One of the facets that made Hannibal’s second season such a propulsive joy was its unpredictability. There was the tantalizing sense from week to week of not having the slightest clue where the show was going. Tackling areas outside of Thomas Harris’ source material freed the series from the shackles of rote translation, taking the characters to places unfamiliar to scholars of the Harris mythos. Will’s imprisonment, his ambiguous relationship with Hannibal Lecter, and even the fates of notable characters like Frederick Chilton, these elements were all played with wild-card abandon, clueing us into the notion that nothing we knew about these people was considered sacred. This was a series willing to play fast and loose with our perceptions of these characters and the events surrounding them. Hannibal was thrilling because it was rewriting the book on these people. Hell, it was rewriting four books.
If Season 3 has felt a touch disappointing thus far, it’s because Hannibal has begun to stray into the realm of fealty to its literary and cinematic forebears, rather than simply using them as a jumping-off point before following its own muse. While the first half of the season didn’t adapt the Hannibal novel and film slavishly, it definitely adhered to that story with more reverence than one might have expected. And now that the series has shifted in its second half toward an adaptation of Red Dragon, the Harris novel previously brought to the screen by Michael Mann in 1986’s Manhunter and by Brett Ratner in 2002’s Red Dragon, the sense of déjà vu is only growing more palpable. While the idea of watching the series’ characters graduate into the stories that originally made them famous carries with it some degree of excitement, in practice, that plug-and-play application is too awash in familiarity. We know the beats of the Red Dragon story backward and forward. One grows wistful for the days when Hannibal would throw weird werewolf murderers at us without warning.
“The Great Red Dragon” flashes forward three years into the future to find Will Graham now married to a nice woman named Molly (Nina Arianda) and stepfather to Molly’s young son. Though still living in the same dog-infested cabin in the woods, Will has somehow managed to carve out something of a normal existence in the years since Hannibal Lecter surrendered himself to the FBI. Hannibal, for his part, is now a media celebrity, having had several books published about him by the enterprising Dr. Chilton. He’s also spending a fair amount of time in his “memory palace” as a respite from his cell (though said cell is more spacious than most peoples’ entire apartments, so maybe he could stand to live in the real world for a bit), being overseen by Alana Bloom, whom the hospital has set as his administrator. After a new killer begins making the news cycle, Lecter becomes intrigued. Dubbed “The Tooth Fairy,” this new media darling has taken to targeting families, placing shards of mirror into their eyes after they have been dispatched. The severity of these crimes is so significant that Jack Crawford makes the tough decision to recruit Will back into the fold, despite the mental toll this would take on a fragile man who has fought a hard-won battle for the normalcy he currently enjoys. When Will, who is now a family man, grudgingly agrees to take on this case, it means getting reacquainted with Hannibal, if just to reactivate the dormant part of his brain that can attune to the wavelength of the criminally insane.
If that synopsis sounds an awful lot like the Red Dragon story you’ve already seen play out onscreen twice, it’s not without good reason. “The Great Red Dragon” leans heavily on the story’s outline. Jack’s recruitment of Will is exactly the same as in the previous incarnations, right down to the reuse of certain lines of dialogue. Similarly, when we see the Tooth Fairy in action, covered in blood and watching home movies, it’s a bit like watching Uncle Ben get shot yet again in the latest Spider-Man reboot. The Tooth Fairy, who is played by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield from the Hobbit trilogy), is again a musclebound, heavily tattooed introvert, as he was in the novel and in Ralph Fiennes’ interpretation (as opposed to the more effete oddball Tom Noonan portrayed in Manhunter). By the time Will goes to the home of a slain family in the dead of night to recreate the crimes in his mind, not even the deployment of his “This is my design” catchphrase can break the been-there/done-that spell.
The bright side here is that “The Great Red Dragon” burns through a fair amount of the source material, perhaps hinting that subsequent episodes will offer new spins on the tale. Again, there is an appeal to watching the show’s unique interpretations of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter dropped into this old chestnut, but if everything sticks as rigidly to the script as it does here, it’s going to grow tedious before long. Hannibal has, in the past, proven highly adept at making the familiar feel new and exciting. It needs that pioneering spirit now more than ever before.
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