Hannibal begins it new (and, likely, final) story arc with Season 3, Episode 8 (“The Great Red Dragon”). We meet Francis Dolarhyde, aka The Tooth Fairy. We finally see Hannibal Lecter behind bars. And Will Graham returns to the FBI after a three-year hiatus.
That’s right: Hannibal embraces the currently ubiquitous TV plot device that is the time jump to show us what life is like for Will, Hannibal, Alana, Chilton, and Jack three years after Hannibal’s capture. Much has changed, but these characters cannot outrun the past lurking in the shadows, made manifest in the form of Dolarhyde himself. The way the episode presents his character, “The Red Dragon” springs to life just as Hannibal surrenders himself to the FBI following the events at Muskrat Farm. As Hannibal and Will create lives without one another, The Red Dragon is growing in that darkness. His slaying of two families is what will bring Will and Hannibal back together.
So, what have these two frenemies been up to in their time apart? Will has found himself a family of his own: Molly, her 11-year-old son Walter, and their furry troop of dogs. They live in relative isolation, in a cabin in the woods. Will is obviously still haunted by his past, but he has found some semblance of peace here. When Jack arrives to try to convince Will to consult on the Tooth Fairy case, Will tells him that he knows how lucky he is to have found Molly and Walter. There is obviously a part of Will who never believed he would make it out of Hannibal’s orbit, a part of him that will always believe that. “If I go, I’ll be different when I get back,” Will tells Molly. Will lives in fear of his inevitable fall back into Hannibal’s orbit and back into his own madness. In that latter way, he has much more in common with Francis Dolarhyde than he ever did with Hannibal Lecter.
Meanwhile, Hannibal has been biding his time in Dr. Chilton’s institution. He may be a prisoner, but he has a gilded cage. Chilton and Alana bring him his favorite wine, and Hannibal imagines away the bars through the power of his mind palace. Logistically, Alana and Chilton have testified towards Hannibal’s plea of insanity, helping him avoid the death penalty he would have otherwise gotten for the 12 people (13, if you count Mason Verger) he murdered. The fact that Alana would help Hannibal avoid the death penalty (presumably to keep the true story of Mason’s death a secret) speaks to how much this character has changed since we first met her. And I’m not just talking about the suits. Alana doesn’t even bat an eye while discussing Hannibal’s promise to one day murder her with Hannibal himself.
While Hannibal, Alana, and Chilton may all agree that Hannibal isn’t insane, it’s obvious that Dolarhyde is. In many ways, his murders are much more gruesome than Hannibal’s, but their tragedy lies not only in the horrific deaths of these innocent families, but in Dolarhyde’s own instability. This is a man barely holding onto any sense of the world as it is. He can never evade the rumbling growl of the dragon. Unlike Hannibal, he is as much a victim as the people he kills.
Overall, “The Great Red Dragon” was a literal return to form for Hannibal. The nostalgia inherent in the characters’ reflections on their collective dark past lurking in the shadows was also apparent in the format of the episode. It called to mind the earliest episodes of the show, featuring the morally-questionable mentor Jack pulling a reluctant Will back into profiling and the bringing together of Will Graham and Dr. Lecter under the facade of catching a third party serial killer.
“You, with your fancy illusions, your fussy aesthetics. You will always have niche appeal. But this fellow, there is something so universal about what he does,” Dr. Chilton tells Hannibal, but it might as well be speaking about the show. The Italian arc often bordered on the avant garde — or as close to it as network TV is likely to ever get — and it was beautiful and strange and wondrous. It was refreshing in the most confusing and unsettling of ways (as it should have been, given that the arc was the most personally-relevant to the character of Hannibal Lecter the show had ever ventured). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to be back in more familiar narrative territory.