Monthly Archives: December 2009

And the winner is…

True Blood!  Actually, it was a three way tie with Californication and Nurse Jackie but, given my own leanings, the tie needs to go to the genre-fare.  For those unfamiliar with the show it’s either HBO’s attempt to cash on the recent vampire craze or HBO’s attempt to bring it’s usual quality and insight to the much-maligned gothic-horror genre.  In any case, I’m willing to give it at least a season, so check back on New Year’s Day for the first post.

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Final Thoughts: Dexter Season 4

What Worked

 Trinity actually surpassed The Ice Truck Killer as Dexter’s greatest foil.  Overall, I’d still say that the cat-and-mouse games of season one remain unmatched, but in terms of actually pushing Dexter’s character into new and interesting places Trinity is the best big bad the series has given us.

 Lundy’s death was not just a great shocker early on; it remained a compelling subplot throughout the season.  Far too often, television shows throw big moments like this at us without making them sufficiently relevant to the story.

 Some good kills overall this year.  The table-talk was great and I’m glad to see some tools besides the knife employed again.

 Dexter’s been giving us striking images since season one and didn’t disappoint this time.   Personal favorites from this season include Trinity holding his first victim (and later his wife) in the bathtub, Dexter peering into Trinity’s home from behind a tree, and Harrison crying in Rita’s blood.

 Jennifer Carpenter’s performance really was top-drawer this season.  I’ve always thought she ranged from ok to good, but there were many people out there that couldn’t stand her.  The crying scene alone should be enough to silence those critics, even if they can’t admit how good she was all season.  Where’s her golden globe nomination?

 The pacing of this whole season was really excellent.  Tension is what we tune into Dexter for, but each episode just seemed to start turning the screws earlier than previous years and not let up.  More importantly, the writers gave us truly satisfying payoffs for all the edges we has to sit on.

I’ve rave plenty about Michael C. Hall and John Lithgow this season, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention just how much their individual performances and chemistry made this season work.  It takes an awful lot to sell characters this big, but they both did so, admirably. 

Rita and the kids were great this years.  Go ahead and bitch about it in the comments but it’s true.  Yes, many of Rita’s scenes seemed to stifle the plot and grate on our nerves but that was the point.  As Dexter was feeling smothered, so was the audience.  And the kids?  They were better utilized here than in any previous season.

What Didn’t

Angel’s love life, a fixture of each season, perfectly encapsulates what does and does not work in Dexter subplots.  In seasons one and two his romantic troubles were viewed through Dexter’s eyes, either thematically in his collapsing marriage or dramatically in his involvement with Lilah.  Here and in season 3, Dexter’s on the periphery and the audience doesn’t care.  The consequence of having such a compelling main character is that the supporting cast must revolve around them.  The writers need to accept this and move on.

I’m borderline on Christine and, while I think she’ll play better on dvd, I need to put her in the negative column right now.  The fact that I spent most of the season asking what she brought to the show should’ve been a clue that another shoe needed to drop, but that really doesn’t speak in the character’s favour.  She should’ve been given a better red-herring than being Quinn’s manipulative squeeze.

Dexter killing an innocent was a horribly wasted opportunity.  While they did come back to it a couple of times it was ultimately dwarfed by the Trinity storyline.  Done properly, this could’ve been a season arc, or at least a subplot.  Here we seemed driven to forget about it.

Deb’s search for Laura Moser had a surprisingly positive payoff in the end, though the whole thing was drawn out for too long.  We often watch Miami Metro look for things Dex is trying to hide, but the difference is that he’s actually working against them.  Here, Debra’s hurdles seemed to be limited to uncooperative CIs, not the best way to build tension.

Harry was really hit or miss this season, emphasis on the miss.  Since the end of the flashbacks, Harry has become an almost purely limiting force in Dexter’s life, which is fine, so long as he’s limiting Dexter in new and interesting ways.  Far too often he brings up the same old arguments that we’ve heard before or, worse, makes some obvious commentary on how Dexter has screwed up this week.  It’s hard to have a figment of Dexter’s imagination evolve, but something is definitely going to need to change with Harry if he’s to return to being a productive part of the show.

