Friday, September 03, 2010


Trying to build a better killer

The following post will contain spoilers for the first four seasons of the series Dexter, so if you haven't seen it and plan to some day, best not to read any further.

By Edward Copeland
When I was a kid, I could truly call myself a child of television. The day each year when TV Guide's Fall Preview would arrive in the mailbox felt like Christmas as I'd anxiously plan which shows I'd be watching each night of the week, hoping there'd be no conflicts, something that was remedied once my family won a Sony Betamax in a $3 raffle in third grade.

As time went on, that changed and I watched less and less. Today, I watch very few shows and it takes great coaxing or some sort of inspiration to get me to sample new ones and when I do, it is often late in a series' run. So, if it weren't for Netflix's instant viewing program, I probably would never have found myself sampling Showtime's Dexter. What I found even more surprising is that rare series that actually has produced seasons that exceeded the previous ones in quality in its four aired seasons.

The only other three series I can think of that pulled off the continued climb in quality is AMC's Breaking Bad (which, after all, had a short first season and only two additional full seasons so far) and The Wire (which admittedly dropped off slightly in its fifth and final season, thanks to HBO only giving it a 10-episode order) and Deadwood, which had its plug pulled prematurely after three seasons so we'll never know if David Milch's complete vision would have kept ascending. It's also very important to note that while Dexter is good and getting better, it doesn't come close to approaching any of those three series in greatness.

Once I decided to try Netflix's instant program, which I would use on my laptop, I decided I wanted to try something short instead of a feature length film. I noticed that the first two seasons of Dexter were both available, so I started with those since they'd be quick to watch when I was between discs. While I thought the first season was fine, I found it awfully predictable, spotting who the Ice Truck Killer was the first moment the actor appeared and figuring out his connection to Dexter as well. It also made it fairly obvious how things would play out.

Still, Michael C. Hall was good enough, as was the rest of the cast, that it encouraged me to continue on to Season 2. (I have to admit that it took me well into the first season to figure out that Julie Benz, the actress playing Dexter's girlfriend Rita, was the same actress who played the vampire Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

I'm glad I continued because Season 2 was a marked improvement over the first season, telling a story where there really wasn't a villain but it was more a tale of police blood splatter expert Dexter Morgan trying to keep secret his moonlighting as a vigilante serial killer, something made much more complicated by the stalking of homicide detective Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), a hothead who seems to be the only person in the police department who notices something odd about Dexter, and the arrival of FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine) who specializes in serial killers and arrives in Miami when Dexter's favorite body disposal spot gets accidentally discovered.

Though Season 2's quality rose greatly over Season 1, it still suffered in the predictability department, especially with the introduction of the unstable Brit Lila Tourney (Jaime Murray) whom Dexter meets when he's forced to lie that he has a drug addiction to cover his tracks and she becomes his sponsor and mistress. It then becomes pretty easy to see how things will play out since Dexter's code would prevent him from ever killing Doakes, who is an innocent, even if he's a threat, you know that Lila will end up doing it and Dexter will take her out.

It's also in this season where the character of Rita really started to get on my nerves. Dexter basically chose to date the single mother of two to try to give his life a semblance of normalcy to give further cover to his serial killer hobby. However, I really began to wish he'd picked someone less annoying.

With Lila, Season 2 started to make even clearer the series' main theme: Dexter's desire to find someone who understands who he is and why he is the way he is, the way his late adopted father (James Remar) did as he spotted his traits early and instructed Dexter on the code, realizing his adopted son would be a killer but trying to build him into one who would only harm those who deserved it because they'd taken the lives of the innocent. There were hints of that with his surprise brother (Christian Camargo) in Season 1 who played a teasing little game with him as the Ice Truck Killer until it got out of hand and he started dating Dexter's cop sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter).

Season 3 spelled this theme out in the clearest way possible and did so with stories that weren't easy to predict and did come complete with red herrings, thanks to the season long special guest star Jimmy Smits as powerful and popular District Attorney Miguel Prado, who ends up becoming Dexter's best friend.

