Let’s get this out of the way – I was one of the many fans that were disappointed by the last season of Dexter. It started with promise, but eventually faltered and quickly devolved into something less than it deserved to be. I’ll try not to dwell on this; I had twelve opportunities to rant about one of my all-time favorite shows for three months last year. Attachments to the past are not healthy.
Before watching the season seven premiere, I couldn’t believe the show has gotten this far. Not because it shouldn’t have, but in a world where you’ve seen Firefly cancelled after 14 episodes, nothing is sacred. Dexter, a series that follows a serial killer murder people and get away with it time and time again, has survived in part because it’s balanced the weird of American Psycho with the mass appeal of NCIS. Unfortunately, the series has always favored the latter over the former.
I’ve spent the last couple months watching David Milch’s critically acclaimed HBO western, Deadwood. It was a series that, among many other elements that’s made it the modern classic it is, refused to spell things out for the audience. It made you pay attention. Dexter is not one of those shows. The titular character’s narration has served as an intriguing glimpse into his psyche, but has also been leaned on as a crutch, making sure to tell more than it showed.
Basically I came to Dexter this season hoping the show would finally go for broke, put all the cards on the table, quit holding the audience’s hand, and become that for which it has always been destined. “Are You…?” has set us up for this rebirth, if you will. The season five finale brought us literally inches away from this contrast of all that Dexter has become and all that he has been perceived as. Finally this juxtaposition has been brought to light and so far it’s been done justice.
“Are You…?” is an efficient episode that wastes no time directly engaging the game-changing cliffhanger on which last season left the audience. Being in the field I am, I couldn’t resist the temptation to read all I could on the seventh season. As it turns out, all that I read only extends through this first episode. I’ve known that after Deb walked in on Dex she wouldn’t immediately recognize him as “The Bay Harbor Butcher”. I knew Louis wouldn’t be the Big Bad, but that he would factor prominently throughout the season. And I knew that the actual Big Bad would be closely tied to an eastern European crime syndicate. This episode introduced all these elements, but I was pleasantly surprised as to what extents.
First and foremost, I thought Deb’s realization that Dex’s murder of Travis wasn’t just a one-time thing would be stretched out over the course of the season, culminating in her decision to either commit to helping her brother, attempting to turn him in, or dying (one way or the other). This still may end up being the case, but by the end of the episode, after gradually putting the pieces together that Dexter was far too prepared to kill Travis, remembering all the parallels to The Ice Truck Killer as well as Dexter’s familial connections to him including the details of his presence as she woke up on the metal table Brian (Rudy) had set up, Deb ransacked Dexter’s apartment and found his blood slides, knives, and The Ice Truck Killer’s prosthetic hand Louis sent him. The episode ends with Deb calmly asking Dexter if he’s a serial killer and he answers, “Yes.”
Now of course Deborah won’t immediately work toward bringing Dexter to justice, but at least now we don’t have to watch her avoid the truth for another nine episodes or so. We also hopefully won’t have to deal with watching Deb indulge her whole emotional incest endeavor like it looked like we might have had to do toward the end of last season. No, instead it looks like the creative forces behind Dexter will stick to their claim that they’re setting things up for what will probably be the last season next year.
By bringing Deborah’s awareness of The Dark Passenger to the forefront of the show, the truth of who and what Dexter is cannot be avoided. We’ll be constantly confronted by it and in so doing, we should see the moral applications of living as and amongst a mass murderer play out.
Although this episode spent most of its time on Deb and Dex (as it ought to have), I’m so glad to see the show didn’t forget about Louis as his appearance and the subsequent minimalist revelation that he’s aware of Dexter’s Dark Passenger and connection to The Ice Truck Killer (though we’re not sure exactly to what degrees) was the best part of last season. I like that we still don’t know exactly how deranged Louis is and I’m very eager to find out.
Finally, I was also very happy to see one of my favorite actors, Enver Gjokaj of Dollhouse and that episode of Community where Britta accidentally dates a mass murderer, as Dexter’s first “kill of the week”. It’s a shame we won’t see this talented performer in any future episodes, but I like how his death has been set up to bring the worst his criminal organization can throw at Dexter to his doorstep. When I first heard the news the Big Bad would be tied to this organized crime scene I was skeptical as it sounded potentially too similar to the “Barrel girls” killers of the fifth season and because I thought Dexter butting heads with the mafia sounded a bit too Dark Defender. But with the fact that Viktor killed the only intelligent detective on Miami Metro and Dexter killed Viktor, I can see the cops’ preoccupation with the case as well as Dexter’s intertwining in a much more convincing way than in seasons three or six.
There are lots of elements of this episode which make Dexter feel revitalized. In addition to Deb finding out, which is something that actually happened at the end of the first book in the series by Jeff Lindsay on which this show is based, LaGuerta (of all people) actually found a huge piece of evidence from Dexter’s crime scene. Of course she doesn’t recognize it as such until she speaks with Masuka. This makes me wonder if she’ll finally have to die, also similar to what happens in the first book in the Dexter book series.
Most of all though, I think besides Dexter’s connection to Deborah being emphasized in the present, Dexter’s relationship with his father being emphasized through flashbacks was the strongest means by which “Are You…?” has brought the series back to basics. We all forget that even though Harry gave Dexter The Code and the support he needed to make it as a successful adult, he was also kind of a terrible father in that he basically programmed Dexter to never even bother attempting to forge any human bonds with anyone, always reminding Dexter throughout his childhood that he was essentially unlovable to anyone but Harry which more than likely actually helped contribute to Dexter’s perceived sociopathic characteristics. I’m relieved to see Harry make his appearance only in the flashback. When he appears as a hallucination it feels super gimmicky.
Two scenes in this episode worked particularly well. That first scene between Dexter and Deborah was so skillfully written and performed that due to its significance in the mythos of the show, it almost begs comparison to my all-time favorite scene of the entire series, the first one of the pilot where we see Dex do his thing with the reverend who killed those choir boys. These two seminal scenes are wonderful bookends for the character’s journey. I also really enjoyed how the very first scene of “Are You…?”, which looked like a fantasy sequence, ended up actually being the scene where Dexter goes to the airport to kill Viktor in the unclaimed baggage storage hanger. Both these sequences really took their time and the latter was great at helping to emphasize a theme of Dexter – his need for control.
This compulsion for control which has defined our favorite killer for so long will be challenged more so than at any other point in the series and I think it’s for the best. Dexter showed signs of becoming far too comfortable with its own routine since at least the fifth season and it’s about time things get shook up. I’m extremely optimistic to see how things play out this year not only because of the raised stakes, but because I feel like the series is ready to stop placating to the lowest common denominator and start showing us exactly how bad things can get for a killer with a conscience.