What's Next?

With season 4 of Dexter over and Lost over a month away, I need something to review in the interim.  In a shameless piece of pandering, I’ve decided to let you, the readers, decide.  All of these shows have been on my radar for a while but, since I’m lazy, you’ll need to do some googling if you want to know any more about them.  The “winner” will be chosen in the new year with reviews being posted somewhat more often than Dexter’s (the one advantage of being behind the times).

No, but I want to be

Dexter has always, for me anyway, had a redemptive message.  Our hero wrestles with some manifestation of his demons in each season before ultimately making the right choice.  There’s been more than enough moral ambiguity to go around but, on balance, the series arc has been Dexter moving closer to humanity.  Before slamming us in the gut with a framing hammer, that’s where this season’s finale seemed to be headed.  Dexter realizes that it’s his dark passenger and not his family that’s the problem and that his real goal should be to conquer his demons, not balance them with his home life; in short, he must try to be a better man.  Then, just as the episode reaches it’s “YES HE CAN!” crescendo, we find Rita in the tub.

 I was not among those that hated Rita’s character this season but, even if I were, her death would still be a tragedy for what she meant to Dexter.  Deb may represent the “true” familial connection, but Rita represented hope.  Their relationship was Dexter’s foundation for growth, his opportunity to learn to connect with someone as they both moved toward their shared dream of “a normal life.”  Without her, he has nothing to aspire to, a fact brought home by the brutally despairing voiceover that ends the season.  Without a doubt, this was the bleakest moment of the show, topping even Brian’s death (something I didn’t think possible), and enough of a game-changer to leave me at a loss for what season five will be like.

 If I have one quibble with the episode, it’s that Rita’s death was telegraphed in her little pep-talk to Dexter.  Anytime a character reminds us why they’re important is a time to get worried.  That being said, the final image of her in the bathtub with Harrison wallowing in her blood was more gruesome than anything I’d imagined, and there were enough twists and turns along the way to make me forget my suspicions.  The by-the-numbers nature of the rest of the episode probably helped lull me into a sense of security, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t satisfying before the twist.  The episode did what the series does best with Dexter racing the cops to catch a killer who’s menacing the life he’s built for himself.  The takedown in the parking garage, the raid on the Mitchell household, the altercation with Quinn, the simple/brilliant trap with the oil cap; all classic Dexter, all flawlessly executed.

 The exchange with Harry in the jail cell was also classic Dexter, but it deserves some special attention after a season of lackluster Harry moments.  James Remar was better than he’s been since the first season, making seemingly logical arguments for protecting the innocent while simultaneously limiting Dexter’s human impulses.  Dex has seen through the BS before, but this time felt much more definitive.  The code was revealed as a limitation on his humanity in season one, but this was the first time he’s really confronted it as an enabler for the dark passenger.  The code may have kept Dexter out of jail, but it isn’t a real solution.  The real answer is fighting the dark passenger, not finding a way to live with it.  The realization’s predictable, at least in the sense that I predicted it, but it was so well executed that I don’t care.

Where denying Harry provided one piece of the puzzle, accepting Deb provided the other.  Dex may have accepted the need to fight the evil in him, but his ability to do good for others seems undermined by the trauma that Arthur’s discovery inflicts on his family.  It was a pleasant surprise that Deb learning about his past had a positive outcome (at least for this season).  Her flat denial of Dexter’s self-pity was perfect.  He has been a positive force in her life (possibly the only one), and can continue to be one for her, Rita, and the kids.

