TV Review: Dexter 8.11, “Monkey in a Box”
I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of a euphemism to the effect of, “There’s no sweet without the sour,”…
I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of a euphemism to the effect of, “There’s no sweet without the sour,” essentially that there’s no pleasure without pain, no music without silence, no light without darkness. Well, it feels like this proverb about the value of context is a lesson to which the writers of Dexter have apparently never been exposed. Without more consistent and substantial framing in terms of both character and plot development what happens in “Monkey in a Box,” and indeed most of this season, just feels random and meaningless because it hasn’t earned any of the tension it purports to produce.
The interactions among Deb and Quinn, Angel and Dex, and Dexter and Daniel are all particularly devoid of the pathos and dramatic weight with which these scenes intend to be filled. Lately I’ve frequently rebuked the showrunners of Dexter for how little effort or care it appears they’ve put into its final season, but I think “Monkey in a Box” speaks the most clearly of – if not the lack of care and consideration this final season has received by its head writers – the failures of their efforts.
This penultimate episode clearly wants to make its audience feel as though they’re witnessing Dexter‘s denouement so it can pull the rug out from under us when the last minute plot twist occurs which sets everything up for a chaotic conclusion next episode, but because most viewers have at least a modicum of awareness as to how many episodes are left, this supposed curve ball is so expected and rote that it hardly warrants a swing (but more on that later). The majority of the episode is concerned with giving Dexter a proper send-off by seeing him try to sell his apartment and boat, and by giving him as many meaningful, teary-eyed goodbyes as possible. Only one of these interactions, if that, manages to feel somewhat earned, the rest feeling as transplanted as a third arm. Dexter has four of these personal farewells: one with Matthews I won’t bother to discuss, one with Quinn, another with Angel, and a final one with Deb.
Quinn was once was a detective not long ago, but has since taken up a full, salaried position at Miami Metro as Deb’s suddenly reunited lover. While Quinn’s heartbreak over Deb was well documented, and his relationship with Jamie was clearly not strong, Deb’s reciprocation has been completely random and no one can tell me otherwise. That nonsense combined with how much conflict Quinn and Dex have shared and how little camaraderie, I got very little out of their exchange. Quinn has been comic relief, a one-time threat (as Doakes-lite), Deb’s romantic interest, and a joke in and of himself (for a while it seemed there wasn’t a problem he couldn’t drink, smoke, and wise-crack his way out of), but never has he really pulled off a truly meaningful function on the show.
Angel on the other hand was once explicitly admired by Dexter as the one man whose life he’d want if he could have it. Angel has always been a bright and consistent source of friendship for Dexter whether it was in the form of defense from Doakes, loyalty during the Lila debacle, support after Rita’s murder, or a solid bowling teammate. Angel’s been even more useless and underutilized than Quinn, but nonetheless he still at least has slightly more poignancy in wishing Dexter bon voyage. If only Dex actually stuck around his farewell party/Vogel’s memorial reception (awkward, I don’t think she got a sweet bench like LaGuerta) then maybe it would feel more heartfelt, but probably not. Dexter has never been the ensemble show to which it’s always aspired. The series has always struggled to make the rest of Miami Metro feel necessary let alone like a real family. Compare the cast of Dexter to anything by Joss Whedon, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, or even the heavily flawed and maligned Walking Dead to get an idea of how boring watching Dexter mingle with his coworkers would actually be.
Finally, the exchange between Deb and Dexter as they sit down to their final steak dinner, a staple of their relationship, while superior to those with Quinn and Angel, was not without its own distinct sense of vacuousness. The siblings’ discussion of strength and support, especially the comparison of Dexter’s Code to Deb’s innate moral compass, an element I actually enjoyed very much, was sweet and frankly the only moment of the episode that evoked any feeling from me. However, as I discussed last week, the only consistency Deb has seen in terms of any of the arcs she’s been put on throughout the series, especially in these last few seasons, is her apparent need to be coupled with a man. So despite Michael C. Hall’s earnestness in depicting Dexter’s well-intentioned assurances that Deb’s always been the stronger of the two and that she’ll be just fine on her own, they feel out of place. Similarly, Jennifer Carpenter’s performance of Deb’s emotional insistence that “There’s a human being in there,” as she places her hand on Dexter’s chest, while touching on its own, is marred by the surrounding and completely unresolved issues Deb has had regarding not just Dexter’s secret life as a killer, but her own romantic feelings for him.
