Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's Showtime! Thoughts on Dexter and Homeland

This time last year, it seemed like Homeland and Dexter couldn't have more different trajectories.  Dexter was coming off a plodding, padded sixth season that had devolved into the butt of a sad joke, full of nonsensical plot twists, increasingly boring subplots involving the show's perennially underserved secondary characters, and an growing sense that no one involved with the show knew what to do with its central character.  Homeland, on the other hand, had just concluded a triumphant, impossibly assured first season that not only established its two lead characters, bipolar CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and POW-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), as complex, nuanced avatars of mingled heroism and villainy, but delivered a fast-paced, pulse-pounding story about terror and anti-terror that nevertheless managed to remain rooted in mundane reality rather than flying off into 24-style action-adventure fantasy.  And yet, going into their second and sixth seasons, Homeland and Dexter seemed not only to be facing the same challenges--of showing that their story still had life and relevance in it, and could be taken to its next (in Dexter's case, final) level--they seem to have faced that challenge with the same mingled degree of success and failure.  Both shows start their seasons off strong, and then diffuse into a messy, seemingly aimless plot.  Both root the seasons in the relationship between the shows' male and female leads, which remains their truest and most compelling trait even when the rest of the season seems to have gone to pieces.  And both end with the definite sense that the season has been less about its own story and more in the service of setting the table for next year's chapter.

You could easily class both Homeland and Dexter as outliers to the sub-category of shows I discussed in a recent essay, which revolve around a single male anti-hero and his increasingly strained relationship with the concept of masculinity--shows that include critical darlings Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and which take as their urtext the last decade's most influential and revolutionary series, The Sopranos.  Both shows replicate the format of a seemingly virtuous and heroic suburban husband and father who is actually involved in shady, immoral dealings, and whose identity is hopelessly tangled, perhaps even trapped, by ideas of stalwart masculinity (as well as, in Homeland's case, the contrast between white, Christian America and quasi-Orientalist ideas of the Islamic Middle East), all the way down to the protagonist's nagging, uncomprehending wife and his adoring yet increasingly perceptive and suspicious children.  In Homeland's case, that format is complicated first by the fact that terrorism is less morally ambiguous than advertising cigarettes or cooking meth (in fact Homeland has to work hard to encourage an ambivalent attitude towards Brody's terrorism going in the other direction, by revealing that he is trying to avenge a drone strike on a school, sanctioned by the current vice president, which claimed the lives of 82 children), and even more powerfully by the existence of Carrie as a second--even primary--protagonist, whose half of the story is compelling in its own right, and for whom Brody is the villain.  Dexter, meanwhile, sidesteps the issue of masculinity that is at the heart of all these other shows by fielding a protagonist who may not even be human.  Simultaneously hyper-masculine--he rarely suffers from the kind of status anxiety that afflicts Tony Soprano or Walter White, simply because he knows that he could easily kill anyone who gets in his way--and completely emasculated--the image he projects is geeky and unthreatening, and he rarely cares, or even realizes, that he isn't performing masculinity correctly--Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is most frequently presented as a sort of monster living uneasily among humans, whose highest aspiration is the kind of mundane suburban existence that men like Walter White see as a trap.

