Monday, 22 September 2008

Dexter Ex Machina

Dexter Morgan is Hannibal Lecter if Hannibal Lecter was a vegan puppy dog. Ostensibly asking questions about morality and justice, the second season of Dexter, which finished in the UK last night, began weak, got stronger as it went along, and ended up throwing away a lot of the progress it had made in a meldoramatic blaze. If you've not yet seen the second season finale, read no further. If you've not yet seen any of it, skip it altogether, and instead watch Pushing Daisies (for something that gets the stylisation/tone equation correct), The Shield (for a truly brain-shaking and thrilling exploration of the effects of corruption and moral confusion on the justice system) and Manhunter (for Will Graham cursing his quarry out, and for Brian Cox being amoral and weird and wonderful).

Funny I should mention spoilers. When The British Invasion aired in the US last year, I mistakenly heard that Dexter killed Doakes, and so watching the lead-up to the finale was seen through that lens. It meant that, for the first time since the show started, we began rooting for Doakes, and were pleased to see Erik King move on from his reliance on Blue Steel (jumping past Le Tigre and going straight for Magnum). It also made us restless to get to that moment, even if we had begun to dread it, as Dexter explored his options through his preferred medium of pretentious voiceover, which sucked all suspense out of the No Way Out style plot. I'm not going to criticise the show for not ratcheting the tension up more, because I wonder if that was even the intention of the showrunners, but it suffered by comparison with the third season of, yes, The Shield, which we were watching at the same time we were watching the second season of Dexter. As Vic Mackey and the Strike Team dodged their colleagues for fifteen stunning and nerve-wracking episodes, all while exploring the consequences of their corruption, Dexter could only look anaemic in comparison (pun sort of intended).

What's worse, while the Strike Team suffer terrible emotional consequences for their actions, Dexter dodges a bullet in an unfortunately silly fashion. The fiery death of Doakes inspired many conflicting emotions in us (possibly a first for the show, which usually just irritates us): relief, as having Doakes killed by Dexter would push our anti-hero over a moral line we could never forgive; frustration, as being killed by Dexter would have been the boldest thing done on the show yet and would have shown some real courage on the part of the showrunners; slack-jawed astonishment, as even though Lila's mental process had been set up with great care throughout the season, it was still an outrageous cheat to take Doakes' ultimate fate from Dexter and place it in her hands. To follow that up with a series of coincidences leading up to a melodramatic kidnap plot, not to mention the godawful and ill-judged in-show recreation of the wonderful title sequence, and the unintentionally silly Satanic Baptism/Rebirth visual of a newly re-purposed Dexter bursting through a conveniently flimsy wall, was utterly exasperating.

That's before we get to the plot stasis of the show which is a regrettable side-effect of the success of the show. While it would be nice to see the show end on a properly bleak note for a show out someone who, despite his cuddliness, is a fucking serial killer for crying out loud, we're always going to see Dexter fudge his moral challenges and do the "right" thing. Killing the people who understand him best (his brother and Lila) might seem like a big deal on a surface level, but it's always done in such a way as to present no challenge to his morals, with the extra consequence of making him seem like a martyr by sacrificing his own peace of mind through the act of murdering the "right" person instead of keeping these monsters around for company. That said, kudos for allowing Dexter to see that the one person he thought understood him, his adoptive father, was actually disgusted by him. Having him face the fact that he really is a monster with a nice line in self-serving justification was one of the things this season did really well.

By this point in the show it's become apparent that the show can be seen two different ways. If you're willing to forgive Dexter his murderous ways, the show is all about following him on a journey of self-discovery, trying to fit in and learn how to feel like he belongs, all while he struggles with his impulses, trying to transform them into a productive act, even when faced with complications. This new Dexter might have finally understood what it is to feel, instead of being a blank slate, which is the first real character progression the show has had. However, if you don't buy into it, it's a bunch of pointless plate spinning. Dexter might make speeches about how he's not operating by the Code of Harry by the time the season finishes, and the next season might mark a notable departure from his past, but to be uncharitable for a moment, though his modus operandi seemed to be slightly different while killing Lila, he's still punishing a murderer, thus keeping the show running for a while linger. This season hinted at pushing Dexter into breaking the code, but at the last second he was saved by a British deus ex machina with a annoying way of talking.

That he killed her and then seemed to embrace family life is only an incremental change from what he was like before, i.e. someone who would have killed her and then tried to fake having a happy family life. Again, I'm curious to see how it plays out, but this new Dexter is only known to us so far through portentous narration. A finale like this needed to see a more visual, dramatic expression of his new nature for us to feel any sense of narrative movement. As it was, the final scenes fell flat, with only his voiceover to tell us things had changed, and no amount of shots of Jaime Murray standing around in Paris was going to stand in for that need (and I'm not going to go on about how Dexter found her, but seriously, when did he become Jason Bourne?).

What's worse, having Lila take Doakes off Dexter's hands was seemingly done because the other options would paint the show into a francise-wrecking corner. Killing Doakes, while an interesting narrative choice, would push Dexter too far over the audience-sympathy line (same with his sister in season one, which is a shame as we were really hoping he would do it and get that potty-mouthed Gupta the hell off our screens). On the other hand, framing Doakes would mean the next season would constantly be derailed with the side sory of Doakes trying to prove his innocence and Dexter's guilt. We've already had a season of that, and it needed to move on. Therefore, Lila conveniently deals with Dexter's problem. That means the drama up to that point mainly serves to show how Dexter would deal with the Doakes problem, and he does it just the way you would expect, by trying to frame him. We learn nothing new about him, no matter how many tedious monologues we hear, and in the end the only dramatic point of it all is that we see Dexter's actions through someone else's eyes, when Doakes is trapped in a cage while his captor hacks a drug-dealer up.

An aside: while I've been ragging on this show a lot, I still watch it in the hopes of some improvement or impressive story-telling, and this season managed it once. The scene with Doakes begging for this man's life, where we see Dexter for the monster he really is, was easily the best thing about the whole season. Kudos to King and Hall, both of whom really stepped up to the plate. So I guess the Dexter/Doakes plot was justified in that we got to have that great scene, but otherwise, it was a waste of time. The drama, which had the potential to completely change the direction of the show and really challenge our assumptions and empathic allegiance (something The Shield does constantly), ended up becoming little more than Dexter mulling over his options without ever having to act on them thanks to the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl Serial Killer Groupie. Yawn!

The end result of all this is a confused me. Do I watch the next season, which might feature a new brand of Dexter? Or do I cut my losses now, fully expecting that the reset button will be hit at the end of the year? The potential for interesting storytelling is still there, so maybe I should stick with it, but I also have to take into account how much the execution irks me, which is a whole hell of a lot. In the end it could all come down to time. Why watch something that annoys and frustrates me when I could be reading the new Neal Stephenson novel? Put like that, the choice is very easy. I need this show to shock the shit out of me, or it's dropped. Dexter, consider yourself on probation.

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