written by Scott Reynolds / directed by Ernest Dickerson
When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. After the abysmal sixth season, it's a joy to see Dexter recover so admirably this year. I love this season at the moment, and suspect the writers are overjoyed that having Dexter's (Michael C. Hall) secret be known to Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) has resulted in such freshness. Quite aside from that major change to the show, the storylines this year feel far better integrated—with less of a feeling that characters like LaGuerta (Lauren Velez), Quinn (Desmond Harrington) and Angel (David Zayas) are being fed indigestible scraps from the table. It just feels more confident and cohesive this season, and the direction of the season feels less predictable. I think everyone thought Isaak (Ray Stevenson) was the Big Bad, but he's already behind bars and unable to bother Dexter for a very long time—although, crucially, there will come a time when that changes. I loved the undercurrent that playing more by Deb's rules, refusing to kill Isaak, has resulted in a Sword of Damocles scenario—when Dexter's usual methods offer more certainty and peace of mind.
"Swim Deep" continued to get plenty of fantastic material for Hall and Carpenter to play with, as they adjust to the "new normal" of their lives. Deb can hardly believe that Dexter's past is so tangled and he's responsible for so much bloodshed, and now she learns that LaGuerta's close to reopening the Bay Harbor Butcher case because of the blood slide she found at the Doomsday Killer's murder scene. It's great to see Deb trapped in this nightmare (reduced to swearing in an elevator), with her loyalty to her brother directly at odds with the pride she takes in honest detective work. Her occasional confrontations with Dexter over the mess he's now dragging her into, making her complicit in lies and an accomplice to murder, are highlights of the episodes—here given voice in their argument in a multi-storey car park when Dex reveals Isaak's threatened her life, and later when they were both hiding out at a motel together as a precaution. Brilliant, brilliant scenes.
I also never expected the situation with Isaak to reach this apparent crescendo, as Dexter came to realise he's on someone's radar—after noticing the signs that Isaak was waiting for him inside his own apartment. It's a little preternatural of Dexter sometimes, but I enjoy how quickly he can turn the tables. Isaak had the element of surprise just last week, but in the blink-of-an-eye there was balance—as both men proceeded to stalk the other, looking for weaknesses and an opportunity to eliminate their enemy. The manner in which Dexter led Isaak into the middle of a rival drug cartel's territory was a stroke of genius, and ultimately led to his incarceration after Isaak surprised Dex by surviving the lion's den. (Incidentally, having Dexter later describe what happened at the crime scene to his colleagues, intercut with flashbacks to Isaak's movements at the time, was a beautifully directed sequence that I don't recall the show ever doing before.)
If there is a current weak area it's Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski), although this is possibly because her character's storyline is being developed in the background before it will undoubtedly become more prominent. That said, I have a few doubts that Strahovski's the best actress for this role—as she strikes me as someone who works best with lighter material—but hopefully she'll raise her game soon. She hasn't been bad, and it's possibly just the fact it's hard to forget she was on Chuck not so long ago, but I sometimes can't help thinking the role requires someone with a more tangible undercurrent of darkness (another Jaime Murray-type?). However, I liked how Hannah's storyline was developed here; with Dexter now aware she's lying about the extent of her role during her ex-boyfriend's spree killings, and perhaps isn't the reformed character she's pretending to be. It's also fun to see how Hannah differs from Debra—as we were reminded that, as kids, Deb wouldn't leave the safety of the ocean shallows (a clear metaphor for the trouble she's having adjusting to her brother's deeper, darker pursuits), while the former clearly had no such issues when she was a teenager. As Deb and Dexter struggle to regain their connection, it feels certain that Dex and Hannah will click more naturally.
Overall, "Swim Deep" was yet another fantastic episode in a show that's defied expectations and has earned back my respected and admiration. The seismic shift between Deb and Dex is clearly a major part of my happiness, but it's also been fantastic to see Dexter punch the accelerator after coasting for the past few years. I wouldn't have predicted we'd have closed the door on both the Louis and Isaak storylines less than halfway through this season, and the show's also managing to give its fairly redundant characters decent things to do. The story is now more unpredictable than ever without Isaak around, which pleases me immensely... and now the search for the Bay Harbor Butcher can resume, with Deb as a mole feeding Dexter information from the inside, and maybe Hannah will be the new Lila for a loose redo of season 2? Is that a good idea? Maybe not, but I have growing faith the writers will cook up something worthwhile, and that hasn't been the case since season 4.