 Armed with the twofold reason to change, Dexter seems to have all the answers once Trinity’s on the table.  He’s transcended his onetime mentor and discovered the real way to live as a killer.  Don’t.  Trinity’s claim that Dexter is no better than him is refuted by simple statement “No, but I want to be.”  The mere fact that he actually wants to change (as opposed to just praying for an ending) is what separates Dexter from Arthur.  He finally appreciates just how his family can save him and is resolved to follow that path.  Of course, Trinity’s aware of the lie in Dexter’s words.  Hope is being killed just as it’s being discovered and the cycle of trauma and violence is horrifically renewed in the image of Harrison crying in Rita’s blood.  The real tragedy here is that everything Dexter’s just realized is still true.  He still can and should change, for his own sake and his family’s.  It’s ironic that his utterly human reaction makes the chance of this actually happening seem impossibly remote.

 Final Thoughts

 The finales of seasons 2 & 3 of Dexter worked thematically while (at least partly) missing the mark dramatically.  It was nice to see this season deliver a conclusion that was satisfying on all levels.

 One of the aspects of Dexter that I love is its exploration of superhero archetypes.  Comic book devotees should recognize this episode as the “Jason Todd/Gwen Stacey moment.”  The hero, well established in his career and at the top of his game, fails the person closest to him in the most tragic way.  The consequences of this failure haunt him forever and colour everything they do afterwards.

 I desperately need to see this episode again as I was far to caught up in the events to really appreciate everything.  The table-talk scene in particular should be amazing on 2nd viewing when we know what Arthur knows.  Oh well, must wait for DVD.

 Hats off to the entire cast for this episode; just outstanding work all around.  Michael C. Hall’s performance, always stellar, was at its best when Deb “tells” him about his brother.  I’m always impressed by his ability to move between genuine and false emotion, but the truly incredible moments are where he seems to be doing both at the same time.  The surprise at the revelation is obviously feigned, while the remorse at having caused Deborah pain is genuine.  This is why I call him the best actor on TV.

 I’ll be posting one more “Final Thoughts” on the season as a whole.  After that this blog will be moving on to… something else.

The Way it Was Meant to be Seen

Last week, Slate published an article by Gary Hendrix (http://www.slate.com/id/2234519/) claiming that DVD Boxed Sets make poor gifts.  I won’t bother refuting that claim, as the article doesn’t bother proving it, but the author makes a few statements about how we “should” watch television that I take issue with.  The implication is that television really isn’t worth the time that DVD boxes demand of us and that careful viewing and re-viewing is the province of neurotic fanboys.  Getting over my initial “are you kidding?” reaction, I realize that Mr. Hendrix is merely paraphrasing the common bias that people tend to have against television.  My love for the medium often blinds me to the fact that most people still don’t appreciate it as art.  Considering this, I need forgive him.

… Or perhaps I don’t.  Hendrix’s position is so baseless that it presents paragraphs like this as arguments:

Television should be a glorious time waster, but being given three seasons of Lost on DVD is like being given a prison sentence. You slog through the first season, and not only is the hefty second season waiting around the corner, but it has brought its friends: Seasons 3, 4, and 5. Boxed sets have transformed television from light entertainment into homework.

I’ll admit that I can take television too seriously, often letting the exercise impede my enjoyment, but how can anyone claim thatanything “should” be a time waster?  Even a glorious one?  By definition, are we not better off doing things that are worth our time?  We all need to relax, and that can certainly involve vegging out for a few hours in front of the tube, but Hendrix is claiming that this is all television ought to be for.  It’s a position so preposterous that it’d be funny if he didn’t seem to take it for granted.

To be fair, Hendrix’s does acknowledge a few “hidden gems” in the television canon, but the admission is buried amongst so many snide remarks and back-handed compliments that it seems more about covering his bases than conceding anything.  There’s certainly plenty to ridicule in the cultish “you must watch this” aspects of fandom, but Hendrix seems intent on throwing out the shows with the uber-fans.  His attack on DVDs is rooted in a common bias.  If television is more than something best watched and then forgotten, then it requires a format that isn’t disposable, that facilitates multiple-viewings, and that can even include some scholarly notes (commentary tracks are the annotations of the television age).

