EMMYS: Dexter Picks Best Episode
Season four of Dexter ended with the murder of the nicest character on the show. It is quite a note to end on, especially when concluding what many feel was the strongest season in the show’s run. Where would the show go next? With Rita’s death and the conclusion of the Trinity Killer season 4 arc, in which season-long guest star John Lithgow played the tortured deacon/methodical serial killer sublimely as a foil to Dexter, the new dad, many fans wondered how the show’s writers could possibly top Lithgow’s electrifying, Golden Globe-winning portrayal of the deeply disturbed, totally unhinged Arthur Mitchell.
Critics and fans alike were hesitant when it was announced that Julia Stiles was going to be brought on the show in another instance of a well-known actor taking a full-season arc on the show. Especially when it was the introduction of another sunny blonde, this one even younger than very-recently departed Julie Benz. It was assumed that Stiles’ would be a romantic interest for Dexter, who was left fractured, confused, furious, and guilty at the close of Season 4 with the discovery of Rita’s corpse. The show hinges entirely upon Dexter’s emotional progression, with every word of Michael C. Hall’s inner monologue, which pushes the show’s plot transitions, an exploration of the Dexter’s psyche and the implications of his interactions with the outside world. It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to dump him into another relationship with another dimple-faced blonde. Fortunately, Stiles ended up being quite a surprise, and her character arc brought a very different energy to the show and delved into the aftermath of rape and violence against women in a very direct, somewhat controversial manner.
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In the wake of Rita’s murder, season 5 has been one in which Dexter had several significant, emotional progressions and regressions. He killed a man who did not fit his father’s code out of sheer outrage and grief following Rita’s death. He also beat up his stepdaughter Astor’s father’s friend in order to protect the little girl and Astor from the father’s abuse. And most significantly, he was the rescuer, protector, and mentor to Julia Stiles’ Lumen, a woman he found locked up while he was committing one of his ritualistic kills. Lumen had been repeatedly raped, tortured, and beaten by a group of men who committed this crimes over and over again until killing their victims and sealing them in barrels. After an extended détente due to the fact Dexter cannot release Lumen, who witnessed Dexter’s kill, the relationship between Lumen and Dexter shifted when both realize that Lumen has her own ‘dark passenger,’ an insuppressible need to exact retribution on the men who had killed her and 12 other young, blonde women.
The episode “In the Beginning” is the one that Showtime has submitted for Emmy consideration this year. I was initially surprised by the choice as I felt that from an acting and storytelling perspective, the season’s opener and closer were the standouts, almost entirely due to Hall’s outstanding performances in each. As much as Dexter is all about the eponymous character, the show does have an extensive ensemble. And it should be acknowledged that over the years, CS Lee (“Vince Masuka”), Desmond Harrington (“Joey Quinn”), and especially Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter’s sister Deb Morgan, have all gotten stronger as their characters have been given more nuanced storylines. David Zeyas’ portrayal of Angel Batista has been compelling and sympathetic throughout the show’s run, an accomplishment which has eluded Lauren Velez in her performance as Maria LaGuerta. Apart from Stiles, season 5 benefitted from a more subtle flavor of arch-enemy this season, the motivational speaker/brains of the Barrel Girl operation Jordan Chase, played to its full eerie potential by Johnny Lee Miller.
The episode “In the Beginning” offers the Emmy viewing audience a little bit of everything but doesn’t have any iconic Dexter moments which leave the viewer with an indelible reminder of the show’s peculiar charm: that mix of the wry, the heart-clenching, and the prowl for victims which perpetually haunts Dexter. None of the major moments featuring Hall, Carpenter, Stiles, or Miller unfold in this episode. The season, for me, rested on the following moments: the aftermath of Rita’s death, Jordan Chase revealing he knows that Lumen is the escaped 13th torture victim on the phone, the near-revelation of Dexter and Lumen killing Chase to Deb, and Dexter’s emotional reaction to Lumen leaving him. The near-revelation was heavily talked up in the promos, leading many fans to speculate whether Deb would finally learn that Dexter was the Bay Harbor Butcher, the plot twist that is almost –universally acknowledged to be the show’s central tension. Alas, a piece of heavy plastic, which should have had “An Awfully Convenient Plot Device, No?” spray painted upon it, prevented the long-anticipated Deb/Dexter revelation/showdown.
