Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dexter: Burnin' down the house

Spoilers for the “Dexter” episode “That Night, a Forest Grew” coming up just as soon as I practice my head-butting technique...

Despite my tremendous enjoyment of “Dexter,” I only blogged about it occasionally during its first season, and episodes like this one are the reason why.

I actually have no complaints about “That Night, a Forest Grew” (a “Where the Wild Things Are” reference). It’s a very strong episode. Many interesting things happen plotwise, as Dexter gets a little too cute in trying to manipulate Lundy and achieves the right amount of cuteness in discrediting and banishing Doakes (though it’ll still come back to bite him, I’m sure). And many interesting things happen characterwise, as Dexter struggles to choose between the pretty angel on one shoulder (Rita) and the sexy devil on the other (Lila), and as Deb declares her intentions for more than a father/daughter-type relationship with Lundy. I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end.

But here’s why my “Dexter” posts last year were so few and far between, and why this post is going to be relatively short: between Dexter’s introspective narration and all the overtly psychological dialogue (between Dexter and Lila, Deb and Lundy, Rita and her mom, etc.), I’m not sure what’s left to say. The series often does such a good job of analyzing itself that it renders further criticism redundant, you know?

We can question some things along the way -- Did Dexter’s glance at the repaired light bulb at the end clue him in to the fact that Lila engages in destructive behavior to get what she wants? Was Dexter smart or stupid to show his hand so overtly to Doakes? Is Lundy really as straightforward as he seems, or has he been manipulating Deb to get her to this point? -- but for the most part, this episode (and this series as a whole) operates on a What You See Is What You Get level. Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but as a critic/blogger, I’m rendered kind of speechless by it. And since the comments for this show generally tend to be vastly more insightful than my reviews of same, I’m going to keep this brief, hit a few bullet points, and then open it up to the crowd. So:
  • Can someone please, for the love of all that is good and right, tell me the name of the jazz piece Lundy was playing in the first discussion of music scene? I know it’s a number that I have in my collection, and on my iPod, for that matter, and I know my father the jazz buff could name that tune in three or four notes if he were still around, but I haven’t been able to track it down, and I obviously can’t Google the lyrics. A little help, please?
  • That said, I really love the notion of Lundy needing to find the right piece of music to use to figure out his target. As a writer who always needs to work to music and often can only write certain kinds of things to certain kinds of music (all of my final season “Sopranos” columns, for instance, had to be composed to The Hold Steady’s “Boys and Girls in America,” and if I tried anything else, I was blocked), I can get behind that concept. It makes sense as Lundy described it, and it’s an investigative quirk I don’t think I’ve come across before in the thousands of hours of TV crime drama produced each year.
  • Another lovely case of familiar idea/unfamiliar execution: Lundy explaining the age discrepancy with “I know the lyrics to elevator music.” Never heard that variation before.
  • Loved the Mark Twain/”Deep Space Nine”/”Next Generation” exchange between Angel, Masuka and the apparently very geeky female member of Lundy’s team.
  • In the role of the wrongly-accused Mr. Wilson, hey, it’s that guy Dale Midkiff! There was a period in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s where Midkiff seemed on the verge of becoming something big, TV-wise, and while he’s worked steadily and had several regular series jobs, it never quite happened for him.
What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I believe it was from the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five" album.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think it's "So What" by Miles Davis.

Anonymous said...

It's "So What." Dave Brubeck didn't have a trumpet player.

David J. Loehr said...

I'm pretty sure it was "So What" from Miles' "Kind of Blue." Which is an album I often end up playing while writing.

Anonymous said...

that is 100% awesome that you listened to that Hold Steady album while writing your Sopranos columns. They truly are the modern day Springsteen... With more drinking and less romance.

Alan Sepinwall said...

"So What" is exactly right, folks. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying the 2nd season and the music part was interesting. Hall deserves a best actor nod, but I'm not sure if Dexter is mainstream enough. I also think that with Lundy and Deb hooking up it might come down to Dexter having to take Lundy out.

SMM said...

It would be crazy for Dexter to have to kill another lover of Deb's, but I think they may be ultimately riven by Lundy's suspicions of her brother.

Anonymous said...

Doakes open outburst and suspension really seems to be laying the groundwork for him to be a key suspect for the BHB, esp now that Lundy has declared it could be a law enforcement officer.

I know people have been suspecting the show was going to go this route since the second episode of the season, but I guess now I'm fully convinced they will. I just hope it doesn't drag the show down and bring in more Doakes/Laguerta scenes, as they always seem to fall flat (at least for me).

SJ said...

Woah what a great episode. The way I sometimes judge a TV show is how much an episode is "wasted" using "filler " that we don't need. "The Wire" is the one show which almost never relies on filler, and this episode of Dexter was the first one in a long time I think where every scene mattered.

