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Dexter: The Fifth Season

Showtime // Unrated // August 16, 2011
List Price: $64.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 7, 2011 | E-mail the Author
Dexter opens the bathroom door to find Rita's lifeless body...what's left of his wife is soaking in a bathtub filled to the brim with her watered-down blood, while their infant son looks on, bawling in a pool of crimson
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on the floor. Season five picks up immediately where last year's finalé left off, as a shell-shocked Dexter is surrounded by police and, shortly thereafter, FBI agents. "It was me", he mutters. He's not wrong. Dexter had every opportunity to stop the Trinity Killer dead in his tracks, but instead, he was fascinated by the way this man had been murdering for decades and yet still found some way to balance a career and family life. Trinity had long ago answered a question Dexter was just now starting to struggle with, and curiosity got the best of him. Now, Rita is dead. Her two children from a previous marriage are now orphans, and Dexter's own son is without a mother. Dexter's involvement with Rita may have been just a means to an end at first -- cover to make this monster look more recognizably human -- but he'd come to love of the first people this sociopath had ever been compelled to give more than two shits about. Rita never would've been in Trinity's crosshairs if Dexter hadn't gotten involved with him, Dexter had plenty of chances to knock him off beforehand, and really, if not for Dexter trying to build up a façade of normalcy, Rita would in all likelihood still be alive and well. It was him.

Rita's brutal murder sends an immediate message: in this season of Dexter, anything can happen. Rita had been a mainstay of the series for four seasons straight, and she'd been a focal point the last year in particular. This isn't a character who had it coming, and slicing apart someone that integral to Dexter as of late makes it clear that no one is safe. Much of the tension throughout season five doesn't just result from the immediate aftershocks of Rita's murder but the feeling that anyone can die at any time. It now even doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that someone close to Dexter could stumble upon the secret of his dark passenger.

Then again, figuring out Dexter's secret may not be all that tough; he's not exactly at the top of his game these days. He has so much pent-up aggression in the wake of his wife's murder that he gets sloppy and impulsive,
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bludgeoning some random prick to death in a dingy bathroom. This isn't the cold, calculating Dexter who'd meticulously blanket his kill room in plastic sheeting and would plunge a knife into the chest of his immobile prey; no, this is chaotic, primal, and exhausting. For the past couple of seasons, Dexter had been portrayed kind of like The Punisher, minus the big, white skull: an unrepentant killer, yes, but not all that far off from a superhero. In doing bad things, he's making the world a better place. Season five offers at least somewhat of a return to the moral ambiguity of Dexter's earliest years, a reminder that Dexter kills not because he's some kind of avenging angel but because he has to. In fact, this season doesn't try to make Dexter appear more normal as the series has in years tries to ensnare what by all rights should be normal people into Dexter's dark mindset.

Dexter's compulsion to investigate a spatter of dried blood in a moving van puts him on the path of season five's overarching battle. Dexter has his rituals when he kills, but it's generally all about the release of burying that blade in his prey's chest...he doesn't torture or torment his victims, and for the most part, anyone who winds up on Dexter's table has it coming. Those dribbles of blood in the moving van send Dexter careening head-on into something else altogether. While some men bond over fishing or hunting deer, there's a group in Miami that instead sets its sights on pretty young blondes. In their homemade dungeon, they rape, torture, and torment these girls in the most dehumanizing ways imaginable, laughing and videotaping the entire time. After they've had their fun, what's left of their prey is shoved in a barrel drum and left to bob around in some backwater pond. Dexter doesn't know the entirety of that story when he finally has Boyd Fowler -- who looks like a double-digit IQ redneck but turns out to be a hell of a force to be reckoned with -- on his table. As he makes the killing stroke, Dexter hears some kind of shuffle in the stairwell behind him. Fowler apparently hadn't gotten around to butchering his most recent victim. Fowler has left behind both a survivor and a witness to one of Dexter's murders, and that's a
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dilemma. Not that Dexter pays all that much attention to Harry's Code anymore, but with "don't get caught" ranking at the top of that list, he's "allowed" to kill this terrified young girl if it keeps her from blabbing to the cops. Then again, Dexter couldn't bring himself to kill Doakes a couple years back, and he was much more of an immediate threat. What to do...? Well, that's the question, and Dexter can't bring himself to answer it. If he lets her go or if he silences her forever, he stands to lose more than he can bear.

