It's often easy to think that any Dexter episode is only as good as its ending. When the writers on the show have a great ending to work toward, they tend to do a better job of making sure that everything on the way there makes sense (at least sense within the wacky world of Dexter). When they're just headed toward some sort of mood piece ending, they tend to let a lot of stuff slide, as they did with last week's episode. In short, there's a whole buncha stupid crammed into the first half of "Practically Perfect," but the latter half - and in particular everything from when Boyd hits Dexter with the tranquilizer dart on - is crammed with good moments. And it's all because the writers are building toward their big twist for the season, a twist that's kinda sorta spoiled by just having a certain guest star in the opening credits.
Julia Stiles has been heavily hyped as joining the show's cast in a guest starring capacity this season, but she didn't turn up in the first two episodes. In previous seasons, the big guest star for the season has been introduced as early as humanly possible, with both Jimmy Smits and John Lithgow appearing in either the majority of that season's episodes or all of them. Stiles was listed in the credits for this episode, so she was obviously going to show up for the first time, but as the episode went on and on and on without any appearance by her, I began to wonder just what capacity she might appear in. Clearly, it would seem, she wasn't going to be another serial killer Dexter struggled with. The show had been there already. But the longer it took for her to show up, the more it became an unavoidable conclusion: Stiles - blonde, young, and pretty - was going to play one of Boyd's potential victims, which is exactly what happened.
All of this might be a case of just knowing too much about the show and how it's put together. People who don't pay attention to behind the scenes TV news - who didn't know that Stiles' character was supposed to come with a sort of secret - probably were shocked when she popped up locked in Boyd's stairwell. And it's a terrifically executed moment, to be sure, from the way that Dexter hears her scrabbling around and freaks out to the way that she gets to see pretty much everything that Dexter is when she peeks her head out from the room. The central question of season five, it would seem, is going to be just how much Dexter owes to this girl. She's a complete innocent, but she knows too much. But can he put her through even more hell than she's already been through, just to keep to his code? It's an intriguing moral dilemma for the show to throw at him, and I'm on board for wherever this goes. (As a sidebar, I do wonder if Dexter would really just go and open that door after seeing it was locked, rather than clean up everything and THEN free her.)
As far as what didn't work in the episode, you can probably just about guess. As a new antagonist for Dexter, Quinn is no Doakes, to be sure. His mix-n-match sketch art of Dexter … doesn't really look like Dexter, and the way that he's pursuing Deb is more creepy than sexy. Similarly, the ritual murder stuff still feels a little cheap for the show, and I'm saying this about a show that features as its premise a serial killer that kills other serial killers. And then you come back to the Angel and LaGuerta storyline, which continues to believe that any part of the Dexter fanbase is invested in either of these characters or in their marriage. The idea that Angel could get kicked off the force for defending his wife is a tired one, and it's just there to toss uninteresting supporting characters uninteresting storylines.
The bulk of the "personal" story for Dexter this episode involves him hiring a nanny to take care of Harrison, and this storyline also feels like a left-behind from some other show. The nanny, y'see, is the best Dexter and Deb could find (after a lengthy "finding a nanny" montage that is another thing several other shows have done better), but she's also taking care of Dexter's little boy, and when he comes back and can't find either he or his son, he goes a little nuts. I don't honestly think that the show would make Dexter's new nanny an evil character (since that would just beggar belief), so this is all a lot of pointless business to show us that Dexter cares more about his son than he lets on. Yet again. (Also, I was going to make a list of every utterance Dexter made in voiceover that needlessly underlined what was going on onscreen, but that would have taken over the article. Instead, here's a brief sampling: "Emptiness is all she has left." "I don't know if killing you will fill the void, but it's a place to start." "Nothing feels different. If anything, I'm emptier." Every single one of these phrases just spells out what's going on onscreen or what Michael C. Hall's facial expressions are already conveying. Painfully.)
On the other hand, the scene where Dexter and Deb sit out on the balcony and talk about how establishing a routine can be a good way to crawl back out of the pit (Deb claims to have invented this idea but then admits it came from Oprah) is a nice little scene, and so is Dexter's brief admission that Cody seems happier with his grandparents. Life has to move on, even though no one wants it to. Deb's back at work. Dexter's getting back into his routine. There are other serial killers out there that still need to be killed. It's an old theme for a show where someone's just died, but the series is playing out the beats with a nice sense of who these people are, rather than the crushing familiarity of some of the other stuff.
And if there's one thing Dexter always does well, it's a good cat and mouse scene, and the business where Dexter builds a trap for Boyd, only to discover he won't get to use it, is very well done, as per usual for this show. In particular, I like the way that it puts us in the head of one of Dexter's victims as we follow Boyd back home from the hospital, twitchy and on edge at all times. Most of Dexter's victims have no idea that someone is coming after them, but there must have been others who knew that someone was after them, and this sequence almost makes Dexter the horror movie villain he would be in most other stories of this type. It's a great moment, but so is what follows, as Dexter is forced to improvise a kill floor and then stumbles, unknowingly, into unlocking the season's big mystery. Well-played, show.
- I liked when Dexter had to resort to painting a word picture instead of showing Boyd the photos of his victims. You could sense his frustration at having his ritual cocked up.
- I like Wally Holland's thoughts on the ethics of the show's universe that can be found here.
- So, early predictions on what's going to happen with the Stiles character? And just how much do you think she saw?
- I can't imagine that the Santa Muerte plot will remain disconnected from Dexter's plot all season long. Predictions on how all of this hooks together? (And did you like when Deb called it "Santa Mierde"?)
- This is the last episode I have on screener, so for the next few weeks, we're all going to have to put up with me posting an hour or so after the episode airs.