Every week in Slate’s Dexter TV club, Katy Waldman will have an IM conversation with a different Dexter fan. This week, she rehashes episode 7.9 with Richard Rys, a writer at Philadelphia Magazine and elsewhere, and a journalism professor at Temple University. Read his weekly Dexter recap for New York Magazine’s “Vulture” blog here.
Richard Rys: This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m thankful that no Ukrainian hit men are chasing me. Moving a little slower than usual thanks to a turkey hangover.
Katy Waldman: I definitely had a few Dexter flashbacks during the turkey carving. But I'm really interested in your take on episode 9, "Helter Skelter," relative to "Argentina" last week. A lot of critics (including you!) said that “Argentina” represented a high point for the season. Did “Helter Skelter” keep the momentum alive?
Rys: "Argentina" set the bar really high, both in terms of the writing and acting. "Helter Skelter" was a bit of a letdown for me. No issues with the performances, but the plot felt a little thin. And there were a few off-key moments and some missed opportunities, I thought. You?
Waldman: I agree. While the episode provided a bit of wish fulfillment—I really wanted to see Dexter and Isaak team up in a murderer-buddy comedy, and they actually started to do it a little ("Did anyone ever tell you that you had trust issues?")—I was mostly disappointed, especially by sappy and unconvincing dialogue in the second half.
Rys: It would have been great to see Dexter and Isaak working in tandem to take out both would-be killers. (And speaking of, how easy were the assassins to kill? The Kashkas are clearly saving money on contract killings by hiring cheap labor.)
Waldman: Dex and Isaak did have that nice moment of dumping Caffrey’s body overboard together.
Rys: Indeed. In broad daylight, of course. Awful lot of very casual kills this season. Daylight boat dump, stabbing at a firing range, and the topper—Viktor at the airport. As for the overarching themes, they felt forced in some places, and just didn't ring true in others. The show has been dealing with Dexter's struggles with love and safety for weeks. It didn't feel new in this episode.
Even worse was what seemed to me to be the resolution of Deb's "I think I love you" plotline. One brief, corny chat at a crime scene? Is that all we get?
Waldman: Right. Dexter insists that, given all they've been through, Deb's love for him is "logical.
Rys: Which I guess on some level makes sense, given it's coming from a guy who can justify killing roughly 237 people, give or take. But you'd think Deb would say, "Whoa, dude. There is nothing logical about either of us." Then in the hospital scene, they have an exchange where Dexter asks if she's ok and she replies "Yeah, I'm gonna be fine." That seemed to signal she's putting those feelings behind her. If so, that's an awfully swift resolution to a pretty intense emotional quandary.
Waldman: I think the show may be trying to rehabilitate Deb from the low point that was “Argentina.” So dispense with the crazy incestuous urges, have her admit that Dexter and Hannah may have a future, for all she knows, and show her embracing her responsibilities as a cop and moral human being by saving Hannah's life.
Rys: And all of that is fine--I never bought the idea of Deb being capable of putting a hit on someone--but to recalibrate her moral compass so completely in the span of one episode felt like a stretch.
All of that said, Jennifer Carpenter is (pardon the pun) killing it this season.
Waldman: Agreed on both counts! I love Deb and am glad to see her portrayed so positively, but the transformation required some pretty hasty, sloppy work on the part of the show writers.
Rys: It was like they realized the season is winding down and needed to get Deb's head on straight in a hurry. As straight as Deb's head can be, of course.
Waldman: What was your take on Hannah McKay, the other woman in Dexter's life?
Rys: Hannah's been growing on me--and I have an admitted soft spot for Yvonne S. from Chuck. But aside from her opening up on their kill-boat cruise, she didn't have much to do this episode, aside from some awkward FaceTime chatting and an ill-advised escape attempt. She just can't resist an opportunity to take someone out. In that sense, they make a great couple.
Waldman: I get a little nervous whenever she starts talking about her old gram. Wonder if that lady served as the McKays’ Harry Morgan.
Rys: Another sign of Dexter's inability to read social cues: He should be suspicious of anyone whose wardrobe primarily consists of see-through tank tops.
I did like the end note of the episode, when Dexter says, after a long pause, that Hannah makes him feel safe. They beat that theme into the ground, but the line came across as more ominous than saccharine.
Waldman: Because Hannah's status/permanence on the show is not exactly settled? She was so winning last episode that I assumed they were getting ready to kill her off. The longer she sticks around, the more vulnerable Dexter is to his enemies. Or did you mean ominous in some other way?