Consider Hendrix’s words with a few nouns changed:

Stories should be a glorious time waster, but being given three issues of Great Expectations in a book is like being given a prison sentence. You slog through the first issue, and not only is the hefty second issue waiting around the corner, but it has brought its friends: Issues 3, 4, and 5. Novels have transformed stories from light entertainment into homework.

Absurd, no?  Why can’t we extend the same courtesy to Lost that we do to Dickens?  Both were initially distributed in small installments over time, with no intent that they be retained.  Both have enjoyed far more scholarly attention in their subsequent collected formats.  Televised programming and serialized novels are disposable formats, making the audience little more than a consumer, expected to read or watch whatever’s available at a given time .  DVDs and novels allow audiences to choose which stories they experience, how much time they’ll devote to them, and how many times they’ll experience them.  The key advantage here is the empowerment that the modern mediums provide.  Great Expectations can still be read for pure enjoyment, drawn out over a leisurely pace.  It can also be devoured as a scholarly work, with careful attention paid to metaphors, archetypes, and symbolism.  DVDs and novels don’t take anything away from Mr. Hendrix, but they do offer more to the rest of us.

The fact of the matter is that DVDs bring television shows closer to how they were “meant” to be seen than televised programming ever could.  The audience isn’t passive in the creation of any narrative.  The relationships between the events, characters, and images are as much a product of our experience as they are the creator’s intent (I would actually argue that the audience is much more involved in constructing meaning than the creator).  Traditional television can masquerade as a passive experience, but its still asking you to engage in the narrative on some level.  DVDs force the audience to be aware of this role, if only in the act of selecting an episode.  This small change in format can be enough to tip the scales, driving viewers toward further engagement.  If I must choosewhat to watch, ought I not put some thought into my selection and pay more attention during it?  Is it not likely that this increased engagement will lead me to enjoying television on a level I never did before?

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to credit DVDs, at least in part, with the rise in television scholarship over the last decade.  As more people take an active interest in what they’re watching, more of them are likely to reflect upon it and want to read the reflections of others.  Fears that this growing engagement kills the raw entertainment value of television are baseless.  There’s nothing to stop Mr Hendrix from firing up the dvd player only once a week.  If his programming choice doesn’t warrant even that much engagement, then I submit that it wasn’t really that entertaining to begin with.

Hello, Dexter Morgan

“Epic tension” seems to be the most suitable way to describe this episode of Dexter. From the moment the title appeared on the screen I found myself thinking “Oh shit.” Having a title that essentially gives away the ending is a bold choice for any series, but one that I think encapsulates what makes Dexter better than the average thriller. As good as the show is at wielding the “what happens?” question, it’s always placed more emphasis on the how and the why. That emphasis pays huge dividends here.

We know that Arthur learns “Kyle’s” real identity by the episode’s end, and that put just the right twist their continuing cat-and-mouse game. The season began with the suggestion that Trinity was the superior serial-killer but Dex has essentially outmaneuvered him over the course of the season (learning his identity, insinuating himself with his family, foiling one of his murders, etc). Dexter’s mastery of deception is well-established, but, after so much time, Trinity’s own skills were starting to be undermined. We’re forcibly reminded of them here as Arthur turns the tables in a single episode. Trinity was never stupid, he was simply preoccupied. With his attention focused on Dexter he’s able to stay one step ahead, literally towering over his adversary in the final shot.

Dexter’s unsustainable juggling act has been the season’s central premise and, to be honest, it’s been getting a little old for me, but it pays off well here. His personal life is, predictably, what allows Trinity to get the better of him but, thankfully, it’s not Harrison’s ear infection that trips Dex up, it’s his sister having a genuine crisis. This relationship has always been the foundation of Dexter’s humanity, so it’s fitting that it be the crack that Trinity’s able to slip through. Arthur receives his own crisis-call from his connection to humanity, and his inability to return Christine’s love precipitates her suicide and eliminates the one person that could expose him. It’s interesting that the show’s presented the moral choice as such a straightforward liability. The “killers can’t have families” message seems to be elevated here to “killers can’t do the right thing,” the same moral tension that Dexter has wrestled with from the beginning. The season finale seems likely to give us a definitive answer, making me wonder how the show will evolve in season 5.

