After a few weeks of the plot gaining more and more momentum, Dexter down-shifted tonight to resolve a conflict almost every viewer had probably forgotten about. Astor came back to town early on, and the episode became about her and Dexter fixing their relationship, thanks to a conveniently placed child abuser. I'm not trying to be callous about the terrible things Olivia's pseudo-dad, her mom's boyfriend, had done to her, but it did seem at times as though Olivia was only abused so that Dexter could be a good guy for once and get Astor on his side. (Again, the moral ambiguity slides away; we're not even left with the fear that exposing his violent nature in front of the guy, even a little bit, will result in repercussions.) Olivia and this guy don't feel like characters; they feel like an object lesson that's handed to us so that the show can say, "See, kids? Even Dexter knows child abuse is wrong! Listen to your friendly neighborhood serial killer." All in all, the most exciting scene in the episode was probably the next-week-on, since the next episode looks pretty much riveting.
That said, there were still some moments to like here. The storyline felt curiously scattered between about four or five different things, as if it wasn't quite sure what to focus on. However, one of the stronger relationships in the show's history has been the one between Astor and Dexter, and it was nice to see the show return to that, even for a sole episode, to figure out if there's anything here that's repairable. As far as "major revelations" go, we're probably going to have to go with both Deb and Astor discovering the existence of Lumen (whom Dexter lamely passes off as a "tenant" in his old house), but that's more of the sort of thing that will pay off much farther down the line. Instead, the show is back to telling us the small-scale story of the fallout from Rita's death, something that's been on the back burner for a few episodes now, outside of oblique mentions in the major storyline.
The gang back at homicide is usually more interesting when they're just two or three steps behind Dexter, which makes tonight's developments in the "girls in barrels" case that much more interesting. Deb discovers DNA at the crime scene that could, conceivably, match Cole. There are enough similar markers that Masuka thinks it's plausible, so the gang begins to think (using the DNA evidence) they're looking for four or five criminals total, not just Boyd Fowler. Now Boyd and Cole are dead, of course, so the trail may end right here, for all we know, but now that Deb's looking for them, I sort of think she's not going to just give up on this case. (Also, Quinn tells her that the composite sketches sort of looked like Dexter when he played mix-n-match with them, though she doesn't yet seem ready to jump on board the "Dexter was Kyle Butler" theory even he has abandoned, admittedly mostly for pragmatic reasons.)
This brings us to what might be the season's biggest problem: The pacing has simply been too herky-jerky. I admire the show for tossing so many balls in the air and trying to keep them going, but the inability to keep any one of these stories (outside of maybe Lumen's recovery) moving forward on a straight line is turning into a real problem. A story will reach a point of crisis, then the show will find a bullshit resolution to place it on the back burner for a few weeks before bringing it back. Quinn's getting close to figuring out Dexter was Kyle Butler? Have him suspended, so he'll drop out of the case. Dexter's having trouble dealing with Astor and Cody in the wake of their mother's death? Ship 'em off to Orlando to stay with their grandparents. Irish nanny placing saints around your house? Actually, was that even a plot? Or just a thing that happened to pad out the episode? Santa Muerte case too close to being closed? Have Deb shoot the chief suspect. And so on.
I'm not trying to argue that this is bad, per se. Indeed, I can see a version of the show where this works, where the increasingly large number of things going on within the show's universe becomes so massive that the show essentially devours itself. That would be kind of cool! Instead, what we're getting is a series that slams on the brakes on a storyline, then sets it aside for several episodes, then hits the gas abruptly, hoping we'll get re-invested. When Astor and Cody went off with their grandparents, for instance, it felt like a nice stopping point for that story for now. To bring Astor back into the middle of things as they stand, no matter how well-executed, just feels odd, like the show stalling for time before the inevitable showdown between Jordan and Dexter.
