Friday, December 17, 2010

Standing in Place: Thoughts on Dexter's Fifth Season

In my write-up of Dexter's third season, I concluded that the lesson the show kept driving at, the one it wanted its main character to learn, was that in order to be loved by the people whose love was worth having, he would have to hide his true nature.  Anyone who could look on Dexter as he selected, stalked, ritually murdered, and dismembered his victims without recoiling in horror wasn't worth Dexter's time or devotion.  In the show's superb fourth season Dexter tries to live by this lesson, only for the full tragedy of his existence to become apparent: he alienates his loved ones by hiding behind a mask of normalcy, and his attempts to learn how to make that mask more believable ultimately lead to the murder of his wife and the disintegration of the very family he's worked so hard to hold on to.  Perhaps in an attempt to counteract that tragedy, in the show's fifth season its writers try to imagine Dexter's perfect match: someone monstrous enough to accept and even participate in his murderous activities, but human enough to be worth loving.  The results, perhaps inevitably, are decided mixed.

The character who matches Dexter so perfectly is Lumen Pierce, played by Julia Stiles.  In the immediate aftermath of Rita's death, which includes Dexter's stepchildren deciding to live with their grandparents, Dexter finds himself unable to draw solace from murder.  Lumen, whom Dexter discovers, having been raped and tortured for weeks, in the home of one of his victims, gives him a reason to kill again.  On her behalf and finally by her side, he tracks down the men who brutalized her and dispatches them one by one,  ending with a creepy motivational speaker named Jordan Chase (Johnny Lee Miller, convincingly terrifying despite being a lot less central to the season's plot than previous antagonists).  Plotwise, the fifth season is a mixed bag, combining a typically pulse-pounding finale with a slower-than-usual opening and problematic pacing throughout, and spending too much time on secondary storylines that end up going nowhere--vicious, ritualistic killings in Miami's Venezuelan neighborhoods, marital strife between Dexter's colleagues, a threat to his sister Deb's career.  That the season works at all is down to Stiles, Lumen, and her chemistry with Dexter. 

Dexter's relationship with Lumen is the most open and honest he's had with anyone since the death of his adoptive father Harry (and maybe not even that--the Harry we know is, after all, a manifestation of Dexter's subconscious and perhaps not as perceptive as the real Harry; at any rate, it is telling that as Dexter and Lumen's relationship deepens Harry's appearances as Dexter's guide and confessor taper down to almost nothing).  Even the people in his life who knew that Dexter was a serial killer--his brother Rudy, his lover Lila, his friend Miguel--failed to see some core part of him, either his monstrousness or his humanity.  Lumen, who first glimpses Dexter as he's plunging a knife into her jailer's chest, and who a few episodes later is shopping for his murder supplies and babysitting his infant son, sees the whole package, and as she recovers from her ordeal and gains strength and independence she cycles through roles that mirror the central relationships of Dexter's life.  She's childlike in the episodes immediately following her rescue, when Dexter has to remind her to sleep and eat, and tries to convince her to return home to her real parents.  When Lumen decides the pursue the men who abducted her on her own, then calls Dexter when her attempt to kill one of them goes wrong, their sniping and squabbling has a whiff of sibling rivalry.  Later in the season Dexter finds himself unexpectedly in charge of his son and stepdaughter, and Lumen steps in to play the role of wife and caretaker, which leads to the role of lover after she kills for the first time.  In each of these roles, Lumen creates a more harmonious version of the relationships that in Dexter's real life have become fraught with tension or have simply been destroyed--with Rita, with Deb, and with his stepdaughter Astor, who blames Dexter (irrationally, as she thinks) for Rita's death, and instigates her and her brother Cody's departure from his life.

