Visiting ‘Dexter’s’ laboratory
I’ve been a devoted fan of the Showtime series “Dexter” since Day One, but I had some misgivings about this season and its indelicate plot plans: Dexter is a father-to-be, Dexter is getting married, Dexter gets a best friend — for a show that has been so adept in its scalpel moments, I fretted that too many blunt objects were being brought down on the story arc of my favorite vigilante sociopath.
So as I watched the season’s penultimate episode last week I smiled and shook my head. They did it again. The cruel complications of Dexter Morgan‘s life have played out with all the usual nuance and, like the blood splatters he studies during his day job (and creates during his night job), it all looks like art when you take a few steps back.
The season finale is this Sunday and Dexter will have his wedding day — but his first choice for his best man, Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits), won’t be there, I’m guessing, because he was drugged, abducted and garroted by the groom on last week’s episode. Wedding planning can be such stressful business.
One of my colleagues at the Los Angeles Times, Maria Elena Fernandez, has a great feature on the show in today’s paper and talked to the stars, among them the relentlessly good title actor, Michael C. Hall. Here’s an excerpt:
On the verge of becoming a husband and father, after three intimate dances in which he revealed his innermost secrets to other people, the question Dexter introduced in the pilot lingers: Is Dexter capable of loving? Dexter confessed then that he has no feelings, but that if he were to love someone, it would be his sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). Just before he killed Miguel this season, Dexter declared impassively, “I don’t get to have friends.”
Do we believe him?
“I don’t know that Dexter is the most reliable narrator,” Hall said by telephone. “I don’t know that he was at the beginning of the show, and I don’t know that he is now. I think he tries things on and plays at being a human being. I do think there’s an appetite for connection and revelation in Dexter that he doesn’t consciously acknowledge. But that motivates a lot of his behavior.”
More from Maria Elena Fernandez’s feature on Season 3 of “Dexter”:
The debate about Dexter’s capacity for emotion has existed since Showtime’s highest-rated series premiered in 2006. But it’s not just limited to viewers who find themselves relating to him, perhaps a little too much, and even rooting for him. Thirty-six episodes after the show premiered, the writers of the series can’t settle on an answer either.
“In the writing room, we are constantly talking about, well, does Dexter feel that? Or is it learned behavior? Or is it camouflage?” said show runner Clyde Phillips. “For instance, is his relationship with Rita a growing affection? Is it learning affection? Or does he need the relationship as a camouflage to present to the real world? In all honesty, we don’t entirely know.
“I always think of Dexter as a bit of a French coffee press. You press down on it and those bubbles come up and those bubbles are unexpected emotions. And it could be anything from affection for his sister, a feeling for his baby that’s coming, friendship, whatever he was feeling for Lila last year. It could be hate, rage. I don’t know yet that he loves. But I believe he feels something, and he feels more and more as he dynamically lives his life and has gut-wrenching and soul-wrenching experiences.”
Hall, nominated for three Golden Globes and one Emmy for the role, is reluctant to be definitive about the inner life of the Miami blood spatter expert he portrays, partly because he wants to leave it up to the audience to interpret and partly because there’s usually more than one factor motivating Dexter’s actions. Phillips said that he and Hall “go round and round” over Dexter’s capacity to feel anything, even after this season’s poignant episode in which Dexter helped a terminally ill family friend die.
On the one hand, Hall believes that Dexter’s relationship with his brother set him on a journey of self-discovery in spite of himself. But on the other, Hall points out, Dexter could be playing us all.
“I think the fundamental realization of his origins … opened up something for him, opened a door that can’t quite be shut in spite of what he pragmatically knows to be,” Hall said. “It’s like a wound that continues to bleed and one that he doesn’t consciously acknowledge. But you can turn that all around and say that Dexter has a sense that he might kill these people well before we discover that inevitability.”
Smits, who has drawn critical raves for his intimidating depiction of a Miami prosecutor who comes out of the homicidal closet through his friendship with Dexter, thinks that Dexter yearns for connection — to a point.
“I don’t think that’s ever going to be satisfied,” Smits said. “You had the brother, then you had the female energy last year and this year, with Miguel, it’s almost like a combination of the two. There was an element of that relationship that was friendship, but then it went beyond that. I think Dexter, with his marriage and through becoming a father, is going to keep attempting this, but it’s never going to be completely fulfilled.”
There’s plenty more in the piece (which, again, you can read right here). I also came across a Slate piece this morning written by Matthew Gilbert with the nicely succinct headline of “Killer Serial: It’s really time you started watching Dexter.” Here’s a bit of that article, which is intended more for a newcomer to the series than diligent followers of Dexter’s bloody trail.
The key to the show’s power is that Dexter is so curiously appealing — and a big part of that appeal is thanks to the superb work of Michael C. Hall. Hall’s affectless, Mr. Spock-ish performance is the opposite of Ian McShane as Al Swearingen in “Deadwood” or Denis Leary as Tommy Gavin in “Rescue Me,” who deliver unedited rants with the volume turned up. Dexter is all interior self-scrutiny, but thanks to Hall, you never for a second feel like he’s merely a construct built to upend our moral balance. There’s something profoundly sympathetic about this guy as he works to seem “ordinary,” like an awkward teen trying to fit in. He speaks to the nerd in all of us, that part of ourselves that is always wary of being seen as an outsider or a fraud.
Every season, the writers — including Jeff Lindsay, author of the books on which the show is based — emphasize Dexter’s merits by throwing him in with someone who’s far more dangerous than he is. Within the tightly plotted seasonlong arcs, the writers distort the spectrum of good and evil. In Season 1, the heavy was the Ice Truck Killer, who turned out to be someone very close to Dexter. In Season 2, it was Dexter’s lover, Lila (the dynamic Jaime Murray), a borderline with a fire fixation. And this season, it has been blood-thirsty D.A. Miguel Prado, played with unexpected angst by the usually more heroic Jimmy Smits. None of these people operates with a code like Dexter’s, and, inevitably, he contrasts favorably to them.
Also casting Dexter in a positive light is Deb, played by Carpenter with winning foul-mouthed emotionality. (For Deb, “dildo” is a term of endearment.) She has been ridiculously sloppy in her romantic adventures: With the Ice Truck Killer, with her boss, and, this season, with an informant. She’s a dear mess. Sure, Dexter is terribly bottled up, but, well, Debra. She makes Dexter’s robotically deliberate approach to life seem rather creditable.
Does all this make Dexter sound like a one-note morality play? Oh no, it’s not. It’s one of TV’s very best times. I’ve pushed it on many a friend looking for the next chapter in smart TV, and few have complained. There’s always the initial balk — a show about a vigilante killer? — but the reality of watching Dexter is much more dimensional, suspenseful, and comic than its premise might suggest. On top of everything, Dexter is a black comedy. “I’m sorry,” Dexter said to the relative of a dead man earlier this season. “That I killed him,” he adds in a voice-over. Dexter is also secretly a ham.
A ham, indeed, and, ironically, the unfeeling Dexter is one of the most moving characters on television. If you haven’t tuned in, check out the first season on DVD and you’ll be hooked. If you’ve been a fan, either faithful or occasional, do try to make it to the wedding on Sunday. It should be a killer reception.
– Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
Credits (all images): Showtime