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There are three reasons why I believe “In the Beginning” was chose over the superior episodes “My Bad”, “Hello, Bandit” “Teenage Wasteland” and “The Big One.” First of all, the episode does feature the sex scene between Dexter and Lumen. There can hardly be a better way to remind the Emmy voters why premium cable is a superior vehicle for artistic license than by throwing a premium cable-level sex scene into the mix. Secondly, the episode features Lumen’s first kill, which is significant for her character arc, although from a series’-wide perspective, the rape victim-turned-murderess storyline is far more heavy-hearted and pity-inducing than, say, Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits), the district attorney-turned-serial killer. Prado’s turn to murder to solve his problems drove the plot forward in a way that Lumen’s final step toward embracing her dark passenger did not. The audience worries for the toll this will have on Lumen and knows that despite Dexter’s monologue musings, she is not going to be a partner in crime for him. Both the kill scene and the love scene felt like temporal aberrations in the Dexter universe and lacked the intensity of the Dexter/Lila (Jamie Murray) storyline in Season 2.
Finally, I think the episode was chosen because all of the children, including Dexter’s infant son, were written out for the rest of the major season arc, giving the supporting cast a little more screen time and showing a bit more of the crime procedural element of the show, which is relatively easy to follow without having seen the whole series. The drawback to this, however, is that this episode more than any other in the season, fails to capture the essential aspect of Dexter’s persona upon which the show hinges. Fans have hang onto the show despite the somewhat patchy performances of some of the supporting cast and an occasionally cloying use of the narration and Dexter’s dead father’s “angel and devil on his shoulder” schtick. I think this is because it is generally anticipated that the payoff of the show will be Dexter being able to release his “dark passenger,” the name he gives his impulse to kill, which he attributes to the fact that he witnesses his mother’s brutal slaughter and was left in a thick pool of blood for days as a toddler. That’ll do it.
Dexter, going into its sixth season on Showtime, has been a critical darling that has attracted a rabid fanbase. I base this clinical diagnosis (Dexter-mediated rabies) on the many photos on the show’s official Facebook, featuring fanmade crime scene parties—many a suburban living room wrapped up in the heavy duty clear plastic so iconically associated with Dexter’s methodically prepared ‘kill room’ as well as some “blood slide” ice cube homages perched in some truly bloody looking cocktails. I do not know if I am relieved or saddened by the lack of accompanying recipes.
Many people have made artful, utterly unnerving, highly realistic tribute to what has unquestioningly been the most shocking and dramatic moment in the tumultuous series’ history—Dexter’s wife, Rita’s brutal bathtub murder at the hands of the Trinity Killer. The image Julie Benz as sweet Rita floating the blood-drenched, opaque bathwater is one which I think is safe to say has entered the pop culture lexicon under the labels “shocking” and “horrifying.” There are several fan takes on this scene on the Facebook page. If anything, this underscores the fact that Season 5 was a very middling season. The story arc wasn’t as contentious as the Lila or Prado storylines (seasons 2 and 3, respectively) nor was it as incendiary or central to the Dexter storyline as the Ice Truck Killer or The Trinity Killer (seasons 1 and 4, respectively).
Season 5 lands somewhere in the middle because Lumen fails to offend and because Jordan Chase is a worthy final kill for the season. It will be interesting to see how the show fares at the Emmys, where it has been nominated for several Primetime and Creative Arts award but has failed to capture the most prestigious prized thus far. Will this be the year of the blood splatter? It didn’t nab anything at the Golden Globes, where Stiles, Hall, and the series as a whole were all up for a statue. I would feel better about its chances if a different episode were chosen, but I will be rooting for it, nonetheless.
You can follow Jacklyn on Twitter @TheVelvetDays where she talks about things other than serial killers, sometimes.
Photo credit: Christian Weber
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