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Dexter: “Once Upon A Time”

Illustration for article titled iDexter/i: “Once Upon A Time”
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It's been an eventful week in Dexter news, between the reported salary negotiations between Showtime and Michael C. Hall, and the continuation of the show's astonishingly consistent year-over-year audience growth. It seems clear at this point that Dexter certainly isn't going to end any time soon, and pending the outcome of the negotiations, I wouldn't be surprised to see a two or even three-season pick-up announced soon. If that's the case, the writers of Dexter don't need to start putting pieces in place for the end game, they need to figure out a new end game and veer the writing in that direction.

For a show about an anti-hero concealing his double life from those closest to him, Dexter has really prolonged those people finding out, far past the point of audience frustration. I saw a lot of comments on last week's write-up comparing Dexter to Breaking Bad, and it's a fair comparison, but the stakes are far higher for Dexter. He's not just a drug manufacturer, after all; he's killed, what, at least a hundred people by now? Having the people in Dexter's life, almost every one of them law enforcement, find out about him isn't a card to be played lightly. But to prolong the inevitable reveal indefinitely drags down every aspect of the show. It makes every season a closed loop, forcing the writers to totally ignore such would-be game-changers as Deb finding out Dex is the Ice Truck Killer's brother, Rita's murder, or Liddy's photos of Dexter and Lumen disposing of a body.


Further, it undermines the supporting characters. To riff on the comparison, Skyler White was introduced as a stay-at-home mom, but a superlatively sharp and observant one. If at this point she still didn't know what was going on with Walt, I'd have to assume she wasn't as sharp and observant as I originally thought. Similarly, either the homicide detectives of Miami Metro are smart, cunning detectives, or they aren't, and the more time passes without anyone drawing conclusions that an average Nancy Grace viewer would, I have to doubt their competence.

I'd venture to guess that when Dexter first began, it was envisioned as a four, maybe five-season story much like Breaking Bad. But if Dexter isn't concluding this season (or next), then this can't continue to be a show about the care and feeding of a double life, it has to become a show about what happens when Dexter's Dark Passenger is brought to light. "Once Upon A Time," which felt almost like a second run at a season premiere, made some moves that could theoretically get Dexter closer to becoming that show.


Miami Metro is still investigating the bizarre murder of Omar Rivera, leading them to bring in Brother Sam, a murderer freed on a technicality who has since found God and runs a body shop employing other ex-cons. Mos Def's performance added a jolt of electricity that was missing last week, and better still, provided the show a better angle on spirituality than was laid out in the premiere. The idea of Dexter grappling with faith bothers me, but redemption is a much better tack to take. He’s intrigued by someone like Brother Sam who doesn't have to hide his dark side anymore, because he battles it publicly rather than privately. I'm far more interested in Brother Sam than I am in Travis and Father Olmos at this point. While most of that has to do with the fact that their actions and motivations are still a mystery, I'm concerned about the thematic redundancy between these two threads. In the premiere, I did enjoy the fact that for the first time the audience gets to see what Dexter's eventual foes are up to before Dexter is even aware of them. But as soon as Brother Sam was introduced, it felt almost jarring to return to the scenes of Travis and Father Olmos, especially since they weren't given anything as interesting to do as replacing a guy's intestines with baby snakes.

Now let's get to Deb, because I'm excited about discussing a storyline that will surely polarize fans of the show. After the footage of Deb taking down the restaurant shooter goes viral and amasses an improbable half-million YouTube views, Matthews promotes her to lieutenant, for no other reason really than to stick it to LaGuerta. While I'm nervous about the execution, the idea of Lieutenant Debra Morgan is a solid one. It creates new emotional dynamics between the supporting characters, all of whom are always a hairbreadth away from becoming completely superfluous, and it raises the stakes for Dexter and Deb's relationship.


One of my all-time favorite Dexter scenes came in season two, when Dexter briefly considered confessing to Deb that he was the Bay Harbor Butcher, prompting a darkly funny montage of Deb's possible reactions. As Dexter and Deb sat at his couch drinking beers and trying to wrap their brains around the promotion, I thought back to that scene and wondered how it might play out with Deb as the department lieutenant rather than an up-and-coming detective. The higher Deb ascends, the more precarious her situation with regard to Dexter becomes.

This provides the opportunity, at least, for Dexter to move into Breaking Bad territory, where there are straight lines drawn between the protagonist's actions and the pain and suffering those actions cause to the people around him. Dexter's behavior is always cast as a righteous and moral crusade, and it’s been since Doakes died in season two since the audience got to see Dexter's actions through the eyes of someone who doesn’t identify with his darkness. Of course, it's just as possible that Batista's little sister will keep saying "It's so weird how Dexter comes and goes at odd hours!" causing Batista to become suspicious, which Debra will write off as sour grapes over his not getting the promotion. If Dexter is to remain compelling for the subsequent seasons that are probably in store, this season, which is the closest thing yet to a full-blown reboot, has to set that agenda.


Stray observations:

  • I found the voiceover particularly intrusive this week, especially when during the confrontation at the garage. I could read that scene without Dex explaining every beat.
  • I’d assume the Brea Grant fans won’t be jumping ship any time soon, based on the swivel chair scene.
  • I hope the redemption theme continues to loom large, since it seems Dexter has all but forgotten killing Oscar Prado in season 3 and the creepy photographer in season 4, two people just as “innocent” as the victims of Brother Sam or anyone else he’s stalked.
  • I wonder what the plan for LaGuerta is this season. Her promotion has effectively sidelined her (no complaints here) but that can’t last forever.
  • How important is a kill-of-the-week for Dexter fans? I’d argue that by this point, there’s no need to shoehorn in a kill in every episode.
  • For someone who knows nothing about religion, Dex sure is quick on his feet with religiously-themed quips.

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