Stiles plays Lumen with a matter-of-factness that grounds what could have been (and very nearly is anyway) a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  The ease with which Dexter and Lumen fall into a partnership, first as killers and later as lovers, could have been taken as a condemnation of Dexter and Rita's marriage, especially coming on the heels of the fourth season, which worked so hard to vilify Rita--another victim of rape whom Dexter initially connects with because of her damaged soul, but whose recovery forced him to stretch his ability to sham humanity, and finally to exceed it--for no greater crime than not knowing the man she married.  But Lumen is never just Dexter's perfect woman.  From the moment of her introduction it's clear that she's a point of view character, with a journey of her own--a point that is perversely but effectively brought home by having Lumen spend her first episode after being rescued and then jailed again by Dexter, who fears that she will turn him in for the murder she witnessed, trying to escape from his clutches.  This leads to several wrongfooting scenes that force the audience to sympathize with Lumen by recalling a million and one films in which a young women tries to evade a serial killer--which is in fact exactly what's happening.  Later on, Lumen completely sidesteps the types that vengeful rape victims tend to be sorted into--she's neither contorted by rage nor made tragically beautiful by her suffering (in fact both Stiles and the production make great efforts to downplay Lumen's beauty and femininity, and to create the impression that her indelicate mannerisms and sedate wardrobe are an expression of her personality rather than a reaction to sexual assault).  Instead, Lumen exudes, even in her most unreasonable and angry moments, a core of ordinariness and sensibleness.  Her feelings of fear, anger, and hate, though real and turbulent, are on a human rather than operatic scale, brought down to earth by the same mixture of impatience, frustration, and finally humor that has been used to humanize Dexter from the series's beginning.  There are serious problems with the way the fifth season handles rape and its aftermath, most notably the fact that Lumen embarks on a sexual relationship only weeks after enduring vicious and repeated rapes, but it also avoids a lot of the clichés of the rape vengeance story, and in so doing both humanizes the rape victim and questions their need for vengeance.

Two problems mar Lumen's contribution to Dexter.  The first is that her presence undercuts the series's second most important character, Deb, even as she undergoes what may be the defining moral crisis of her life.  I haven't spent a lot of time talking about Deb in my Dexter write-ups, which is a shame as she is one of the most intriguing female characters on TV today.  Deb is a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed tomboy in a man's profession, with a lot of loss and pain in her past.  There are many characters like this on TV, but unlike most of them Deb is a supporting character in her own life story, which means that she doesn't get to be a tragic heroine.  She is frequently denied closure and catharsis for the tragedies she's experienced--she doesn't know why her father seemed to prefer Dexter to her; she spent four seasons wondering why the first season's villain, Rudy, targeted her, before learning that he was Dexter's brother; she managed to capture the person who murdered her lover, Frank Lundy, but as far as she knows the serial killer Lundy was pursuing at the time of his death, who also killed her sister-in-law Rita, is still on the loose.  If Deb were a main character these failures--if they were even allowed to occur--would be a source of angst and drama, but because she takes a second seat to Dexter she has to grit her teeth and move on like the rest of us, which makes her an unusually ordinary heroine.  If you want an example of Hollywood's unfairness, look no further than the fact that Stiles has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her work on Dexter, and will probably get an Emmy nomination as well, while Jennifer Carpenter, who has been doing similar, and no less excellent, work as Deb for five seasons has gone unrecognized. 

In the fifth season, the cumulative weight of these tragedies finally starts to take its toll on Deb.  As one blow after another lands--Rita's death, a difficult case that forces her first to witness a civilian almost being murdered and later to take a life, her colleagues' betrayal when a sting operation goes wrong--Deb sinks further into depression, and when the bodies of Lumen's fellow abductees are discovered, and later recordings of their hellish experiences, Deb is utterly devastated by the depths of evil and misery with which she's confronted.  In one of the most important scenes in the season, she and Dexter discuss whether some people deserve to die--an idea that would in the past have been anathema to the stalwart Deb, but which chimes with the reasoning her father Harry used to train Dexter into a killer of killers.  The season's end sees Deb coming closer than she ever has to the truth of Dexter's existence--she theorizes, though can't prove, that the vigilantes who are killing the men who raped and murdered the women whose murders she's investigating are a surviving victim and her lover, and even catches Dexter and Lumen in the act, though she doesn't see their faces, and decides to let them go.  This is a huge step--either backwards or forwards, depending on your point of view--for Deb, who has for years been the show's moral compass, the person whose unerring sense of right and wrong could always be used to puncture Dexter's, and the viewers', self-righteousness about the 'public service' he performs by committing murder.  For Deb to accept that there are times when murder is forgivable or even desirable unbalances both the character and the show, and this is a shift that deserved the writers undivided attention.  Instead, Deb's relationship with Dexter is downplayed as Lumen becomes more important to his life (the scene I describe above is a rare moment of connection for the two of them), and her moral crisis is shoehorned between an investigation that goes nowhere and an unconvincing romance with her oily partner Quinn.