Speaking of which, Jordan's another person who's inexplicably taken Dexter under his wing to provide guidance to the lost and wounded soul. And the series didn't even make a big deal out of this, like it did last season with Arthur Mitchell. It just kinda had the two become best pals after Dexter spoke at the hotel. Now, maybe we'll discover Jordan has an ulterior motive. (It would certainly seem plausible, since he apparently figured out that Dexter and Lumen are working together.) Or maybe we'll find out that Jordan's just able to recognize fellow dark-hearted people. Whatever the case, though, this episode's introduction, where Dexter and Jordan are runnin' buddies (although the running is supposed to be some sort of self-help session), felt much too abrupt. Also, while having Jordan call Lumen and let her know he was coming was a pretty cool episode closer, why the hell would he do that? If he knows so much about her and he knows where to find her (since he called the home phone), then why not just hit her with the element of surprise? Sure, she's got a butcher knife, but you'd think he'd be able to think of something. All in all, Jordan's shaping up to be a pretty lame villain. Yeah, yeah, bifurcated self, but Jordan is a little too obviously crazy, a little too obviously dark, to really work as a villain. Not to compare too heavily to John Lithgow's work last season, which was awesome, but you totally bought that Trinity could go about his day to day business, not tripping anyone's serial killer radar. You never really buy that Jordan's shtick would last for very long in a world full of discerning people.
But Dexter's not a show set in a world full of discerning people. It's a show set in a world where there are predators and prey and that's pretty much it. Dexter, basically, is the world's most elaborate game of Sharks and Minnows, and this season, it seemed like the series would form as its basis the story of a minnow turning herself into a shark. Sure, there's room for interesting digressions into the nature of family around the edges, and the Astor and Dexter scenes hit some nice notes in this regard. But for the most part, this episode felt like one that the show tossed in as the ninth because it had run out of story but didn't want to get into the end game just yet. Dexter has staked so much this season on forward momentum and keeping the plot churning along that it can't really afford an hour like this, especially this late in the game. In fact, ask yourself this: What's really changed from the beginning of this episode to the end of it? Even on the most superficial of levels, barely anything, and that's a problem. Sharks gotta keep moving forward.
- Dexter does a lot of filming in my city of Long Beach, Calif. My neighborhood often turns up, randomly, and it was all over tonight's episode, for some reason. I'm not sure what part of Miami it's supposed to represent, since the show has used it as both a very seedy place and a very opulent place. The fact that my neighborhood can stand in for both probably means I should move, huh?
- Incidentally, when I mentioned this fact on Twitter, a bunch of people were surprised the show doesn't film in Miami. And, come to think of it, CSI: Miami also often uses Long Beach to double for Miami, even though the two cities aren't all THAT similar. Weird.
- Lame plot point of the week: Harrison says "mama" and seems to be directing it at Lumen. Astor takes this as further evidence that her step-dad has immediately moved on with a new hot blonde. Lumen protests she's just met the kid, but Astor won't have it. Then, it turns out that his little rattle/doll thing is what Harrison means when he says "mama." YES. GOOD. I'M GLAD THE KID THINKS A TOY IS ITS MOTHER. That's perfectly healthy and normal! (OK, Harrison is probably just saying random syllables, but this was still unspeakably lame.)
- Lame plot point of the week, part 2: Batista and LaGuerta are no longer sleeping together. Did you care? I did not.
- Hey, Harry's back! And he's back to ... reaffirm Dexter's decision to scare a child abuser away from his family using threats that probably shouldn't terrify a guy who's just met him (if we're being honest). This was the worst use of Harry all season.
- Masuka's happy when Dexter screws up because it makes Masuka look good. No, Masuka. Nothing makes you look good. That's why we love you.
- Special Agent Rowboat Cop shows Quinn the photos of Dexter and Lumen with the bags, then shows them returning WITHOUT the bags. Quinn couldn't care less because he's not allowed to care until episode 11.
- As late as these often go up, next week's could go up SUPER late, as I'll be on the road. I'll try and not have that happen, though. But didn't that promo look awesome?