When Dexter started adding a big guest star to the cast in season three, it was largely because the show had killed off Sgt. Doakes, the antagonist, in season two. This left everyone involved in the series with a big hole to fill. Someone had to be at least somewhat on to Dexter, or Dexter had to have someone he could pursue. Without that uniting narrative, then the show would just turn into another crime procedural with horror elements. The problem was that there were only so many season-long narratives you could tell within the world of Dexter. You have the idea of someone almost catching on to what Dexter was up to. You have the idea of a bigger, badder serial killer for Dexter to pursue. And beyond that, you have the idea that will presumably make up the final season of the show: Members of the Miami police department start to grasp that Dexter Morgan is not who he says he is (though that closely ties in to the "someone catching on to what Dexter is up to" narrative).
So the show has come up with subtle twists on both of these formulas in the last two seasons. Season three features the "Someone catches on to what Dexter is up to ... and wants to help!" plot (with Jimmy Smits as the someone). Season four features the "Dexter pursues an even more prolific serial killer ... and decides he can really learn a lot from the guy!" plot (with John Lithgow as the someone). And now we have season five, which is only slowly revealing itself, but seems to be another combination of the two formulas, with Julia Stiles (playing a character named "Lumen" for some reason) finding out just who Dexter is but then revealing that there were other people in on kidnapping her than just Boyd, which means that either Dexter's going to have to take them out or she's going to do it herself. (This is just my assumption about what the show is going to do based on that final scene; I haven't seen any future episodes.)
My favorite season of Dexter is the second season because - abominable final two episodes aside - it's the season that deals most directly with the morality of what Dexter does. Too many seasons of the show want to reduce what he does to a kind of grimly smiling arithmetic, a kind of balancing of the scales that's ultimately helpful to society. Season two is the only season that seems to grasp that what Dexter is doing is an aberration on some fundamental level. He may be USEFUL, in some regards, but what he's doing is simultaneously WRONG, and he will eventually be punished for it. The other seasons have a tendency to fall back on the idea of him as a glibly chattering killer who lightens up the mood with cheap jokes. I don't mind this portrayal much of the time because the show is told from Dexter's point of view, and that's almost certainly how he sees himself. But season two was the one season where the show stepped outside of itself and said, "Yeah, we know that some of this is just a bit troubling, and we're going to get into the knotty ethics of all of this."
What I like about season five so far is that it seems to be dealing with these ideas as well, first by showing us the fallout of Dexter's decision to engage with the Trinity Killer and then by reminding us (subtly sometimes) of how other people see Dexter. In every single episode, there's been a moment when a character outside of the series regulars came across Dexter and saw him in his natural state, then tried to escape him, only to fail. In these sequences, the show isn't afraid to turn Dexter into a monster out of a horror movie, and it's not afraid to abandon any conception of him as a well-meaning, bumbling serial killer. The sequences when Dexter pursues Lumen in tonight's episode - even as we know that he's not going to kill her - are legitimately terrifying, shot through with the cinematic grammar of a chase sequence in a slasher film. When Dexter lunges out of the brush and grabs Lumen around the waist, it's not played as a moment of triumph for him. It's played as a moment of terror for her.
But the other thing I like about season two is sort of lacking thus far in season five. Season two has relentless pacing. In the premiere, Dexter's trash bags are discovered, and the rest of the season is one, long cat-and-mouse game between him and literally everyone else in the cast. It's the one season when the supporting players are fitfully interesting because they're occasionally on Dexter's trail, even if only inadvertently. Season five has almost none of this sense of relentlessness. Big stuff happens, but none of it has any urgency to it. You can sense the writers trying to correct this by throwing in smaller cat-and-mouse chase scenes in nearly every episode, but the stakes for Dexter, so far, feel curiously low, even though he's revealed himself to a troubled young woman and now decided to care for her, rather than take care of her. An episode of Dexter with low stakes is often a pretty bad episode of Dexter, and even though I like individual moments of this episode, I'd be hard pressed to say it was one of the show's finest hours.
Normally, I try to work in a little plot summary before this point, but in this episode, so little happened that it feels almost pointless to do so. Everything that happened felt like a foregone conclusion. Lumen tried to escape Dexter's clutches, but he eventually talked her into trusting him by playing the Rita card. Then she revealed that men other than Boyd were involved in her imprisonment. Maria got Angel to apologize to the guy he beat up, and the guy agreed to lay off for a bit (even though it's obvious this plot point will come up again at some point). Deb and the team got one step closer to Santa Muerte, but didn't catch their man. Dexter's nanny quit, then came back after Dexter sweet talked her. And Quinn tracked down the Mitchell family, then showed Jonah a photo of Dexter. Jonah, for whatever reason, didn't say he knew the guy before the men protecting him came to cart Quinn away, but Quinn just KNEW he knew Dexter, adding more fuel to the "Quinn is no Doakes" fire.
Every season of a show like this is a battle to keep things moving along just quickly enough but not move them so quickly that you write yourself into a position where you run out of story. (The only show in recent memory that pulled off the, "We've run out of story number one, so here's story number two!" switch I can think of is the third season of Breaking Bad.) The ultimate thing to try to avoid in situations like this is a sense that everything happening is inconsequential. Unfortunately, even as I'm pretty sure I'm going to love the back half of this season of Dexter, the front half just has too much in the way of stuff just happening with a shrug. "Beauty and the Beast" has some very nice moments - most everything with Dexter and Lumen works - but it also has a lot of throat clearing, and I hope there's less of that in the episodes to come.
- The character played by Maria Doyle Kennedy is literally named "Irish Nanny" in the press notes, yet she's the first-billed in the guest cast at the end, which means there must be more to her than just that. So ... maybe those of you who think she's evil are on to something?
- Seriously, what kind of name is LUMEN?!
- Dexter using Harrison as a prop on one of his information hunting outings was pretty funny.
- I also liked the reminder that Dexter is absolutely terrific at his job when he came to the Santa Muerte crime scene.
- The "Dexter steals medicine" subplot was also a whole lot of nothing, now that I think about it.