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Dexter: "Dirty Harry"

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Dexter

"Dirty Harry"

Season 4, Episode 5

If we’re being honest, I found the first three-quarters or so of “Dirty Harry” pretty rote, since the episode was inevitably heading to a foregone conclusion that couldn’t end in the confrontation it seemed to be pointing toward. The Vacation Murders stuff was going to come up some, Dexter was going to try to avenge Lundy by finding Trinity, and he was eventually going to catch up with him, ideally when he was in the middle of doing something EEEEEEEEEEEVIL. To be fair, that last quarter was really stylishly done and well-shot, so the episode as a whole ended up feeling worthwhile, and the twist at the end (though I’d been spoiled on it before production on the season even began) was executed very well. The final image of the episode is one of the better encapsulations of Dexter’s place in the world that the show has come up with, and the whole sequence with Dexter running down Trinity was nicely suspenseful.

But so, so much of the episode was so obviously marking time until we could get to these final scenes that it almost doesn’t bear commentary. You either enjoy watching Angel play Quinn’s reporter girlfriend (whose name I can’t be bothered to remember) to get information he wants in the papers, or you don’t. Too much of the episode fell into this category. Part of the problem, I think, is that Dexter can never be too far behind what the audience knows. Since he finds out at the same time as we do that Trinity is a dedicated family man, that twist has some weight, but watching him try to catch up to events that we’re already completely aware of while an overly pedantic Harry shouts things Dexter surely already knows from the sidelines. Dexter, as a series, relies so much on keeping the audience in suspense that it suffers when Dexter’s more than a step behind what we know. Also, a lot of the characters outside of Dexter are either poorly defined or cast with poor actors, which creates situations where the emotional heart of an episode ends up feeling undercooked or overwrought.

But you don’t care about that. Let’s talk about whether Dexter’s going to kill his family.

Last week, Paco Goldstein said in comments (and I paraphrase) that the arc of Dexter has been about the title character realizing he can’t have normal human connections. So when people like me bristle at seeing Dexter suburbanized, Paco thinks it’s part of the normal evolution of the show. Last season, he discovered that he couldn’t have a normal friendship; in season two, he learned that his real, serial killer self could not be loved; and in season one, he learned that even his blood relations could not be counted on. Therefore, in Paco’s thesis, this season is all about Dexter realizing he can’t have Rita and the kids and his own son as well, that they will inevitably have to be sacrificed. If Paco’s right, then the entire series is very cannily about one man realizing that he, essentially, IS his dark passenger, and he’s been bullshitting himself all this time.
 
For my part, Paco’s thesis is the first that’s made me think this show is cannier than I sometimes give it credit for, but I’m still not convinced the creators have the guts to have Dexter get rid of his family. He doesn’t even have to kill Rita, the kids and Deb. It’s entirely possible he could just get away with alienating them all utterly, so he doesn’t have the sorts of human connections that give him the appearance of normalcy. The show’s status as a hit without a set end-point creates a problem for the series’ plotting. If Paco’s thesis is correct and the series is slowly turning Dexter into a private person, a cornered animal, more or less, there’s only so long that can play out believably. It’s like those earlier seasons of The Shield, when it started to become unbelievable that Mackey would constantly escape.

What’s interesting is that the series clearly realizes all of this and is trying to balance one impulse – the impulse to rid Dexter of all connections – against another – TV shows and serial killers need those connections for their own separate reasons. The final shot of the episode – Dexter hiding behind a tree, unable to participate in what appears to be Trinity’s genuinely happy home life, creeping in the shadows chased off by the light of Trinity’s home – is such a perfect summation of everything Dexter is that I almost wish the series would just show it in every “previously on” package. But that final shot also suggests that the series is going to try to find a way to have Dexter have his cake and eat it too. While I’m skeptical that that can actually work, I’ll admit I’m deeply intrigued by Dexter studying Trinity to figure out how he does it – which is where I’m assuming all of this is heading. The scenes with Trinity are among the best the show’s ever done, particularly from a directorial standpoint, and John Lithgow’s performance is absolutely fantastic.

Almost as good was everything leading up to the final shot, as Dexter traced Trinity to the office building where he’d killed before and would kill again and figured out a way to find the guy but too late, only to track him to his family’s home. The whole sequence was shot and edited incredibly well, and I especially liked the way the film would switch from crystal clear to the gauzy filters that indicate Harry’s around as Dexter relied on his inner father figure to decide how to proceed. Just as good was the insight into the final part of Trinity’s terrifying ritual, seeing just how emotionally invested he was in making sure all of this played out exactly as he needed it to, the near tears in his eyes as he finished off the latest chapter in his killing history.

But, and this is a huge but, good LORD was the rest of the episode boring. I get that a lot of this was necessary to happen – like Rita and Deb both finding out that Dexter had kept his apartment and becoming suspicious of it – but it all played out in the most paint-by-numbers fashion possible. LaGuerta has to transfer Angel to another precinct if they want to keep their relationship going? I have to admit that I don’t terribly care. Nor do I care about the lengthy playout of the Vacation Murders storyline, particularly as Dexter jumped just so quickly to realizing that Trinity was responsible for the death of Lundy. And, while we’re on the subject, the entire monologue that Deb delivered to her brother about how she was “broken” was overwrought, and I couldn’t decide if it was too overwritten so the actress just went for broke on trying to make it play or if she just didn’t have the chops. Dexter’s supporting cast is often full of people able to play one note really well, but Jennifer Carpenter’s always had a sweet vulnerability to her, which was mostly torn to shreds by this whole monologue. Deb’s hiding that she’s actually not all that tough, and I don’t know that I needed a lengthy monologue where she pretty much came out and said it.

And that’s what’s so frustrating about Dexter much of the time. For all of the interesting discussion it can provoke about whether the show is playing it too safe or is playing some sort of diabolical long con on the audience, there will be entire episodes devoted to Dexter catching up with the audience and boring interpersonal stuff that no one cares about. I get that Michael C. Hall can’t be in every scene and that if they just had Dexter immediately catching up to Trinity, there’d be no series here, but nothing hampers this show more than the need to kill time for much of the first half of its season.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t know why this is, but I always feel much seedier seeing bare-breasted women on Showtime than I do on HBO. There’s something so low-rent about it, as though everyone involved in the show just decided to toss some tits in there because they can, you know?
  • So which episode will Deb break into Dexter’s apartment and discover his implements o’ death in? I’m going to say episode 10. It’s inevitable, right?

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