B+

Dexter: "It's Alive"

B+

Dexter

"It's Alive"

Season 2, Episode 1

Dexter should have killed his sister.

There you go. That’s where I stand. I feel like I have to be upfront about my feelings as we head into Season Two and see if the show can write itself out of a corner. To my mind, there are two obvious reasons why it makes sense for Dexter (Michael C. Hall) not to have killed his sister: 1. The show would have veered off into such a dark place that viewers could no longer abide taking an interest in accepting a serial killer as a hero. 2. Dexter is bound by “Harry’s Code,” and from the evidence we’ve seen, he’s never deviated from it, so why start now, by murdering an innocent? To me, the first reason is easily dismissible. Anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey have thrived on cable television, and so long as there’s at least the suggestion that they’re human or striving to change their ways, viewers will put up with all sorts of foul play. It’s the second reason that’s sticky, because “Harry’s Code”—for you newbies, it’s Dexter’s adoptive father’s (James Remar) directive for him to channel his impulse to kill toward those who deserve it—is wired into his circuitry, not unlike Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics. The code, in essence, is Dexter’s path to salvation; if he continues to follow it, perhaps, like Pinocchio, he’ll become a real boy one of these days.

Still, he should have killed his sister. Why? Because Dexter seems poised for multiple seasons and for the long-term health of the show, he’s going to have to slip a little. If he just becomes more human with every episode, the show might start losing the edge that made it such a sensation in its first season. When his crazy-ass-brother, the Ice Truck Killer, laid out his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) on a slab, he had good reason to believe that Dexter would follow through. Why? Because Dexter is a killer, first and foremost; “Harry’s Code” might twist his impulses into something more socially acceptable—he acts like a “normal” guy, has a girlfriend, doesn’t seek out victims who don’t have it coming—but he’s always been upfront about the fact that he doesn’t have feelings for anyone, including those closest to him. Had Dexter been planned for only one season, it would make more sense for him to hold back, but my worry heading into Season Two is this: Has Dexter become too cuddly? Is he now merely an especially fastidious (and yes, slightly creepy and ritualistic) vigilante? Have his killer instincts been neutered?

Amazingly, the answer to that last question is “yes,” and the first episode of Season Two suggests that might be a creatively fruitful development, after all. Right upfront, Dexter admits via voiceover that he’s shaken by the fact that he killed his brother, the only person who really understood him, and it’s affecting both his performance at work and his extracurricular activities. He describes himself as “coiled and ready to strike,” but Dexter is suffering an identity crisis: He hasn’t killed in weeks, and if he’s not a killer, then what is he exactly? He’s certainly not cured, because the need still gnaws at him like a pack-a-day smoker gone cold turkey. And he can drum up little faux-sympathy (or erections) for his girlfriend Rita, who’s traumatized over her ex’s phone calls from the clink, which feed into her vague suspicion that Dexter may not be Mr. Right.

The only major problem with “America’s favorite serial killer” (according to the press notes, anyway) this season is that as he’s trying to get his mojo back, the noose is starting to tighten around his neck. After their throwdown at the port, Doakes (Erik King) has been spending his off-hours harassing Dexter by following him everywhere he goes, preferably within easy scowling distance. Rita was all set to turn a deaf ear to her ex-husband’s accusations about Dexter’s wrongdoings, refusing for longest time to admit to finding the telltale shoe that might give him a shot at an appeal. But now that Federal prison has had its way with him, Rita may be thinking twice about trusting her slightly off boyfriend. And then there’s big kicker of a revelation at the end of the episode, when bag after bag of disassembled body parts is found at the bottom of the sea. Surely, Daokes + Rita + 30 bags of bodies equals trouble, right?

By and large, the writers have done a solid job setting the table for Season Two. “It’s Alive” turns the screws nicely on Dexter by hitting him an identity crisis and the possibility of getting found out, and it’s easy to see how that tension might sustain another brilliantly plotted season of television. My feeling during the first episode, however, is that it’s a different, more conventional kind of tension that we experienced in Season One. Dexter has indeed become America’s favorite serial killer, likable enough to where we want him to slip the noose and go on with his activities. The trouble is, that identification isn’t as disturbing as it should be, because the show has stopped reminding us that he’s still a killer—or a competent killer, anyway, given his botch job on the machete-wielding muscleman from the 29th Street Kings.

What do you think? Has the show gone soft or is it heading in the right direction? After some initial skepticism, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• As with Season One, anything that doesn’t directly involve Dexter is of no interest to me. I’m sure in future blog entries, I’ll get to talking about the new division chief whatshername and her two-timing rose-sending fiancé, but I’m starting to get sleepy just thinking about it.

• Anyone else happy to have Rita’s ex out of the picture? Not so much because he was an ill-tempered jerk who smacked her around, but because of the annoying father-of-the-year routine he performed every time he was around his kids. It’s amazing that his son doesn’t have a bald spot from getting his hair mussed so vigorously.

• From here on out, Deb shall be referred to in these pages as “Mrs. Ice Truck Killer.” (Nice instincts sleeping with the very psychokiller you’re pursuing, Mrs. Ice Truck Killer. Welcome back to the force.)

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