The ever-present possibility of reinvention is what makes television such an incredible medium. There’s always the opportunity for a television series to change, and while that often ends up resulting in a decline in quality or an ill-conceived story choice, when that opportunity is properly seized upon, the results can be thrilling enough to make the audience see the show in a completely new way.
After six seasons that, for the most part, represented the slow-but-sure squandering of an intriguing premise, I never thought Dexter would be one of those show that could successfully reinvent itself. Especially following season six, which was plotted, written and acted in such a frustrating and inept fashion, it represented the death knell of the series for all but the fiercely loyal dead-enders and masochists. But “Are You…?” represents a different Dexter. This is a completely different show than it was last season, and suddenly, my outlook for it is one of optimism. Optimism that, for the first time in many seasons, isn’t tempered with that much caution.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think there had been another changing-of-the-guard in the writers’ room between seasons as is usually the case with Dexter. But, no: Scott Buck, the long-time Dexter scribe who rose to showrunner status just in time for the show’s creative nadir, is credited with this game-changing première. The fact that Buck could be responsible for a season première that feels so markedly different than that of season six suggests the problem wasn’t that Buck didn’t have his arms around the show, but that there was only so much anyone could have done with yet another mostly self-contained season that presumed Dexter would last another 27 years. Granted, Travis and Ghost Gellar were terrible, terrible antagonists, and the show’s supporting characters never have anything interesting enough going on to serve as a pleasant distraction. Season six was silly, insulting television, and I don’t mean to make excuses for it. But it does appear that Dexter is legitimately launching its end game, and we’ll get a chance to see what Buck and his team can do unshackled.
“Are You…?” is Dexter with the emergency brake disengaged. Literally: from the first few moments, we see our friendly serial killer lead-footing it to the airport with a bag full of cash and assumed identities, presumably on the run. That winds up being a tease, naturally, but the frenetic tone it conveys is maintained through the episode as it picks back up with the moment Debra stumbled upon Dexter, with Travis on the altar and a knife plunged into his chest. Given Dexter’s tendency to roll back to the status quo—even following something as potentially earth-shaking as Rita’s murder—I was impressed with how Buck executed this scene, and how Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter performed it.
It’s a massive understatement to say that Debra would be experiencing a spectrum of emotions at that moment, considering she’d sped over to the church to tell her half-brother she wanted to get all sexy with him, only to find out that he was in the midst of murdering Miami’s most wanted man. I’ve seen praise for Carpenter’s performance in other critics’ assessments of the show, but I’ve never been over-the-moon about her myself. Here, Carpenter really impressed me, and that might be because this scene is one in which her typically histrionic choices finally seem appropriate, but for whatever reason it all works. After grilling Dexter with a series of logical questions that he struggles to answer, Debra hastily agrees to stage the scene to look like Travis plunged a sword in his own chest and torched the church as “one final tableau.” (I’d hoped I’d never have to hear that word after last season, but no such luck.)
As much as I enjoyed the scene, I still wasn’t convinced it would amount to anything, certainly not as quickly as it does. But at long last, we are treated to the Debra Morgan whose skills as a detective allowed her to rise through the ranks as quickly as she did. In spite of her complex feelings for Dexter and her desire to believe the best about the only man in her life who has remained constant, too much isn’t adding up. The plastic wrap. The apron. The roll of knives. The hours he keeps, “working late” when Deb knows better. The striking similarities to how she was prepared by Brian Moser back in season one. It’s a stampede of pink elephants and Debra can’t ignore it any longer. Dexter arrives home to find Debra in the middle of his overturned living room with his spare knives, his blood slide collection and the prosthetic hand Lewis mailed to him sitting out on display. The game is up. She knows, and he’s finally ready to admit it.
Carrying out last season’s cliffhanger in this way is the show of good faith Dexter fans have been waiting to see for a very long time, and it lends a momentum that has been absent from the show since season two. Even better is how the story is framed with flashbacks to a childhood incident in which Debra was forced to give up her dog Banjo because of Harry’s reasonable fear that it was better to break Debra’s heart by returning the dog rather than to have to explain why the pooch had been carved up. A young Dexter swears to Harry that he wouldn’t have killed Banjo, but Harry can’t be sure, and neither can Dexter, really. It’s a compulsion, and all Harry can do is help Dexter channel it in a better way, because quitting may never be possible. In addition to reframing the show’s central themes without a ton of hammy voiceover, it’s a welcome return of Harry as a flashback character rather than a psychological manifestation for Dexter to argue with. I’m not sure the writers will be able to use James Remar this way throughout the entire season, but it’s a real treat here.
There is enough going on between the Morgans in “Are You…?” to keep the supporting characters from wearing on my nerves as they usually do. Quinn and Batista have essentially morphed into the show’s comic relief (sometimes intentional, other times less so) and I’ve learned to just accept that. Apparently they’ll have another go at being partners but will need to rebuild trust following Quinn’s downward spiral after being dumped by Debra last season. Lewis continues to be a weirdo, but Dexter’s increasing irritation with him, coupled with Jamie’s cresting suspicion, suggest that after an entire season of skulking around being weird without any consequence, his story might begin to pay dividends. The most dynamic story among the supporting characters belongs to Mike Anderson, who goes from being alive to being dead. After stopping to play good Samaritan to a motorist with a flat tire, Anderson stumbles on a girl’s body in the trunk and gets shot by a Viktor Baskov, whose prints Dexter was able to lift off a spot no one else thought to check.
This was where “Are You…?” bugged me a little bit. Most of the episode feels like a new version of Dexter, but Dexter’s tracking and killing of Baskov feels like old-school Dexter, and not in a good way. Many of last season’s episodes, like “Smokey And The Bandit,” leaned heavily on an episodic, kill-of-the-week format, and I thought that with such a lively serialized story, there wouldn’t be as much of this sort of thing. It’s hard to believe that Dexter would still be sneaking around trying to catch Baskov while under the biggest, darkest cloud of suspicion he’s ever seen. I get that this is a compulsion for Dexter, but it feels like a stretch, especially as he pops for a pricey plane ticket to Kiev just to gain access to Baskov, then pushes him around in a wheelchair in plain sight of dozens of people and perhaps as many surveillance cameras, then sets up a kill room at the airport where anyone could have strolled in at any moment and caught him. Dexter can’t be the world’s most careful killer and the world’s most careless killer at the same time. If the story is that the Dark Passenger has grown so strong that the desire to kill is beginning to chip away at Dexter’s self-preservation instinct, that needs to be made more clear. As it stands now, Dexter simply looks sloppy, especially in light of having just been caught in the act by Deb.
But as “Are You…?” demonstrates, Baskov’s death will continue to reverberate through the season, as the season arc is revealed in a slower, more deliberate fashion than last season. If the events to come make for a compelling story, I’ll be much more forgiving about how we arrived there, but that remains to be seen. Still, I have far less quibbles than I imagined having after the sizzling wreckage that was season six. Dexter appears to be, at long last, back on his game.
- It appears that LaGuerta will now pick up the torch of the Miami Metro Team Member Who Is Suspicious Of Dexter. It’s interesting here, though, because LaGuerta was so emotionally devastated when her close friend Doakes was identified as the Bay Harbor Butcher. The character has a genuine motivation to doggedly seek out another explanation that posthumously exonerates him.
- The voiceover is downright humane this week. Not a whole lot of Dexter explaining totally obvious things as we watch him do those things. I hope that continues.
- Jamie can’t possibly live through two seasons, can she?