Perhaps the most crucial difference between Dexter and the other shows I've mentioned here, however, is that Dexter doesn't want us to disapprove of its protagonist's extra-legal activities.  If Dexter, who kills only people who are themselves murderers, isn't quite presented as a hero--it is to the show's credit that it never allows its audience to forget that what compels Dexter to kill isn't a love of justice or outrage over his victims' actions, but his psychopathic nature--he is also rarely asked to stand within the confines of conventional morality.  Dexter kills not because he is a bad (or good) person, but simply because it's in his nature to do so, and his conflicts with seasonal antagonists aren't a battle between good and evil, but a simple struggle for survival between Dexter and another monster whom he had awakened.  As a result, the audience finds it easy root for Dexter.  Unlike in shows like The Sorpanos or Breaking Bad, there is in Dexter no counterweight of authorial disapproval to encourage the audience to hope for the protagonist's downfall (we'll ignore for the moment the fact that a significant portion of both The Sopranos's and Breaking Bad's audience finds it very easy to ignore that encouragement and views Tony Soprano and Walter White as uncomplicated heroes).  Where the show has faltered in its last two seasons, however, is that it's no longer clear what its creators want us to want for Dexter.  He's no longer reaching towards humanity, as he was in its first four seasons, and rooting for Dexter now seems to mean wanting him to get away with behavior that has caused untold damage and pain to his loved ones--most obviously, bringing about his wife Rita's death and orphaning his two stepchildren--so that he can continue to engage in just the same behavior, and presumably cause them even more harm.  By the end of the sixth season, it seems obvious that Dexter will never learn and never change, and the absence of any space in the show to dislike him for this fact is perhaps the core of what made that season so unsatisfying.

The seventh season therefore takes an vital step in the right direction when it has Dexter's adopted sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) discover that he is a serial killer.  Actually, this happens in the closing seconds of the sixth season, when Deb walks in on Dexter's latest kill, but the seventh season not only refuses to back away from this revelation but spends it first half essentially bringing Deb up to speed, with every episode finding her reevaluating another one of the show's major plotlines--Rita's death at the end of the fourth season, the Bay Harbor Butcher investigation in the second season--and learning to see them as the audience did.  Aside from Rita and her children, Deb is the character who has suffered the most as a result of Dexter's secret life, losing her father's attention, her innocence, and several of her relationships as a result of a dysfunction that she never knew about.  She's also the series's second protagonist, someone the audience has learned to care about and root for, which means that when she reacts to the discovery of Dexter's true nature and what it has cost her and her friends and family with outrage, disgust, and the unequivocal demand that Dexter stops killing, the audience can't dismiss her as a nagging shrew as easily as Rita (and so many of the uncomprehending wives who have followed her) was.  By allowing Deb to finally see her brother for what he is, Dexter finally allows its audience to do what the character had earned a long time ago--dislike him.  Through Deb's eyes, Dexter comes off as selfish and heedless.  He makes promises to Deb, and then turns around and breaks them without a moment's hesitation or remorse.  When she points out how much damage he does--for example by obstructing investigations that might have led to the arrest of his prospective victims--all he can do is offer weak excuses, which she explodes in turn.  What perhaps makes Dexter most unlikable during the show's seventh season, however, is the fact that for all the good points she lands against him, Deb's discovery of his killing not only does nothing to curb it, it begins the process of her own moral dissolution.

When Deb discovers Dexter at a murder scene at the beginning of the season, he convinces her that it was a momentary lapse, and she agrees to cover it up, but the deviation from Dexter's protocol leaves evidence behind that is discovered by Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), a police captain who has never believed that her friend Doakes was truly responsible for the Bay Harbor Butcher murders, actually committed by Dexter, and now connects the current scene with the Butcher (which means, among other things, that once again it's Dexter's pathological lying that sets the season's events in motion--if he'd admitted to being a serial killer to Deb to begin with, he might have spared her a great deal of anguish down the line).  Deb, who even after realizing what kind of killer Dexter is decides that she can't turn him in, therefore spends the season following and undermining LaGuerta's investigation, even as her opposition to Dexter's killing is worn away at by a case in which he kills a murderer who had been released after a bad arrest.  She becomes mired in lies and deceit, losing her grip on right and wrong--a grip that had defined and sustained her through terrible ordeals over the previous six seasons--until, at the season's end, it's Deb who kills LaGuerta to prevent her from exposing Dexter.  As many fans and reviewers have noted, this plot strand is lifted directly from Breaking Bad, which over the last season and a half has seen Walt's wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) transition from staunch disapproval and rejection of his actions to grudgingly enabling them, and finally to full-on acknowledgment of his most heinous crimes, which reduces her to an emotionally ravaged, self-loathing wreck.  Nevertheless, the choice to deepen and complicate its most fruitful, longest-lasting relationship is unimpeachable, and one that, in the first half of the season at least, gives Dexter a new lease on life, tightening its storylines and ramping up the tension as Dexter and Deb alternately square off against each other and join forces against LaGuera's investigation, with the audience left as uncertain as Deb as to what outcome they should be hoping for.