Final Thoughts

 How the hell is this going to pan out? Arthur poses a serious threat to Dexter on a number of levels. Beyond the basics of murder and/or exposure, there’s the fact that Trinity could complete his cycle by wiping out the Morgans. There’s more than one way for Dexter to lose his family here.

Harry fell flat again this week. Dexter’s multiple reflections was a great shot, I didn’t need to king of exposition to explain it. The identity issues explored in this episode were great otherwise.

Jennifer Carpenter continues to bring her A-game with this episode. The refusal to forgive Christine was fantastic.

How awesome was Trinity’s walk through the police station? The way this sequence was shot was just amazing; Lithgow was at his most imposing as he strolled into the homicide department, almost larger than life. It made Trinity seem all the more super-human and (for the purposes of this scene at least) it’s a good thing that we’ve grown desensitized to Dexter doing it every day.

I’m a father now

I always enjoy seeing some straightforward heroics from Dexter.  Last week’s episode did a masterful job of contrasting his altruistic impulses with his murderous ones, but it’s nice to see that the heroic Dexter is almost as entertaining when played straight.  Murdering Arthur quickly becomes irrelevant in the face of a child in danger and we get to see the dots of Dexter’s better parts being connected.  The fondness for children has been there since the first season and has grown more personal since he became a father.  Now it’s manifested itself in Dexter applying his talents to purely virtuous ends.  It’s a nice look at what Dex can aspire to when he uses his powers for good.

 Meanwhile, we also get a look at the depths Trinity can sink to as his own desire to protect an innocent manifests in the worst possible way.  Endangering a child is often a cheap way for film and television to raise the stakes, but it works well here.  Arthur remains as frightful and disturbing as ever, but what struck me most was his genuine need for things to play out in a certain way.  I take his vulnerability with Scott to be both genuine and manipulative, which made it all the more creepy.  The pain he shows the boy is real, but it’s also a performance he’s given countless times before, knowing just how it ends.  The original cycle started from innocence, and so Arthur must recapture that, if only through a surrogate, in order for it to begin again.

 Dexter and Trinity have never been further apart than they are here, working towards opposing ends while also having opposing reactions as they finally recognize the fallout of their actions.  Trinity sees the damage he’s done to Christine and literally curses the danger it’s put him in.  Dexter sees his lies reflected in Rita and Cody and regrets his actions.  Last week saw him finally appreciate just how much damage he could do to his family, this week he actually vowed not to let it happen.  Dexter has found his own surrogates in his sons and chooses to protect, rather than preserve, them.

 Finally, Deb and Angel connect the dots that make Christine the shooter.  The notion makes a bit more sense than it did last week but the problem is that her “right place, right time” reporting never looked suspicious to me on the first run-through.  At least they’re aware that the evidence is circumstantial, and give us a payoff to having Trinity’s DNA.  I’m hoping this plays better on a second viewing, but, for now, I’ll rule the twist tolerable and move on.

 Final Thoughts

 Dexter’s voiceover and Harry’s presence really haven’t been that great this season.  Where before they offered wry humour and/or genuine insight, they’ve now become redundant exposition.  Hall’s performance makes it perfectly clear what Dexter’s going through and we don’t need Dexter and Harry stating the obvious.

 The whole “Deb finding out” subplot has been teased way too much this season.  I had thought the reveal was going to come partway through and weave into the Trinity story, but now it looks like it’s being saved for the finale with the fallout reserved for season five.  The tension’s kinda gone out of it by this point.

 There are likely many examples of a cargo container being used as a hideout, but the two that sprang to mind were Dark Knight and Lord of War; some nice references for all aspects of Dexter’s character.