Jul 27, 2014

Narrative Explored: Dexter, Season Four

The fourth season of Dexter forms the middle of a triumvirate of perfect seasons. It is bookended by Seasons One and Five.

By now the show is settling into a season template where a single Miami serial killer provides the seasonal arc. While each episode develops that arc, there are many side plots or one-episode plots to keep the story moving. At this point the writers have clearly found their stride and they take their time developing this season's serial killer.

And he's possibly the best, the scariest and the most charming of them all. It is John Lithgow playing Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer, known as such because he kills in three set pieces on an annual basis. (If you want to pick this season apart, you could easily make the case that the current crop of criminal databases, supercomputers and sophisticated data mining algorithms would pick his pattern up in a heartbeat, but then you'd deprive the viewer of the return of Special Agent Frank Lundy, who redeems himself and Debra from the absurdity of Season Two).

Season Four is carefully constructed and has a masterful pace. The dialogue is just right, occasionally witty but with an emphasis on that blend of reality, plot development and characterization that really marks excellent writing. You could teach a course on writing just by analyzing this season.

Here's where the plot is perfect. Dexter is now married and with a newborn. He has moved in with Rita and her kids. He is as domesticated as it becomes. Except that other thing, the serial killer lifestyle. Reconciling the domesticated husband and the serial killer is his biggest problem, and the Family Man side of himself is winning when the season opens. The serial killer in him is literally on the verge of killing him. He needs to go home and get some sleep. New parents don't get enough as it is. And he certainly cannot get advice on how to do this from Harry, who has been telling him all along that the family life is not for him. More than one bachelor has gone down this path of trying to reconcile his old lifestyle with his newly married, newly father reality, although without all the bloodshed.

Dexter finds an unlikely role model in Lithgow's Arthur Mitchell: family man, pillar of church and community, long time serial killer. So he lingers around Mitchell, trying to figure out how he does it.

It is perfect because Dexter believes that by reconciling these two sides of himself, he will become whole, and becoming whole and complete is the goal of life, great art and generally anything that interests us. And it is not a simple exercise of adding the right tattoo or wife.

Very quickly Dexter finds Arthur's flaws. He also loses control of the situation, making the last three episodes gripping.

When Jerry Seinfeld walked away from his sitcom, he was asked why he did it. The show was at its peak. The network wanted more and was willing to pay. But he said his years of doing standup had taught him how to walk off the stage just as the wave was about to crest. Season Four was the crest of Dexter. With a few modifications, Season Five could have been the perfect ending for the series.

Jul 21, 2014

Narrative Explored: Dexter, Season Three

Season Three of Dexter does not exactly pick up where Season Two left off, which is a good thing. Season Two ended on an absurdist note: Lila had to be taken care of, Dexter's victims had been discovered but he had not, and a kind of harmony had been restored to Dexter's life. He could get on with the business of being a serial killer.

But Episode One starts off with the same contrivance that marred Season Two. Dexter acts like a heroin addict to get close to his next victim. We've not really seen Dexter operate up close to his victims like this. Until now, he's been in the shadows, watching from a distance. He's better in the shadows. He is our shadow selves as so perfectly stated in Season One.

Adding to his most-un-Dexter self, he tries a kill in full daylight and without doing his reconnaissance. He fumbles it. The observant viewer at this point would believe we're viewing the imminent decline and death of a series.

Enter Jimmy Smits as assistant district attorney Miguel Prado. It is Prado's brother that Dexter has accidentally killed and this brings the full force of the law and the political pressure of a government onto the investigation. In Prado Dexter finds a friend. They see each other for who they really are and there is a sense that Dexter is becoming even more human. Smits is so good in this role that you can imagine cracking a beer with him and spending a long night shooting the shit. Smits has real screen presence and projects the rising star of a politician. (Loved Smits in Switch, another movie where he plays a perfect drinking buddy with an exceptional Ellen Barkin; Tea Leoni makes an early career appearance).

There are some other nice plot lines that make you believe Dexter is becoming human. Finding out that Rita is pregnant, he works through not only the idea of himself as a father but as a husband. Anyone who has been around a pregnant woman can easily write off Rita's craziness, although it is at times overdone.

But what really makes the season work is the chemistry between Dexter and Prado. Dexter is the seasoned serial killer who has created an elaborate code, rituals and covers for the only thing that once made him feel anything. Prado is just beginning to become a killer. Prado's motivations are a crazy concoction of rage, vigilantism and ambition. You really believe that Prado is a killer going mad. Strangely you never get that feeling with Dexter. Dexter is not insane. He's simply becoming something else, something not empty.

There are some duds. Dexter doubting his father is a leitmotiv that never belongs. His father made him, gave form and order to his life, loved him and continues to be his guide. Throwing all of this aside would drive Dexter either to renounce the code and become a killer of anyone he wants. Or Dexter's rage would turn inwards and he'd finally kill himself or synchronistically run into death. Trying to find Debra a mate is tiresomely played out again. She's not believable as a steady. Really what is missing is the flash of brilliance of Season One and Season Four. Season Three is a good recovery from Season Two.

May 27, 2014

Narrative Explored: Dexter, Season Two

Jaime Murray's Lila
before becoming absurd
I wrote about the brilliance of Dexter before the final season ended and have had a chance to digest not only that final season but the entire run of the show. I'll eventually lead up to where the series broke down, where it excelled and why that last season was a case study in failed narrative expectations, but I wanted to start off with dissecting Season Two.