Rys: I meant that as much as we're rooting for Dexter to find someone he can relate to, we know this is not going to end well. And let's face it—likable as Hannah has become, she's killed a bunch of people, sans "Code."
What did you think of the way the Isaak storyline ended?
Waldman: That final, cheesy conversation on the boat—"There's hope for you yet"—made me want to kill someone! But more broadly, I was disappointed to see Isaak die, and not terribly surprised that they gave the job to the thoroughly unlikable Nabokov instead of Dexter.
Rys: I wasn't so sure about Isaak early on in the season, but he grew to be one of my favorite Dexter foils. I was really surprised they'd knock him off after creating such a rich character. They could have gotten so much more mileage out of their twisted friendship, and it would have made a nice parallel to his twisted relationship with Hannah. All of the sudden, there are two people in his life who are very dangerous, but understand him uniquely. Instead, Isaak goes from badass drug kingpin to wussbag life coach. I was bummed.
Waldman: You said that so perfectly. And it makes me wonder how they will fill the "chief villain" void. Nabokov? The Phantom Arsonist?
Rys: With Isaak gone and only a few episodes left, I guess they'll both fill the void. Seems like perhaps the writers made a conscious decision this season to take the focus off the "Big Bad" and bring the show back to its center—the Morgans. That's why it was so disappointing to see Isaak go just when he was really rounding into a great character. Unlike the Doomsday Killers last season, Isaak enhanced the story, instead of distracting from it. The Phantom Arsonist also felt a little shoe-horny, if that's a phrase. Seems a little late in the season for a high-drama killer to show up.
Waldman: Can we turn for a second to LaGuerta and disgraced police captain Tom Matthews? How did you feel about their tête-à-tête?
Rys: That was one of the few high points of the episode for me. Loved that Tom didn't miss any opportunities to stick it to LaGuerta, who has been the most consistently unlikable character in the series. Their uneasy partnership also makes it more plausible that Dexter is in real trouble. Until this season, LaGuerta never showed any capacity for actual po-lice work, just conniving and playing politics. I also respect a guy who drinks scotch first-thing in the morning.
Waldman: Yes, and who still has the presence of mind to compare his former colleague to Godzilla. I enjoyed the one-liners in that scene, but I worry the show is just retreading old ground by reviving these dusty characters. My favorite faces this season have definitely been the new ones: Hannah, Isaak.
Rys: I can't imagine much new ground to cover between Tom and LaGuerta. But for her to plausibly close in on Dexter, she'd need some help. So as a plot device, it works for me, but there's not much there in terms of character. Speaking of, I'm over the Quinn storyline.
Rys: He just doesn't have many redeeming qualities, unless you count his giving drug money to Batista as a business loan. Quinn falling head over heels for a stripper is sort of in character, but still sort of ridiculous. She was his moral compass, begging him not to take the payoff. But then she resigns herself to sleeping with George? Wouldn’t she protest just a bit more, given the gravity of what was to come? I know the Fox Hole isn't very employee friendly, but still. We've just never seen any evidence as to why Quinn would risk his career and his life for this woman. Other than the fact he's an idiot, of course.
Waldman: Ha! He is certainly impulsive—a foil for Dexter's logical decision-making.
Did it strike you that “Helter Skelter” took pains to be super symmetrical? It started and ended with a boat ride, had Dexter and Isaak echo each other (“If you really thought that, I’d be dead by now”), was bookended by voiceovers about fear.
Rys: Yes, there was a meticulous symmetry to this episode, almost to the point of distraction. The recurring themes of outsiders seeking a safe place and acceptance worked perfectly in Argentina. This week, it was a little too heavy-handed. There was a density to this episode that didn't help matters. “Argentina” had some room to breathe. “Helter Skelter” felt overstuffed.
How to convey and handle themes has been a major struggle for this show as its progressed. The serial killer gimmick wears off, so then what else is Dexter about? I think it's at its best when the bigger themes are played more delicately, and told through the characters, rather than creating characters that seem to primarily serve the themes. Like last season's exploration of faith—Doomsday and Brother Sam just didn't hold up on their own. Isaak was a great character, period; not just a plot device. Hopefully the rest of this season will stay focused on the tension between the characters and not veer too far off track.
Monday: What other writers and Slate commenters thought about Episode 9.