I've spent most of my reviews of Dexter this season talking about the much-improved writing and plotting, but after watching tonight’s episode, I realized that I've been missing out on praising another cog in the show’s machine: the performances. More specifically, Jennifer Carpenter has been tremendous through these four episodes. Like, Emmy-level tremendous.
Interestingly, when I told a bunch of my friends they should check back in with the show this season, so many of them noted that they didn’t want to not because of the horrid writing or lack of overall progression, but because they couldn’t deal with Carpenter’s Deb anymore. While I think Carpenter’s performance ebbed and flowed in the early seasons, much of that had to do with the writing of the character. And no matter the reason for past weaknesses, Carpenter and Deb have been the best part of the show for the last few years. Michael C. Hall is always great, but when Dexter entered something of a holding pattern, Carpenter picked up a lot of slack.
The show is working so well this season because the writers have finally realized that this is just as much Deb’s story as it is Dexter’s. That balance has improved the core of the show and given Carpenter quality material to match her ever-improving performance.
In some ways, Dexter has found its rhythm in the same way that Carpenter has. After years of over-the-top stories and Deb irrationally screaming and yelling about everything, Season 7 has been much calmer (well, in the main story; let’s just not think about Speltzer and his bull horns)... as has Deb. She’s upset, confused, and probably a little terrified, but those emotions have manifested in measured and probing questions—not a string of F-bombs. That interpretation of the character fits Carpenter, who does fine work with her face and eyes and has learned to embody Deb’s years of trauma in a more internal way.
“Run” focused a little more on Dexter’s side of the Morgan siblings’ ideological debate and handcuffed Carpenter with a silly dream sequence involving a bathtub full of blood and more controversial feelings, but she still made everything work well enough.
This episode progressed the tension between Deb and Dex in a smart, logical way (I feel like I’ve used those words to describe this show more often in four episodes this season than I ever did in the previous 72). Though she’s fed up with the rehab plan, Deb has begun pondering questions about Dexter that are completely valid, like whether his relationship with Rita was real, how Rita died, and what it means for Dexter to be a father. So she's gone from worrying about how Dexter can fix himself to recognizing that if he doesn’t, that probably means (and previously meant) bad things for those close to him. It sort of staggering how much sense that line of thinking makes.
And because the show has decided to explore this tension in such a calm but confrontational way, Deb and Dex’s conversations—particularly those in that narrow alley; the show has done a great job on the blocking of those scenes—have yet to feel repetitive. Deb is raising questions that need to be answered and to his credit, Dexter has been very willing to answer them while holding his ground. Carpenter and Hall both portray their characters’ frustrations with each another without going too far into histrionics.
Moreover, I quite liked how “Run” showed us the toll these issues are taking on both of them. While she has been overly patient with Dexter, Deb’s frustrations erupted with Speltzer, first during his interrogation and then out in the field when he was released because of shoddy police work and started following her. There is a sense that she is hot over the Speltzer case for two reasons: First because the monster dodged a murder charge because the uniforms failed to get an acknowledgement of his Miranda rights, and second because she knows that none of this would have been a problem had she just let Dexter take Speltzer out before. Deep down, she knows that Dexter’s way has value, especially when the police fail. And although I think Carpenter does better work when playing Deb at a lower emotional register, the more explosive reactions to Speltzer provided a nice contrast.
For Dexter, this episode was all about doubling down on proving himself right without necessarily ignoring Deb’s concerns. With Speltzer out on the street, Dexter again took it upon himself to put an end to the monster’s life. But at the same time, he also recognized that it might be time to send Harrison to Orlando (even for just a bit—but we know it’ll be longer, right?) and get rid of the blood slides. So he wants to keep killing, but he's starting to grow more self-aware about what that killing means. Maybe Deb’s prodding is taking hold after all?
But by the end of the episode, Deb had finally come around to Dexter's perspective. I loved that he actually brought her to the kill location and I adored the sense of wonder and weird satisfaction on Deb’s face throughout that final scene in the car. When she asked if Dexter did it for her, Carpenter's little smile was probably the single greatest piece of acting she’s done on the show.
I don’t know where the rest of the season is heading but after four episodes, it's clear that Dexter has a great grasp on this story. The writing is sharp and the performances are even better. Deb’s knowledge isn’t just a plot contrivance that keeps Dexter from doing his typical stuff. It is a purposeful agent that's had real consequences and impact on both the show and its title character. To this point, Dexter has explored the ideological differences between Dexter and Deb without picking a side. But I’m curious to see whether Deb’s realization at the end of “Run” means another big shift is coming. And whatever that shift might be, for the first time in forever, I’m actually confident that Dexter can pull it off.
– Yvonne Strahovski’s Hannah made a quick appearance, just long enough to flirt with Dexter and look amazing in a dress. It’s still unclear why that story matters, but she and Hall have great chemistry.
– Isaak’s “Revenge for Viktor” Tour took an interesting turn this week, as it seems the former’s feelings for the latter were a bit more passionate than we first thought. We pretty much already know how this story will end, but that’s a nice little shading to the character. Ray Stevenson has been good as well.
– Quinn defending the stripper as a “dancer” was my cue to not give a damn about that story ever again.
– Jamie might just spend a few days in Orlando, guys. She apparently has nothing else to do.
– The Speltzer case allowed the show to indulge its creepier, more bombastic side, which is fine. The elaborate maze/trap things were fun enough.