The second problem with Lumen's story is how it ends.  Throughout the season Dexter tries to walk the same fine line with Lumen as it has with Dexter--she's a person who does terrible things, but she's still likable.  This has always been a difficult balancing act with Dexter's character, as the writers carefully weeded out any aspect his proclivities or killing rituals that might disgust viewers (sympathy for television characters is after all hardly ever a matter of right or wrong, but of attraction or revulsion).  With Lumen, the strain required to maintain this balance is more apparent, and the act is less successful.  For all that Stiles plays Lumen's rage against them well, the sheer awfulness of the men who abducted her and the murders they committed is clearly an attempt at manipulating our sympathy--the camera lingers over the blank eyes and decaying faces of Lumen's predecessors, electrocuted and dumped in barrels of formaldehyde, and the recordings of their torments are treated by Dexter's fellow cops as windows into hell.  More importantly, whereas in previous seasons we've met characters who accepted Dexter's proclivities on an academic level but couldn't stomach the actual sight of them--after years of training Dexter to kill, Harry's first glimpse of the reality of those murders so appalls him that he commits suicide, and Doakes is rendered catatonic by the sight--by the time Lumen comes around Dexter's murders are almost sterile.  She's never in the room when he dismembers his victims--or rather, logic dictates that she must have been in the room, but the camera isn't, and doesn't show us her reaction.  Like Dexter, Lumen is damaged enough to consider murder both normal and right, but nothing else about her is off-putting--she's wholesome enough for Dexter to leave his children in her care within a few episodes of their first meeting. 

Throughout the season I thought I could see hints that the writers were subtly undermining their presentation of Lumen--the obviously sexual pleasure she took in killing her first victim (which is also the catalyst for her starting a sexual relationship with Dexter), or the rage with which she continues to hurl invectives at Jordan even after she's killed him.  These seemed to suggest that Lumen and Dexter's belief that vengeance and murder could be healing was mistaken, and that Lumen, rather than saving herself, was irreparably tarnishing her soul.  The season's ending, however, shows that I was mistaken.  Having killed Jordan, Lumen realizes that she's lost her "dark passenger"--the name Dexter gives to their killing urges--and can no longer be Dexter's partner.  It's supposed to be a bittersweet ending because though Lumen is healed, Dexter has lost his perfect match, but to me it just comes off as dishonest, to both the character and to fundamental human truth, in its claim that one can draw peace from vengeance.

More disturbingly, both Lumen and Deb's storylines in the fifth season seem to suggest that Dexter has become ambivalent, perhaps even positive, towards the murders that Dexter commits.  If in the past the show has rejected the idea that Dexter is a vigilante--though he has a sense of right and wrong, and only kills people who are themselves killers, it's not a love of justice that compels Dexter to kill--season five seems to embrace it.  Through Deb and Lumen's reactions to him, it romanticizes his actions, turning him into a faithful knight who avenges Lumen, and later helps her to avenge herself.  In fact, romanticized is a good word for Dexter and Lumen's relationship all around, and this seems wrong in a show that, in the past, was so fastidious about adding a dash of vinegar to even the most heartwarming scene between Dexter and his loved ones--Dexter cribbing lines from a murderous stalker in order to successfully propose to Rita, who had rejected his previous proposals as too clinical; Dexter's blood staining Rita's white dress as they dance at their wedding.  It was this unwillingness to view either Dexter or the people around him through rose-colored glasses that I most appreciated about Dexter, the reason that, despite the fact that it was a show about a serial killer who murders murderers, I've always thought of it as the most moral show on TV.  I don't know if something has changed in the production or if I've just been wrong all these years, but either way I'm unhappy, if for no other reason than that reconfiguring Dexter the show into a story about a vigilante leaves Dexter the character with nowhere to go.  You'll have noticed that I've said almost nothing about Dexter in this post, and that's because there's nothing to say.  The last four seasons have each seen Dexter grow and change, and take small but definite steps towards letting his own dark passenger go, but the fifth season finale finds Dexter at almost exactly the same place he was at the end of the fourth season--alone, convinced of the necessity of hiding who he is, wanting human connection but fearing that he can't have it.  We haven't learned anything new about Dexter and he hasn't learned anything about himself, nor has he changed--and why should he?  If Dexter is righteous, then it's the people around him who need to change, to arrive at an acceptance that what he does is right, and that they should love him regardless.

