When Dexter returned to the airwaves twelve short weeks ago it returned as if possessed by a ethereal phantom bearing the face of its old self but the fury of some chaotic, unpredictable demon. A ferocious and breathless season opener laid waste to the sense of decline, and in the following episodes the pattern for an unreadable, indiscernible story that seemed to be getting back to the basics of the classic era while packing the punch fitting to wrap up the show. After all, this is the penultimate run. So it all comes down to this one hour of television, perhaps the most important since the pilot throttled jugulars. Surprised?
It’s all going to hell in a hand basked for Dexter Morgan, with the love of his life Hannah behind bars by his own doing and an attempted victim now on the loose. Before he’s even granted the opportunity to stop and breathe, LaGuerta finally chooses to play her hand and strike, arresting and frog marching him through Metro Homicide in irons, charged with killing the very not dead Hector Estrada. Of course, this is Dex we’re talking about here, and an elaborate plan already hatched and executed gets him out of the Captain’s clutches, albeit temporarily. Even as she is attacked on all sides for her actions, she comes across some crucial evidence which not only tolls the bell for Dex, but implicates Debra also. The time for talk is over.
Meanwhile, Hannah doesn’t take too kindly to the notion of life behind bars and makes plans of her own with the help of old friend Arlene, executing a strike that her now estranged lover would be proud of. A new year’s party at Angel’s is set to double as a retirement party for the popular Sergeant, and as Dexter acts and thinks in that order his mind wanders back to the old days when he accidentally made an enemy who’s legacy is now stalking his every step. As Harry himself muses within a muse, “how did we end up here?”
The main problem, and it’s one that didn’t look like being an issue half a dozen episodes ago, is that the emotional weight of this question may be felt by the characters but most certainly is not shared by an audience whose expectations were driven into the roof by the sensational ‘Are You…?’ and have had to slowly watch with disappointment as anti-climax set in with peril decreasing moment by moment. While big things, truly huge things, do occur in this installment, they don’t feel like it at the time and it’s only on reflection that one realizes the implications of the final scene. For the third time since it started, Dexter has killed off one of its main characters in the interest of storytelling. For the first time, it has fallen flat.
It doesn’t help that for the last couple of years Maria LaGuerta has been the show’s least utilized player in term of characterization, shuffled around without any sense of purpose and the only direction backwards as intricate and complex development was shelved in search of contrived and convenient conflict. The decline of the show’s quality since the end of Season Four is best reflected in the handling of the characters that have been there since the start. LaGuerta went from snarky bitch to believably flawed but sympathetic gamesman over four years of superb writing. Last season used her as an antagonist to Deb, this season has used her as an unknowing antagonist to Dex, and the events of last night’s episode meant that, in the words of Hannah McKay, she “didn’t stand a chance”. Of all the characters to kill, she was the least heartbreaking.
Even then, there’s the problem that the power playing Captain was totally outmatched in a battle which in the interest of suspense surely should have a little more of a dynamic angle. As soon as she moves to grab Dexter and exposes her position, she is at the mercy of a protagonist who we have seen outwit much smarter and much deadlier foes on dozens of occasions. One cannot help but compare this ‘fight’ to the iconic and overwhelming duel between Dex and Doakes, what a great match it was, and then look on sadly as Maria is helplessly pitted against a killer now outgunning her in all respects. Ultimately, there is no comparison and there was only going to be one outcome, although the final method does come as a shock.
The long term effects of the episode are there to be seen, but aren’t anything like as huge as one may have envisioned and the hiatus before the eight and final season isn’t going to fraught with anticipation. With the latest kill, Debra is now firmly onside with Dexter and this cannot be doubted anymore. The season opened with Deb as an accomplice in covering up a crime, and concludes with her committing murder. The ramifications of this are huge, and do mean a unified agenda going into the new year, though what this agenda will be depends on just how well they cover up their killing. It’s easy to see the writers glossing over LaGuerta conveniently dying as she was trying to expose the real Bay Harbor Butcher, cutting her as a tragic figure left vulnerable to the dangers of her job by her obvious emotional problems. A cliffhanger, maddening though it would be, surely would have served as a better set up to the final race.
For all that the episode occasionally thrills and delights fans with some nicely scripted sequences, namely the exchanges between Debra and LaGuerta pre-showdown, it mishandles the important stuff and each positive is outweighed by a negative. The climax should be on a knife edge, but is scripted less impressively than static conversations earlier on and has no help from uninspired direction by John Dahl which is lacking in ambition. Even a note as bright as Erik King’s return as James Doakes, albeit in flashbacks, is soured by the fact that these scenes lack any real depth or purpose, and come across as wasteful and empty when the opportunity was there for something brilliant. This is Doakes, after all, still one of the show’s most popular characters five years after his death, and the dialogue and delivery by King is impeccable. He simply isn’t given enough to do to justify his inclusion beyond fan service.
What isn’t fan service, however, is the fact that Angel Batista seemingly rolls into retirement like a flat tire while Quinn stands near mute in the background looking more and more like a Dutch Elm with every passing minute. At one point it looked like both of these characters may be facing great danger or at the least some serious setbacks to overcome. They round off the season with as much dramatic content to chew on as Vince ‘insert-a-joke’ Masuka. Elsewhere, Hannah McKay is staging an unlikely prison break which is handled well on screen but poses too many extra questions on top of the truly important ones without even the hint of possible direction. Is she gone for good, off on a boat to Argentina? Will she stick around to win Dexter over for good? Why am I asking about this when a new killer double act just started up?
Simply put, given the show’s outlined final plan of attack, this was an absolutely decisive episode and it proved to be hugely disappointing. A head of steam was built up early during the season, but mouthwatering subplots were dropped like anvils in mid swing in an attempt to maintain momentum and when Seven finally did land, its with a thud and not a smash. Ridding the show of its least popular character as the lowest risk strategy when things previously looked so wonderfully daunting and worrisome does not serve as a spectacular finale, and while there is material carrying over to next year’s entries it is not in the level of depth or inspiration that one would have hoped for. It’s still worth waiting for the conclusion, just not too excitedly.