Tube Tied: On Dexter's Fifth Season
Dexter is a bit of a so far mess this season, isn't it? I'd watch Michael C. Hall do just about anything—I can never quite get over how different Dexter Morgan is from David Fisher. But the series is in the awkward position of having to rebound, this season, from what might have been a perfect endpoint: the murder of Dexter's wife Rita (Julie Benz) in front of their son Harrison, in an echo of the event that made Dexter what he is. One of the problems this show has always had is that each season it sets the bar for intense plotlines a little higher, and as with the fabulousness of last season's twist ending, the writers have usually proved themselves capable of exceeding expectations. But truly, I would have been happy to see the series end right there on the shot of Dexter lifting blood-soaked Harrison off the bathroom floor. Oh well. They never should have killed off Doakes, either, but you can't have everything.
I've written here before that I enjoy the female characters on Dexter, though largely by that I mean that I love Jennifer Carpenter's Deb beyond all manner of reason. I feel like I know a hundred women like her, and she's a type—a real, gangly, awkward tomboy—but one who is nonetheless sexually pretty confident in spite of more than one, uh, bad experience.
That said, the show has an increasingly fraught relationship with its subject matter. Violence against women underwrites much of its dramatic tension; with few exceptions, it's women that the serial killers Dexter targets have largely been after lately, first Trinity with his weird fixation on his sister, and now with Boyd Fowler (Shawn Hatosy), the sanitation man who sealed his blond young victims in barrels of formaldehyde. It's Dexter's status as a vigilante combating that violence that keeps the character the least bit sympathetic. And yet, curiously, the show rarely offers any kind of systemic observation about the prevalence of such violence. It's not even usually discussed as "violence against women," as such. I wouldn't want, of course, the show to turn into a sermon on the subject, nor do I generally find pop culture depictions of vigilante men "saving" "helpless" women from predators particularly compelling or helpful, feministically-speaking. I also understand that this is a genre show, and it needs to operate within certain conventional limits. But it has always seemed strange to me that such a smart show can't push that particular boundary of the genre, at least a bit.
I am not sure yet whether the series' introduction of a new blond woman for Dexter to protect—Julia Stiles' Lumen Pierce—is going to add new depth to the show's treatment of these matters. Dexter has always been a show about the lingering effects of trauma; it operates on the assumption that violence and abuse have effects that are lifelong—at this point, there are few characters on the show who haven't been abused or attacked in one way or another. So in a sense, Lumen doesn't bring much that's new to that paradigm; her damage is perhaps more recent than that of other characters, but being tortured to the brink of death is hardly an unfamiliar experience for these characters. One supposes we'll see; the season is young, and Lumen's only been in an episode or two. But I hope we won't have to wait long for her "twist," because I'm not particularly compelled so far.
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