Dexter – “Buck the System” (And Season 7 So Far)

“Buck the System”

October 14th, 2012

*Blows the Dust Off the Dexter Header Image* Well, it’s been a while.

I watched the fifth season premiere of Dexter waiting for a plane, and found it to be your typical episode of Dexter. But as the time crunch of the semester took over, the idea of watching any more floated away, and I hadn’t seen even a few minutes of the show since that point. The show remained “on the radar” as any show does, and certainly the events from the end of the sixth season were more visible than others, but the fact remained that I was content with Dexter being out of sight, out of mind.

This changed when that no longer became possible. During the past two seasons, people weren’t talking about Dexter: sure, there were still record numbers of viewers, but the people on my Twitter feed—people who used to talk about the show—seemed quiet. And then suddenly, there was Alan Sepinwall and Mo Ryan writing about the show again after watching their screeners for the first three episodes of the season. Tonight’s episode, “Buck the System,” was the last episode they saw before writing those pieces, and their support—and the similar mentions of improvement from the rest of my Twitter feed and my students—led me to take a look at the preview disc Showtime had been kind enough to send along.

I discovered a much better show than the one I left, mostly because we’ve reached the point where Dexter is the season’s star. Moving away from the seasonal serial killers of seasons past, the seventh season is invested in exploring Dexter and his impact on those around him, excising entirely unrelated subplots in favor of a web of character beats all focused on the ramifications of his actions. “Buck the System,” on the surface, is the episode where Dexter successfully begins to show Deb the positive benefits of his actions, and the episode where Yvonne Strahovski is introduced as a woman who, as a girl, once fell in with someone like Dexter. However, it’s also the episode where the unintended consequences of Dexter’s actions are equally as clear, at least to someone who is willing or able to think about them (which Dexter, very clearly, is not).

It’s a subtle distinction, but one that won me over, and has me committed to seeing the season out.

Dexter’s failure to kill or capture the bald-headed sadist with a torture maze in his house is positioned by Dexter as a reason for him to keep killing. It is a justification for his behavior, the manifestation of his logic and what he hopes will be a wakeup call for Deb. It’s the kind of argument he’s been making through voiceover all along, as though he was practicing for the moment Deb or someone else close to him could learn about his secret. It’s the value of “the code” on display, and a pivotal moment in Deb and Dexter’s new relationship with one another.

It’s also a smokescreen. Concurrently, the Ukrainians are cleaning up the mess that Victor’s death left behind. Dexter thought he was taking a killer off the street when he killed Victor back in the premiere, but instead he ensured that Louis and the bouncer would lose their lives. Even if we don’t mourn Louis’ death, given his antagonistic relationship with Dexter, it turns out that he was just a psycho with a grudge instead of a potential threat to Dexter’s secret. It does pose the question, though: how many other victims that Dexter has killed have set off a similar chain reaction? Having just seen Looper earlier today, there’s a scene—I won’t spoil—in the film that seems to think about the potential chain of events following killing someone, but for Dexter it’s a simple erasure rather than a complex set of consequences. Once a person becomes a slide in his box, their story is done; this season, however, Victor’s story keeps going, even if Dexter doesn’t realize it yet.

Or does he? Because the rest of the show has now organized itself around the Miami PD’s attempt to solve the murder Victor committed, he should know that he’s watching people struggling and putting in long hours to solve a murder he already solved. If he had simply handed off the fingerprint evidence to the police, they might have lost Victor but they could have avoided the bloodbath brewing in Miami. His argument was that the system would find a way to let him slip, or that Victor would be gone long before the police took any action, but do we know that? And does he know that? We’re conditioned to be on Dexter’s side, and Victor’s death fit the code, but is that enough to justify his actions given what has happened after the fact.

It’s true that it lies on some major coincidences, but that’s sort of the point. Right now, the other major characters are working on some part of the same case: Batista and Quinn are on the ground trying to solve the murder Dexter already solved, while La Guerta has evidence tying Dexter to the crimes but doesn’t know it yet. However, coincidence or not, at least the storylines don’t feel like a distraction from the central themes of the season. Instead of treating the supporting characters like people whose lives are interesting—they’re not—the show is using them to make a larger point, involving them personally in cases instead of using their personal lives as a typical distraction from their cases (and thus from the central storyline of the season).

While I’ve often lobbied for more organic storytelling, the central theme of this season returns us to the central irony of Dexter fighting crime by committing it, and so it seems only fitting that dramatic ironies are emerging as a key feature of the season. The idea of Dexter randomly running into a serial killer groupie in the midst of his work is clearly a construct to further the season, but it’s nice to see Yvonne Strahovski back on television and their scene tonight has the requisite tensions to catch my interest.

Last week’s episode wasn’t as compelling as the premiere or “Buck the System,” but what interested me about it was how it was pretty much acknowledging that Deb learning the truth about Dexter wasn’t going to destroy the show. She might know the truth, and she might try as hard as she might to keep Dexter from killing again, but the fact remains that she loves him and that wins out in the end. It’s a reminder, though, that the threat of Dexter being caught should never be about furthering the plot, but rather about watching Dexter worm his way out of a new situation. Whereas this has often meant last-minute plot escapes, the false complacency Dexter falls into in “Buck the System” will be invaluable moving forward. Instead of tiptoeing around a key detail in Deb and Dexter’s relationship, the show is finally exploring just what that means, and how Dexter’s actions have deeper consequences than furthering a stale premise into further profitable seasons.

It’s an exploration that’s made the show interesting to me again, something I wasn’t sure was possible.

Cultural Observations

  • I still don’t particularly care about any of the supporting characters, but the show isn’t really asking me to, which is good enough for me.
  • Michael C. Hall is still a threat to pick up a makeup Emmy for so many seasons of strong work, but it seems unfathomable to me that Jennifer Carpenter has never been nominated for anything of note. I know she was a divisive part of early seasons, but here’s hoping her newfound prominence keeps her in the conversation (even if Dexter itself is now decidedly outside of that conversation).
  • The “Case of the Week” was visceral enough, and did its job, but it’s frustrating to see another “Serial Killer” just happen to fall into Dexter’s lap. My concern over the sheer volume of serial killers operating in Miami remains, which is part of why the Ukrainians are a more viable antagonist for me.
  • When I went to google Louis to figure out who he was after watching my screeners, I stumbled upon this Dexter Wiki page for the character, which is the most detailed summary of a single, unimportant recurring character I can imagine. Whoever wrote it is probably so crushed he’s dead.
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