Slight spoilers for next week: It seems like Lundy is really starting to get suspicious of Dexter...and I think the guy had a gut feeling on Dexter all along.

Jon88 said...

"So What," or as the captioner put it, "light jazz."


Scott Henderson said...

It's definitely 'So What' from Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue'.

Nice episode of Dexter. I love how this show leaves such a huge lump of claustraphobia in my throat at the end of every episode.

Anonymous said...

I was kind of disappointed with this episode. Yes, a lot of things happened and there was no "filler", but I'm not sure I'm happy with what happened. As soon as the "Previously on Dexter" showed Deb's boyfriend saying "ooh you have a crush on [Lundy]", I said poopy. Why do they take the obvious - read, romantic, tack on every relationship?

Harry was romantically involved with Dexter's mother.
Laguerta was romantically involved with her boss's fiance.
Dexter is now romantically involved with Lila.
Deb is now romantically involved with Lundy.

There are other, interesting, relationship types. Lundy/Deb father/daughter or mentor/mentee was more interesting, and Dex/Lila was, to me, better before they ended up in bed - now Lila is the almost-cliche manipulative girlfriend character.

But I do still love this show - and Hall is amazing. I would say the previous episode should be his Emmy reel though...his "Back the F*** Off" to Doakes was downright scary.

Chris Littmann said...

The headbutt might be the highlight of this TV season for me.

Anonymous said...

^I loved the expression on Dexter's face right before he administered the headbutt. I think he enjoyed that more than sex with Lila.

So Lila substitutes whacked-out control for her drug addiction? Nice.

Anonymous said...

What this show does better than any other is create a sense of paranoia and suspicion about each and every character it introduces. The obvious genesis for this is the fact that our lead is seemingly the most noble and decent person in all contexts – hard worker well liked by his colleagues, devoted boyfriend and foster father, loyal and caring brother, quiet and thoughtful and harmless. It is only the audience that gets to see him at his most revealed state - the most emotionally deadened and selfish protagonist that we can possibly tolerate, with a level of bloodlust and sick desire that we cannot really ever understand. Yet we like Dexter, and sympathize with a man that has bound and tortured two dozen human beings who feel and suffer, regardless of what they’ve done in the past. This twisted morality the show instills in its audience is what makes us suspect the very worst in every character we meet on the show, as if the demons Dexter hides in his own personal closet can and do rage in everyone, a hidden secret that is more common instead of unique.

So as soon as Lundy comes on the scene, I see (and write!) comments calling him out for instant exterior motives, and how he might represent a sinister trap for Deb, how hard it is to take him at face value. There must be something behind his zen calm and dedicated work ethic – when will his monster show?

When we meet Lila, we instantly suspect that she is also a serial killer, and fate has brought her to Dexter. A storyline detailing the romance between two killers who find redemption in each other seems plausible, no matter how fake that would be if we could just view things rationally, because the unimposing and unphysical Lila has never been shown to be capable of intentional violence. She is in fact a very believable ex-junkie, and the flakiness and manipulation that might entail, but by no means a calculated killer. Yet we’ve already been seduced by Dexter in thinking ‘serial killers everywhere’ is not only a possibility, but a probability.

We learn to view Doakes as the crazy enemy, and some even suggest it possible that he be framed for the BHB murders, as if others in his world could see him as dangerous and unhinged as we do. He is intense and imposing, but, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s a big jump from being angry to being a serial killer. This is a character that has both served his country to a degree that cost him a great deal of his humanity, made the rank of Sergeant in the police force, and continues to go above and beyond his expected duty by trying to find evidence that could potentially take a mass murderer off the streets on his own free time. Yet we find him dangerous and scarier than the killer himself, and think of him as the person to fear and root against.

We can also be blindsided, but ultimately not surprised, when an officer as efficient and moral as Laguerta can reveal herself to be as dangerous and cunning as anyone. We can never feel comfortable with who we think a person is, and must admit that, as much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, at the heart of it we will never really know others fully.

It is no surprise that a show with this particular protagonist and themes would leave the audience in a state of constant moral ambiguity, but this show does it so exceptionally well. But unlike shows that string people along to death with ambiguity (“Lost” anyone?), this show is constantly tackling and trying to answer these gray questions. This particular episode we start to see more masks coming off, and our paranoia about these characters have either been rewarded for our insight, or leaves us feeling foolish. Or both – that is the beauty of the complexity of Dexter.