While most of “Monkey in a Box” wants to lull you into waving goodbye to Dexter yourself, it simultaneously reminds you that he still has one last murder to commit, though it barely provides a reason for this. Instead of Oliver Saxon or Daniel Vogel the character should’ve just been named Pedro MacGuffin (why Pedro? Because the actor’s hardly contained Icelandic accent sounded Spanish to me). Daniel’s been a horrible mess of a character and driving force throughout the entire season. First he was an unseen lobotomy and gift-wrap enthusiast before being mistaken for four other men, one of whom was a cannibalistic mall employee and the other a cable repair man with a homicidal foot fetish (are you realizing how dumb this sounds?), and then ignored entirely so he could date Dexter’s neighbor and frame his protege for her murder for reasons that are never made clear. Then just as inexplicably Daniel starts holding actual correspondence with his mother wherein he pleads for her to help rehabilitate him only to instead slit her throat in a fit of jealousy in part because Dexter couldn’t walk away when it seemed everything in the universe, including the woman he was supposedly trying to protect, was telling him to do so. While protecting Vogel, Dexter’s “spiritual mother,” felt kind of flimsy as it was mixed up in several other even less defined motivations, once Daniel threatened Dexter’s family in this episode his drive to dispose of Daniel was at least made a little more pertinent. Kind of. I actually believed Daniel just wanted to be left alone – why would he go after Deb, a decorated detective, or Astor and Cody, if Dex just left like he repeatedly said he wants to do?
“Monkey in a Box” also took effort to define Daniel not only as a threat to Dexter’s family, but as a foil to Dexter, though this was done mostly through visual rather than narrative terms. Director Ernest Dickerson emphasized the contrast of Daniel and Dexter with alternating shots of their faces as they met in Dexter’s apartment, as well as through their outfits with Dex clad in dark grey and Daniel in white. Discussion of their shared mother and similar statuses as killers establishes Daniel as a surrogate brother of Dexter, like Brian Moser – Daniel is even apprehended almost exactly as Brian was back in the season one finale.
Though we never actually got to know Daniel as well as we did Brian Moser, Daniel is cast in the same position – a killer with the same mother and ability to blend and convince those around him of his normalcy, but who had a very different upbringing than Dexter which has led him to be a murderer without a conscience. Brian served this function wonderfully; Daniel, not so much. Part of the trouble is Daniel somehow went from terrorizing his mother and Dexter to wanting to reform himself through his mother’s help. With her now dead the only thing Daniel appeared to want from Dexter was to be left alone. Since Dexter apparently still can’t let that happen (in lieu of a less cliched reason Ghost Harry very nearly says, “This time, it’s personal,”) the two are at odds, but the stakes are foggy and don’t have anything to do with Dexter’s identity as was the case at the end of the first season.
Whereas in the first season Brian forced Dexter to choose between him and Deb, which successfully symbolized the conflict between Dexter’s Dark Passenger and his desire for healthy human connection, Daniel is supposed to be invoking this conflict, but by escaping and stabbing the marshal and shooting Deb (I think in the same spot she was shot back in the fourth season) Daniel only serves to accidentally encourage Dexter to reverse the decision he made to hand Daniel over to Deb instead of killing him, the decision that seemed to solidify all the growth toward abandoning his homicidal urges that has supposed to have been happening over the last couple seasons. Although Dex defeated his demons it feels unearned because although he’s gradually detached himself from his usual kill routine he’s still murdered a bunch of people recently for less than clear reasons. Even if those reasons were more refined, Daniel’s escape suggests Dexter’s victory over his homicidal urges is a hollow one, a mistake, and if that’s true then what has been the point of Dexter’s entire overall character arc?
This is why ultimately Dexter has failed. For all its moments of suspense and promises of exploring psychology and morality the bottom line is that what’s worse than it never having truly reached those heights is that it hasn’t consistently sufficed as an adequately tense thriller even in the simplest terms since its first season. Plot and character development are more or less either all over the place or beating you over the head (no less than three times in “Monkey” was Dexter confronted by puzzled looks from loved ones claiming how much he’s changed, the worst of which was Ghost Harry saying, “That doesn’t sound like the old Dexter!” and Dex replying with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, “Maybe I’m not the old Dexter,”) and neither come close to a satisfying experience. There were lots of self-references and call-backs to Dexter‘s earlier years in an attempt to convey a sense of resolution or having come full circle (Daniel as Brian Moser, Sylvia Prado’s reappearance, Deb sustaining virtually the same gun shot wound as in season four, Dex in his red T-shirt), but like the shot of Dexter walking out of his apartment identical to the one at the end of the opening credits sequence (wearing the same outfit but accompanied by Harrison, bags packed) everything in “Monkey in a Box” is a superficial gimmick. None of it lends itself to the satisfying conclusion Dexter‘s finale deserved to be, and instead the 96th and final episode of the show looks like it’ll be every bit as frustrating and disappointing as we all hoped it wouldn’t be. Here’s hoping we at least won’t have to ever see Ghost Harry again.
Why are we here?