Season Premiere: Dexter – “Our Father”

“Our Father”

September 28th, 2008

Michael C. Hall has crafted one of television’s most memorable characters in Dexter Morgan, a fascinating psychological enigma who lives and kills by a code handed to him by his father. But after two seasons of murder and the inner turmoil of living with having murdered all of these people, one would have to think that Dexter Morgan would have grown out of his situation, could emerge from the weekly murders to something closer to approximating a real life.

And, the show’s third season premiere finds Dexter as close as he’s ever come: he and Rita are as happy as can be, he’s pretty much a father to her children, he’s more aware than ever about the true purpose behind his murders, and generally speaking his relationship with everyone around him is at last “normal.” Of course, in the world of Dexter nothing is ever that simple: in order to attain this normalcy, he has largely given up listening to his father’s teachings, shunning his sister and turning his back on that chapter of his life in favour of crafting his own code.

The problem with “Our Father” is that it is becoming clearer by the day that there isn’t enough of a series surrounding Dexter for this to feel as natural as it needs to be. Perhaps it’s that this is my first experience watching Dexter after watching The Wire, but this show is falling into a dangerous pattern that cheapens whatever deeper character drama they plan on investigating within the title character. It’s not that the show is failing to deliver on what it promises, but rather that the second season’s urgency and driving force feels lacking, and what we’re left with is a cheap provocation that feels like a show admitting that it doesn’t have the supporting cast or the foresight to develop something bigger or less reactionary.

It’s not just that it’s repetitive, but rather that it feels like an unnecessary intervention: Dexter has largely reformed himself, and as long as the show keeps poking the bear it’s going to (despite Hall’s incredibly strong performance) feel like we’re going through the same motions for the sake of contrivance as opposed to observation.

Now, I want to make one thing very clear: I think that there is a lot of potential in Dexter’s journey this season. The burgeoning relationship between the newly arrived Jimmy Smits (as Prosecutor Miguel Prado) and our title character is incredibly interesting, as it represents an opportunity for Dexter to get close to someone who is close to the crime in question. And I also feel as if there is drama to be found in the challenge of balancing a potentially pregnant Rita with this investigation and his realization that the man he had tried to kill in the first place is on the loose and killing, while dealing with that inner guilt of having killed a man who was not the cold-blooded murderers usually on his table.

Except, let’s remember that last season was built on precisely these same elements: of Lundy befriending Dexter and creating those awkward moments where the perpetrator is sitting right in front of the man searching for him, and of Dexter living in constant fear of being found out and struggling to find an outlet for his grief (and needing to find a new scaffolding, his own term, other than Rita and her children). The show is running dangerously close to developing a formula, something that is concerning when your show is already somewhat procedural in nature considering Dexter’s usual habit of killing one murderer per episode.

And as of the premiere, this repetition isn’t all that apparent in and of itself: Hall remains as riveting as ever, and there is something different about the way the show is handling Dexter’s transformation. Rather than living in constant fear, he seems almost dangerously okay with his new situation: he seems to relish the thought that Freebo remains in Miami to hunt down, but also seems to hold a special place in his mind (not his heart, clearly) for Oscar Prado and his untimely (or timely) death. He’s also very quickly adjusted to a new code: one where he less does his father’s bidding and more does his own bidding in order to place him in the ideal position and frame of mind in order to serve as Cody and Astrid’s father in their times of need. In that case, then, Rita’s pregnancy is the really earth-shattering moment: can he overcome his Daddy issues in the face of becoming a father himself, or will he revert back to where he was before, matching Deb’s idolization of Harry with his own combination of mortification and confusion?

If you want me to really pinpoint my problems with Dexter, though, it’s easier than you’d imagine: everything else. More than ever it is clear that that which does not concern Dexter is more or less completely not worth our time. This is where The Wire comes into play, as it will always do in any series that is either a) set in some sort of law enforcement office or b) featuring a supporting cast that is given their own storylines. What makes The Wire stand out is that after three seasons they sidelined their lead actor, the lynchpin of much of the drama, and still had a highly compelling and fascinating series focused on real issues and problems. They were able to do this because of smart, subtle and careful character development: after three seasons, they had cultivated enough growth to be able to let them loose in this world in a way that felt organic and part of something larger than a single character.

Dexter, however, in twenty-six episodes, has done nothing even close to doing this with its own supporting cast. While you could make an argument that Deb has been through a lot, where’s the proof? She’s still a cop struggling to be taken seriously, she’s still in a weird and tumultuous relationship with her brother, and she’s still got issues with her big mouth. Masuka is pure comic relief, Batista has no discernable storyline (after attempts to do so in season one failed miserably, he’s just a cop and nothing more), and LaGuerta has some sort of a connection to the Prados but in the premiere it is minimal at best. Instead, we’re left to wonder: is anything happening to these characters really worth our time when Dexter is so much more interesting?

There is a serious lack of tension in these storylines: do we really care whether or not Deb rats out her new partner (to whom we have no emotional connection) to the overly precocious Internal Affairs stalker woman? And is Batista becoming a Sergeant really something that is supposed to make us feel something, anything? It feels like the show has about as much interest in these characters as we do: it’s like 24, and everyone other than Dexter are just interchangeable archetypes who either get in his way or enable his behaviour. The show has a better chance than 24 of overcoming this problem based on its more focused central storylines, but even that is a problem: when a show so clearly prioritizes one character over all others, isn’t it natural that we lose all interest in what the writers have more or less classified as filler from the script stage?

Of course, as some would argue, the show has never been about them, so if the Dexter storyline is solid then why are you complaining? The fact of the matter is, though, that as strong as the execution is on those moments I just can’t help but see the forest instead of just the trees here. What Dexter does best might still be present, but in the absence of Sergeant Doakes the rest of the series’ storylines feel more lifeless than ever before. So while I won’t stop watching any time soon, I have to say that I remain disappointed that the show is incapable or unwilling to expand its character study beyonds its singular triumph.

Cultural Observations

  • We don’t get to see very many sides to Miguel Prado, but I will credit the writers for following through on my own question of why Dexter would be silly enough to research Oscar Prado using departmental resources. I read somewhere that Miguel was labeled as someone for Dexter to talk to, but it’s exactly the opposite: it’s Prado who needs Dexter as a source for his grief that isn’t an old flame or a politician, and who could offer some answers. This has Dexter in the more powerful relationship, something that has some real potential even if it’s kind of limited in terms of short term tensions.
  • James Remar remains in the show’s main credits despite this absence of Harry’s code, so I’d actually really like to see them send the Harry flashbacks to Deb as opposed to Dexter. Considering that Dexter has moved on, I think it would do a lot to flesh out Deb and, potentially, create a relevant second character for the series.

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