Tuesday, 27 November 2012

DEXTER, 7.9 – 'Helter Skelter'

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

written by Tim Schlattman / directed by Steve Shill

Dexter's (Michael C. Hall) voice-overs tend to announce each episode's themes rather bluntly, so we quickly knew that "Helter Skelter" was about love and fear. But it was also about partnerships and trust, too. Tim Schlattman wrote this episode (he writes one every season, and they're often highlights), and as he's one of the few remaining writers to have worked on Dexter from the beginning you could sense a crisper, cleaner voice at work.

The thing I most appreciated about "Helter Skelter" was how it dealt with the demise of Isaak (Ray Stevenson). It's become a cliché that every major villain eventually finds themselves strapped to Dexter's table with a knife to their cheek, but season 7 found a refreshing workaround. Having learned that two Koshka assassins have arrived in Miami to assassinate him, Isaak was on the defensive and forced to make a deal with his enemy. So we had the unusual and very enjoyable situation of Dexter in league with the Big Bad, even if any potential for hugs and kisses were eliminated by Isaak having also kidnapped Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) as leverage. Still, Hall and Stevenson were absolutely terrific together and, as much as we've been given reasons to despise Isaak, he's been one the more palatable villains on the show, so it was surprisingly easy to enjoy this unusual partnership. Isaak's a bad man, but he's not a psycho beyond eliciting your sympathy and affection. He's been mostly driven by a desire to avenge the death of his boyfriend, and that's something we as the audience can understand.

It also put Dexter in a scenario that felt very fresh and exciting, as the unwilling assassin for his enemy. This meant we got to see Dexter out of his comfort zone in many ways, forced to kill the first of the Koshka assassins in broad daylight at a shooting range. You had to swallow the idea this highly-skilled hitman would require an afternoon's firing practise before beginning work, but otherwise the scene was very memorable for how Dexter went about his kill (stabbing the poor man through the back during a gunshot).

More interestingly, I loved how Dexter actually learned some things from his time with Isaak—who spent half the episode trying to gain insight into this peculiar blood spatter analyst that's caused him so much heartache. Why does he only kill with knives? Why is he so relaxed when discussing the number of people he's killed? Why is he so emotionless and attached, even when his girlfriend is in danger? He couldn't even leave Hannah with words of comfort during a brief phone conversation they had? One key difference between Isaak and Dexter as professional killers is the former isn't afraid of his emotions and, in finding true love with Victor, enjoyed a life where he felt safe. Much of the episode was about getting Dexter to understand that Hannah could offer him a similar escape, which is admittedly something last week's "Argentina" was also angling towards.

So, Isaak didn't end up on Dexter's kill table in shrink-wrap. He was instead fatally wounded by his nightclub associate who ordered the hit, then found peace by being taken to die and be buried at sea alongside his beloved Victor. It was quite a sweet way to end his story, rather surprisingly. I'd never have guessed this is how the show would resolve Isaak's storyline, and that's a huge compliment. In season 7, Dexter's remembered that surprise is a key thing audience love about TV shows. And for a high-profile drama that had become predictable and, worse, sloppy in how it was telling stories, I'm so relieved it's got its mojo back.

Elsewhere, there wasn't too much going on elsewhere. We got to see Hannah's killing instinct when she tried to escape capture; although it just amused me she apparently needs access to plant life and vegetables to be a threat. And the escape via peppery tomatoes, used to choke her captor, soon spiralled into something from a Blake Edwards fare. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be as amusing as I found it, but it felt like comic relief to me.

We also had more movement with LaGuerta's (Lauren Vélez) pet project to reopen the Bay Harbor Butcher case, now she's enlisted the help of her retired boss Captain Matthews (Geoff Pierson), who wants his job back in exchange for helping LaGuerta with her list of potential boat-owning BHB suspects. This storyline's been uncharacteristically brewing in the background since the premiere, but my guess is LaGuerta's manhunt will take centre stage for the next three episodes. I don't know if that's going to be enough drama as a season finale (particularly now Isaak's gone), so perhaps Hannah's loyalty will also take an unexpected turn. Is it possible she'll snitch on Dexter to save her own skin? The final scene of this episode, with Dexter comforting her while she laid on her hospital bed, seemed to be a pretty big indicator that she's not quite so enamoured with him. Dexter's fallen head over heels in love, pushed into embracing that feeling by Isaak in his dying moments, but I have a feeling Hannah's just drawn to his darkness and doesn't reciprocate those emotions. Or if Dexter's kids are once again back with their grandparents (that was an awkward info-dump!), perhaps Hannah will go after Deb (Jennifer Carpenter)? Yes, I've dropped my theory that Hannah detests kids now. Nobody really backed me up on that one, but I got Isaak's sexuality right so you can't win everything.

Overall, "Helter Skelter" was a great finish for Isaak's character and felt like it was doing new things in several areas. I also felt more of a connection with Dex and Hannah than usual in their scenes, and the writing made me feel better about Deb's feelings for Dex being out in the open now. She even appears to have accepted that her brother's love for Hannah is worth something, so was instrumental in saving her life when she found her bleeding on the floor. But as good as this episode was, I can't deny I'm a little worried the remainder of this season's going to have to work miracles with thin material. LaGuerta opening an old wound and Hannah potentially being the girlfriend from hell? Is that enough to keep us excited and entertaining for three weeks, or will the writers come to regret dispatching Isaak when they did?

25 November 2012 / Showtime