From day one, Dexter has been a character defined by paradoxes and irresolvable dilemmas.  He's a monster who is just human enough to prefer the company of humans to that of monsters like himself.  He's beloved by his family, in no small part because of the support he lends them in times of need, but he is also the cause of most of the pain and turmoil in their lives.  For as long as the show has been running, fans have speculated on where this story would end and how the writers would resolve the difficulty of Dexter's existence, his inability to show his true self to the people whose love he desires.  With death?  Imprisonment?  Redemption?  Season five suggests that the answer may be stagnation, that instead of changing either Dexter or his circumstances, the show will change the people around him, make them less than they were (while making Dexter more noble) so that they can look on Dexter's works without recoiling.  That may be an exaggeration--it could simply be that after the tragedy of season four, the show's writers wanted to give Dexter a win, to reaffirm our conviction that he is, if not a good man, then at least one deserving of our love--but what is certain is that it's a season that's brought us, and Dexter, no closer to that solution, which to my mind means that there's very little justification for its existence.

6 comments:

Alexander said...

"she [Deb] spent four seasons wondering why the first season's villain, Rudy, targeted her, before learning that he was Dexter's brother"

A storyline which, I'd note, has not been mentioned at all since the season four finale. I can certainly understand this arc being pushed into the background for awhile with Rita's murder, but the way it's been forgotten completely by all the characters is problematic. This is something the show actually does quite a lot--even Brian Mosser is mention only very occasionally, and across three full seasons now people never reflect on the Bay Harbor Butcher and the apparent belief that Doakes was responsible. This to me has been the greatest failing of the show, that it embraces a thorough-going amnesia when it's convenient, allowing past arcs to be sealed off thoroughly and leaving some arcs completely uncompleted. This is problematic because it makes it too easy to totally evade the context the show has created. For instance, Dexter the character has not given real angst to the innocent people he's killed long after the fact--Oscar Prado, the artist from late S4, the random man he battered to death in the fifth season premier. This sort of thing should be a much more bigger challenge, but the show producers seem content to act like it's never happened. That means that the Stan Liddy thing will likely be water under the bridge by next season, and the show will effectively waste our time while constantly hinting at a significant shift.

When watching this season I was mostly pleased by the course of events, but the last two episodes were so bland, by the numbers and invested in the status quo that it really put me off. It was apparent for a long while that the Lumen issue was balancing on ice and would have to be resolved in an effective way that didn't make her another Lilah or Miguel. Yet ending her arc as the show did, with the conclusion of a magic 'all better now' was morally dishonest, concluding that multiple murders were just a necessary part of her recovery process and character growth. Immensely frustrating, and made worse by Deb's actions in the finale. It felt like the show pushing it's viewers by having the situation come so close to crashing down, but then having Deb sacrifice four years of characterization to give Dexter a pass (with her improbably deducing exactly the Lumen-Dexter situation without enough evidence to rationally do so). What's worse, given the precedent of this show next season Lumen and Deb's endorsement of vigilantes will probably be forgotten completely, as the show moves on to another super-evil serial killer that Dexter will 'subversively' butcher. Meanwhile we'll watch more poorly written relationship drama with Deb and Quinn, and see how that 'fresh start' works for Maria and Angel.

Great review, excellent putting of the latest season into wider context.

ibmiller said...

From what I understand, Melissa Rosenberg, basically the head writer for the series, left after season four, so that might account for some of the change.

Andrew Stevens said...