If Dexter revitalized itself by bucking tradition this season, Homeland hewed close to the tradition established in its first season--that of having no tradition at all.  Of the many impressive aspects of Homeland's debut season, none were perhaps as striking as the fearlessness with which the show raced through plotlines that might in another series have been stretched out to fill whole arcs--Carrie's illegal surveillance of Brody and his family, the mystery of whether Brody is truly a terrorist, Carrie and Brody's romantic entanglement--without ever seeming rushed or shortchanging its characters.  The second season kicks off in just the same fashion, opening several months after the first season finale, with Brody now a congressman in the inner circle of the vice president (the same man who ordered the drone strike on the school) and a disgraced Carrie struggling to put her life together after a psychiatric hospitalization and a course of ECT.  As quickly as that status quo is established, however, it's torn apart when a raid on a terrorist stronghold reveals the suicide tape Brody made before his abortive attempt to blow up the vice president in the previous season finale.  And no sooner is a vindicated Carrie reinstated and made a key figure of a sting operation intended to follow Brody to the master-terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), than she decides that Brody has caught wind of the operation (a conclusion that is never confirmed by Brody himself) and has him arrested.

This leads to the season's finest episode, "Q&A," in which Carrie interrogates Brody, eventually persuading him to turn on Abu Nazir and help the CIA capture him.  Aside from the fact that Danes and Lewis are both masterful, fearless actors, and that the episode has the wisdom to stand back and let them play off against other, what's remarkable about "Q&A" is the way it realigns the relationship between Carrie and Brody, turning what was adversarial into a deep but discomforting bond.  What I found remarkable about the writing for both Carrie and Brody in the first season was how nimbly it contained both characters' inherent contradictions.  Brody was, at one and the same time, a lost, broken soul, and a manipulative liar who thought nothing of exploiting the pain of those closest to him to achieve his sickening goal.  Carrie was a reckless agent who ignored the damage she caused in pursuit of what she believed was the truth, and a heroic one, who threw herself against the obstacles set before her and ended up saving the day at enormous cost to herself.  Though these contradictions are still present in both characters in season two, they are less prominently featured, and in their place the show focuses on the similarly disorienting contradictions of Carrie and Brody's relationship.  When Carrie interrogates Brody in "Q&A," the show clearly parallels her with Abu Nazir, by showing us that she uses to same methods as he did to, essentially, break Brody a second time.  Like Abu Nazir, she stands by as Brody is mistreated by her colleagues, then offers him not only kindness, but love and understanding (that she does this even as she explains that this was Abu Nazir's tactic only makes her resulting bond with Brody more uncomfortable).  At the end of the episode, Brody is literally shattered, curled up on the floor of the interrogation room (another physical echo of his indoctrination by Abu Nazir), and Carrie is the one who raises him up.

