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December 20, 2007 |

By Miscellaneous | TV | December 20, 2007 |

(While I contend none of it should come as a surprise, what follows is spoiler filled. Consider yourself warned.)

Fundamentally, film is a plot-based medium. Television is all about character. People don’t tune in to “House” each and every week because they’re dying to know which disease will be cured. They do so because they love the antics of Dr. Gregory House. Of course, all of this exists on a continuum: There are films that explore compelling characters and TV shows that eschew deep character work for the sake of hair-raising plot twists (I’m looking at you, “Lost”). But the nature of storytelling on television, unfolding over months and years, demands exploration of who someone is and why they do what they do. Every great show stays true to this dynamic: plot springs from character.

“Dexter” is a great show.

It is a show about the damage and darkness in us all and the ways people cope. At the extreme end of the spectrum is Dexter (Michael C. Hall) himself, so emotionally devastated that the only way to deal with his darkness is to let it out in a controlled setting. At the other end is Rita (Julie Benz), who, despite repeated abuse, managed to come out the other side strong, loving and kind. Everyone else exists somewhere in between these two: Batista (David Zaya) wears his heart on his sleeve and, much like Rita, maintains his goodness in the face of pain; Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) contends with self-loathing born of her father’s lack of attention; Laguerta (Lauren Velez) wrestles with ruthless ambition that often railroads her better angels; Masuka (C.S. Lee) is a perv; and Doakes (Erik King) … well, we’ll get to Doakes.

What I found so impressive about this season of “Dexter” was that there was an inevitability to it all, yet the show remained compelling. Dexter wasn’t going to die, and he wasn’t going to get caught. The show isn’t the show with Dex dead or incarcerated. With that in mind and a critical eye, there was little in the finale that wasn’t discernable months ago. In “See-Through,” when Dexter takes Lila to the morgue and her eyes grow wide at the sight of the bodies, it’s a hint at her own darkness and how she’ll react when she learns his secret. And in “That Night, a Forest Grew,” when we push in on Dexter after the fire in Lila’s loft, we see his realization that she’s a manipulator. The look in his eyes, playing the tape through to the end, is a nod to her untimely death. The dramatic tension is drawn not from the knowable “what” but from the elusive “how.” Not just how will we get to the inevitable, but how will it affect our characters, how will it change them for better or worse? That’s what keeps the show compelling.

The real triumph of the show thus far has been the slow and subtle unfolding of the relationship between Dexter and James Doakes. Much like “The Shield” and “The Sopranos,” “Dexter” has done a beautiful job establishing the antihero. We love and root for Dexter despite the fact that he’s a vicious killer, and we root against his nemesis Doakes, who, regardless of his abrasive personality, is a well-intentioned cop. As Dexter narrates in the pilot episode:

“The only question I have is why, in a building full of cops, all supposedly with a keen insight into the human soul, is Doakes the only one who gets the creeps from me?”

Although Dexter never makes an effort to find the answer, it’s offered to us eight episodes later in “Father Knows Best” when Doakes is involved in the questionable shooting of a Haitian refugee. But because it is so far removed from the question and we have only ever seen Doakes through Dexter’s eyes, we chalk the incident up to him being a hotheaded asshole instead of recognizing that he’s far more complicated. When I first saw the episode, that story appeared to be a bit of filler to take up space in between Ice Truck Killer plot turns, when in reality they were laying the foundation for Season Two.

We were given another hint at Doakes’ complexity in “See-Through” (arguably the most foreshadow-laden episode of this season). Doakes is investigating a woman’s murder when it becomes clear the culprit was her husband, a fellow Army ranger. Doakes tracks him to a boat, and in the final confrontation, the ranger pleads for empathy, telling Doakes he knows they’re alike, he knows Doakes’ wife left him because she couldn’t live with the man he’d become through the horrors of war. Doakes surprises the man (and us) when he reveals it was the other way around. He left her because he knew if he didn’t, he’d kill her. Again, this is a story that seems to exist outside the over-arcing season plot. Aside from Dexter’s appearance at the crime scene to do his spatter work, it appears to have nothing to do with him. But in retrospect, it was clearly another stone in the road leading toward Dex and Doakes’ inevitable confrontation in the everglades.

The scene on the dock and those that followed in the cabin were thrilling because, unlike the other two mentioned that hinted at Doakes’ similarities to Dexter, these came right out and said it. Dexter and Doakes are flip sides of the same coin. Dexter uses Harry’s Code to control his dark impulses; Doakes uses the code of the cop. They are both broken, both capable of horrible acts, both worthy of our empathy and our derision. As is so often the case, we hate in others what we fear most in ourselves. Doakes hated Dexter because he could so easily have been Dexter. Television is the only visual medium where you can pull off this sort of slow and subtle revelation of character. And of course, just as we found empathy with Doakes, he died. There was no other way. This is Dexter’s story, but it’s a testament to the richness of the show that such care was given to drawing a dead man.

The climax of the season, Lila’s murder of Doakes, came in the first five minutes of the finale, while the rest acted as denouement. Dexter tied up loose ends and gave us the most satisfying of his murders. Lila. It’s telling that he gave up on his ritual in order to dispatch her quickly. No slide for his box. He has gained a newfound confidence from his trial by fire. Not only did he escape capture, but he seized ownership of the code from Harry, who was revealed to be imperfect and weak in ways Dexter never before understood. Dex now knows he is the master of his destiny. He has found that he is not the empty monster he once believed himself to be. He is a monster with human needs and feelings, however fleeting.

Next season looms, dark with possibility. Where else is there to go that doesn’t involve Dexter’s exposure? How long can they keep this up with out it feeling redundant or betraying the characters they’ve so artfully drawn? The writers have earned faith and respect. I cannot wait to see where they take us next.

‘Beckylooo Who’ is an aspiring television writer, aka an assistant. She has a deep understanding of the importance of a pleasant phone manner and a well-stocked fridge. Further rantings and ravings can be found at If A TV Falls in the Woods.

I'm a Master Now

The "Dexter" Season Two Finale / Beckylooo Who

TV | December 20, 2007 |


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