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Dexter: “Buck The System”

Illustration for article titled Dexter: “Buck The System”
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“An alarm is going off in my lizard brain.”

The reason Dexter is clipping along so confidently this season is that the writers have delivered on the show’s promise by shrewdly shifting it into a full-blown addiction allegory. Dexter has always been a show about addiction, of course, but it has never untangled what that means for Dexter Morgan in a meaningful way. There’s a good reason for that: Dexter is a show about a guy who kills people, and playing with the idea that maybe he doesn’t have to kill people corrodes the premise for the audience. In order to get the audience to buy in, the show had to make that case that Dexter would be killing people regardless because of his Dark Passenger, so it might as well be other murderers who have escaped justice. And because Dexter is so thorough in his investigation as to be practically infallible, everybody wins when Dexter does what he does best.

That is to say that the audience has been Dexter’s accomplice  and confidante for six seasons, but now that Deb knows about her brother’s true identity, we get to see him try to enjoin his techniques to someone who doesn’t have to passively accept his ideas. Deb can push back, she can scrutinize the Code of Harry, and she can force Dexter to consider the notion that maybe he can change. So rather than settling for being yet another show about the care and feeding of a double life (one that, in spite of its darker subject matter, isn’t thematically different from a spy narrative like Alias or Covert Affairs), Dexter is now tackling something far more knotty and fascinating. If Dexter’s behavior is just an addiction like any other, is it one he can recover from?

In “Buck The System,” we get a temporary answer to that question. Dexter is going crazy under Deb’s watchful eye, and the pressure is getting to him to the point that he’s fantasizing about killing random people—a postal worker, a characteristically chatty Masuka—before snapping and choking a perp who won’t give him a DNA swab. Deb interrupts him before anything irreversible happens, but after a tense confrontation, he convinces her that their new relationship built on involuntary transparency may be doing more harm than good. But of course, Dexter can’t be trusted, because he’s become so convinced that he’s doing the city of Miami a public service that he can never recover from his addiction. The first step is admitting that you have a problem, but Dexter will only admit that he has a Dark Passenger. That his need to kill could pose a problem is still not something Dexter is able to see, even as his behavior risks everything and everyone he claims to care about.

So he sets about stalking and killing Ray Speltzer, a groundskeeper who periodically invites women out for a date before killing them and snatching off an earring as a keepsake. After figuring out that Deb’s leash isn’t nearly as long as she led him to believe it was, he attempts to convince her that killing Ray is the only way to prevent Ray from killing again, and if it satisfies Dexter’s hunger, so much the better. The writing is at its most nimble and engaging when Dexter and Deb are trying in vain to persuade each other. Given the introduction of Deb’s romantic feelings for Dexter, I was worried that the writers wouldn’t be able to portray the nuance of Deb’s conflict, but rather than use those feelings as a excuse for Deb to accept Dexter as he is, her feelings have given her a reason to want to rescue and rehabilitate him.

Unfortunately for Deb, this is still Dexter, so the show’s universe is still such that there are tons and tons of serial killers who go free due to the limitations of the justice system. Speltzer is one such baddie, and after failing to get a search warrant for the mausoleum where Speltzer keeps his trophies, Deb has to sit with the fact that she may in fact be letting a killer claim his next victim. She tries to quiet the voice by stopping by Speltzer’s house on her way home, only to find that Dexter’s lizard brain was right again. Speltzer was in the process of stalking his victim through a torture-porn maze, and Deb nearly ended up a casualty herself. Deb reluctantly admits that there may be some value to what Dexter does, sick as it may be, and resolves to turn a blind eye to it. She doesn’t fully come around to his way of seeing things, but she does acknowledge that she might not have the stomach for the process of Dexter’s rehabilitation and asks him to move out.


I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed to see the story go this direction, but not because I’m convinced there were a bunch of better ways to skin the cat. Could the Dexter-in-rehab story have been prolonged? Sure, and there is a part of me that wishes Speltzer had been innocent so that Dexter would have been forced into acknowledging that there might be a compelling reason to quit his behavior other than conforming to social norms. But that’s a final season kind of story, and this isn’t the final season. The idea that Dexter could stop killing is a great one to play with, but this show can’t change its stripes completely, nor should it. But because it’s yielded such great material for Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter, as well as forced the show to abandon the stale kill-of-the-week format, it’s hard for me to let Rehab Dexter go quite this soon.

I’m sure the show will be able to keep its momentum though, so long as it can execute the other elements the writers have introduced, and I’m confident so far. I’m still really enjoying the methodical way the series is weaving Isaac into the story, and Ray Stevenson looks like he’s having an absolute blast. I didn’t think we’d get a scene between Stevenson and Hall quite this soon, but their quick exchange in the strip club was a lot of fun. I’m also a huge fan of Isaac because he killed Louis, thereby eliminating the show’s most problematic element. I’m also interested to see where things lead with Hannah, who appears to be the latest love interest for Dexter, but one that would never be able to abide by his addiction the way Lila or Lumen did. There’s certainly enough juice here to power the remainder of the season, but I hope the writers are able to keep things as thematically strong as they have been in these first three episodes.


Stray observations:

  • The scene with Dexter choking the guy was great, because the fantasy sequences made it unclear whether or not Dexter was actually choking him until Deb walked in.
  • The sequence in Speltzer’s house was creepy, immediate, and suspenseful in a way that is weirdly rare for a show about serial murder.
  • Yvonne Strahovski is pretty.
  • I’m glad the writers have decided to put a tiny spin on the “Quinn ruins the case by thinking with his penis” story. It’s tiny, but worthwhile. Which might also describe Quinn’s penis.
  • No Harry this week!
  • I’m just realizing the irony of Deb trying to rehabilitate Dexter’s murder habit in the house she bought for a song because people were murdered there.