For the rest of the season, Carrie acts as Brody's protector and sole confidante, which eventually leads to the resumption of their romantic relationship, but once again it's hard to know where the line falls between genuine emotion, manipulation, and, as Abu Nazir tells Carrie when he captures her and discusses their similar relationships with Brody, emotional transference.  Carrie pursues a romantic relationship with Brody against her superiors' wishes and advice in a way that makes her seem--to them and to us--like a lovestruck girl, but there are points where she seems to regard him with remarkable coldness.  When Brody goes missing after being recaptured by Abu Nazir, the (male) analysts around Carrie say nothing and refuse to meet her eyes, as if sparing a grieving widow from the painful truth, but she's the one who flatly and emotionlessly announces that Brody must be dead.  When she and Brody resume their sexual relationship, they do so in a motel where Carrie has taken Brody after he breaks down and threatens to stop working for the CIA, but this turns out to be an agency safe house, and a night with Carrie does so much to restore Brody's equilibrium and persuade him to recommit to his assignment that it seems likely she seduced him with just that purpose in mind (something that Brody himself seems to have realized the next morning, when he ruefully tells Carrie that he will go back to his assignment).  At several points in the season Carrie's facade of trust and forgiveness towards Brody cracks, revealing a deep-seated distrust that none of his actions or assurances can budge (it's probably not a coincidence that these are the moments where Carrie seems most like herself, while the warm glow that bathes her when she and Brody are happy together feels alien and unconvincing), but by the end of the season she compromises herself severely for him, covering up for him when he helps Abu Nazir kill the vice president in order to save the captive Carrie's life, and helping him escape at the end of the season, when he is framed (as she comes to believe) for a terrorist bombing at Langley.

So long as Homeland strives to maintain that queasy ambiguity about Carrie and Brody's relationship, and where the line lies between love that overcomes all obstacles and a sick, codependent bond, the season maintains a strong emotional core, but by the season's end it feels as if Homeland wants us to take its second half as, as Brody says to Carrie in their last scene together, a love story, and this is hard to accept given how much of their relationship feels like a manipulation or a lie, and how much damage Carrie and Brody (but especially Brody) have done to each other.  Unfortunately, this implausibility is very much in line with the way the second season's plot progresses in its second half, once Brody has been recruited by the CIA.  Where the first season, even within the confines of its spy thriller conventions, told a relatively intimate, small-scale story, about a single terrorist planning a relatively straightforward attack (there were outlandish elements to Brody's original plan, most notably the role of his fellow captive and convert Tom Walker, but they were allowed to fade into the story's background), the second season involves Brody in an intricate, multi-tiered and -staged plot involving dozens of operatives at every level of society, as well as, in what is sadly far from the season's most implausible touch, the presence of Abu Nazir himself on US soil.

At points, the season returns to the low-key, emotionally driven storytelling that made last season such a revelation, especially among other terrorism thrillers--a lot of fans despised the storyline in which Brody's daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) is involved in a fatal hit and run with her boyfriend, the vice president's son, but I appreciated its focus on one of last season's most delicately drawn and compelling characters, and the way it complicated a figure who last season acted as Brody's moral compass (it's also a high-stakes story that is at least marginally plausible, certainly in contrast to events like a troupe of terrorists in full tactical gear shooting up a storefront in downtown Gettysburg and disappearing in broad daylight); similarly affecting was the final breakdown of Brody's marriage to Jessica (Morena Baccarin), which implodes under the weight of his lies and her growing realization that her returned husband is a stranger (sadly, there's no such meaty material for Mandy Patinkin's Saul, the show's moral center and Carrie's anchor, who in the second season is sidelined both professionally and by the writers).  But for the most part, the season's second half feels like 24, the show that Homeland seemed to be working so hard not to become, and indeed to undermine and ironize, last season.  The second season, in contrast, draws too much of its narrative momentum from plot twists that seem to call attention to the show's artificiality and undermine the realism of its characters and relationships.  One of the effects of this shift is that Homeland seems to have less and less to say about its putative subject matter, the war on terror and its effects on American soldiers and civilians.  Last season, I was concerned that Homeland's handling of this issue stopped with rejecting 24's ethos, but this season lacked even so straightforward a message--wrapped up in the chase for Abu Nazir, the show surrenders too much of its realism to be relevant.