That would seem unlikely at the season's outset as Dexter, out to rid the world of a killer who escaped the justice system, accidentally killed Prado's brother who happened to be in the hideout where Dexter expected to find the bad guy and attacked Dexter with a knife, giving Dexter no choice but to defend himself.

Eventually, Dexter does find his original target, but Miguel happens to be stalking the man as well and catches Dexter after the deed. Instead of turning him in, Miguel is grateful and wants to join Dexter as part of a vigilante team. Dexter believes he's finally found a true kindred spirit, especially as he's learned unsettling things about his adoptive father over the years. Unfortunately, he also comes to realize that Miguel's code is broader than his: He'll let innocent people go to jail and murder attorneys he feels are getting the guilty off. Obviously, a conflict is coming.

However, because Miguel is such a public figure and has information on Dexter, he's not as easy to dispatch as Dexter's other kills. There's also another serial killer terrorizing Miami, seeking money from the original bad guy, unaware that he's dead. To further toss confusion into the season's mix, Debra gets a new homicide detective partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington) who may or may not be a crooked cop. Dexter's domestic life gets complicated as well as Rita finds herself pregnant and she and Dexter plan to wed. The entire season does a good job at keeping you guessing as to how things will be resolved.

The fourth season though puts the previous three to shame, thanks in no small part to season-long guest star John Lithgow as a serial killer (he just won an Emmy for the role) and the return of Carradine's Frank Lundy.

Lundy, retired from the FBI, has returned to Miami because he believes that a serial killer he could never get the bureau to believe existed has started a new cycle there and he'd like the help of both Morgans — Dexter, the splatter expert, and Debra, the homicide detective and his former lover — to catch his great white whale.

Meanwhile, Debra's squad busies itself working on a spree killer that has earned the name The Honeymoon Killer because he kills and robs couples, which leads to them fending off (and in the case of Quinn, unsuccessfully) a persistent newspaper crime reporter Christine Hill (Courtney Hill) who wants to keep breaking details of the various investigations.

The fourth season proves to be the best by far at springing surprises on the audience and also the best in developing Dexter's character and giving Hall a truly worthy acting sparring partner in Lithgow. For so long now, Lithgow has been associated with comedy that people forget he can be a particularly good villain, from the relatively harmless kind in Footloose to the ruthless in Brian De Palma's Blow Out or the over-the-top in De Palma's Raising Cain or the awful Cliffhanger.

Dexter really gives Hall a chance to grow as a character in a way Six Feet Under never did, since that series basically resolved his character's arc in its first season (hell, it resolved everyone's) and the show just got worse after that as it kept tossing pointless character changes to perpetuate the show. The only character who stayed consistent in that series was Frances Conroy's Ruth. I digress.

In a way though, Dexter is a cheat. It's not truly a show about a serial killer because all of his victims deserve it, so it's really just a particularly twisted variation on Charles Bronson's Death Wish vigilante. However, twice now Dexter has slipped up and accidentally killed innocent people, so that has to weigh on him at some point.

Furthermore, in the surprise fourth season ending, his cat-and-mouse game with Lithgow's character (as he delayed killing him, hoping to learn how to balance family life and murder) resulted in the murder of Rita. How Dexter will cope with his activities and being a working single father of three creates new problems, though I must admit it was a relief to see Rita gone. Every time she called Dex on his cell phone during season four I'd think to myself, "Not Rita again. Leave him alone. He's got work to do."

One thing that doesn't bode well for the fifth season continuing the trend of getting better each year (and I won't know for a long time since I don't have Showtime and season 5 begins Sept. 26) is the addition to the cast of the one-note actress Julia Stiles. I'm not sure who her character will be, but she's never appealed to me in anything so odds are she won't help the series.

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This is one of the few shows that pulls me away from thinking like a storyteller and lets me just enjoy the show. (Lost was the other.)

I have just now picked my jaw up off the floor from the end of season 4. I still can't even write it out.
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