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Monster Under the Bed: Dexter

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Monster Under the Bed: <em>Dexter</em>

Those who tuned out of the Showtime series Dexter or disregarded it as nothing more than an entertaining enough time-waster during its initial run of episodes can be forgiven. For much of the first season, the series was too in love with its serial killer protagonist to the exclusion of all else—even its other characters. While Michael C. Hall’s performance as the central figure was terrifyingly good (up there with Michael Chiklis in The Shield for bad guys you feel sympathy for), the show around him just wasn’t very well-constructed. I liked season one of Dexter well enough, but I also grew irritated at the consistent praise of the show, which often seemed centered entirely around Hall’s performance and the show’s ruthless plotting, while the series’ substantial flaws were ignored more and more. I didn’t see a future for the show, which didn’t bother developing any characters beyond Dexter and was rather unwilling to even slightly ponder the bizarre code and skewed morality Dexter operated under.

Consider me chastened, then, as Dexter in its second season is bolder and stronger than almost any other drama on the dial, a bloody rampage through the things that oh-so-tenuously connect us to our own humanity, and a terrific chiller where the monster under the bed is our very own protagonist. A handful of the supporting players on the show still remain resolutely uninteresting, but the series is finally willing to engage with the ethics of the universe it has created, and Hall’s performance has become so good that he’s a shoo-in for an Emmy nomination next summer. There’s still clumsy stuff in Dexter (which we’ll get to), but the vast majority of the show in season two was spellbinding. And, as a warning, if you haven’t seen Sunday night’s finale just yet (or if you tuned out in season one and want to catch up with this season on DVD), steer clear after the jump, as there will be spoilers aplenty.

Genre wise, Dexter has always had a bit of a tongue-in-cheek relationship with the police procedurals it most closely resembles. Your average show on CBS works best when it builds up a righteous fury against the criminal in question, whose actions are often so bizarre and outside of the American norm that we, the audience, thirst for that criminal’s blood. Such series are often violent and gory, and the only thing keeping us safe from the monsters within are the taciturn, barely human people solving the crimes (who occasionally seem just a few steps removed from being sociopaths themselves—think of Mandy Patinkin’s character on the often-grotesque Criminal Minds). A few of these procedurals give their characters lives outside of solving crimes, but for the most part, these are detective robots, a far cry from the quirkily cutesy Columbos and Kojaks of yesteryear. So while we’re (essentially) identifying with characters that could be, for all intents and purposes, barely restrained sociopaths, we’re also finding ourselves disgusted and appalled by the subhuman actions of the criminals these detectives are capturing. It’s a perfect recipe for a vigilante cop scenario, like Dirty Harry only more brooding and bloody. Dexter’s smartest move is to simply tip this balance fully into the realm of the revenge thriller. Sure, he’s killing people, but he’s only killing the people you wish death on in all of those other shows, right?

The problem with Dexter in its first season was that it left this situation rather unexamined from a moral point of view. Intellectually, the audience knew that what Dexter was doing was wrong, but the show made too much out of how Dexter NEVER broke his code and only took out those who “deserved it.” In the first season, the investigative qualities of what Dexter did got too much of the emphasis, as if the show wanted to reassure the audience that Dexter was less of a moral monster and more of a lovable rapscallion. Hall was up to making the monster understandable, similar to how James Gandolfini kept Tony Soprano human and understandable, even as he committed deeply evil acts. But the show was too invested in trying to float the idea of Dexter being somehow necessary (as all vigilante art must be) to really delve into questions of morality. The best episode of that season ended up being a midseason riff where Dexter’s nemesis, the Ice Truck Killer (revealed late in the first season, and improbably so, to be his brother), led the authorities to one of Dexter’s corpses, forcing Dexter to dance just ahead of being caught. Something in the way this enlivened Hall’s performance and in the way the series forced viewers to take a hard look at why they didn’t want Dexter to get caught clearly spoke to the writers because the entirety of the second season was about the discovery of many of Dexter’s victims and the killer’s attempts to not get caught.

The best thing about season two was the way the writers trusted Hall to keep Dexter empathetic to the audience while they were able to show just how flawed his reasoning is. While some of this was done through flashback (Dexter learned his adoptive father, Harry, who set up the code Dexter lives by, wasn’t all he was cracked up to be), just as much was done through having someone, Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), find out the truth about Dexter’s life. Doakes had been the only person on the police force who was convinced of Dexter’s oddness in the first season, but it was as though the writers didn’t know what to do with him. In season two, they simply let Doakes in on Dexter’s secret in the final handful of episodes, and it markedly deepened both characters and the show itself—King was no longer forced to play a one-note bloodhound; after Dexter captured and imprisoned Doakes in a swamp cabin, King made Doakes the show’s conscience. King had often been written off as one of the show’s weakest links in season one, but his performance in these episodes was unexpectedly soulful. In his dogged persistence, he became a mirror version of Dexter—as if Dexter had somehow used his desire to put away baddies to BECOME one of those detective robots from other series. Dexter even tried to play up this comparison in one episode, while standing over a fresh corpse. He pointed out all of the situations in which Doakes had killed (as a cop and a soldier), and it seemed as if the show were setting us up to, yet again, see that Dexter was DIFFERENT from other serial killers. But it only seemed that way. Doakes soon pointed out that, no, Dexter’s method was unacceptable, both ethically and as a way to help society as a whole. While Doakes may have been a “loose cannon,” he was only so within larger constraints where it’s acceptable (in societal standards) to kill others.

