B-

Dexter: "First Blood"

Season five of Dexter is ridiculously slow-moving, but that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. There’s slow-moving with intent, and there’s slow-moving because you just don’t have a story to tell and need to kill some time. Because Dexter’s chief appeal has always been its ruthless pacing, the fact that this season isn’t moving as quickly as some viewers would like is pissing a lot of people off. And I’m willing to admit that I was wondering if the writers had lost the thread just a tad in last week’s episode. I can’t say that things have appreciably picked up in this week’s episode, but I liked the stuff that was working just a bit more. Now that we know Lumen was being held by a group of men, that there’s some sort of criminal conspiracy to keep blonde women as sexual slaves in Miami, things can start moving with intent. It may take a while to get where we’re going, but at least we know there’s a destination somewhere up ahead.

What didn’t work continues to be everything not involving Dexter or Lumen. Sadly, this took up a far greater percentage of the episode than it has any other week this season. This sort of thing is necessary on this show, where Michael C. Hall can’t be in every single scene, but the “Let’s catch up with the other characters” episodes tend to be the low points of any given season. The Dexter and Lumen stuff was compelling enough this week, but everything else felt stuck in neutral. In particular, Santa Muerte feels like it should be wrapping up any week now, but the characters just keep uncovering more layers to the cult and conspiracy. That’s the danger with introducing this type of storyline on a serialized show: It just keeps getting more and more complicated until complication is layered on without any real mind paid to how it will affect the story.

I’m still marginally involved in the Santa Muerte storyline, but I keep waiting for it to play in to the other stories. That’s another danger with this sort of thing: We know it’s going to play into everything else somehow (in that in the finale, Dexter will probably be taking down the men who stopped Lumen and Santa Muerte), so all we’re doing is watching the characters catch up to where we are. There are some nice gross-out moments in tonight’s story – like Deb and her new pal stumbling upon the maggot-ridden corpses – but most of the big developments felt overhyped. The tattoo the witness saw was actually a stamp for a club? No one considered this possibility beforehand?

Similarly, the “Quinn hires a cop (RoboCop, actually) for a little private detective work” storyline is better more for what it promises than for its actual execution. Quinn’s relationship with Deb seems to consist mainly of him grinning creepily at everybody and then whining about how she won’t treat him like a real boyfriend at this point. On the other hand, everybody likes Peter Weller, and Quinn hiring him to be Dexter’s tail is something that could be a lot of fun. (Though why didn’t Doakes ever think of this back in season two?) And the less said about LaGuerta and Angel’s bickering and how it all played out (of course she wasn’t cheating because she’s a GOOD PERSON), the better. That said, I have no idea why the two appear to live in a Red Roof Inn.

It was all OK, though, because the Dexter and Lumen stuff, though slow-moving, was very well-done. In particular, I liked two scenes, one involving Dexter, the other involving Lumen. The first features Dexter catching up to the man who was Boyd’s bunkmate back when Boyd was in prison. He finds him at what appears to be a roving encampment of homeless men, where he has a brief discussion with the guy about how his parole officer is not happy about him coming to Miami to hang out with Boyd before Dexter sticks him with the needle. Dexter’s about to kill the guy when Harry shows up to impart some well-timed advice: Don’t kill this dude. He couldn’t have been involved in Lumen’s sexual enslavement because he’s a registered sex offender wearing an ankle bracelet. (This wasn’t stated, but it jumped to my mind that if Dexter killed the guy, it would be easier for the cops to figure out just how he came to be a corpse, tracking his movements with the ankle bracelet, but I may be gravely misunderstanding this particular technology.)

Of all of the things this season’s writers seem to have fumbled around with when approaching the template, I think they’re doing a pretty good job of integrating Harry into the action. In the last two seasons, Harry was too often reduced to a guy who just stated things the audience already knew or re-told us things that Dexter just mentioned in his narration. This season, the show is using him more for his original intent, which was to fill in the things Dexter’s subconscious already knew that Dexter (and we) just hadn’t figured out yet. (Well, he was also used for flashbacks back then.) The scene where Harry prods Dexter into realizing why he can’t kill his latest prey and the scenes where Harry tells Dexter that getting involved with Lumen is bad news are well-written, and James Remar seems to enjoy having this material to play, rather than an endless stream of “Catch up, audience!” monologues.

I do like where Dexter seems to be headed, but I buy less his concern for Lumen and getting her to move on with her life. Obviously, he hadn’t killed her, so he cares about her on some level, but the show hasn’t done a terribly good job of convincing us of why he cares about her (or that we should, for that matter). On the other hand, the portrayal of the way Lumen is living her life on the very edge of sanity is terrific, and Julia Stiles is right there, making it all come together. While I liked her arrival at the encampment to shoot the man she thought to be one of those who had raped her, I really loved the way the show made her mental state of mind that much more apparent at the airport. When she was searched by the TSA authority, the episode made clear just how damaging it was to her to be touched against her will, how much it was taking her just to remain standing, to say nothing of getting probed by airport authorities and gawked at by men (in a nice choice of “could just be stylized looks into Lumen’s head” shots).

This season is only going to work insofar as we care about Lumen’s plight and buy that Dexter wants to help her out of her misery. This episode goes a long way toward the former, even if the latter isn’t quite within its capabilities. Stiles can be a too-mannered actress, someone who gets caught up in the tics of her performance and doesn’t find the soul. But she’s doing a great job here, figuring out a way to make Lumen seem on edge but also seem like a girl you might see on the bus or on a street corner. If season five of Dexter is about how you never wholly move on from the horrors that crop up in your life, Stiles is making Lumen an example of someone where the wounds are still so very fresh.

Stray observations:

  • On the other hand, I completely don’t buy that Dexter’s this worried about baby Harrison being a killer because he saw his mother die. HE’S ONE. IF HE SCRATCHED THAT KID, IT WAS AN ACCIDENT. Even the very worst episodes of “I don’t know how to deal with people!” Dexter wouldn’t have been this stupid.
  • Masuka having a tattoo was pretty funny.
  • That scene where Dexter is back together with Miami’s elite crime-solving commandoes was supposed to instill us with a sense of happiness that all was well in the world again, but it mostly made me roll my eyes. “Great. He has to hang out with THESE PEOPLE again.”
  • Showtime seems to be selling Shameless, apparently based on a beloved British series, as a show about a bunch of quirkily terrible people with occasional glimpses of a scantily clad Emmy Rossum. That … might be enough to get me to watch.
  • Spoilers for the “next week on” if you don’t watch those: Yes. I’m sure that Deb and the other detectives will catch up to Dexter mid-kill. I’m sure that’s not just a misleading edit.

More TV Club