We finally see Lila as being something other than a care-free, uncomplicated artist. We see her a side of her we didn’t want to believe – completely calculating and manipulative, and one who lies quite often and quite easily to get her way. We see that the one who Dexter chooses to teach him emotion is in fact an emotional predator who is as unfeeling about using others’ emotions against them as Dexter is about the fear and pain of his victims. She is as flippant about lying her way into a restaurant as she is about torching her home and art just to secure Dexter’s loyalty. She even warns us in this episode about who she really is – describing her recently sold art to Dexter, she says “They’re not cannibals – how barbaric! Their eating is symbolic of the way we consume others to feed our needs.” Dexter does so in the physical world, needing the blood and fear of others to feed him. But no less ruthlessly, Lila does the same on an emotional level. Like most addicts, she substitutes seduction and emotional manipulation for methamphetamine, and cares no more for her victims than Dexter. She needs something from others to feed her own demons. Is the fact that her acts are bloodless, yet still harms innocents (i.e. Rita’s kids), any less heinous?

Everything about her is now in doubt – was she ever concerned about Dexter’s recovery? Or just hunting NA meetings for a new toy? Has her past insights that have helped Dexter so much recently coming from the heart and her experience, or a mere pattern she has learned to recite to trap victims, like Dexter’s cellophane wrap? Was the call to Dexter’s house while Rita was there a coincidence, or Lila’s plan all along? Was she EVER even an addict, or just a pure hunter who knows where to find the most emotionally damaged prey?

I think we also see Lundy revealing his character. And he turns out to be a regular man who really is philosophical and introspective, but, as any man, notices pretty women and might even flirt just a tiny bit, even if he is far to proper to ever act on it more than that. His sincerity in both his embarrassment at Deb’s admission, and his genuine discouragement towards her while never denying he still has normal desires as a man, showed to me that he really is and has been on the level so far, and now a ‘master plan’ from him to get at Deb seems very far-fetched. There is no telling where they might go romantically, and I still find it squicky, but at least now I can believe that there will be no unbelievable twists or secret reveals about an ultra-scheming, super-meta-level Lundy, and no longer have to read into his action three-levels deep to find hidden meaning. He IS as straightforward and as human as he seems, and in the world of Dexter that makes him as unique as anyone, including Dexter.

Dexter’s revealing himself in full to Doakes means the two cannot coexist anymore in any context. War has been declared, and a Doakes that can operate without even the meager constraints of being a member of the police force is actually a much more dangerous opponent. The morality of being a part of a group is no longer on Doakes’ mind – and he has shown that he is willing to kill enemies that are truly dangerous. Dexter now has a dedicated stalker that is a physical match and skilled in the art of tracking and killing, and who now has nothing to lose. We knew this confrontation was always coming, but, short of a series-ruining amnesia scenario, it now seems that it cannot ever be resolved without one of them being dead.

We also see the changing morality of Dexter. For the first time, he acts outside his “Code” and lets an innocent man suffer for his own benefit. Though Wilson was also eventually freed from the accusations of murder by Dexter’s actions, it was still a completely selfish act that is a dangerous precedent for a person who needed his artificial restraints to choose his victims. It is a small jump for Dexter to begin rationalizing the killing of others who can help him out in the short term by ignoring his now distasteful code. The ultimate test will be Doakes – if Doakes ups the stakes, will Dexter follow suit? What does the Code say about pure self-preservation?

Two quick bullet points of my own:

- It was subtle, but I really liked the small way the writers acknowledged that Dexter, though improved, is still sometimes missing basic human understanding. In the beginning, during the initial love-making scene at Lila’s house, Lila had a small table with about 4 candles lit to enhance the romantic mood. Later, at Dexter’s house, his damaged version is to light literally a hundred candles spread out all over the place in the most precarious of fire-danger patterns , as if more is always better. Hilarious and poignant – we must never forget Dexter must fake a lot of what we take for granted. I wish the writers trusted us to notice this absurdity without Deb explicitly mentioning it, but I’ll forgive them because the joke is so good.

- Finally the scene where all the FBI agents and Miami police officers were arguing about the Manifesto and what all the meta-clues REALLY meant, and how divergent all their ‘steadfast’ conclusions were, reminded me of an excellent article in the November 12 issue of the New Yorker, where famed writer Malcolm Gladwell explores the FBI Criminal Profiling unit and compares their work with the ‘cold-reading’ phonies in the psychic world. Lundy’s skepticism and disdain for such techniques, and his clear insight into the real meaning of the Manifesto, rang very true after reading that article. So I think it is a must for any Dexter fan and can be read in full here:

Anonymous said...

We can also be blindsided, but ultimately not surprised, when an officer as efficient and moral as Laguerta can reveal herself to be as dangerous and cunning as anyone.

I wasn't blindsided. Laguerta was depicted as a bit of a predator in the first season with how she kept hitting on Dexter, even though he rejected her advances. She can and will do whatever needs doing to advance her own career.

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is....
whatever happened to bowling night?