A similar diffusion of plot occurs in the second half of Dexter's seventh season.  After several episodes that seem to be rooting into the core of Dexter and Deb's relationship, in which Dexter is seen at his most unwholesomely manipulative and Deb's moral compass increasingly loses its bearing (even as she loses her emotional equilibrium--a running theme in the season is her increasing reliance on anti-anxiety medication as the lies she tells, and the truths she discovers, eat away at her), the show for some reason stalls by introducing two new characters--gay Ukranian mobster Isaak Sirko (Ray Stevenson), whose lover Dexter kills in the season premiere, and Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski), the former juvenile accomplice of a spree killer who, Dexter discovers, has been poisoning people who get in her way for years.  Stevenson and Strahovski both give good, nuanced performances, and their characters each have an interesting rapport with Dexter, but nevertheless it's hard to understand why either one was introduced, especially as their presence sidelines Deb into a reactive, one-note role--in Hannah's case in particular, after Dexter belays his plan to kill her and embarks on a romantic relationship with her instead.  There's a lot of work done to convince us that through Isaak's musings on the irrationality of love, and through Hannah's unromantic and plainspoken take on her and Dexter's propensity for murder, Dexter gains a deeper understanding of himself, but his insights are a combination of the obvious and the unpersuasive.

Dexter's belief that he has fallen in love with Hannah and that she represents a possibility of a future for him can't survive the audience's knowledge that he has felt this way before and been wrong each time--with Rita, Lila, and Lumen, and even with people who were not his romantic partners, like Rudy or Miguel--or, for that matter, the likelihood that Strahovski will not recur past this season.  There's some potential to use Hannah to illuminate Deb and her feelings for Dexter, as the previous season had ended with her realization that she is in love with her brother (the disturbing implications of which the sixth season seemed distressingly willing to ignore, while the seventh season has kept them mostly on the back-burner), and towards the end of the season there is the suggestion that Deb has framed Hannah for poisoning her in order to remove what she perceives as a bad and potentially dangerous influence on Dexter, which would have complicated not only her character but the nature of her manipulative relationship with Dexter and the balance of power between them.  But this possibility is soon dismissed, as is any chance of a meaningful discussion of Deb's feeling for Dexter and what they say about his effect on her life, leaving the impression that Dexter isn't willing to take the relationship between the siblings in as dark a direction as their circumstances would seem to dictate.

Similarly, in an episode titled "The Dark... Whatever" Dexter tells Hannah that he has a Dark Passenger who takes him over when he kills, so that Hannah can argue that this is merely self-justification and that Dexter has a choice whether or not to kill, which he ultimately concludes is true.  But Dexter has never treated its main character as this sort of bifurcated personality--on the contrary, the show has always argued that Dexter is a monster who might some day become human, not a human with a monster inside of him.  So Dexter's realization that this is what he is feels less like a moment of revelation and more like a retcon to justify his decision to kill without the restrictions of his adoptive father Harry's code, which ultimately leads to him setting up LaGuerta's murder and manipulating Deb, both consciously and inadvertently, into committing it.  Much more persuasive as an indictment of Dexter's self-justification is a conversation he has with one of his would-be victims in the season finale.  The man, one of the three who viciously murdered Dexter's mother in front of him and set him on the path towards psychopathy, argues that he had no choice but to commit the killing.  Dexter's mother, innocent and helpless as she was, was a snitch, and to leave her alive would put his own life in danger; it was either him or her.  This, of course, parallels Dexter's situation with LaGuerta exactly, and raises the question of whether Dexter is killing to satisfy uncontrollable urges, or simply to protect himself and Deb.  Alas, this questioning comes far too late in the season, and is dealt with too briefly, to undermine the messiness with which Dexter's nature has otherwise been handled.

It's only the season finale, with its game-changing, soul-destroying decision on Deb's part to not only cover up and enable Dexter's murders but participate in them, that returns her, and her increasingly sickened and damaging bond with Dexter, to the season's center, and perhaps sets the stage for the next (and, hopefully, final) season to place this relationship front and center, where it has always belonged.  This sense of table-setting also permeates Homeland's season finale, in which Brody, in a bit of dramatic irony that is especially satisfying to viewers who have wanted to see him punished for his crimes, is framed for the bombing he didn't commit using the evidence for the bombing he was going to commit and got away with, and in which his family learns the truth about him just as he makes concrete steps towards repairing his relationships with them (which, in Jessica's case, means giving her his blessing to be with Mike, the man she fell in love with during his absence).  As the season ends, Carrie helps Brody escape, and then returns to the CIA (now under Saul's management, as many of his superiors were killed in the blast), ready to both clear his name and pursue the terrorists who have taken over Abu Nazir's organization (once again, missing from this zeal is any consideration of the fact that, in a war on terror, one is never fighting a single master-terrorist).

