“Do You Take Dexter Morgan?”
December 14th, 2008
I was minding my own business one night about a month ago when a (drunk) resident in my building asked if I would like to join a game of poker. I declined, planning on getting some work done that evening, but he saw that I had a fair amount of food in my room and asked if he could have a sandwich. I obliged, as it falls within my job description as a Resident Assistant to on occasion feed the inebriated folks who wander the halls.
The reason I bring this up (I swear, there’s a reason) is that we then got into a discussion about popular culture, and eventually we got into an argument about Showtime’s Dexter. He said he liked the show, which wouldn’t ellict an argument under normal circumstances, but then he proceeded to single it out as “one of the best written shows on television.” And, maybe it’s that my patience for drunk people goes out the window during food preparation, but I immediately scoffed at this remark. He demanded I name him some better examples, I listed off the usual (Wire, Mad Men, BSG, Lost – you read the blog, you know what I shower with praise), and eventually he went off to play his game of poker, no longer in danger of alcohol poisoning.
But that conversation has stuck with me, primarily because I don’t think I had ever been quite so quick to undersell Dexter as something below the level of the shows I just listed. Admittedly, I was more down on the second season than most people, but even I couldn’t argue against the palpable tension the show created. However, while I would never question the performance of Michael C. Hall who remains as fantastic as ever, something happened at the end of the second season (mainly Lila) that the third season wasn’t able to rectify in my critical mind.
Since then, Dexter’s been my favourite punching bag, perhaps unfairly: I even trotted it out while recording a podcast about The Wire, which is something that really isn’t fair to any show. The third season had a lot of elements that certainly helped the show: the introduction of Jimmy Smits to the show has given it two Emmy-level acting contenders for the first time, and the season’s slow start paid off in the end by allowing them to ratchet up the momentum at the right time instead of about three episodes too early.
But what “Do You Take Dexter Morgan?” reminds me, against my will, is that this is a show with limitations, one which in the introduction of Jimmy Smits shed more light on its weakly developed supporting cast, and in its slow start made us stop and think “what other directions could this show be taking that would be more dramaturgically interesting” for a few episodes too long. In those moments, I know exactly why I jumped on that drunk, hungry, and entirely innocent TV viewer: Dexter could be a better show than it is, and the third season was filled with warnings that the show seems unaware of its recurring problems.
The finale, as an episode, was starkly simple: it was about the fact that everyone has secrets, and that everyone hides them or has reasons for them which justify them. It was not an uncommon message for the series – the show has, on numerous occasions in the past, drawn parallels between Dexter and other people in his life in order to demonstrate how his serial killer side exists in other people in other ways. This relationship was often most complex between Dexter and Harry Morgan, a character who through James Remar has remained a key part of this story and this character. He was flawed, with his own secrets and form of darkness, but I always felt Dexter had the right reaction: it wasn’t to say that his own secret was okay because other people kept them, but rather that it made them more alike, somewhat humanized Dexter’s dishonesty if not the dark passenger itself.
But this episode crossed a line for me, as the season as a whole did: Miguel Prado as a character was Dexter but out of control, a dark soul who was willing to let his brother take the fall, who was willing to throw morals and ethics out the window. He was someone who harboured a dark secret but was more interested in protecting his ability to kill than the people in his life. Miguel Prado was, in a sense, what Dexter could have become if it were not for the fact that he has far more emotional capacity than he thinks he does, and if he didn’t have Deb and Rita, and the memory of Harry, to tie him to something real.
And at the start of the season, I might have thought that this was an interesting point of investigation, because the season was shaping up to be about this question. It was Dexter developing his own code, murdering Oscar Prado out of self-defence and not knowing whether or not it was justified. However, that question never mattered, nor did the life of Oscar Prado: it was simply an excuse to introduce this alternate Dexter, a brilliantly portrayed but ultimately shortchanged Miguel Prado, and an excuse to end the season on a note of “Do you know what? Dexter’s not so bad, you should really lay off him already.”
It was just a stimulus, a reason d’etre for Dexter’s real apprehension, about bringing a child into this world, to seem more poignant in that moment as he is tied up on the Skinner’s table and his vision of Harry reminds him that the tears he (Harry) is crying are really Dexter’s sub-conscious tears. And that side of the storyline was quite interesting, but did it really veer into unexpected territory? While I thought Dexter’s original concerns regarding the child felt quite apt if a bit mundane, the storyline more or less entirely went out the window once the show decided to evolve Miguel Prado from a friendly if strangely involved ADA into a cold-hearted killer who had to be dealt with.
Going into this finale, the question on the table was whether or not the season’s slow build was worth it. Miguel Prado was a fascinating foil for Dexter, offering him a friend and perhaps even a partner in this whole charade. There were a lot of questions early on about why he wouldn’t realize that Dexter might have something to do with the serial killer who murdered criminals and worked in Miami’s Homicide department. There were other questions as he moved towards his death of just how much he knew, and how much he used Dexter for, and what precisely was his “game” (considering that he had planned things out from the point of Freebo’s death, I’d say that he had been ruminating on this for at least some time).
But the show snuffed out Miguel Prado in last week’s penultimate episode, something that still kind of fascinates me. All this finale really said about Miguel Prado was either that they should sweep him and his criminal ways under the rug (in the case of LaGuerta) or that he was really just another chapter in Dexter Morgan’s life of using the people around him as an excuse (albeit a justified one) to continue to hide his inner demons and exercising his own sort of justice without feeling overburdened.
