What kind of a person do you want Dexter Morgan to be? Do you like it when the show gives him more of the moral ambiguity that drove the first two seasons? Or do you prefer when it makes him more of an avenging superhero, the man who rights various wrongs for people who sometimes don't even know they've been wronged? He's been closer to the latter since the start of season three (with some uncomfortable dancing around the idea of Dexter becoming a "real boy," which has thankfully mostly been abandoned), and that's been one of the things I've liked less about it. The moral, grey areas of season two have largely been left behind in favor of a more palatable antihero, and when the show introduces a potentially ambiguous element, like, say, that guy Lumen had randomly caught and tied up a few weeks ago, it very quickly goes straight to the, "Well, he's a bad guy" well. The major moral ambiguity now almost entirely hinges on whether or not vigilante justice is OK. It's not in the real world, but it can be thrilling on TV, and we certainly don't expect Dexter to stop killing. The show has largely stopped trying to implicate Dexter and, by extension, us.
But, man, when Dexter looked to Lumen as he had Cole strapped to his table, knife about to plunge into his heart, all I wanted him to do was send that knife straight down, spilling Cole's blood. In these last two weeks, as Dexter has started to show some of the cards it's been holding, this has started to shape up to be a pretty crackerjack season, but it's also almost entirely predicated on a lie. The guys that held Lumen were so monstrous, so terrible, so utterly without redeeming qualities that all they become are shapeless monsters lunging out of the dark. When Dexter kills them, it's not like he's killing human beings, not really. He's killing completely and utterly evil people, people who apparently see no problem with using women as sexual slaves and then stuffing their corpses in barrels to rot in the swamp. That's not an antagonist; that's fucking Sauron or Satan or something. Darth Vader had more nuance.
What's even weirder is that the show seems to be tacitly endorsing this point of view. In the scene where Deb struggles with the fact that she shot Fuentes and doesn't seem to feel much remorse about it, Dexter tries to gently push her toward the idea that sometimes, bad people need to die, that the world is better off without them. As recently as last week, when Dexter was letting Lumen know that her abusers would see the inside of a jail cell if the system was allowed to work, Dexter was reminding us that there was another way to get justice on the wicked, but this scene seems to fly in the face of that. The world of Dexter, at least, is a dark, foreboding place, where there are some people who just deserve to die. Dexter is the man who will dish out that punishment, and he does a better job of it than the feckless authorities (who spend most of the episode mired in bureaucracy) ever could.
In season two, when Doakes discovered Dexter's secret, we wanted Dexter to escape, sure, but there was an element of sick fascination with the idea that Doakes could somehow stop him. Now, with the Peter Weller character (named Liddy, in case you were wondering), all we want is for Dexter to escape him. To be fair, some of this is the difference between having a regular nearly catch Dexter and a guest star nearly catch Dexter. Doakes was a vital part of the show, while Liddy's just some dude we've only just met. But the larger point remains. This used to be a show about a man who channeled his darkness into ridding the world of bad guys but it was also a show actively wrestling with the question of the morality of what Dexter was doing. In season five, any pretense of that has mostly disappeared. This is now entirely a show about your friendly neighborhood serial killer, just doing his job. And the show's the poorer for it.
Except sometimes not really. Tonight's episode, particularly once Dexter and Lumen showed up for Jordan's seminar, was terrifically paced and very exciting. The sequence where Cole spots Lumen and tails her through the hotel, slowly gaining ground until she goes to her hotel room, is exactly the sort of thing this show does so well. And, of course, it was obvious that Cole would burst through the door of the room and attack Lumen, just as it was obvious that Dexter would save the day, but the show held the beats between these moments just long enough to raise doubt. Maybe Cole really had lost track of Lumen. Maybe Lumen really would die at his hands. These scenes felt as intense as anything the show has done, and the aftermath, with Dexter telling Lumen his life story while Cole's corpse leaked blood, had all the weird, woozy swoon of a romantic comedy. Here is my true self, Dexter says, offering Lumen a slide with Cole's blood on it and reflecting on everyone who couldn't handle who he was. Lumen, who's stared into some of the same darkness Dexter has, takes the slide, no questions asked.
Or maybe this is the show's greatest criticism of itself. Dexter has always been looking for someone to accept him exactly as he is, but he knows that his true self would push away anyone who happened upon it. His father killed himself in the wake of the revelation, and Miguel had to be killed, eventually. Maybe the same fate awaits Lumen, but the episode seems to make clear that who she was, the girl who could run away with Owen on an around the world plane trip, is largely dead, destroyed by what powerful men with no checks on their behavior did to her. Dexter is so drawn to Lumen because she's the person who can finally reach out and take the slide, the person who's been down in the swill long enough with him to know the world needs ridding of its darker elements. What appeals to Dexter about Lumen is that she lets him BE the superhero he wants to be and deep down knows he maybe isn't. Rita, Deb, Doakes, Harry, even Trinity: They all introduced doubt, a sense that maybe what Dexter was doing wasn't the right path. Now, finally, he's found a woman who will see him as an avenging force for good, someone who makes him feel more clear about his mission. And what the show wants us to see is that she's a scared woman who NEEDS an avenging angel, not someone strong enough to call Dexter on his bullshit.
Remember that season five of Dexter opened with some episodes where Dexter's inner nature was played almost entirely for horror. The scene where he killed the man in the abandoned building in the premiere and the scenes where he tracked down Boyd were played in this fashion, as much as anything else. As time has gone on and the true evil of what Dexter and Lumen are up against has become apparent, the show has largely abandoned this tactic, but that may be because it's trying to show us Dexter as Lumen sees him. Notice how much less this season has used Harry, for instance, or how some scenes have been shown to us from the point of view of Liddy. I don't know if this is where we're going ultimately, but the question of the lack of moral ambiguity in these last few episodes may be because this is the season where we get little hints of how others see Dexter, of how his mission looks to those who get a glimpse of who he really is. It scares most, but to a woman who endured hell, he might seem a little like a lifeline.
- I'm just going to start tossing the office politics sections down into the stray observations until they do something interesting, because I think we're all on the same page about how they're useless. LaGuerta pins everything on Deb, so she gets suspended, and even though she suggested LaGuerta do something like this, she's still pissed about it. Whatever.
- Also, the Quinn and Deb relationship continues, though I like the way the show is suggesting that Quinn may be the best match Deb has had yet, all evidence to the contrary. I also like how he's shying away from the mission he gave Liddy as Liddy gets both more greedy and more obviously insanely devoted to the mission.
- Will Liddy finally be the person to play the Bay Harbor Butcher card? He's got photos of Dexter dropping garbage bags into the water. Or did all of Miami suffer acute short-term memory loss after the explosion that took out Doakes?
- I liked the character of Owen, who was nicely sketched in, along with his past with Lumen, in just a few short scenes. That's the kind of character work the show often has trouble with, so it was nice to see it executed well here.
- On the other hand, Lumen had a few too many lines tonight where she basically stated the subtext of the scene outright.
- Jonny Lee Miller continues to be nicely creepy as Jordan, and I liked the final reveal that he was who we all thought he was. I also liked the way that he parroted Dexter's voiceover.
- Seriously, how long has it been since we've seen Harry?