Tuesday, 18 October 2011

DEXTER, 6.3 - "Smokey & The Bandit"

Tuesday, 18 October 2011
After a sorely disappointing start to the season, I found "Smokey & The Bandit" to be a source of some reassurance. When Dexter tells a compelling standalone story with a robust theme, it can often overcome weaknesses elsewhere, and this was very true here. It even managed to deliver some decent subplots with the Miami Metro gang and the latest grisly spectacle from serial-killing duo Gellar (Edward James Olmos) and Travis (Colin Hanks). There wasn't too much to get upset about here, although to some extent the story was going through the motions with the mechanics of how Dexter (Michael C. Hall) investigated, stalked and eventually killed his latest victim. Regardless, I found this to be a very entertaining hour, and it ended with a superb sequence that suggests season 6 is about to up its game.

The big story this week was a self-contained piece with Dexter noticing how a recently-discovered murder victim had a chipped incisor, which reminded him of a childhood hero he worshipped in the '80s: the notorious, uncaught serial-killer "The Tooth Fairy". It wasn't long before Dexter's extra-curricular search for the Tooth Fairy led him to a Florida retirement home, where a tetchy resident called Walter Kenny (Ronny Cox) now resides; a lonely and contemptible grump who whiles away his days playing golf. As we've come to expect of the show, Dexter had to determine if Walter is indeed the notorious Tooth Fairy, who's resumed killing in his twilight years because it's the only thing that gave his life meaning. This was actually a surprisingly effective theme, as it gave Dexter something to think about regarding his own future. Is he also destined to end up in a retirement home like the killer who inspired him as a boy, estranged from his son, his killings a secret he'll take to his grave, where his only source of comfort is staring at a box of trophies (be they extracted incisor teeth or slides of human blood)?

Ronny Cox has made a career out of playing sinister tough guys, most notably in RoboCop and Total Recall, so he was a magnificent choice to play the ageing Walter. It helped that, frankly, Cox is far from the rakish man most remember from his '80s heyday, and the actor wasn't afraid to show just how out of condition he's become in later years. You couldn't help feeling some sympathy for Walter and his depressing lifestyle, yet he was also such a terrible grouch that you were hoping Dexter would find proof of Walter's despicable history and get him on his kill table. And the manner of Walter's execution was also cleverly done, as Dexter denied his childhood hero a fittingly ghoulish end... and instead smothered him with a pillow, for his body to be discovered and perceived as the humdrum demise of an old git nobody cared about and won't miss.

Usually I find myself braced for the worst with the non-Dexter storylines, but writer Manny Coto's script found some worthwhile moments to explore. Masuka (C.S Lee) got closer to his attractive intern Ryan (Brea Grant) be impressing her with macabre Ice Truck Killer crime evidence, and Ryan became more interesting when it became clear she has a weird fascination with "people who do bad things". Given the fact we later saw her stealing a woman's hand the Ice Truck Killer severed from a victim, before going on a date with Masuka, it appears she's leading him on because he can give her access to all manner of gruesome things a homicide "groupie" like her desires to see. Is it as simple as Ryan being someone even more twisted than Masuka?

Debra's (Jennifer Carpenter) first day as lieutenant was also enjoyable to watch unfold, as she started to regret how her life's become piles of paperwork instead of exciting detective work out in the field. LaGuerta (Lauren VĂ©lez) also started to dominate Debra somewhat, pressuring her to recruit a certain cop as her replacement, until Debra took advice from Angel (David Zayas) and resolved to make her own choice—recruiting a Chicago detective called Mike Anderson (Billy Brown), who got off on the wrong foot with Debra by refusing to believe his new lieutenant's a woman. It feels good to inject some fresh blood into the show with Mike's arrival, and Debra's adjustment to being more desk-bound was more engaging than the usual Angel/LaGuerta relationship nonsense we've been stomaching for two seasons (although you have to wonder just how long the show will keep Deb there, because her characters suits being more hands-on with cases). Incidentally, are the writers going out of their way to turn LaGuerta into a super-bitch this year?

That leaves the simmering situation with Travis and Gellar, who this week chained a man to the floor of a disused church and encouraged him to repent his sins to God. I'm still not truly behind this storyline yet, but that's mostly because it's being kept on the back-burner, as these opening episodes have been more standalone than usual. It's true that Dexter rarely kicks into gear until the second-half of most seasons, so I'm prepared to give it some time. It helps that the final scene of this episode, revealing the fate of Travis and Gellar's repenting prisoner was wonderful: as a street parade audience watched in horror as four ornately painted horses cantered by, ridden by plastic mannequins with real human limbs and heads attached. A memorable image, brilliant shot by director Stefan Schwartz. Like the premiere's "torso of snakes" victim, these religious killers have a clear taste for theatricality, and that suits a pulpy show like Dexter. I just hope the back-story and goals of Gellar and Travis is worth the wait. In reference to my theory about Gellar being a figment of Travis' imagination: there was no reason to start doubting that this week, as the prisoner never once interacted with anyone but Travis.

Overall, I found "Smokey & The Bandit" to be a lot of fun and very entertaining. The subplots weren't annoying or pointless (although the aftermath of Deb and Quinn's split is walking a tightrope), Cox was great as the over-the-hill murderer trying to relive the good ol' days in-between rounds of golf, it was interesting to watch Dex started to have misgivings about his life's direction (nicely visualized by a moment when he spilled his blood slides, breaking the ritualized order he's become slave to), I appreciated the confirmation that Brother Sam (Mos) is going to be a semi-regular and appears to be building a friendship with Dex, and I'm going to give the writers some flexibility with how they're handling the Travis/Gellar storyline because the imagery of this episode's final shot was so marvelously twisted.

I wouldn't say "Smokey & The Bandit" has rescued this season, because it could very easily slip back into bad habits again next week, but I was just pleased to have an episode that worked more than it failed. Hopefully it won't prove to be a brief return to form.

written by Manny Coto · directed by Stefan Schwartz · 16 October 2011 · Showtime