It was this moral complexity that let the show dance past flaws still present in the format—some of the plot twists were a bit ridiculous (would Dexter REALLY leave the coordinates for his swamp cabin in his GPS , or even have them there in the first place?), and a couple of new characters brought in promisingly in the first few episodes turned out to be largely uninteresting (one, introduced as Dexter’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor—don’t ask—then turned into his lover, eventually just becoming a garden variety psycho of the sort that have been banging around Hollywood since Fatal Attraction). The series even delved more deeply into the motivations of Harry, who, seemingly, used Dexter to punish the criminals he could not punish through the legal system (picking up on something almost unsettlingly eager in James Remar’s portrayal of the patriarch). The late season revelation that Harry killed himself after being exposed to what he had created hit home, couched as it was in an episode where the show finally stepped slightly outside of Dexter and let us see his killing from Doakes’ point-of-view, finally revealing it in all of its horror. The shots of this happening were even unsettling—all hidden behind the plastic sheets Dexter uses to keep blood from spreading too far and make things antiseptic. Dexter is not a series I generally turn to for visually arresting filmmaking (much of it is shot in the usual television grammar of mid-shots, close-ups and establishing shots, and it rarely does much to mix this up visually), but the shots of Doakes behind plastic, blood spattering against it, were terrific. Dexter also had to decide if he was going to kill Doakes or simply frame him for the murders Dexter committed. The way the show solved this was a bit of a cop-out, but it did question just how far Harry’s code (first rule: don’t get caught) would be pushed before it broke down as an untenable system.

The season also introduced a handful of other intriguing concepts—if Dexter truly cares about other people (like his girlfriend, Rita, and his sister, Deb) and he does his best to pretend to be a loving brother and boyfriend, at what point does he actually become such a thing (particularly when he’s unable to kill for practical or psychological reasons, as he was early in the season)? If the general public discovered there was a serial killer who only killed other criminals, how many of them would react to such a thing with something approaching admiration? And could a twelve-step program help a sociopath? (Probably not, the show seemed to say, but he might find someone he could dance around, almost telling about his dark side before shying away from it.) The show disposed of some of these issues (particularly the question of what the general public would do) a little too quickly, but its willingness to dissect the lies Dexter tells and the evil he undertakes marked it as a series that was serious about its purposes and intents and not a cheeky crime thriller, as it was in season one.

The second season’s finest hours probably came in the three episodes preceding the finale, when Dexter, keeping Doakes in a cage, was confronted with the enormity of some of what he’d done (particularly with the rattling revelation that he had indirectly led to his own father’s death). The scenes where Doakes gently prodded Dexter to turn himself in and the resultant moments where Dexter tried to set things up so his sister and Rita would be cared for after he did turn himself in managed to somehow uncover all of the sardonic bluster Dexter places between the audience and the work he does, and to reveal the human buried underneath all of that self-justification. The episode expertly played off the intellectual desire to see Dexter punished and the sheerly emotional desire to see him be free, if only to keep the show around for seasons to come (and much of this can, again, be attributed to Hall). When we watch television, we’re expecting a return to the status quo. We may complain about it (especially if we write about it critically), but there’s a deep-seeded need to see everything get back to normal. It’s one of the great comforts of watching television, just as going to a film where a hero will undertake some sort of journey and change in some way can be oddly comforting as well. Dexter’s not one of the true greats, where people do truly change, but its willingness to examine these underpinnings and push our desire to see Dexter continue to kill back in our faces marks it as something that’s striving and still growing.

The season finale, unfortunately, tied up all of the loose ends a little too easily. Dexter’s sponsor/paramour/crazy obsessive Lila learned Dexter’s secret and promptly decided to defend him (for reasons that seemed a bit strained), killing Doakes in the process, and the heavens again seemed to conspire to let Dexter walk free. While there were hints that other officers would avenge Doakes’ unjust conviction (Dexter’s crimes were pinned on Doakes post-death), mostly Dexter found himself free to kill, his methods now perfected and his ability to avoid detection honed down to a fine point. The show even had Dexter improbably fly to Paris to dispatch of Lila and sent away the one man perhaps smart enough to catch him now that Doakes is dead, the F.B.I. agent Lundy (Keith Carradine, unfortunately involved in a tangential romantic subplot with Dexter’s sister midway through the season). But while the finale didn’t live up to what preceded, it managed to confront us again with the notion that Dexter, unhinged and not needing to play along with society’s rules, remains as dangerous as ever. While I wish season two had ended a bit more elegantly, it’s convinced me that Dexter is capable of truly great things, of examining the intersection between what we believe to be right and our primal desire to see the wicked punished.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.