Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dark Passenger/Dark Defender: Dexter, Season 2

(An "exhaustive" examination of the story so far.)

“I’m still going to kill you. I just don’t have to.”

As my esteemed colleague Justin wrote some weeks ago, Dexter started off its second season reasonably strong. Interesting arcs were proposed and introduced, and even Dexter himself was temporarily repackaged through stark anxiety and regret for killing his brother (the Ice Truck Killer); the only person who could ever understand him. Even though these elements admittedly had a direct correlation with the events that ended Season one (to an almost crippling degree), they were interesting nonetheless. This was proof positive that the show had a patience and a method much stronger in resolve than most had previously thought.

The curious thing about Dexter has always been the disparity between the uncommonly powerful central character and the surprisingly weak ensemble. More often than not it is the sometimes hollow dialogue and poor performances from the supporting cast that end up dragging the show down from an otherwise rapid ascension. Season two is slowly trying to reconcile these two components through focused, character driven arcs, and has done an admirable job thus far--if not still lacking some validity.

Since the last time we covered Dexter (the premiere), the show has been trailing along smoothly at a mostly even pace, finishing up episode six this past Sunday. The most important arc introduced, of course, is that the “big bad,” as it were, for the season is Dexter himself. Scuba divers came upon his watery graveyard of villains, and the FBI has been called in to work jointly with the Miami PD in apprehending the quickly named “Bay Harbor Butcher.” Though, Dexter doesn’t much care for the moniker. This plot point has been able to produce many ingeniously written moments for Dexter himself, as well as the show in general. It pushes the boundaries of his phony persona, and, at the same time, has been able to collectively question just how phony it really is.

Dexter’s personal belief system has been kind of thrown into upheaval since the discovery that his foster father, Harry (of the Code of Harry) was essentially banging his real mother, an informant for the police department. This calls into question Harry’s motives for taking Dexter in to begin with, and has cast a shroud over the dubious “morals” that he instilled in his damaged foster child. At least that’s where the writers seem to be taking us. Dexter recently had the opportunity to kill the man that murdered his mother and opted against it. More on that later.

Dexter’s past has been examined in a fairly satisfying way this season. It’s logical really. By the end of Season 1 we thought that we learned all that there is to know about Dexter’s childhood and past. Now discovering that not everything is what it seemed is, pretty much, cheating. However, there seems to be enough dime-store novel, soapy elements as well as off-the-cuff psycho-babble to make it interesting in a guilty kind of way. Obviously, this is not something that they could pull off every season, but it really isn’t a problem as of yet.

I like the whole dynamic, also, of the “Bay Harbor Butcher” being championed as a vigilante hero (The Dark Defender) of sorts. The proposed public acceptance of this character is a little obvious and, well, stupid, but you couldn’t really expect it to go any other way. This has called into question just how inherently evil Dexter truly is. If his actions are socially acceptable, are they then morally acceptable? Does he care? And if so, why does he care all of the sudden? The Code of Harry doesn’t seem to be the answer to all of his questions anymore.

Meanwhile, after discovering that Dexter did, in fact, set Paul (her junkie ex) up to be put back in jail, Rita comes to the conclusion that Dexter is an addict himself. How else would Dex know just the right amount of heroin to give Paul? Uh…okay. She is of course, right; just not right about what Dexter is addicted to. In an odd story twist that is both logical and…fucking strange, Rita orders Dexter to join a program to keep himself clean or they are through. This sets in to motion a chain of events that is seemingly shaping the entire season, as well our hero’s mental state. Side bar: I find it odd that Paul’s death was only heard about, and not actually seen by the viewer. Was this a quick attempt by the writers to rid the show of a serious weight on its forward momentum; or, possibly, a really bad idea that will come to fruition later in the season? I’m not going to speak aloud what I am suggesting, but…you know what I mean, and damn that would be lame. Hopefully, it was more of a proactive decision. The show clearly doesn’t need two Sgt. Doakes watching Dexter’s every move. One is annoying enough.

The introduction of Lila (Jaime Murray) as Dexter’s sponsor is probably the second most important arc this season. Lila is able to see through him remarkably easy. She sees the “Dark Passenger” with him and wants to help. She appears to be just as morally damaged as Dexter and has also (as we’ve recently found out) killed in the name of goodwill. Their scenes are filled with mostly cliché psycho analyses, as well as a palpable hint (promise) of sexuality. Hall works very well with her, though, and they produce a compelling chemistry that he and Benz (Rita) never seemed to display. Though, I should note that Dexter and Rita’s lack of real connection was clearly a calculated choice by the writers--and a good one. Dexter and Lila having finally “sealed the deal,” and Rita leaving Dexter for good (or so it seems) should yield some interesting results. Their’s is a strange relationship because as much they seem to help each other, they seem to bring each other down even more. It is a constructive relationship of deconstruction. It makes things interesting to watch. Lila is the chief reason Dexter’s mother’s murderer is still alive. Talking to her on his cell phone just as he was about to do the deed, she talked him down like a heroine addict about to use again. The fact that it worked both surprised and intrigued Dexter. Now that the two are “together,” expect significant chinks in the armor to be put on display, because, well…their’s is a strange relationship.