Cooler heads prevail. Lumen (Julia Stiles) was terrified at the sight of Dexter murdering one of men who tortured, defiled, and dehumanized her, but then, she's known nothing but terror for weeks now. Seeing Dexter's knife sink into Fowler's chest sparked something within her...vengeance, torn straight out of I Spit On Your Grave. Lumen wants Dexter to help her hunt and kill every last one of her tormentors. Whether he wants one or not, Dexter has an apprentice, and having saved Lumen's life, he now feels responsible for it. It's just that Dexter is cold, methodical, and generally emotionless when plotting out his kills. Lumen, meanwhile, is fueled by revenge. That clouds her judgement, and she doesn't always think through things as well as Dexter does. She can't be controlled. Lumen can't even be trusted to be pointing her finger at the right targets. It's a hell of a counterpoint.

There are two very different reviews I could be writing right now. One's strictly from the perspective of a longtime Dexter fan, and that part of me thinks this is the series' most consistently satisfying season in years. As brilliant as Dexter's sophomore season was, for the most part, it fell off the rails in its last couple of episodes, and Lila ranks somewhere frustratingly high on the list of worst characters ever. Season three was sluggish, dead air pretty much from start to finish. There really aren't words to describe how phenomenal John Lithgow was as the Trinity Killer in season four, but any scene without Trinity in it felt like a slog. I know season four is a fan favorite, and the outstanding finalé redeems a lot of the weaker stretches, but it still feels wildly uneven to me as a whole. I'd still chalk myself up as a rabid fan, though, and I really like where Dexter heads this year. As ever, Michael C. Hall is a spectacularly compelling actor, and his character that's spent several years now wearing these masks of
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normalcy has it all stripped away. I've never had much cause to bother forming an opinion on Julia Stiles, even with as many movies as I've seen her in over the years, but she's incredible here. Hall can't help but stand out as the single best thing about Dexter, but Stiles stands strong as a close second this year. Lumen is a remarkably intriguing character, and her dynamic with Dexter proves to be the driving force of the season. Peter Weller turning up as a sleazy, disgraced narcotics cop who's set his sights on Dexter doesn't hurt either. Looking at this season as a longtime fan, I love the hell out of it. Looking at it with a more critical eye as a reviewer...well, that's something else altogether.

As much as I love Dexter, it's always been uneven, and that really hasn't changed the fifth time around. For one, far too much of the supporting cast is suffering from Chuck Syndrome. Dexter hardly ever seems to be at Miami P.D. anymore, but since the show still has a bunch of actors playing detectives under contract, they feel obligated to do something with 'em. Masuka's barely there. The romance blossoming between LaGuerta and Batista was one of the most excruciatingly boring things about season four, and the rough patch they go through in season five manages to be even blander, such as the pulse-pounding excitement of Batista learning about his wife's retirement fund. I'm not kidding. Quinn is more likeable this season then I ever remember him being before, I guess having let go of some of his baggage and also having dropped about 55 lbs. I mean, I'm a pretty scrawny dude, but Quinn's straight-up manorexic, to the point where I wonder if he weighs less than the similarly skeletal Deb Morgan. Oh, and speaking of Deb, since she has to start fucking someone with a badge every season, this time she's dug her claws into Quinn. There's a clunky, uninteresting love story there, swirling around the conflict of Deb's loyalty to her brother and Quinn deciding to be Doakes 2.0, kind of irrationally trying to dig up dirt on Dexter. The weird thing is that he's on the right track, but the way he connects some of the dots requires massive leaps in logic. Quinn's suspicions are much better justified than anything Doakes could be bothered to come up with, but he never really feels like a credible threat, no matter how close he gets. The Miami P.D. just feels so disconnected from everything that Dexter does anymore that most of those sequences just come across as filler, even when they're investigating something as gruesome as a series of ritualistic beheadings. They also make a lot of baffling decisions that don't hold up to any thought or scrutiny, but I guess that's TV Cops for you.

