One of the greatest strengths of Dexter is how it portrays the flow of information. A lot of television is based around the simple drama that arises when one person knows something that another doesn't, then that second person begins to piece together the first person's secret. Dexter, obviously, is based around one big lie. Nobody knows Dexter's a serial killer except for the occasional future victim (and, well, whatever Lumen is after tonight). The second someone figures this out in earnest, someone whom Dexter can't immediately dispatch who's also in the regular cast, the show's probably over. (Obviously, when the time comes, this will be Deb.) But there are webs of smaller lies running among all of the characters in any given season, lies that pile on top of lies that pile on top of lies. Many of these are caught up in Dexter's mission for the season, but we'll occasionally get a storyline where one of the other cops wants to keep a secret from someone else, usually in a way that inconveniences Dexter.
Or consider tonight's episode, a pretty crackerjack hour of the show and maybe the best of the season, outside of the premiere (which sort of feels like it comes from a different season entirely, even as it's an important prologue to everything that happens in season five). Let's consider all of the people who know things others don't in just this episode. Dexter and Lumen know that Deb and the others won't find Cole because he's dead. Jordan knows that his friend Alex isn't safe, so long as Dexter and Lumen are around. Liddy knows that Dexter and Lumen are up to something horrible involving knives. Dexter knows that if he can't get DVD #13 away, Deb will be able to identify the strange new tenant of his. Quinn knows he's got his friend tailing his girlfriend's brother and that said friend is turning up stuff Quinn may not want to know about. Emily knows she's still in close contact with Jordan when she talks to Lumen. And, honestly, I could list six or seven other things that one character knows and another doesn't.
When Dexter is at its best, it sets all of these little wheels spinning against each other. Dexter dances just ahead of Deb's investigation, which is closing in faster and faster on her suspected female vigilante, who just might be the mythical 13th victim. Dexter and Lumen learn the name of Alex, but when we first see the guy (played by Scott Grimes, as apparently, only veteran TV character actors are worthy of being in Jordan's crew), he's being interviewed by Deb and Quinn. Dexter can taunt Jordan about how Jordan's as good as dead because he knows Jordan can't tell anyone, but he also seems to rather suspect Jordan's not going to be able to keep up with him. Jordan can turn the police loose on Dexter and Lumen's kill room because Dexter doesn't know how much Jordan knows about his process. And on and on and on. "In The Beginning" was rather methodical for an episode where the shit is hitting the fan over and over again (particularly on a show known for its oft insane twists and byzantine plotting), but it was a slowly tightening noose, rather than a flabby hour lacking in tension. The hour works because it's all about who knows how much and what they're going to do with that information.
But let's turn to the choice that's dividing Dexter fans right down the middle, if my Twitter feed is any indication: Dexter and Lumen finally sleep together in this episode, after Lumen completes her first kill, an act that seems to bring her a small measure of peace. It's not yet enough, and it'll never be enough, but she's finally regaining enough of the power she lost to reassert herself sexually. After it seems like she'll make Dexter have his hands trapped behind his back (though only using his shirt, so not really), she frees him, then gives in to the passion. The two have been trapped in a weird shadow romantic comedy all season long, so it's nice to have the show finally get all of this out in the open, though it makes it that much more clear that Lumen is somehow doomed. The scene where the two consummate their relationship is strikingly shot and nicely acted and is all the better for the complete lack of obvious Dexter voiceover (which was really, really bad in this episode from time to time).
Meanwhile, the episode did something that the season needed to do but hadn't yet: It made Jordan a worthy adversary for Dexter. Up until now, Jordan's seemed too much like a supervillain, able to turn mere men into monsters with the sound of his voice and heading up some sort of sexual abuse and murder ring just because he gets a kick out of it. And yet he doesn't seem to be doing much of anything, just stumbling upon whatever answers he's looking for largely by accident and then making stupid moves like letting Lumen know he knows where she is. I wouldn't say this episode humanizes Jordan, exactly, or makes his monstrous motivations more understandable (though the scenes with Emily help a bit in this regard), but it does make him feel much more like an opponent worthy of Dexter. His gambit to get Dexter, Lumen, Alex, and Deb all in the same room is pretty smart and is foiled only by Dexter and Lumen's decision to use the house for sale next door to Alex's house as the killing floor instead. If Jordan can't have dimension, like Miguel or Trinity, at least he can seem worthy of being the season's Big Bad in the intelligence department.
There's also plenty of moral ambiguity to go around in this episode, if you like that sort of thing. Dexter letting Lumen become the killer she'd been building toward all this time added a nice new layer of this ethical queasiness to the proceedings. Sure, the people she and Dexter are punishing have done such terrible things that even Deb doesn't seem too put off by the idea of a vigilante running them down (though Deb has shown indications of this sort of sentiment in the past), but it's one thing to help your new acquaintance settle some scores. It's quite another to actually put the knife in her hand and teach her how to wield it. Lumen's been the best part of the season throughout, and this episode nicely used her to continue the season-long themes of how eventually, recovery can become its own kind of punishment. Lumen's in too deep now, and there's no way to escape, no way to return to who she was.
So we've got all of the pieces in place for what should be two pretty terrific final episodes, even if it took some weird steps for the show to get there. More than any other season of the series, the final two episodes of this season of Dexter are going to be incredibly important in the season's overall success. Earlier seasons could be appreciated on an episode-by-episode level; the fact that the overall plot more or less hung together was just a bonus. But this season leans more heavily on the epic unfolding story than any other season so far. That's a good thing if everything gets tied together in the end, but it could be frustrating if the pieces ultimately don't work together. And, hey, I'm still wondering what Santa Muerte has to do with anything …
- Our favorite character, the Irish Nanny, is off to Orlando with Harrison to visit his grandparents. Given how fervently she says that NOTHING BAD WILL HAPPEN TO HARRISON, I'd be tempted to say that something bad will happen to him, except I sort of doubt even this show would do any real harm to a baby.
- Clumsy moment: The woman reads off the list of materials Liddy is requesting, as if we wouldn't understand later just where he got the stuff to watch Dexter and Lumen together.
- I thought the DVDs were a strong storytelling device. They introduce a minor complication for Dexter to overcome, and they keep the horror of what was done to Lumen ever-present. That's not to mention how they get all of the characters on the same page about how repulsive these crimes were.
- Look, I get that the show feels the need to keep everybody up by holding our hands with the voiceover, but the part where Dexter lets us know that Lumen would be number 13 is really unnecessary.
- Speaking of Santa Muerte, it feels like this season's plot has been more sprawl-y than usual. What are some other plot points that have largely felt abandoned but could return at a moment's notice?