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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Jake Johnson, Cobie Smulders
Jake Johnson, Cobie Smulders
Photo: Ali Goldstein (ABC)
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The pace at which Stumptown has plowed through familiar tropes in this consistently engaging and often thoughtful first season is really something. And while that’s a tendency that crops up several times throughout this tense finale, it’s perhaps best epitomized by the scene at the top of “All Quiet on the Dextern Front,” the show’s 16th episode. That would be the one in which Grey and Dex open the door to a motel room and gaze in at only one bed; Grey then helpfully notes, “There’s only one bed.” So they get drunk on the minibar, watch terrible porn, briefly contemplate and then shrug off a hook-up, and go to sleep. Nothing happens, save for a thrum or two running along a few taut emotional strings. It comments on the difference between real life and fiction; the fact that there’s no forward progression of story is the whole point. Here’s where the plot should happen, it says, but it can’t, because Dex isn’t ready.

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That’s not to say that there’s no plot to Stumptownthis finale, in particular, has plot to spare. But Dex’s progress has been slow but steady, her biggest steps toward healing mostly arriving in the form of things like making her own bed or going to a support group that isn’t a support group. The cases-of-the-week whip past like a cyclone, often tossing Dex around inside them. (Sometimes Dex is the cyclone.) Yet she’s been doing the whole one-step-forward, two-steps-back dance, hindered by a truckload of baggage and some serious mental health issues.

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The baggage catches up with her here, and so does her untreated illness. But while Stumptown still rifles through recognizable tropes in this episode, using them to underline what’s going on (or not) in Dex’s life, it also takes massive steps forward in the story, wrapping up one mystery and setting the stage for the exploration of a couple others. The result, despite a few odd editing choices and a climax that doesn’t hit quite as hard as it could, is a smart, sometimes thrilling, and (as always) funny hour that practically demands a second season.

(Come on, ABC—we all need some good news at the moment. Stumptown season two renewal, please.)

This episode becomes even more impressive when you consider how directly the season-long stories of the other characters feed into the A-plot. Stumptown has been building toward that final scene between Sue Lynn and Dex since the very beginning (and Tantoo Cardinal, one of this show’s most potent secret weapons, is just excellent throughout). Ansel’s push for independence and consistent questioning about what happened with the Parios parents comes to a head in his somehow connecting with their mother, who then shows up on Dex’s doorstep; Tookie and Ansel’s growing friendship also plays a part in that. Grey’s feelings about family and loyalty and confronting what’s inside you all come out, and so the guy who’s always there is always there. Even the friendship/flirtation between Cosgrove and Tookie comes into play, as do Ansel’s driving lessons.

It’s constructed with a lot of thought, but it’s also, in a way, just another case-of-the-week (and another trope: the detective is the suspect, a classic). Dex’s client is essentially herself, but it’s also the Blackbird family. She’s certain that the murder for which she’s been framed—and which we, unlike Hoffman and company, know for sure was committed by someone else, because we watched her get grabbed from behind in the penultimate episode—is connected to Benny’s death, which we now know was also the result of murder. So she’s got to chase down the clues, use all her guile and nerve and creative thinking to move from one point to the next. She’s driven by a deep-seated need to get it done, despite not even really knowing what “it” is. Grey’s “And what does that look like, Dex?” is the question of the episode; like that “there’s only one bed” scene, it makes clear that the story of the episode is not the expected one, but the one that comes after: not who killed Benny and TJ, but what Dex will find herself doing, what choices she will make, and what she won’t be able to take back.

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Cobie Smulders, Michael Ealy, and Cardinal all do series-best work in this hour, and Jake Johnson, Camryn Manheim, Adrian Martinez, and Cole Sibus are all very, very good. All of them, though Smulders in particular, keep the episode rooted in a very real emotional place, even when it leans into that Stumptown weirdness. It’s a testament to the actors and director Marc Buckland that the show’s wry, irreverent tone still works in an hour that’s often pretty somber in tone. The high watermark is clearly Dex’s brutal, money-flinging fight with a priest to the tune of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” which begins when the priest straight-up punches her through the wall of the confessional. It’s the kind of thing that, once you’ve seen it, you can’t believe you’ve never seen before, so brutal and funny and shocking and strange. And the song choice just elevates it all. What a wild, fun sequence.

Stumptown’s great strength is its ability to balance all these things: the slightly psychic tape deck and Grey’s stillness and flatness after his “father” walks into that hospital room; Lionel Hoffman taking a shot on the way out of the Bad Alibi office, and Miles Hoffman finally losing it in his kitchen; Dex surrendering her fruit cup, and Dex enduring a flashback just as she has a weapon trained at the man responsible for Benny’s death; that church fight, and Dex and Sue Lynn drinking beer and whiskey by Benny’s grave, coming to terms with the past once again.

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An entertaining, emotionally rich finale for a strong first season. I hope we get to see what happens next.

Finale grade: B+

Season grade: B+

Stray observations

  • I love this show’s commitment to interesting, often messy parents (even absent ones). Bring on Tookie’s parents! Cosgrove’s! All the parents!
  • Dex’s “take the money and run” escape was so fun, but some of the editing was a little confusing. Still, Camryn Manheim was the perfect straightwoman for all those hijinks and Ansel driving the getaway car was aces.
  • A solid finale that made me think of two all-time great season-one finales: Veronica Mars and Alias.
  • Thanks for reading these very occasional recaps! Hopefully the show will return next year so our coverage can too.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.

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