Written By Scott Buck
Directed By Keith Gordon
Airs Sundays, 8pm on Showtime
For a long term fan, nearing the end of Dexter Morgan’s journey is an experience that holds a tangible fear and pang of panic in one’s stomach. Not because of the fact that it will soon all be over, one of TV’s most immorally ambitious tales ever reaching its final chapter. The trouble has come with the undeniable rut that has set in the minutes following the harrowing ending to Season Four, when a writing team who had canvassed together a quadrilogy of emotive, compelling and unforgettable continuing stories stepped out the back door. By September 22nd, this will mean that a full half of the show’s run has been beset by a gang of scribes who too often have revealed themselves as producing well financed fan fiction. The real fear, ultimately, is that they will screw it up at the punch. ‘A Beautiful Day’, the opening salvo of the last hurrah, proves inconclusive in this regard.
Six months on from ‘Surprise Mother****er’, things have taken varying turns for all concerned. Dexter has done alright for himself, as a sadness tinged opening montage reveals, where he seems to have pulled off some decent fathering and gotten laid a few times, as well as getting a few very different notches into a far bloodier piece of wood. By contrast, Debra has quit the force and taken up a self-destructive lifestyle at the pleasure of a high-tech private investigation firm. Also, decisively, she has cut Dex out of her life and spends her time risking life and soul in daring undercover ops. This state of affairs becomes overwhelmingly prevalent in Dexter’s thinking after the unveiling of a memorial bench for LaGuerta, and with obsessive abandon he strives to drag her kicking and screaming back into her life as he loses control and proves the blindsided hypocrisy in masquerading as her savior.
In this respect, ‘A Beautiful Day’ is actually one of the show’s most intelligently written episodes in recent memory, with a firm subtext that fully exploits the format of a show tapping into the perspective of its most fallible character. While normally episodes pit Dexter as being objectively right at all times and slant events in his favor, this time round he cuts a misguided and irrational figure due to the fact that audience holds a sense of proportion that he lacks. When he rants and raves about Deb being out of control, being lost, and being in need of salvation, the bum note he is striking is disturbingly distinct. Despite going through yet another horrific trauma in her life, her recklessness is limited to her endeavor to put an escaped armed robber in handcuffs, albeit no longer while in the black and blue of Miami Metro. The scale or her downfall is nothing compared to the dread in Dexter’s psyche exaggerates it be, and this is a crux that looks to form the basis for the final season; Debra isn’t the one falling, Dexter is, he just doesn’t realize it yet.
The thematic resonance of this idea rings through the episode and saves it from being a slow and vague outing, one that is notably at the opposite end of the spectrum from the previous season’s breakneck opener. This choice is likely deliberate, and is likely a safe option to take, especially since the leftovers are far more nourishing than the new courses of drama introduced. The thrill and shock of seeing an unhinged Dex violently attack a motorist who cut him off is far more visceral and impacting than the apparent emergence of a new serial killer who has taken a piece of his victim’s brain. There is far more drama to be had from Dexter repeatedly calling Debra and being dodged, to the point he has filled up her voicemail with unreturned messages, than the introduction of the sinister Dr Evelyn Vogel. Charlotte Rampling’s special guest star status already confirms she is here to stay long before the episode’s troubling ending, where we find that the Neuropsychiatrist knows far more about our crumbling protagonist than she should. What becomes of her is a matter of intrigue and interest, not breathless anticipation. Perhaps audiences should be wary, as her proving to be the brain piece taker would be an interminably damp squib.
Damp squib could have been a term used more often and less unilaterally had head writer Scott Buck not done so many good things with the undertones within the episode. For all the good and smart stuff, with a couple of clearly scripted visual moments being of particularly high quality, there are still some pretty amateur moments and frustrating turns of logic. With Aimee Garcia promoted to the main cast, her flowering relationship with Quinn can at least be viewed in a less disposable manner, and suggests that her status as plot saving device will be re-evaluated and expanded upon. Incidentally, Geoff Pierson is also back and also now a regular as the reinstated Matthews, a smart choice given the narrative necessity that has rendered his department badly short of leadership.
What’s less agreeable is the decision to have Angel Batista return to the force, apparently motivated by LaGuerta’s death. Lampshaded (to borrow a TV Tropes term) by Batista himself during the episode, there is true insanity behind the notion that the death of one cop would push him towards retiring, while the death of another would push him back another way. It makes absolutely everything that happened with his character in the previous season completely and utterly pointless, and suggests that the writers have no idea what to do with the fan-favorite. David Zayas, a charismatic and charming presence, struggles through some badly written dialogue while the scribblers make up their mind where he’s going. He’s not alone, either. While certain scenes are superbly written in terms of character voice, namely the intense Debra-Dexter exchanges, others are far from so. Gems such as Masuka saying “She took LaGuerta’s death pretty hard, even though they weren’t that close” suggest that when it comes to the small stuff and light exposition, the current creative crew are badly short of the required quality.
The plotting is decent, however, and comes across as less contrived and convenient than one has come to expect. We actually see Jaime take a night off, which leads to the inevitably disastrous sight of Dexter speeding into the night on a mission with a young boy on the back seat, and the light content gives the viewer a chance to mull over proceedings rather than simply be bowed over by them. It also means there is a better chance to appreciate the work of Michael C. Hall and, more notably, Linda Carpenter in the central roles. Just when you think you have seen the full emotional range both characters are capable of, their actors turn things up a notch and turn scenes that could easily have seemed repetitive into timeless moments of significance. An exchange in a grocery store, where Dex is finally able to corner his sister, was released early as a sneak peek and happily works far better in context. These scenes help establish tonal shifts, and as the end credits began its utterly clear that Deb isn’t just mad at Dex and acting out, she genuinely hates him, resents what he made her do, and is intent on escaping him. This stuff, the really good stuff, certainly helps improve confidence.
With enough plot developments to carry on and maintain interest (both Dexter and Debra face very different new threats as a result of the episode’s events), plus a healthy and intelligent emphasis on complex dynamics and character study instead of quick-draw emotion, A Beautiful Day is certainly an episode that shows signs of planning and thought. While forcing you to think rather than feel, and to fill in some gaps by yourself as you wait for the next installment, it also makes sure we are fully aware of what the whole truth is and also takes strides to make sure that we have no idea what will happen next. In a soothing, confident voice it says “Don’t be afraid….yet”.