Just like an inherently destructive loved one; infuriating you, disappointing you, breaking your heart, only keeping the bond alive with rare flashes of nostalgic familiarity, then finally sucking you back in when the exit door looks inevitable with the palpable suggestion that things, finally, will be as great as they can be. Such is the existence of the loyal fan, forever questioning whether that connection you share with a material that once seemed life affirming is an irrationally emotional one. It is apt that last night’s episode of Dexter vaguely centered on the significance of family, because at times this show seems, appropriately enough, like the proverbial black sheep.
After the intellectually confusing previous installment, ‘This Little Piggy’ had a severe weight of expectation on it shoulders and for the most part, it failed to live up to that responsibility. Opening with a one on one therapy session between almost murdered Dexter and almost suicided Debra, facilitated by Vogel, the episode takes on the double duty of speeding up the narrative to get to the next stage of the show’s final plot while also taking more invasive exploratory surgery on its characters. An angry Dexter goes to work hoping for some alone time, but is forced to deal with the still loose Yates, an unconnected murder that may bear future significance and Jaime’s ill-advised attempts to set him up with the new neighbor. Naturally, this all comes to a head when Yates grabs Vogel, forcing Dexbra to unify towards a common goal; her rescue. If it sounds packed, then the description is misleading, for this is probably the season’s most uneven episode so far in terms of content as well as quality.
The main problem that one comes across with episode five is in its plotting, which operates on a scale with contrived on one end and convenient on the other. Considering the fact that last week’s chapter concluded with Debra attempting to kill Dexter via car crash drowning the stage is clearly set for a fierce locking of horns. Although it is a nice touch to see the siblings reverse their roles (with Dexter ignoring Debra’s calls) and to witness a different shade of Dexter’s character (angry, cynical and misanthropic) the state of affairs does not last long enough to be considered worthwhile. Mad Dexter disappears almost as soon as he’s given something else to think about, and about halfway through the episode he is back to normal. It is a mighty shame since although the beginning is a little trite in its setting and execution it did possess a brilliantly written switched dynamic. Michael C. Hall clearly relishes being given something different to work with, and it’s a thrill to watch Dex chew out his sister for the first time in…well, ever. It’s frustrating to see this angle dematerialize so swiftly.
Unfortunately, its not just tone and emotion which suffers from this; events are laid out in a pattern which makes for horribly unlikely and easy viewing, as well as calling into question the intelligence of the characters and the credentials of the writers. Season Six was rife with such lazy problem solving that is the storytelling equivalent of using a pair of scissors to complete a jigsaw puzzle. Though not key to the plot, Dexter finding that in his distracted state he has agreed to a double date with Jaime, Quinn and Cassie (neighbor/love interest who showed up for three seconds last week) promises further conflict and crisis. Then he solves the situation with a quick conversation with Cassie (neighbor/love interest) and continues on as if nothing happened. There are literally no repercussions from this hiccup, and it doesn’t last long enough to create any suspense. Why bother?
More notable is the ease with which Yates is able to kidnap Dr Vogel. The way this scene plays out makes it seem as if such an action is a huge surprise, yet so far the main plot of the season has revolved around the brain surgeon’s obsession with the psychopath whisperer. Apparently Vogel has made absolutely no provisions to defend herself other than asking Dexter to snoop around. Yates knows exactly where she lives, has been sending pieces of brain to her house, and yet no security measures have been taken. All that is required from a villain who has already displayed his lack of mental agility is a smashed window. The irony is that even omitting this scene, leaving the act unseen, probably would have improved the visual without actually changing the set up.
This brings us quite nicely to Albert ‘A.J.’ Yates, the brain surgeon serial killer with the kind of smarts that you’d expect from Harrison. Thankfully, the events of the episode mean we won’t be seeing anymore from him and this is no small mercy. It would be unreasonable to expect a character whose arc lasted less than half a season to be as well crafted as Brian Moser or Arthur Mitchell, but the only gimmick he brought was incompetence (leaving Vogel unguarded and unrestrained) and he was played by an actor who unfortunately had zero screen presence. Even this wouldn’t be a problem were there not glaring flaws when an attempt at deconstruction is made, with hostage trying to talk down hostage taker. The trouble is that although the killer’s fascination with shoes and toe breaking is explained in a manner that makes sense, the interpretation of his behavior is completely off-kilter with the obvious diagnosis. Yates wasn’t trying to make emotional connections with his victims as Vogel suggests, he was clearly attempting to punish the memory of his abusive mother. This is fudged as the episode tries to twist its content to fit its theme, which is perhaps more forgivable that simply serving the plot.
In many ways, getting rid of Yates helps the bigger picture tremendously as a longer chase would have been utterly tedious, but it seems a new play thing is already on the conveyor belt. Rather than introducing recurring characters who distract from the good stuff, it would perhaps be more prudent to stick to ‘villain of the week’ characters and balancing their part in a more appropriate manner. This has been season eight’s most glaring problem so far; spending too much time on antagonists without interest to the detriment of a more cohesive plot. One can only hope against hope that the next in line is at least able to hold your attention.
But therein lies the rub, the underlying feeling that prevents one from simply decreeing the episode a tragic failure. Despite its egregious faults, there are some very positive elements that shine through. Having seemed like a cheap piece of filler last week, the Masuka’s daughter subplot gets to walk on its own two feet this time round and although the scenario still feels a little uncomfortable, it does have some substance. Concerned that the girl showed up out of the blue in a conning capacity, the lab tech asks Deb to run a background check. It’s very small, barely lasts any screen time, but this small angle adds some angst and doubt to a potentially singular story thread and is perfectly in keeping with his character.
Character is a good word to use in this context, since it seems that there is finally a plan for Masuka and that involves giving him some depth. Ever since C.S Lee was promoted to the main cast he has been made to settle with innuendos and butt monkey status, but now it seems that they are doing something with the fan favorite. This is a positive move. Along the same lines, the ‘Quinn for Sergeant’ story now has something going for it too, although the thread is left dangling. An investigation into a wealthy friend of Captain Matthews puts Quinn in a very perilous position, attempting to earn his promotion while trying to maneuver around the wily old political fox. Both characters have some drama in their courts now, and it could prove to be a tasty battle of wills. Batista continues to be utilized well in his capacity of department leader, while Angie Miller’s ongoing ascension from extra to actual human being is also a plus.
But this is all background window dressing. The main stuff, for all that it is incredibly annoying and stupid, does have some bright spots and the episode concludes with an excellent and beautifully shot final scene. For once, there is actually some physical evidence to prove that the subtext one felt within words and actions actually exists, and now a clearer direction for the final season seems to have been picked, with the writers comfortable enough to air it in public. The image of Dexter, Debra and Vogel sitting on board the Slice of Life, their enemy disposed of, not only is a great way to wrap up and a break from the limited imagination presented beforehand, but quite clearly dictates the next step. So even after justifying an early exit from proceedings with an hour rife with insultingly bad quality, the show drags us back in on the word of a promise. Dexbra; colleagues, siblings, life partners, accomplices.
Of course, we’ve been let down before…Ah, the pains of loyalty.