This doesn’t mean that I was any less impressed by that fantastic scene with Ramon and Dexter in the prison, as you see Dexter slowly realize that threatening Ramon with Miguel’s life would be an unnecessary burden on a man who has spent years cleaning up after his brother’s mistakes and paying the price for them. The scene was tremendously played, and it did do some very effective work in terms of forcing Dexter to reflect on his life with Rita and something approximating humanity. But it also felt like a real surface reading of this situation: without know why Oscar was associating with Freebo, I don’t know if the situation really works out. If we paint the rest of the Prado actions as Ramon trying desperately (becoming like his brother in many ways, through torture and anger) to solve the case so that his brother wouldn’t try to take actions into his own hands, I feel like that one scene isn’t enough.
This is especially true when we consider that it was only one scene – the episode then dropped the issue of Miguel almost entirely in favour of returning to Season 1’s state of Dexter-related happiness paralleled with a new sense of his inner struggle. This isn’t to say that this wasn’t handled well: his confrontation with the Skinner was well-drawn, and the wedding scene got to end with that quite well conceived shot of the blood dripping from Dexter’s cast and onto Rita’s wedding dress. But, isn’t that exactly where we were in the beginning: did the season really tell us something new about Dexter, or did it just coast along waiting until Miguel Prado would help tell us what we knew all along?
I think the journey was worth it in some ways: Jimmy Smits likely has an Emmy nomination coming his way in September after his rather fantastic work as Miguel Prado, and there were moments between he and Michael C. Hall which reminded us of how well acted (and, on occasion, well written) this show can be. But as far as stringing together into a cohesive storyline, it felt like there were questions to be answered that were left unanswered so that this would become a far more simple storyline, so that “everyone has a secret” is somehow enough to justify these actions.
And I don’t think this season was simple: it began with Dexter more messed up than ever, not so much in danger of being caught than in danger of losing his mind, of losing his already tenuous link to his own reality. You had him murdering an apparently innocent man (that the show conveniently decided to forget about), you had his girlfriend pregnant with a child (that would eventually become a happy bundle of joy), and you had an ADA taking an interest in Dexter that actually felt like friendship.
This ending felt too clean, drop of blood on the white wedding dress be damned. This is Dexter, it felt like that dress should have been covered with blood considering where the season started. Instead, Miguel Prado came and went as an opportunistic and dark man who was using Dexter and who fell at Dexter’s hand – sure, he’ll have a highway named after him, but with only Dexter and LaGuerta knowing the truth it feels like we never really got to see Miguel Prado as a character outside of how it impacted Dexter’s life. I’m not suggesting that the show about Dexter be less about Dexter, but I hated to see an intriguing chance at a new character entering into this world be written off as a life lesson for our hero as opposed to someone who was their own lesson, who lived their own life in ways that weren’t just another parallel to the dark passenger.
And, really, that’s what every supporting character became: Deb’s storyline became about balancing work and life, just as Dexter balances life and killing; Batista became about finding yourself in dark places and being able to lift yourself out, just like with Dexter and his relationship with Rita; LaGuerta learned that keeping dark secrets is sometimes necessary because no one will understand what you have to say inside, just like Dexter and his own secret. And I’m used to this: after every season of Dexter we ask the question of why we spent so much time on these people only for them to devolve into either non-entities or convenient excuses for us to investigate Dexter’s own emotions.
But I don’t think Miguel Prado deserved that fate: I think there was more character to be found here, and that the treatment of his death felt false and disconnected. No, it doesn’t ruin the season, which still managed to end more consistently than did the 2nd, but the show has the same problems it has had since the very beginning. While this has never been a true ensemble, its unwillingness to grow into something beyond a contrived character study of a fascinating serial killer is only growing more frustrating. The show is so capable in those moments of tension, and here so capable of drawing a worthy adversary/partner for Dexter, and yet anything beyond the most obvious of parallels seems either outside of their reach or outside of their interest.
And as much as the show is enjoyable, and as much as the actors knock it out of the park, I remain convinced: in terms of writing, Dexter is not one of the best shows on television. Whether it will rectify that mistake in the future or not, no one can really be sure; I can say for certain, however, that I remain slightly pessimistic.
- The preview for next season really didn’t do much: it pretty much just told us that we’re going to get what we knew we’d get the second Rita said she was keeping the baby: seeing Dexter balance fatherhood/marriage with killing people. It’s kind of what this whole season ended up being about, so it’ll be interesting to see what new ground they find that wasn’t already dealt with at the point of introduction.
- I rag on Deb’s storylines for being repetitive a lot of the time, but I was emotionally involved enough to like seeing her get her shield, and to feel bad for her as she is about to discover the fact that Dexter’s mother was sleeping with her father. Plus, “I’m wearing a dress, I feel like a transvestite” was one of a very quotable character’s best lines yet – she swears, she quips, I just wish she’d get something other than “romancing the person involved in the case.”
- James Remar is the unsung MVP of this show, and the scene with them tying the tie was one of those nice emotional bits. What happens inside Dexter’s head is always so good on this show, I just wish that which happened outside of it would catch up every now and then.