The defining moment of this season, that is, the one that will make it amazing as opposed to just good, is the way all of these separate relationship storylines collide into what I'm assuming will be one huge catastrofuck. There have been predictions as to what each individual line may bring to the table, but the totality of their effect on Dexter has the potential for greatness. Every character is directly connected to Dexter and as such is only one degree away from every other character. The reprocussions of anything major that goes down in one storyline will ripple quickly through this network of people and ripple hard.

There are the foreseeable ones (Dexter takes out Doakes after a little bit of the old cat and mouse, Lundy discovers Dexter's secret through Deb) but we musn't underestimate the Dexter writers. There might be something that comes WAY out of left field (Lila burns Doakes alive, Laguerta loses weight, Rita kills Dexter) and that prospect intrigues me the most.

I love this show. Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Once Dexter uncovers Lila's machinations (if he hasn't already figured it out), he will probably retreat back to "monster Dexter"; he'll decide Harry's Code wasn't so bad after all and that his urge to kill wasn't really gone, just suppressed because he's been substituting thrills with Lila. Lila is exciting, but too dangerous for someone like Dexter who has a truly "Dark Passenger." While I would like to see what an unfettered monster he could become, I have a feeling he'll wind up choosing to go back to Rita and his "hidden" life.

Jill said...

One thing no one has mentioned, and that is that Lila killed an old boyfriend by setting his house on fire. We know this from the Naples trip. At that point, we're starting to see Lila as a tortured fellow-traveler and her interest in Dex as more maternal than anything else. During that scene, Dex asks if the guy deserved it, and she said "Yes". His response: "Then you did nothing wrong."

I wonder if after viewing the wreckage of Lila's apartment, Dex put two and two together and realized that Lila sets fires to get attention. If this is something she does, then burning her boyfriend/dealer's house down is no longer justified, and she's just another killer.

This makes it easier to dispatch her, no? Lila has "single season/bad ending" written all over her, and unless he's going to serve her up somehow as the Bay Harbor Butcher (hardly likely, since a stiff wind would blow her over), that'll be the only way to get rid of her. And it seems that outside of NA meetings, no one knows her and she would not be missed.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with the sentiment that Lila is a one-season character, I really don't want her to go away.... Is it wrong that I actually find her more attractive while committing arson?

Anonymous said...

^ Rita certainly wouldn't miss her.

I like your theory, Jill. That could be one way Dexter goes back to Rita and thus to Harry's Code, by dispatching Lila as "just another killer" and returning to something that frankly worked better for his life than the chaos he's currently mired in. Dexter *thinks* he's "free" and in control, but the things he's doing (writing the manifesto, banging around with Lila, setting up Doakes) seemed like a good idea to him and part of his "new Dex," but they're turning out to be not-so-great ideas (Lundy picked up that the manifesto was written by someone with a law enforcement background, Lila's manipulative and perhaps a bit crazy, Doakes is probably psychotically determined to get Dex now). All the things that he's done now that he's "different" are going to backfire on him.

Unless he did the manifesto that way as part of a plan to set up Doakes as the BHB, in which case, I take what I just said above back. But I don't think Dex is doing that (although it might work out that way anyway).

Anonymous said...

Wow, Undercover Asian Man. Good stuff. I retract my hesitations about this episode.

And if you don't have your own blog, you should - excellent writing.

Alan Sepinwall said...

And if you don't have your own blog, you should - excellent writing.

What he said. Here I write a few paragraphs about how the show doesn't give me much to write about, and then you spend twice as many words (at least) proving me wrong. Nicely done, UAM.

Anonymous said...

Wow under cover asian, that was some brilliant writing. I'm late to the party having just watched it tonight. I don't have a ton to add, but here are a few thoughts. Initially I didn't like the Deb Lundy love story line but I actually think the writers explained it fairly well and it is believable. I think Dexter is on to Lila, a light bulb has gone on for him (pun intended). I don't think anyone mentioned Rita's Mom. What a bitch on wheels! No wonder Rita ended up with an abusive husband, look what she was raised by.

Jill said...

Tommy b: I think you're right, and that means that the light bulb is the most inadvertently heavy-handed symbolism in any mainstream entertainment product not directed by Steven Spielberg.

Also...what everyone else said about undercoverasianman. More analysis like that, please!

Regarding chaos: Note that Dex' life is complete chaos now just as Deb is realizing that maybe she doesn't thrive on chaos as much as she thought. (I'm just glad they didn't cast the OTHER Carradine as Lundy...listening to David Carradine spout Lundy's Zen wisdom would be just too weird.)

I love the way Lundy has evolved from "Fed that you by definition you have to hate" to "There's something wrong with him too" to just kind of quirky and cool. If I were Deb I'd be going for Lundy instead of Mr. Buff Ecuadoran too. I find a law enforcement guy who solves problems by listening to Chopin and Miles Davis eminently more interesting -- and FAR less "squicky" -- than a chiseled gymrat who writes children's books.