In my review of ‘Dexter’ Season 4, I stated that this is a show that doesn’t tone anything down. The comment still stands – it is as screwed up as it has always been, and remains one of the most original and compelling shows on television. However, after the boldness and brutality of the fourth season (when the show peaked, in my opinion), everything else pales in comparison. As a result, this season may seem, initially, tame.
S5 picks up right after Dexter’s personal tragedy at the end of S4. This is the first time in the show’s history that one season has immediately followed another, and it is indicative of the direction that new show-runner Chip Johannessen has chosen to take. This season is about consequences, the reactions to one’s actions.
As Dexter (Michael C. Hall) deals with the fallout from the Trinity Killer’s parting gift, the show takes on a more personal, contemplative side. The serial killer, who found meaning in killing serial killers, has lost all direction. This is interesting from the point of view of characterisation, but this does have its drawbacks.
During this phase, the show tones down many of the elements that have made this show so popular: suspense, dark humour, violence and moral ambiguity. As Dexter loses direction, the show appears to do the same. The season starts very slowly. It is not until episode 3 that things get moving properly. It is not until episode 6 – halfway through the season – that the show returns to its heart-stopping best.
The show gets back on track when Dexter stumbles across Lumen (Julia Stiles), a surviving victim of a ring of murdering rapists. Still searching for a way to make his life meaningful, Dexter devotes his attention to helping Lumen find and kill her tormentors.
The character of Lumen represents a new direction for the show. Although she initially poses a threat and an obstacle to Dexter, she becomes someone with whom he can be totally honest. Eventually they develop an almost symbiotic relationship: Lumen needing Dexter for his deadly expertise, Dexter helping Lumen because he feels that it would bring him redemption for the events of S4.
Dexter’s vigilante actions; the Code that he follows; his struggle to keep his dual lives secret; his isolation from ‘normal’ people – these are traits that have always made him a twisted kind of superhero. This is very much the case this season, as he takes Lumen under his wing and helps her seek revenge. As he gradually shows her the secrets of his ‘craft’, showing her his techniques, one cannot help but notice the perverse echo of Batman and Robin.
Hall and Stiles have great chemistry, and really make their twisted relationship work. At the start of the season, Dexter is a vulnerable, broken man. Hall plays this perfectly, building on his earlier performance of a fractured, frustrated Dexter. Stiles does a great job with Lumen, bringing a real sense of fear and trauma to the character, although her transformation from rape victim to killer sidekick feels a little rushed. They could have done with a few more episodes, because their storyline is the season’s driving force.
Unfortunately, there is not enough of it. The show often branches off to various sub-plots, most of which add absolutely nothing. The marital problems between 2 minor characters are completely irrelevant, and only serve to test your fast-forward button. There is an interesting homicide storyline involving religious artefacts and machetes, but this is left unsatisfactorily resolved (read: forgotten completely).
The problem with moving away from the main character is that all the time and attention has gone towards developing Dexter himself. This has always been a one-man show – unlike ‘The Sopranos’ (a similar show in terms of morally ambiguous content), which had an ensemble of complex characters. Supporting characters in ‘Dexter’ are comparatively one-dimensional characters that serve single roles – which makes relying on them a very bad move.
There is one very good subplot, which involves Dexter being secretly investigated by Robocop (Peter Weller - inspired casting). Usually it is Dexter doing the stalking, looking though the binoculars, but now the tables are turned, presenting a different type of tension to the table - which feels very refreshing.
Dexter’s family gets a fair share of the limited screen time. Over the past few seasons, considerable effort has been made to make Dexter’s sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) more of a standalone character. In this season she takes charge of her own investigation and can be seen growing into her position as a new detective. She cannot be considered a distraction, but at the same time she is not yet interesting enough to escape being an accessory to Dexter’s narrative.
Harry, Dexter’s late father who acts as his imaginary friend/conscience, turns up as often as he did in previous seasons. Unfortunately he seems to have lost his purpose. While in the past he was an embodiment of the killer ‘Code’, he now turns up at random points, seemingly just to argue with Dexter.
Then there are his children. Usually they serve to make Dexter reflect on his role as a family man – at which point things revert to the slower, contemplative pace of the first 6 episodes. Other times they present an opportunity for dark humour. One scene has Dexter confronting his daughter’s friend’s abusive father, punching him and explaining the significance of hitting the liver at just the right spot.
“What are you, some kind of psycho?” gasps the child-beater.
“Not today,” replies Dexter, “just a concerned parent”.
Unfortunately, there are not enough of moments like these. It was acceptable to sacrifice the dark humour in the last season, because focusing on the Trinity Killer was more important. This time, there is simply no good reason.
‘Dexter’ Season 5 is not a poor season by any means. It has some truly memorable moments, and some very good ideas. The Dexter-Lumen storyline is twisted and fascinating, but it takes too long to get going and there isn’t enough time dedicated to it. The strong primary storyline is improperly balanced by too many time-wasting minor elements.
Overall, things don’t seem very cohesive this season. After the groundbreaking S4, it seems that the show needed a transitional phase. S5 is that transition - hopefully it will lead to something great.
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Purchase 'Dexter' Season Five on DVD or Blu-Ray at Amazon.co.uk.