“The Wrath of the Lamb” picks up just where “The Number of the Beast is 666” left off, with Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) admitting his true becoming to Reba (Rutina Wesley), not long after he eats Dr. Chilton’s face and sets the pompous psychiatrist on fire. Even the possibility of love, acceptance, and partnership cannot derail Dolarhyde’s change into the Great Red Dragon, and Hannibal Season 3 has done a marvelous job of keeping Dolarhyde’s struggle to be with Reba tensely ambiguous. Wesley and Armitage’s characters make for an, er, complicated romance, one that’s more viscerally realized and emotionally lacerating than even Joan Allen and Tom Noonan‘s take on the same characters in Michael Mann‘s Manhunter. This relationship has helped anchor the final season of Hannibal, especially as Will and Hannibal’s connection has grown all the more unwieldy and philosophically dense, but even that relationship has been denoted by a struggle to be either be a part and proliferator of compromised social norms or be a monstrous independent creature.
Arguably, the personal decisions made by the central characters of Hannibal that play out in “The Wrath of the Lamb” had been showing for some time now, but the thrill of seeing Will totally in charge of his faculties for the first time in the series gave the series finale an undeniable zip. After Dolarhyde fakes his death in the episode’s opening movement, he surprises Will, his hunter, in his motel room, and the discussion between these two changed men had an openness that the show rarely unveils, rather hiding behind a thicket of illusive ideas concerning self-knowledge. Hugh Dancy, who has revealed himself to be an actor of stunning range in this role, plays the scene with an almost sinister conception of how Will has come to know himself as, to borrow a term from one of his victims, an apex predator. In essence, he has become what Hannibal and Jack Crawford have been goading him to become all along, although Crawford has always hidden his want for Will under bureaucratic responsibilities.
Indeed, there’s an underlying tension that can be felt in Will’s talk with Hannibal in his cell, the one where Will insists that he loves his life with Molly (Nina Arianda), the normalcy and steadiness that family life allows. Will doesn’t believe what he’s saying but he knows (or at least thinks he knows) that he should, and that can be felt in nearly every line the two men exchange. I got a great kick out of Will’s answer to Hannibal’s departing question: “Was it good to see me?” “Good? No.” Is being good a suitable substitute for being one’s undeniable, even homicidal self? Is there even a choice in the matter? The show’s answer is a resounding no, but rarely has any program given such flourishing, complicated life to these age-old questions, showing the ugliness, pain, and emotional devastation that such independence comes with while also conveying the liberating freedom of self that letting go of societal norms allows. Will’s empathy has kept him on the fence until very recent episodes, but with Dolarhyde’s attack on his family, his brilliant, predatory self comes to the foreground. Hannibal says that when life becomes “maddeningly polite,” Will should remember him, which is just another way of remembering to remember who he truly is underneath the confines of being a lawful agent of good and a family man.
It’s unlikely that Will could foresee just how Dolarhyde would sabotage the FBI’s plan to use Hannibal as bait to capture the Red Dragon, but he certainly knew that he was now openly playing a game with two powerful, strategic serial killers. The episode, directed by executive producer Michael Rymer, who also produced and directed for Battlestar Galactica, boasts a strident pacing, one that begins confident and patient before turning rampant, furious, and succinct. When Dolarhyde attacks the caravan of police cars, the episode goes full-steam, and though this mildly suggests a need to wrap up a storyline that may have ran for at least another season, the speed of narrative seems fittingly reflective of Dolarhyde’s purposeful acts.
This all, of course, sets the temp for the final sequence at a cliffside home, where Will, Dolarhyde, and Hannibal set off against one another, ending with the bloody, drawn-out executing of the Red Dragon and Will and Hannibal’s dive off the cliff. The final fight, which pits wounded Hannibal and Will against a borderline-unstoppable Dolarhyde, is a heart-pounding set-piece, directed with a clear sense of the moody space and each characters’ movement. The visual clarity and rhythmic editing of this episode is reflective of Will’s newfound clarity of his own character, a long-awaited certainty of what his power is and who he can be. In a sense, this is exactly where a story like this should end, but considering that this is Hannibal, one of the greatest series to ever grace basic cable, venturing into how these decisions would further effect Will, Hannibal, and those who hesitantly surround them would be exactly the kind of storytelling that Bryan Fuller and his crew have savored toying with for these three seasons.
So, though the series finale is satisfying in a very basic way, the entire episode leaves a bad aftertaste, due to an unmistakable sense that these characters could have grown even more philosophically challenging and oddly empathetic. If nothing else, NBC should have seen what a wild, rare beast they had here, though you can’t exactly be surprised by a basic cable channel towing the line and canceling this wildly expressive, beautiful, bold, and, yes, genius series simply due to not-great ratings, without any notice of its digital fanbase and their cultish love for Fuller’s show. Unlike the characters of Hannibal, NBC clearly is far more interested in embracing the normal than exploring the sublime unknown.
★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television