The Great Red Dragon,” which will begin the second-half story arc for Season 3. The episode will mark the beginning of a very definite and well-known storyline, that which takes place in Red Dragon — Thomas Harris’ first novel to feature Dr. Lecter and the only one to feature Will Graham. The whole series is mostly predicated on weaving the backstory of the characters from that novel. Even if the series hadn’t been canceled by the network, I’d still be here about to say this exact sentence: Hannibal needs the Red Dragon right now even more than it needs Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal or Hugh Dancy’s Graham.
The first half of Season 3 has been entirely about the “hunt” for Hannibal Lecter and having each of the series’ leads deal with the repercussions of the Season 2 finale, wherein, SPOILERS, everybody almost dies. But this season has felt very meandering, with whole acts sometimes devoted to Graham walking around catacombs or Hannibal and Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) having their tenth philosophical debate about how he’s probably going to kill her soon. While the season has certainly been lovely to look at (who wasn’t wowed by director Vincenzo Natali’s trippy, kaleidoscopic sex scene between Caroline Dhavernas’ Alana Bloom and Katherine Isabelle’s Margot Verger?) and has given some context for characters and a bit of insight into Hannibal’s history, it lacked a focal point the earlier stories had.
Part of what makes Hannibal so great has been that it always had the backbone of a police procedural hidden inside a disturbing character study. While Lecter had been slowly turning Graham insane and eventually into a patsy, he’d also been assisting the FBI with their investigations, in many cases actually helping them catch murderers while keeping them just off the trail of the real Chesapeake Ripper, i.e. himself. This offered some gruesome imagery and hinted at the way everybody remembers Hannibal Lecter, as the deranged, people-eating lunatic locked up and helping the FBI from behind thick glass. The first half of Season 2 nicely subverted this with Will incarcerated and believed criminally insane and Hannibal free as a bird. Even in this, there were still very bad people to catch.
While the hunt for Hannibal Lecter certainly services a lot of dangling plot threads, and Hannibal’s sheer recklessness with his new assumed identity as a history professor in Florence has been interesting to watch, it just hasn’t offered the kind of driving force that one would have hoped for. The inclusion of the highly deranged Mason Verger (Joe Anderson) and his essentially placing a bounty on Hannibal’s head has been a refreshing touch, but he’s still a bit too passive, at least leading in to episode 7.
What the Red Dragon story will give us in spades is a new lunatic to hunt, in the form of “The Tooth Fairy” Francis Dolarhyde, played by MI-5 and The Hobbit star Richard Armitage. Dolarhyde is highly complex, being a former military officer who becomes obsessed with the image and narrative of William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon, to the point that he has it tattooed on his person. He’s a completely different type of killer to Hannibal or to any of the other maniacs we’ve seen on the show, like Abel Gideon for example, in that he’s not like a supervillain in terms of intelligence or means, but a smart yet savage animal unleashed by something primal deep inside.
Dolarhyde is also, if you can believe it, a slightly sympathetic figure with regard to his relationship with Reba McClane, the blind woman who becomes his love interest. He’s moved by her in a ways he never expected and it makes his ultimate plunge into the deep end all the more tragic. Dolarhyde is a force of nature, not playing a game or toying with his prey, but acting the only way he knows how, even if, it seems, he’s on some level unsure of whether it’s truly what he wants. That’s very compelling as a narrative.
And ultimately, what makes the storyline so rewarding will be that it’ll give Will Graham a clear objective again. They’re going to time-jump to a point where Will has retired and is now married and raising a family. He’s been shaken to his core (understandably) because of his friendship with Hannibal and secludes himself entirely, only returning to the fray because of this case specifically, perhaps due to the Tooth Fairy’s targeting of seemingly normal, happy families. And Graham’s riding the line between his new life and his old one will be something exciting to see for the next six weeks.
More importantly, I think – it will finally allow Graham to come out from under Hannibal’s influence, and his shadow. For the first half of Hannibal Season 3, and for much of the previous seasons, Graham has been hopelessly and senselessly devoted to Dr. Lecter in a way that’s frankly gotten a bit silly. This is especially evident in episode 4, “Aperitivo,” in which Will spends time sitting wistfully in Hannibal’s vacated Baltimore home and then later admits to Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) that he contemplated running away with Hannibal and leaving Jack to die. Will Graham is many things, but he should never be a lapdog. I don’t think Hannibal Lecter would have any lingering feelings of guilt or betrayal over anything having to do with this weak a version of Will. Alana, Bedelia, Mason, and even Jack can be acting the way they are, but Will shouldn’t be.
So, my hope is that the Red Dragon storyline, with its clear and driving narrative and complex new villain, allows Hannibal to return to its former glory, and hopefully surpass it. I’m intrigued to see what Bryan Fuller and company do with what will be the third screen adaptation of the Harris novel, and it should give the series the shakeup it needs to remain a show worth bringing back in some other medium or format, or at the very least, leave us wanting more.