Dexter is a show that works thanks to a Herculean effort by Michael C. Hall. The show is founded on a precarious premise that depends on you investing in the adventures of a serial killer, anchored by a sardonic inner monologue and visions of a dead father. And with Chip Johannessen (24) taking the reins for the new season, Dexter is on its third showrunner in five years, which messes with the auteur theory. It’s not the effort of a singluar creative vision that holds the show together as Showtime’s flagship drama — at least not behind the camera.
Hall is brilliant. He has three Emmy nominations (plus a fourth for Six Feet Under) to prove it. Is it any surprise that he’s no less brilliant in the first three episodes of season five, reacting to the closing events of last season in which… Oh. Wait. This gets into spoilers for the first four seasons from here on out. If you’re cool with that, you can find my review of the first quarter of season five of Dexter after the jump.
Clyde Phillips brought season four to a shocking end with Rita dead in a bathtub, then immediately renounced his duties as showrunner. A lovely parting gift from Phillips that doubles as a horrifying housewarming present for Johannessen. He has to deal with the aftermath of Rita’s death on his first day on the job in such a way that launches a season’s worth of storylines.
So I would understand if episode one, “My Bad,” was a mess. But somehow, it’s not. Obviously, all eyes first look to Hall. He has plenty to work with: guilt, mourning, introspection, murderous rage. And he’s fantastic. He’s a stud. He is a rock, and no matter where the show goes, I can count on Hall to keep me connected to Dexter Morgan, serial killer. All praise for his work is redundant by now, but I’ll probably include a couple more platitudes before I’m done.
Credit to Johannessen, though, for producing such an engaging hour out of a defiantly amorphous mass of dramatic potential. “My Bad” reminded me of the iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “The Body,” which dealt with death of Buffy’s mother. (That’s high praise coming from this devoted Buffy fan.) Johannessen, who scripted the episode, taps into the hyperreality that surrounds the death of a loved one. A careful eye is turned to insignificant details, in which a Kleenex is audibly (and thus unnervingly) ripped from the box, and knocks at the door represent the thunderous sound of impending doom.
Dexter has long experimented with virtually cartoonish extremes of lighting, camera angles, and depth of field. Director Steve Shill and DP Romeo Tirome leave no trick in the bag: Downy-soft lighting, slow-motion, kinetic camerawork, and Dutch angles abound. Somehow, every visual flourish falls into place. They play a major role in crafting the Dexter version of “The Body.”
In terms of the emotional impact of Rita’s death, Johannessen smartly focuses on the response of Dexter, Deb, and the kids. Dexter’s a given, and he’s clearly not equipped to deal with the situation. (When informing Cody and Aster of their mother’s death, he tone-deafly mimics the funeral director, “I’m sorry for your loss.) Deb, meanwhile, embodies the burdened relative who must figure out how to console their relative on the fly. Her actions prove that she, like her brother, is at a loss for what is appropriate. Since the very first season, when she was just a pawn in the game of Dexter’s serial killer brother, Deb has functioned as a bit of a Job for the writers. Jennifer Carpenter’s performance has always been a bit ahead of the material they’ve given her, but the work finally started to catch up last season. She rises to the challenge Hall sets forth each week, and I wouldn’t be offended if she snuck into the Emmy Supporting Actress categories one of these years.
The Achilles heel of Dexter is its inability to consistently entertain when Hall is offscreen. Carpenter could probably anchor a scene by herself by now, if only the character were as consistently engaging as she is. I think Quinn (played by Desmond Harrington) was a nice post-Doakes addition to the show, but only in combination with the right character. Especially now that we’re done with John Lithgow and Julie Benz as regular presences on the show, Carpenter and Harrington are Hall’s two finest sparring partners. They are partnered often in the initial hours of season five, and Deb/Quinn has proven to be the show’s most fruitful pairing that doesn’t include Hall. (In part because I’m fascinated by the weird subtext inherent in the link between Quinn’s sexual tension with Deb and his indirect yet determinedly skeptical pursuit of her brother. Dark stuff.)
The real albatross of the show is the relationship between Angel and LaGuerta. I understand that physical/budgetary limitations prohibit Hall from acting in every shot, in every scene, but that’s the optimal version of the show for my viewing experience. I do wonder what a forty-minute Dexter episode would look like, with all the Angel/LaGuerta scenes excised. That is effectively how the show plays in my head: their scenes together are the equivalent of a commercial break.
Angel and LaGuerta agonize over whether the jurisdiction of Rita’s murder case.
Angel is upset that LaGuerta is keeping a secret from him.
Angel tells Laguerta, “Then maybe we have different ideas about what a marriage should be. Because I always pictured you and I at eighty years old, walking down the beach, hand in hand.”
Uhl. That said, here’s where I was left at the end of episode three:
1) I instantly wanted to watch the next three episodes
2) I have no idea where the season arc is headed
I haven’t really, truly felt either of these things since season two, which belongs in the pantheon of high-tension TV. Doakes’ offing was clearly the way to end that season, yet I always felt the show lost a key component in the process, as evidenced by a mediocre season three. John Lithgow brought season four back to quality, but you knew from the his introduction that, like Jimmy Smits before him, the Trinity Killer would end up Seran-wrapped to a table by the end of the season.
At this stage, season five is shaping up to be the best since season two, particularly by the end of the third episode. The closing moments are ninety percent of what inspired statement 1). Checking the calendar for the airdate of episode four… October 17th. Damn. Too far.
Season five of Dexter airs Sundays at 9PM on Showtime starting September 26th.