Oh God, here we go again…once again words leave the lips of a viewer with multiple interpretations, and once again the least likely is the emotion behind the utterance. Ever since the beginning of its fifth season, Dexter has taken pleasure from torturing its fans with its frequent mood whiplashes and dips in quality, hitting lower and lower marks before somehow returning to a comfortable height in a breakneck maneuver. It would be nice if there was some consistency. What we’ll have to settle with instead is the fact that the rollercoaster is heading upwards again. Yes, two weeks after seemingly destroying its own legacy in suicidal abandon, Dexter is alive and kicking again.
With his student apparently off the deep end with a second impure homicide, Dexter is placed in a tight bind; he still has to clean up Hannah’s mess and send her on her way, all while carefully negotiating Debra’s persistent interest in the matter, and is now faced with an in flight window to his sordid world. The solution is a road trip with Hannah in tow, a journey to The Keys and a second plastic wrap appointment for Zack that will double as a proper send-off for the woman who still dominates his mind and heart. Unbeknownst to him, however, Debra is already a step ahead and launches into pursuit while also securing the backing of a reward hungry Elway.
With a tight plot and excellent narrative that at times feels like a quirky and snappy comic thriller in lieu of 90’s Tarantino inspired pulp entertainment, ‘Are We There Yet?’ takes a fascinating multi-textual setup and milks it for all its worth, resulting in the show’s most enjoyable episode for eons. Every trope of this mini-genre plays out in delightful detail, namely gambit pileups as various characters with different intentions and motivations clash and run into each other at high speed, most lacking a key piece of knowledge. This Coen-esque farce should really have ended up in a dreadful failed gimmick, but works wonderfully and harks back to the earlier seasons and their amorally gleeful tone for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, Wendy West’s script is by far and a way the best of the season and probably the best that a Dexter writer has put forward since the first half of season seven. There is a concise and composed control of the story which speaks of carefully considered planning and patient retooling, something at complete odds with the previous few installments which felt rushed and botched. West is able to combine a natural tapping into the Dexter mythos, the little tricks and thought bubbles which made it flow so gracefully, with a rapt attention to the present which makes one wonder whether she should have been given responsibility for the entire season.
Despite having submitted some dud episodes in the past, one of her previous best efforts was Season Seven’s ‘Run’, and it is telling that this episode included the first tasty exchange between Dexter and Hannah. One of the highlights of ‘Are We There Yet?’ is the relationship between the tragic pair, and having suffered last week here their natural camaraderie is allowed to shine. Their dialogue truly sparkles and the chemistry the two share justifies the weight of significance her character is given and also helps to reinforce the notion that she is his muse. One scene in particular, with the pair en route to The Keys as the sun sets, is wonderfully and insightfully scripted. Dexter talks about his Zach quagmire in a manner that feels authentically like a couple’s discussion, despite the issues concerning sharp knives and dead neighbors. Joyfully twisted, it is this examination of what makes them an innate couple that makes for both great drama and intelligent character study. The way Hannah is handled also redeems the clumsy manner in which she brought back in to the fold.
Although the fatal lovers occupy the heart of the episode, they are no means the end all as several players are given thick and juicy material to get stuck in to. Debra is back on her best form as the dogged pursuer, dragging Elway into her scheme through sheer enthusiasm and passion and then tracking down her nemesis with motives that are pure and totally consistent with her character. The resolution to her crusade, though apparently anti-climactic in its talkiness, fits perfectly and manages to loosen off an inconvenient plot element with seamless assurance. The episode’s end also opens a door nobody had been aware of yet manages to do it in a way that seems natural and exciting.
As the hapless Mr MacGuffin at the core of the story, Zack Hamilton went into this episode as a dud note and yet becomes strangely endearing through his portrayal and scripting. With almost minimal effort, he manages to show some character, coming across as a childish figure surrounded by their wonder of his sick fantasies and desperate to learn more, evoking memories of teenage Dex from the first two seasons’ flashbacks, albeit with a fouler mouth and penchant for action before thought. This praise can also be applied to the peripheral but ultimately crucial figure of Dr Vogel, a bench warmer for the last few weeks but back to the centre of attention now. The acting colossus that is Charlotte Rampling is used to full effect, and there is a clear sophistication and class to her performance which heightens the piece, particularly in the final ten minutes.
After impressing with her words, she is the catalyst for the episode’s genuinely shocking conclusion through actions and although there is yet another whiplash as the plot changes lanes this time it works superbly and could make the final four episodes a suspenseful run in. The very fact that this sentence can be said in utter seriousness is a huge credit by West’s script, which although not the masterpiece required in able to redeem the damage already done, is certainly a return to form. This is most clear when one views moments in the episode that may otherwise have looked awful but manage to get by here. Jaime taking Harrison away for a few days, allowing for the road trip, makes sense because it is built up to through her traumatized reaction to Cassie’s death; continued hinting of Quinn’s role in the future is short, smart and to the point, not awkwardly placed as a reminder (with a interview with Cassie’s boyfriend seeming to suggest a link to Dexter MAY later be found); the continued presence of Masuka’s daughter Nikki is played for laughs here and genuinely strikes a chord as a result of not being earnest and schmaltzy.
The last point there is actually quite relevant, as one of the most endearing things about ‘Are We There Yet?’ comes from its humor, mostly situational, which actually manages to get a laugh without being forced or contrived. Dexter’s wit, something which has been patently missing for what feels like years, is displayed here in all its glory. Hannah’s presence and the candid conversations that creates means it is present in dialogue rather than the inner monologue, which is still neglected along with ghost mentor Harry (screen time this week: 20 seconds), although not in a manner which suggests presence due to contractual obligation.
If there are any areas in which the episode doesn’t perhaps achieved its highest possible grade, it’s in the direction, which is still static and uninspired. Given the plot and pace, one would have expected a little bit more flair from Holly Dale but instead the style is muted and bowed to the script. This accounts for one uncomfortable moment when Dexter confronts Zack in his hotel room, a heated coming together which feels soft and unthreatening due to the way in which it is shot and edited. However, there is a better use of music, while several actors resting on their laurels do put in shifts this time out. Michael C. Hall really thrives on the material he is given here. Overall, the vast majority of the technical things come together and make for an episode that is sharp, clever and most of all hugely enjoyable without losing out on story.
It is truly sad that this has come so late, however, as there is no chance that even at full power the show will be able to end in a way that is befitting to its overall greatness. Detaching oneself from the notion that the final season will live up to its purpose is all one can do in the interest of further entertainment, which has now been promised. Given the way it ended, that promise looks tantalizing. Oh God, we’re being sucked back in again…give me strength.