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.