By the end of Season One, there were some basics established in Dexter's personal mythology:

  • Dexter now knew where the hole in his soul had come from, a childhood trauma;
  • He had begun the journey from empty serial killer to a more complete person; and
  • He had chosen in the most symbolic form - between brother and sister - a choice of living a normal life.
We left Dexter at the end of Season One trying to balance his newly found humaneness with the urge to kill serial killers. Dexter's movement to humanity and living a normal life is really what we expected of Season Two.

There is a half-hearted attempt at continuing this movement in Season Two. The device is Rita believing that Dexter has a drug problem just like her ex-husband. It is, for her, the only explanation for his disappearing act at all hours of the night, his unexplained absences. Rita forces Dexter into Narcotics Anonymous.

On the face this makes sense. Season One was full of the language of addiction. "It is going to happen again and again." Anyone who has felt the inevitability of a fix knows this line. But this is a case of coming too close to a symbolic truth. Once you've touched the symbol - in this case the need to fill emptiness up, which is responsible for so much overeating, alcoholism and drug addiction - it begins to lose its power, which is exactly what happened with Season Two. The drug addiction theme quickly loses its power and becomes forced. And woe to a writer who forces anything rather than let it flow.

In many cases I wondered if Season Two suffered from bad acting, bad lines or both. When a bystander at a crime scene says of Deb, "Hey, isn't that the ice truck killer's babe?" you cringe, not just for the delivery but because the line is forced. It does not really flow into the narrative.

The exact same problem pops up in the character of Lila, Dexter's Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. Lila is played by Jaime Murray and she is often done no favors in her work by her lines, her character development nor her camera angles. In Lila we find the next step in a long thread of the series: finding the perfect woman for Dexter. After all, Rita started as a form of camouflage and her character is twisted and developed in unnatural ways. They eventually kill her off but I'll go into some of the best and worst attempts at Dexter's women in later posts.

By the end of Season Two Lila has become entirely unbelievable and preposterous: a recovering addict, an arsonist, an artist, and habitually unclothed. She simply does not work and by Episode Four, the Lila thread does not hold water.

By Episode Seven the list of threads that do not work is so long that the season stops becoming believable. Contrived threads include: Doubting the Code and his father, the very mainsprings of Dexter's identity; Snaring Doakes' criminal interest again in Episode Five; and the sheer silliness of the Lundy and Debra attraction. There's a scene with Debra on a treadmill listening to Chopin where I laughed out loud. It was not meant to be funny.

There are still some very fine moments. The discovery of Dexter's handiwork in the ocean. Little Chino is truly a striking screen presence, a sort of modern Scarface before he becomes a Drug Lord. Little Chino is a real challenge for Dexter and we breathe an extra sigh of relief when he's offed. La Guerta's political machinations are masterful.

With a Season One so brilliant and then a Season Two that had wandered into the absurd, a careful watcher might wonder if Season One was one of those momentary lightning strikes of mass genius and that lightning could surely not hit in the same spot again. But it would.

Jan 23, 2014

Narrative Construction: Bourne Legacy

The 2002 film remake of The Bourne Identity was a kind of espionage revelation that Bourne's creator, Robert Ludlum, could never have seen. Matt Damon's Jason Bourne taught James Bond a thing or two about being a spy. (I've written elsewhere about the opposing sides of the espionage genre.)

The powers behind the Damon-Bourne series of films rode their gem for three films, tracking the titles if not the spirit and details of Ludlum's novels. If you read some of the insider's statements, it is not hard to see that the filmmakers had trouble coming up with the two last Bourne films. Writers Block and the Wall of Originality stood in their way. But Hollywood likes a successful franchise and they marched onwards to box office success.

Technically The Bourne Ultimatum should have been the end. What else could plausibly (where plausibility enters the picture on the road to Die Hard 5) happen to one Super Spy/Elite Assasin in one lifetime?

Along came The Bourne Legacy, what appeared to be a beating of a well dead horse.

But it is the best Bourne yet, thanks to Tony Gilroy. Gilroy has been the writer on all the Bourne films and also directed Legacy.

Take the first third of the film (Act I for those still in theater construction - SPOILER ALERT):

  • Gilroy uses 26 scenes/sequences to build to the first prolonged action sequence, which starts at 29 minutes 12 seconds;
  • 19 of those sequences take less than one minute;
  • The orientation portion of the film takes less than 7 minutes;
  • The central problem of the film is completely set up by the 20 min 30 sec mark.

Gilroy covers an enormous amount of story in those first 21 minutes. He masterfully introduces Aaron Cross, a second generation version of Bourne played by the excellent Jeremy Renner. Gilroy does this in 8 sequences, of which only two are more than a minute long. He ties Legacy to the previous three Bourne movies. He gives background on the second generation program, itself a study in giving just the right amount of information.

It is a tour de force of writing and directing to pack in so much story in so little time. The pacing is remarkable. And the first extended action sequence does not let you down. I especially enjoyed the opening winter training scenes. I also appreciate the absence of the shaky handheld camera shots, a motion-sickness-inducing feature of the earlier Bourne films.

If there's anything that I felt was not done right - and there's not very much - then it would be the closing action sequence in Manila, where Cross is involved in a Parkourisque chase scene across shanty roof tops. This has already been overly done in Ultimatum and Casino Royale. No matter, I'm really hoping that Gilroy continues his hot streak with the next Bourne film.