Showrunner Clyde Phillips left as well. Since Daniel Cerone left after Season 2, that means that none of the three major creative talents behind the show are still with it. Even if they were replaced with people equally talented, you're still going to get a different show. Most shows can't put together four decent seasons, so Dexter was ahead of the pack, but it's now probably beyond its sell-by date.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alexander:

Given the timeline of the season - Deb confronts Dexter about Rudy/Brian hours before Rita is killed, and the fifth season takes place over the course of two or three months following that death - I'm not surprised that the relationship between the brothers isn't brought up (and it feels in character for Deb to want to leave this connection alone). But I do agree that in general the show has a tendency to forget important storylines from past seasons - it always bothered me, for example, that Miguel, a DA, didn't connect Dexter to the Bay Harbor Butcher.

having Deb sacrifice four years of characterization to give Dexter a pass

I don't think this is necessarily character assassination. I think the show sold Deb's reasons for moving, however provisionally, to the dark side, as a combination of depression, personal trauma, and a genuine reconsideration of her moral code. I just think, as I said in the post, that this is a story that deserved a lot more attention and exploration than it got - certainly more than Deb's romance with Quinn.

ibmiller, Andrew:

I'd heard that there were behind the scene changes this season, but the only information I could find concerned a new showrunner (who has been replaced again, for whatever that's worth). It's true that a change in staff will change the nature of the show, but it's depressing that the new people in charge seem to have so different a notion of what Dexter is about than their predecessors.

Andrew Stevens said...

ibmiller is right. Melissa Rosenberg, who was head writer from the beginning and eventually executive producer, also left after Season 4. (Her success with adapting the Twilight films to screenplays probably tempted her away from television.)

William B said...

Excellent review. I’ll add that in addition to making Jordan Chase and his followers so terrible that we can’t help but sympathize with Dexter and Lumen’s murdering them, the show did a great disservice by making Stan Liddy so consistently vile. Here’s a man who, if for selfish reasons, saw evidence that Dexter was probably killing, and kidnapped him to try to take him in. He is crooked and a kidnapper, but that pales in comparison to what Dexter is. So Dexter’s killing him should be a moment we feel sick at the implications—we want Dexter to remain free (and besides, the Code’s first rule is “don’t get caught”), but going free means killing a man whose crimes are an order of magnitude less severe than Dexter’s. But the repeated emphasis on his vileness, his misogyny, his manipulative attitude, his arrogance, his sneering, make it nearly impossible to sympathize with him. It’s as if we’re expected to want to see him dead so much that we don’t blink when Dexter commits the act. Certainly Dexter has, as ibmiller says above, murdered innocents before, both through accidents and through blind rage. This situation should be an exclamation point on those killings. Instead, it mostly feels like an afterthought. It’s possible the writers are doing this deliberately, to carry us along with a surface story while hinting underneath at the depths to which Dexter is sinking; Batista even exclaims that no one besides him seems to care about Liddy’s murder.
Of course, the resolution (for now) to the Liddy situation is deeply implausible. Whether he’s a dismissed, crooked cop or not, he was still a cop, and it seems silly to me that Miami Metro would simply not care about his death. Surely if his murder remains unsolved, this will look even worse on the Homicide department and LaGuerta, to Captain Matthews and the press, than other events this season? Quinn’s deeply suspicious behaviour at the crime scene is dismissed instantly because the blood on his shoe apparently doesn’t match Liddy’s, but he should still be the prime suspect based on the timing of his calls. Furthermore, neither Dexter’s nor Quinn’s behaviour make much sense. On Quinn’s end, he knows with high probability that Dexter killed Liddy or at least knows something about his death; why else, after all, would Dexter exonerate him, if he didn’t know something about Liddy’s death that would clear Quinn? So Quinn’s decision to thank Dexter (!) and keep mum, perhaps for Deb’s sake, perhaps out of some loyalty to Dexter for having his back, or perhaps because he suspects LaGuerta et al. wouldn’t believe him at this point, actually involves deciding not to pursue knowledge that not only did Dexter is a murderer, but that the man he murdered was in this situation because of Quinn. On Dexter’s end, he is counting on Quinn not to pursue him because…? Now, I think it’s possible that Dexter would decide that it’s better to take his chances with Quinn for moral reasons (guilt over killing Liddy, perhaps? Or over what happened to Doakes?), or for his sister’s benefit. I could even see Quinn reaching the conclusion that he is has no way of pursuing Dexter that wouldn’t destroy himself as well. But both decisions are incredibly complex, and should be played out in more than a two minute span. Again, this pales in comparison to season two.

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