A lot of subplots dangle in the background but never really go anywhere. I'll give the writers the benefit of the doubt and guess that these are meant as red herrings -- to manipulate the audience into expecting that some of these storylines are going to intertwine with Lumen's hunt for her tormentors or leaving some other kind of dramatic impact on the season -- and the fact that this never happens is supposed to have subverted all of your expectations. That sounds better than "sloppy plotting", anyway. Pointing out which storylines don't matter in the end starts to get into spoilery territory, so I'll avoid getting into specifics, but there are more than a couple. Characters have a tendency to appear and disappear with no rhyme or reason. There are at least two new characters introduced this season that get so much attention that you just know they're going to rattle the show to its foundations,, not really. There's also a kind of
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strange storyline where Dexter is concerned that his infant son has been transformed by witnessing the brutal death of his mother, the same as Dexter himself. It's just that for a kid that's only a few months old...I don't know. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be taking that at face value or if I'm supposed to see it as a deliberately ridiculous stab at black humor that Dexter's spawned a potentially killer baby.

The first half of the season does move rather slowly, feeling as if it's just treading water to drag out its storylines to fill a twelve episode order. Even the weaker episodes are still filled with enough tremendous moments that none of it ever feels like a waste, but there is kind of the sense that this should be a six-to-eight episode season that's stretched a lot further than it ought to be. Still, once the second half rolls around, this fifth season of Dexter is unrelentingly intense. The distracting, useless subplots that have been running in the background get dialed down to near-nothing. The noose really starts to tighten, and the season earns its suspense with seemingly every character wielding some piece of critical information that could shatter the façade Dexter's spent so many years building up. Because Dexter is pitted against a group of torturers and murderers rather than a single arch-nemesis, these characters are somewhat roughly sketched, lacking the depth and dimension of a killer like Trinity. Still, a couple of them immediately establish themselves as worthy adversaries for Dexter, nailing him to the ground when he gets cocky. The primary adversary, once revealed, proves to be a masterful manipulator...someone that's every bit as cunning, cruel, and crafty as anyone Dexter has come across before. Too bad about his annoying catchphrase, but whatever. Lumen is such a richly drawn character that her depth makes up for the relative flatness of her tormenters, and it all seems especially
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worthwhile as the end draws near.

Whereas season four's finalé fully redeemed what had been a rather uneven year, I have to admit that the episode that closes out this set is fairly disappointing. Last year ended with a shocking, game-changing moment whose shockwaves rattle everything that happens this season. Really, every season up to this point has in some way significantly changed Dexter as a character. This time...? Nothing. Everything is fully reset. Dexter's back in his old apartment, and he's a single dad with one kid and an Irish nanny. That's it. You could leap straight from season four to whatever happens in the season six premiere in October without missing a beat. Nothing in Dexter's fifth season is allowed to have any lasting impact, and nothing that happens offers any real insight into Dexter's twisted mind that we didn't already know. Even the way some of these dangling plot threads are wrapped up feels breathlessly rushed and unsatisfying. Arguably the only meaningful change is Deb's acceptance of this sort of vigilante justice and lack of remorse for killing an irredeemable murderer, but that's hardly a seismic shift. Dexter isn't a show that should settle for just running in place like this.

I don't want to sound like I'm too down on this season, though. As much as season five gets wrong, it gets quite a lot right as well. Rita, despite being dead, is showcased in some truly terrific flashback sequences, returning her to the warm and likeable character she used to be. She'd been understandably kind of shrill for the past couple of years, and seeing that other Rita put in an appearance is greatly appreciated, especially since we finally get to see her and Dexter's first far he'd come from merely using her as cover. Michael C. Hall, as ever, can't be lavished with enough praise. I also loved the holy hell out of seeing Peter Weller play against type, sinking his teeth into this scummy, disgraced cop role. One of Dexter's favorite tricks is to reflect Dexter through Miami's other serial killers: his brother, his lover, his friend, his mentor... This time, that
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distorted mirror image takes the waifish form of Lumen. It's a titanic performance by Julia Stiles, beautifully capturing the exposed wounds of torment and anguish, standing on the razor's edge of losing what's left of her sanity. The bond that's struck between Lumen and Dexter is perhaps the most genuine and effective of any on the show...even greater than the familial bond between Dex and Deb. The suspense this season is constantly ratcheting up, such as Dexter darting around Boyd Fowler's house when his target suddenly decides to drop in for lunch, prompting Dex to slink around looking for evidence without being discovered. Later, there's a stalemate between Dexter and some prey that he woefully underestimated, and the hunter soon becomes the hunted. There are some brilliant moments where everything collides at once, such as Dexter having to deal with a small army of police bearing down on an attempted murder, one of his own victims managing to break free, and struggling with an overeager Irish nanny on the phone, all at the same time. There's no margin for error. Much of the imagery is as grisly and unnerving as ever. Despite the fact that we're not really shown the attacks Lumen and the other twelve girls endured, seeing it reflected in the horrified eyes of those who do have a first-hand view of that torture makes it all feel very visceral and very real.