Elsewhere, Sgt. Doakes has upped his suspicion as well as surveillance of Dexter since suspecting him of “knowing more about the Ice Truck Killer then he let on.” I liked Erik King on Oz well enough. I also can appreciate that a role like this is him maybe playing against type…but it’s not really. The truth of the matter is that Doakes is an idiot, and his suspicion of Dexter is rooted in personal dislike-- not police intuition. This fact does seem to be partially emerging, but not fast enough. Sure, we all know that he is right about Dexter, but his stalker antics only serve as a hindrance to the plot, as opposed to a genuine antithesis to the character of Dexter himself. While they have hinted at a definite darkness within Doakes (apparently he was a Special Forces badass) there has never been enough there to sell the character as a real threat. He is nowhere near a worthy adversary and the writers need to end this arc fairly soon (like this season) before it gets so annoying that people no longer want to watch. This, of course, is coupled with the fact that, as valiant an effort as King puts forth, he is still a fairly untalented actor who is given plodding, tough guy dialogue and a character with only the faint illusion of layers. We recently thought that this madness of him “tailing” Dexter would come to an end when he found him at an NA meeting. He seemed to show approval and a willingness to back off. However, when bringing up Dexter’s non-existent substance abuse problems to Debra (Dexter’s sister), his suspicions were once again awakened, only with more vigor this time. Yay! This will end well.

Debra still seems hell-bent to perpetuate the middle child syndrome that she’s been displaying since day one…and she’s not even a middle child! This is another case of a slightly sub-par actor given a character that only appears to have depth. If she’s not stumbling around a crime scene making an idiot of herself, she is whining about how everyone (including her father) liked/likes Dexter better because he is more capable and smarter than she is. Well, you know, he kind of is. She seems to be saved as a detective due to her ability to infuse the occasional jolt of common sense into a situation at key moments. Her entire career seems predicated upon this fact. I refuse to believe that she would be any kind of successful detective in the real world if not surrounded by over worked morons who find it impressive that she can have a good idea every now and again. She is still trying to get over the fact that she, a DETECTIVE, was dating and almost married the serial killer she was so actively pursuing. She has become a sort of local joke and really just wants to get back to work and not be bothered with her recent, unfortunate celebrity. Lightning strikes again as Special Agent Lundy, the head of the FBI task force assigned to catch the “Bay Harbor Butcher,” sees something special in her and puts her on his team. He is an older man with a dry wit, played well by Keith Carradine. There are many awkward moments that ensue between the two due to the fact that Debra clearly has a crush on him. The reason for this crush clearly has to do with her more than apparent “daddy issues,” coupled with an almost debilitating inferiority complex.

As a show, Dexter is slowly coming into its own as a heavy weight drama with a slight penchant for not-so-veiled social commentary. Most of what it has to say isn’t terribly insightful, but it has developed something of even brush stroke while painting these situations for its odd array of underdeveloped characters. I like the way that the writers are making a conscious effort to give Hall’s surrounding playmates something in the way of “meat,” even if the end results are still largely lacking. Dexter is probably never going to be an all-around great show. However, the continued effort to raise the playing field of our hero by surrounding him with characters that seem to be developing something in the way of personalities is a big step forward, and the effort shines through.

No one really expects Dexter to get caught by Season's end. Nor do we expect, or even want, Dexter to stop killing (what does that say about us?!). However, the paradoxical nature of the themes emerging here are wildly compelling, if not a shade underwhelming with some of their deliveries. As a drama in only its second season, Dexter has a strong sense of itself, but is careful not to remain static. This can become a problem in the future seeing as a lot of shows go off in a lot of stupid directions in order to remain “fresh.” Dexter seems determined, though, to remain refined and simply work the formula that it has the best that it can. I think one can appreciate this, and that it will give this show a longer than expected shelf-life.

*Check out Justin’s great review of Dexter: Season 2, Episode 1 here.
*Expect weekly recaps of Dexter from now until the end of the Season.


Todd said...

This is an excellent piece on a show that I'm rapidly discovering is a favorite after I thought season one rather overpraised. The very things that a lot of Dexter fans don't like about season two (that he's not killing as much) are exactly WHAT I like about it. It's raising all sorts of messy questions about morality and the psychology of killing and so on and so on, and I, for one, am really enjoying it.

That said, the ensemble still sucks.

Pipo said...

On what exactly do you base your remark about the quality of the performances, or the dialogue? Sorry to break it you, but reviewing TV doesn't mean dissecting a show piece by piece. What DEXTER is really pushing boundaries, and I'm talking about the 2nd season, is bringing a really untypical hero to the TV, providing deep introspection into his mind - to the point that the real gore is not the bloody scenes, but the 360 degree view of the ultimate twistedness of Dexter's actions when cornered - at the same time never giving the support cast too much or less story time to feel like it is dragging on or underdeveloped, and in the end comes out with a perfect combination of all these parts. To not understand means not to understand what makes good TV different from bad.