One of the things that makes Hannibal such a great show is that it’s truly an ensemble piece. Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy deserve the be awarded every week, and Joe Anderson did an exceptional job of stepping in this season as Mason Verger. Let us not also forget Lawrence Fishburne, Gillian Anderson, and so many other wonderful performances by the show’s cast on a weekly basis.
But then we met “The Great Red Dragon.” As a newbie to Thomas Harris’ books, I wasn’t familiar with Francis Dolarhyde before Hannibal’s introduction of him — and what a stunning introduction it was. Sometimes a TV Performer of the Week is a lead actor doing something extra noteworthy, or a supporting acting getting accolades for a season of great work, but with Richard Armitage and Hannibal, it is for one particular set of scenes, at least to start: the opening five minutes.
Dolarhyde is first made known to us through a closeup of his hand. He flexes it almost like something beastly with claws, before hiding it back away as he studies a picture of William Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon.” Later at his home, Armitage as Dolarhyde exerts a complete mastery of his body as he stretches and planks and writhes, appearing to work through a transformation that might literally sprout dragon wings. The tension here is immense, and even though we’re seeing Armitage’s full, flexing body, it’s curiously not sexy. It’s terrifying. Armitage is not Armitage, he’s utterly Dolarhyde. And he’s becoming something terrible.
It does not end. Continuing to work in total verbal silence, the scene cuts back to where he again flexes his hands like sprouting wings or beastly claws, trembling with their power. Later, Dolarhyde closely investigates a palette of teeth like a child in wonderment, before getting his entire back tattooed. At home, he reveals the literal mark of the best, and then falls before Blake’s red dragon image and worships it. It is one of the scariest things the show has ever done, and while the music and direction played huge roles in creating the atmosphere, its ultimately success is owed all to Armitage.
Showrunner Bryan Fuller spoke recently about Armitage’s dedication to the role of Dolarhyde, and about the journal entries he would write about his character. Armitage added what it was like getting into his character and how he researched it; notably, he mentions that he studied an ancient Japanese form of movement to find something unique for Dolarhyde, which is clearly the origin for his incredibly distinct motions in the opening scenes.
Fuller has said this season contains a scene that Armitage was fearful of portraying, and one that made the show’s crew gasp (to the point where their audio had to be edited out). Whatever that is, Armitage has clearly set the stage for it in “The Great Red Dragon,” becoming — within a mere five minutes — something wholly other, not only from his recognizable self, but something unique in the TV landscape. Something precise, yet unhinged. Something terrifying.
Even now, almost a week after watching the episode for the first time, his movements as Dolarhyde stand out clearly in my mind. Though we get a sense of the carnage he’s capable of later in the episode, Dolarhyde is not an ordinary killer. He writhes in pain at hearing imperceptible sounds, keeps a Domesday-esque scrapbook of his newspaper clippings, and becomes one with the film projection he’s watching. Armitage is mesmerizing on every level here, and absolutely steals the episode with his scenes. Through an incredible degree of craftsmanship, he was able to, even in silence, create a character that is instantly distinct, haunting, and memorable. Just remember — whatever you do, do not call him the Tooth Fairy.