As flawed as Dexter's fifth season is, I'd still point to it as one of the strongest runs of the show...certainly the series' best since its nearly perfect sophomore season. Season five plays particularly well on Blu-ray. When devoured over the course of a marathon or two, its more methodical pace -- taking a full third of the season for its arc to be fully formed -- doesn't seem quite so slow, and the derailments with the mostly forgettable supporting cast are more readily shrugged off. I'm disappointed that Dexter mashed the reset button and didn't allow what could've been another game-changer to carry over into season six. The series is clearly content to just tread water at this point, but at least Dexter is still extremely entertaining as it goes through the motions. A lot of Dexter's luster has faded for me over the past few years, but even though it's hardly a great series, season five still does so much right that I'd recommend it to other longtime fans without hesitation. Recommended.

Five seasons in, chances are you already have a pretty good idea what to expect out of Dexter on Blu-ray. This most recent season is more of the same, and I certainly don't mean that in a bad way. The digital photography is generally crisp and detailed...not as dazzlingly razor-sharp as some other series that have come down the pike but absolutely hitting all my expectations. There is some sporadic softness, and particularly whenever Dexter's behind the wheel, short, scattered stretches look distractingly video-like. Neither of those are frequent enough to be concerned about, though. The palette is bright and candy-colored where appropriate, and detail and clarity still hold up well under the dimmest of light. All three of the BD-50 discs in this set are filled just about to capacity, and with that kind of headroom, the bitrate of Dexter's AVC encodes never once sputters or stutters. Edge enhancement or noise reduction never rear their head. I did spot some ghosting a couple of times on disc three, but that's not a persistent nuisance. Dexter may not be the most impressive looking series I've tuned into on Blu-ray, but I'm not really left with any actual gripes. A solid effort.

Each episode of the fifth season of Dexter is backed by a 16-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. The emphasis is placed squarely on the dialogue, and it's predominately
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reproduced cleanly and clearly, with an occasional flicker of light clipping. Background music coaxes a thick, meaty roar from the subwoofer, although there's otherwise not that much going on in the lower frequencies. The surround channels are kept chattering throughout: phones ringing in the police station, elevator doors opening, background conversations, sqwawking gulls by the water, a particularly haunting scream, swirling voices during a freak-out...that sort of thing. The rears also flesh out a little bit of directionality at times. Overall, the surrounds are put to better and more frequent use than quite a lot of TV series I've come across over the years. Again, nothing overwhelmingly impressive but every bit as good as I expected it to be.

Also included are two lossy dubs: a set of 5.1 French tracks as well as Spanish stereo. Rounding out the audio options are English (SDH) subtitles.

There aren't any extras on the discs themselves. A few bells and whistles will be available over BD-Live -- the first two installments of The Borgias and Episodes, cast interviews, and a look back at season five by Julia Stiles -- but at least as I write this, the switch for that footage hasn't been flipped on yet.

The Final Word
It depends on which of the nagging little voices in my head I decide to listen to. The armchair film critic in me sees plenty to nitpick about in Dexter's fifth season -- an aggressively bland supporting cast, too many subplots that don't go anywhere, a sloppy season finalé that mashes the reset button on everything, the usual clunky narration and increasingly terrible Harry hallucinations -- but I'm also a longtime Dexter fan, and that part of me really doesn't care about all that. Especially when devouring a season like this in a marathon, those sorts of flaws are easily shrugged off, and I can better appreciate everything season five does right. The bond that's struck between Dexter and his new apprentice is brilliant, Lumen proves to be one of the most compelling characters the series has ever introduced, and the man they're ultimately pitted against turns out to be one of Dexter's most worthy adversaries. Season five is wildly uneven, yes, but all in all, it's my favorite run of Dexter since its sophomore year. Of course, this being the fifth season and all, chances are that you knew if you were going to bite long before you ever clicked on this review. Recommended.
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