Looking back at Homeland and Dexter's recently-concluded seasons, the similarities in both strengths and weaknesses are striking--both seasons start out strong and falter in their second halves, both have trouble keeping their plot reined in, both seem to be primarily concerned with setting up the next season's story, and both are underpinned and undermined by a central, crucial relationship between their male and female leads.  On Dexter, the problem is that this relationship isn't given enough space and is prevented from becoming the lynchpin of the show.  On Homeland, the problem is that it is allowed to be all these things even though the audience might not be entirely sold on them.  For all that, however, if Homeland's second season is ultimately more successful and more satisfying than Dexter's seventh, it is, I think, primarily because of Carrie and Brody--because despite the dubious prospect of selling them as a doomed romance, the twisted, damaging bond between these two characters is where the show is strongest (especially in a season that has sidelined other crucial bonds, such as the one between Carrie and Saul).  Dexter ignores that strength, shelving it in favor of flashy but unconvincing guest characters and allegedly high-octane storylines that are obviously nothing more than stalling for time.  Homeland has other advantages over Dexter--for all the complaints about Dana's hit and run subplot, nothing on Homeland has been as dire as the tedious storylines Dexter has been giving its minor characters for three or four seasons, such as Angel's looming retirement, or Quinn's doomed romance with a stripper--and if nothing else it did figure out how to end a lackluster season on a literal bang, delivering a breakneck, heartbreaking season finale that washes away many of the previous six episodes' sins.  But at its core, the reason I remain hopeful about this show, while Dexter has failed to win me back despite fielding a not significantly more flawed season, is that Dexter's writers seem to have lost their grip on both their character and their story, while I think Homeland's writers know where their strengths lie, and where their show's heart is--with Carrie, and Brody, and the queasy but undeniable bond between them.

4 comments:

Xalky said...

as one of the picture editors on Homeland, I think this is the best analysis of the show I've read yet. But I think it was an interesting and unexpected move to have Abu Nazir himself come to the US to supervise his "intricate, multi-tiered and -staged plot" and to bring the conflict with him to a resolution, even at the risk that the show had some seemingly implausible plot twists.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Abu Nazir's presence on US soil does give both Carrie and Brody a chance to confront him directly, which conforms with dramatic conventions. But to me it also points to the core problem with how Homeland deals with terrorism, by rolling it up into a single, albeit well-drawn, figure, who can then embody the evil that our heroes are trying to defeat. It completely ignores the fact that terrorism is a movement that emerges as a response to geopolitical reality, and that the most that killing a single figurehead can accomplish is a blow to their organization's leadership and infrastructure. The end of the season acknowledges this point a little by showing that Abu Nazir deliberately sacrificed himself and that his organization was ready for his loss, but the fact that Israeli actor Alon Aboutbul (best-known to American audiences as the Russian nuclear scientist from The Dark Knight Rises) has been hired to play Abu Nazir's successor would seem to indicate that next season we'll be right back to a single opponent, this time without the weight of connection to Carrie and Brody.

Vinnie Moran said...

For Homeland to have so many flaws in what is only it's 2nd season is telling. Dexter Season 2 was pretty flawless in comparison. To compare a show in it's 2nd season with another show in it's 7th is a bit pointless.

Vinnie Moran said...

For Homeland to have so many flaws in what is only it's 2nd season is telling. Dexter Season 2 was pretty flawless in comparison. To compare a show in it's 2nd season with another show in it's 7th is a bit pointless.

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