Hannibal season 3 episode 8 review: Great Red Dragon

Richard Armitage's spectacular performance as Francis Dolarhyde completely reinvigorates Hannibal season three...

This review contains spoilers.

3.8 Great Red Dragon

I have something to confess, to those of you who have not already sussed it out: I am not a Brit. I am an American writing abroad, as it were, which may be my only excuse for the first half of this review. You’ve been warned.

You see, as an American, my exposure to Richard Armitage has been limited to what little of his work has crossed the pond and made itself easily accessible (thank you, BBC America), especially since my time living in England ended just as his star began to rise. Thus, short of his turns as Guy of Gisborne and Thorin, I haven’t had the opportunity to appreciate his skill as an actor.

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And I enjoyed him a great deal in those roles. He’s impressive as a man of action, his brooding looks bringing a measure of depth to characters which don’t require it but are greatly enhanced by it. Still, it’s one thing to rampage about with a sword. It’s quite another to hold one’s own in a show like Hannibal, where strong writing is bolstered by precise and beautifully textured acting. And I really had my doubts whether he was the man to play Francis Dolarhyde in this production.

The first five minutes of The Great Red Dragon convinced me not only to put aside my doubts but has completely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the series. Armitage is every bit that impressive in the role.

The problem with trying to present such a character is that so much of what makes Dolarhyde is the fantasy going on in his mind—how he sees himself. The most common way of handling this is to do it through the profiler’s eyes in retrospect: have him examine the scene and then describe the psychosis of the perpetrator, including his identification, in this case, with William Blake’s Red Dragon from his watercolour The Great Red Dragon And The Woman Clothed In Sun. Letting someone explain what’s going on in the person’s head is always easier than showing it, especially when you’re dealing with insanity. And the show’s already done that with its more mundane killers in earlier episodes.

Another approach, of course, is to simply show what that character sees. But here, Hannibal’s creator has painted himself into a bit of a corner, since we are already being forced to look at the world through the strange perceptual lens of the comparatively more stable Will Graham. So that’s not a very good option either.

What we get instead in those opening scenes is an intense and spot-on combination of the physical skills of an actor and the careful staging by a director. Armitage’s contemplation of his hands as they form themselves into claws, the labelled watercolor on the cover of Time, the beginning of a look of realisation on the character’s face as he reaches to pick up the magazine and thus reveals his name tag: Francis Dolarhyde. For a full five minutes, there is no dialogue (in fact, the character is on screen a total of about 8 minutes and never speaks an actual word, though his vocalizations are fascinating), and yet we understand: he is undergoing a transformation that both energizes and disturbs him.

But throughout the episode, Armitage manages to communicate things about his character that props cannot. He is not simply transitioning from one entity to another. He moves between the two. As Dolarhyde, he has a certain bit of Hannibal’s fastidiousness, and yet, he is essentially a nervous person. The dragon, on the other hand, is certain in his movements, the actor’s body taking on a more powerful and distinctly reptilian quality as it goes about its business. He is also not passive in this transformation, the actor showing us that it is not mere compulsion that drives Francis. In the scene with the projector, there is seeking in his expression—he wants to understand what is happening and why (though this desire is frustrated in the end).

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Where Mikkelsen and Dancy have proven themselves adept at conveying a great deal in a look, this was still within the context of a lot of supporting dialogue and narrative. Watching Armitage doing it absent all of the former and much of the latter has highlighted his own skills in a way that little else could. It’s a spectacular introduction of both character and actor to a series where the bar for both is already set quite high.

And while there are sure to be new faces in this storyline–Nina Arianda’s Molly being a less impressive first among them–The Great Red Dragon returns to us three more familiar ones. Scott Thompson’s now Agent Jimmy Price and Aaron Abrams’ Brian Zeller not only provide a bit of comic relief but also remind us what a normal person’s response to seeing Will back in the field should be after everything Graham’s been through, made necessary by Crawford’s more blasé attitude, especially considering everything he’s actually seen the profiler experience.

The return of Dr. Chilton (Raúl Esparza) is particularly interesting. He is not in charge of the Baltimore State Hospital of the Criminally Insane—Dr. Bloom is, which suggests much about how he will get the job, especially when she catches him sitting at her desk. His book is evidently precisely the sort of mediocre-but-sensational schlock that sells but earns no professional respect and is soon to be torpedoed by Dr. Lecter’s own rebuttal.

But what is intriguing is that between his last appearance and this one, Dr. Chilton has undergone no trauma we are aware of. And yet, there seems to have been a shift in his character. This is not the craven but still insightful man of season two. His baiting of Hannibal is both obvious in execution and overtly rude. Has the intervening time really made him so sloppy? This reads as a lot closer to the caricature we saw in The Silence Of The Lambs than the more fully developed character we’ve seen here in Hannibal. If he were the one scheduled to die next (rather than, say, Alana) this might make more sense, but for now, it’s hard to account for.

Finally, much has been made of Fuller’s decision not to focus on the rape of the female victims in Dolarhyde’s crimes. I have to admit that I was initially relieved, but after this week’s episode, I am a bit concerned. It’s one thing to not want to glamorise the act—few enough writers and directors can resist rising to that ratings-bait, especially when their show is so in need of viewers (and please, don’t get me started on how wrong it is that such a thing can affect ratings like that). But when the crime is specifically about the twisted spectatorship of such a crime, I think you have to do more than make a passing reference to a piece of mirror in her labia.

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The way Hollywood usually deals with rape is terrible. But erasing rape isn’t the answer either. My hope is that Fuller will do better going forward. We’ll see.

Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Digestivo, here.