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Dexter Recap: Bad Juju

Sam Underwood as Zach Hamilton and Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan in Dexter (Season 8, episode 8) - Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime - Photo ID: Dexter_808_0826

I’m not sure the writers intended the double meaning of this episode’s title. On the surface, it’s an amusing throwaway line from Zack as he takes a road trip with Dexter and Hannah — a weird glimpse into what life would be like if Dexter had a proper family of serial killers. But it’s also how I suspect most of us feel at this point in the season, which exploded out of the blocks but has slowed down considerably the past few weeks. It doesn’t feel like we’re approaching the end of the series, with the stakes higher than ever and the tension mounting to unbearable levels. Instead, it’s now like most other seasons, as Dexter inches closer to cornering the Big Bad with plenty of complications and detours along the way.

The timing of this final season isn’t helping, either, as it parallels the last episodes of Breaking Bad, arguably the greatest television drama ever. It’s unfair to compare the two shows. But if you watch them both, it’s hard not to feel a little let down by Dexter so far. Season eight began with great promise, as Deb went off the rails and Dexter met Vogel, a surrogate mother of sorts and a link to Harry. Ever since Rita was dispatched, the show’s been at its best when it focused on the Morgans, not the Big Bad or the supporting cast or the sleazeball of the week who ends up on Dexter’s table.

Since Deb has (mostly) come to terms with killing LaGuerta, the story has stumbled around like Quinn after a late night at the club. The Brain Surgeon case appeared to be over, and taking its place on Dexter’s priority list was training Zack in the ways of the Code. Then Hannah resurfaced, and all of Dexter’s usual caution disappeared. That speech he gives Zack about being prepared for every outcome and careful planning? That’s gone once Hannah tosses her hair in slo-mo and flirts about their nicknames for each other. As Zack might say, bros before hos, dude.

To use the (admittedly unfair) Breaking Bad comparison, what bothers me most is that this season feels more like a puzzle than a story. Even the diversions on Breaking Bad serve a purpose, whether it’s for comic relief (Badger’s Star Trek fan fic) or symbolism (Walter White’s neighbor Carol dropping a bag of oranges, a nod to The Godfather). Dexter has never been that kind of show; there’s nothing to glean from Masuka’s porn jokes. That’s fine. But as we learned last night, Zack’s story line was little more than filler. Dexter’s mentorship ended before it really began. He didn’t learn much about himself in the process. It was little more than a distraction once we thought the Brain Surgeon case was wrapped up (although Dexter’s ties to Zack could come back to haunt him). Every moment and line of dialogue doesn’t need to be layered with meaning. But in the last episodes of the series, there should be more meat on these bones.

The same goes for the other story lines. Was Quinn and Jamie’s move-in just an opportunity to get Harrison out of Dexter’s house for a while? Does Elway exist only to put the squeeze on Hannah in a way that Deb can’t and possibly learn something about Dexter that will lead to his end? Nikki seems more like a plot device than a character (and all the incense in the world won’t get rid of all the “bad murder juju” in the Miami Metro forensics lab). Batista’s only role has been deciding who’s getting promoted. Even Deb has regressed a bit — her shift from suicidal head case to mostly back to normal feels like extreme course-correction. The characters aren’t evolving in meaningful ways. They’re more like chess pieces as we anticipate how they’ll play into the final endgame.   

All of that said, this is not the worst Dexter season, not by a long shot (season six earned that distinction, despite one of the series’ great finales as Deb watches Dexter kill Travis Marshall). Some points to consider from last night:

  • If there was any doubt before, who could the Brain Surgeon possibly be if not Vogel? One problem with whodunit stories on television is that we’ve seen and read too much to be surprised these days. We know that the suspects are almost always recurring characters. (Take this past season of The Killing, for example.) Although there could be a curve ball thrown in late, the identity of the killer is someone we know. The only mysterious figure is Vogel’s late husband. Maybe he’s alive and exacting revenge for some reason, but that feels like a stretch, even for this show. Still wonder why Vogel is getting gift-wrapped cranium chunks delivered to her door if she’s the one doing the melon-balling.
  • Just when Zack was starting to get interesting — with his bro-speak and puppylike interest in impressing Dexter with his first kill room — he ends up with an extreme lid reduction. And so ends the Dexter Morgan internship program as one would expect — violently.
  • Did Quinn set up Zack for Cassie’s murder? Or will he be set up for setting up Zack?
  • I’m beginning to wonder if this all ends with Dexter dying in an act that will save Deb and maybe even Hannah too. Vogel believes Dexter is perfect as a serial killer and that his emotional attachments to his sister (and now his girlfriend) are unusual. Those anomalies are his only weaknesses, keeping him from realizing his true potential as a living instrument of death and vigilante justice. Of course, they also keep him human and keep us as viewers rooting for him in a strange way. “I would give everything to feel nothing again,” Dexter says at the sight of Hannah. But I think that, in the end, he’ll embrace those feelings and do what’s best for the two people he loves (three, if you count Harrison) — disappear from their lives, permanently.
  • Favorite line: Dexter to Zack, “Do not dude me.” (Runner-up: Deb on her brother’s Hannah obsession, “Dick for brains.”)
  • Did anyone else get a Hannibal vibe from the dinner scene at Vogel’s? Something creepy about her “old family recipe” and making sure there were no vegetarians at the table.
  • How many of you thought the highlight of the episode was a glimpse of Dexter’s bare ass, set loose from the bonds of his kill cargo pants and relaxed-fit khakis?

It’s hard to believe there are only four more episodes left to go, since it doesn’t feel like we’re on the verge of a series-ending denouement yet. Now that Zack is gone, Dexter can finally begin to look into Vogel’s mysterious past with the same diligence he employs to vet his targets. Maybe that will inject some urgency into this season and make it feel more like the first few episodes did.

Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime