The accused: Dexter, “The British Invasion” (Season 2, Episode 12)
The crime: Allowing its lead character to avoid major consequences and therefore damaging the narrative forever
How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway? These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with #TVFail, a nexus of television failure, small, large and in-between.
Welcome back, failure fans. Sorry about the delay between entries, it’s been a stressful, busy time in Casa de Surveillance. Hopefully there will be no more unscheduled breaks any time soon.
I have covered all kinds of failure here with #TVFail, from loudly-scorned efforts to somewhat-secret stumbles, but the episode central to today’s entry is perhaps the most influential on its full series. Maybe the Heroes season one finale is reflective of larger problems that the series could never, ever overcome and perhaps an early season six episode of 24 was a point of no return for that series’ use of “shocking” moments. Yet, neither of those episodes touches the ultimate impact of today’s focus. The second season finale of Dexter substantially altered the trajectory of its lead character and the series as whole. Planning the “what if” game is rarely productive, but it is hard for me to not think about what kind of story Dexter could have been had things gone differently with this episode, and the conclusion of the season’s story.
The other thing that makes “The British Invasion” a different representative of television failure is that for the most part, Dexter had few major issues before this episode aired. The first season sometimes dragged and the supporting characters were a bit flimsy, but overall, it was a success (mostly because of Michael C. Hall’s performance, but still). And the second season? It is very, very good. Doakes is not the most interesting character as an individual person, but as an antagonistic, threatening force breathing down Dexter’s neck, he is perfect. Despite her annoying tendencies, Lila initially appeared to serve a purpose for Dexter, giving him an out to tap into the animalistic and passionate portions of his personality.
Generally speaking, if the story is about a vigilante “savior” who stops criminals by murdering them, it is smart to pressure that character with the possibility of revealing his identity and all his secrets. And doing it sooner, rather than later, is even smarter. As a result, the first 11 episodes of Dexter season two are tremendous (typical supporting character nonsense aside). The story kept moving forward at a nice clip, the stakes felt real and Dexter looked to be boxed into circumstances that he couldn’t weasel out of, at least without major consequences.
In most of my cases thus far at #TVFail, the context for the failure makes a lot of sense. We could see Heroes struggles coming. Many elements of 24’s premise were already strained once season six came around (despite the quality of season five). Even something like the struggles of Friday Night Lights during season two made sense immediately because we could bet NBC wanted them to “spice” it up and we knew that Jason Katims was working on multiple projects at once. But the events of “The British Invasion” made little sense in 2007 and even though they make a certain modicum of sense in 2012, they only do so for all the wrong reasons.
Therefore, I do not want to flat-out say that this episode ruined the series, because there have a number of satisfying episodes and individual moments in the subsequent four years of Dexter. Nevertheless, I will say that “The British Invasion” severely damaged Dexter the character and Dexter the series and although there have been times where it seems like both are on their way to coming out of their respective ruts, the issues that started here work their way to the surface yet again. The events of this episode are the root for most of the problems Dexter has had throughout the rest of its run, and choices made as to how to end season two’s story robbed audiences of what could have been one of television’s truly great cable dramas.
Dexter is, obviously, a morally ambiguous character. He is the protagonist character of Dexter the series and his work keeping the proverbial streets safe can be read as somewhat heroic. But all of the character’s heroic tendencies are canceled out by his selfish desires and psychological damage. Sure, he kills “bad” people (most of the time), but he does so for himself more so than for the citizens of Miami. He is chasing a feeling and trying to suppress certain urges at the same time. This is all obvious and Dexter’s ambiguity is more or less the hook of the entire story.
However, season two is really the only season to truly interrogate Dexter’s reasoning in any great detail. In the first season and later years, the writers found ways to address why Dexter kills and what kind of impact that has on everyone around him, but I never got/get the sense that the series was actively challenging Dexter’s process or his beliefs. But in season two, things are different. Dexter himself questions the logic and value of The Code and considers turning himself in multiple times. He agrees to go to Narcotics Anonymous when Rita suspects he has a drug problem and finds some value in the lessons. And most importantly, Dexter loses control and starts treating people like crap (while bedding the appealingly crazy Lila), just as one of the few other sympathetic characters on the series starts to suspect his actions.
It is one thing for Dexter to cunningly plot to avoid being caught by the police. The audience expects the anti-hero to take sketchy actions to save his/her own skin. It is something else entirely (but not “bad,” more on that in a second) for Dexter to purposefully plot against Doakes, an officer of the law who is simply trying to do the right thing and catch a criminal. Obviously, the audience knows more about Dexter’s reasons for taking certain actions and that makes him more sympathetic, but it is hard to identify Dexter’s actions in season two as anything other than “sufficiently evil.” He works overtime to cover his own tracks, but those selfish actions in the name of self-preservation lead Dexter to attempt to pin all of the Bay Harbor Butcher murders on Doakes. Doakes isn’t the most appealing or lovable character ever, but he doesn’t especially deserve the things that happen to him throughout season two either.
Amid his plotting against Doakes, Dexter’s personal life spirals as well. His relationship with Rita is fractured once he succumbs to Lila’s advances. He commits small, typical sins like lying, but also starts to give in to his more fundamentally vicious urges – urges that certainly have an impact on his treatment of Doakes.
In the first season, Dexter’s primary foe is someone who is obviously more villainous than he is. Even the weekly easy kills are described in such a way that it’s fairly easy for the series to justify Dexter dispatching of them. But in season two, the primary foe (Doakes) is not more villainous than Dexter, far from it. That shift in antagonist, combined with Dexter’s personal descent into more overtly “bad” behavior, makes the character dramatically less admirable throughout the season.
And don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing, at all. A series like Breaking Bad succeeds because it is not afraid to let its lead character(s) make terrible decisions that hurt people, both good and bad, and keep moving down a path of evil. The more complicated the actions by the “antihero” character, the more compelling, and arguably, better, the story is. Challenging the audience to identify with someone who does just as many horrible, selfish things to good people as he does to bad people is, again, a good thing.
Dexter should have taken this route, as it appeared it was truly on its way to doing. The way I see it, the whole arc of the second season is leading to a moment where Dexter turns into something more complicated (read: evil) than he (or the audience) initially thought. At worst, the story is leading to a moment where Dexter has to make a choice about the kind of monster he wants to be: Does he kill Doakes? And if not, how does he keep him alive? Relatedly: Does The Code matter, or when do the ends justify the means? You could add a number of similar questions here.
Unfortunately, “The British Invasion” not only fails to accomplish the first feat, it somehow also strips Dexter of even having to make a choice at all. Lila discovers the abandoned cabin that Dexter is using to hold Doakes, and convinced that she is Dexter’s soul-mate, sets the house ablaze. Doakes dies; Dexter is relieved, freed from having to make the hard decision. And of course, by the end of the episode, Dexter also travels abroad and takes care of Lila, just for good measure. After all that tension, all those questions, everything is resolved neatly and conveniently.
Erik King, the actor who played Doakes, said in an interview that “Dexter could not kill Doakes because he is an innocent man.” The implication from King’s statement is that Dexter is too good to kill an innocent man and that as the antihero protagonist of a popular television series there are certain lines the character apparently cannot cross. And of course, I understand some of the realities and necessities of television, wherein certain events or changes cannot occur because this is a business, the series have to go on as long as possible, etc.
However, what King’s statement disregards and where the realities of the business do not matter, is how the story developed up to “The British Invasion.” If Doakes had to die – and the producers insisted that he did – then fine. But perhaps do not build the season’s narrative around Dexter’s declining morality and increased state of unhinged-ness or ask big, important questions about the character’s modus operandi. Because if Doakes does die and his death completely undercuts everything that came before for the lead character (who will still be alive and have to deal with all this in future seasons), the whole story breaks down and ultimately, the resolution feels like a massive cop-out. That is, of course, exactly what happened here.
The majority of season two is about Dexter not caring about his already-muddled versions of right and wrong and to allow him to slip out of a final beat in that regard is staggering. To not even put Dexter in a situation where he’s forced, even begrudgingly, to frame Doakes for all the Bay Harbor Butcher nonsense is staggering. To not even put Dexter within miles of event where Doakes does die and to take everything out of his hands is STAGGERING.
“The British Invasion” should have actively engaged with moral ambiguity, and at worst, should have maintained its pre-established gray area. But instead, the finale runs away from any hard choices so it can keep the series’ lead character at a certain level of comfortability. Somehow, after a season dedicated to showing the audience how much of a hero Dexter is not, the finale ends with him positioned as heroic for taking out the admittedly-annoying Lila, the woman who actually had the gall to do what Dexter could not.
Oddly, in the aftermath of “The British Invasion” various Dexter writers and produced talked about killing Doakes to avoid repeating storylines or staying stagnant. The problem with those statements is Dexter almost immediately became repetitive and stagnant because of the choices made for “The British Invasion.” With Doakes out of the picture, there were no police characters around to truly pose a threat for Dexter. Instead, he has appeared to be unbelievably more intelligent than everyone around him, every week for four years. The only time Dexter gets into hot water these days is when he slips up, not when really anyone else does something right. As a result, there have been few instances where Dexter has been able to touch the tension of those great season two episodes, at least in regard to Dexter being “discovered.” The stakes feel less important because the series has proven time and time again, starting with “The British Invasion,” that Dexter will get out of whatever jam he is in by the end.
And arguably more importantly, all of Dexter’s primary foes in season three through six have been obviously more “evil” than him. That approach to antagonist construction makes the story immediately less interesting because it allows Dexter to be positioned in the moral high ground (relatively speaking, of course). Clearly, Dexter’s relationship with Trinity had some compelling moments and connected nicely with Dexter’s inner turmoil over his family life. Nevertheless, there was still never any question about who was “more evil” between Trinity and Dexter and the way Rita’s murder was used to evoke sympathy for the latter proves that even more. Trinity was the villain taking something away from the hero. There was not enough in the series, either before or after, that addressed how Dexter caused Rita’s death by being an awful monster himself.*
*To be fair, the season five premiere does a great job with this. But it was forgotten too quickly so the story could move on to its typical rhythms.
Every season, Dexter’s way of life is reinforced and justified. It does not matter what he does in that year’s 12 episodes. The story basically ends up at the same place. The series’ one big card left to play is Deb finding out that Dexter is this monster, but to get there, the writers decided it would be wise to make Deb A.) Agree with a certain level of vigilante justice (in season five) and B.) Fall in love with Dexter. So even though she walked in on him murdering Travis at the end of season six, she’s already predisposed to make excuses – and this doesn’t even include the fact that she already knows Travis was a terrible murderer, so Dexter killing him is kind of okay anyway.
Dexter has stopped asking the compelling questions it was asking before “The British Invasion.” It has stopped forcing its lead character into circumstances where the audience is forced to question their sympathy for him. I see the logic behind “softening” Dexter over time as part of some kind of character development, but the man hasn’t changed. The series allows him to do the same awful things he has always done, it just keeps making excuses for him. The worldview of Dexter the series always reinforces the worldview of Dexter the character. Not challenging them is such a mistake.
Maybe Dexter did not have to be as ambitious as something like Breaking Bad. But it could have taken a real risk every once and a while.* But it did not, and as a result, the series and the character have become exactly what the writers did not want at the end of season two: repetitive (see also: borderline terrible).
*I’m not sure if I would call killing Rita as a real “risk.” That choice was certainly shocking and provided the series a great cliffhanger. But removing her from the equation only allowed the writers to avoid establishing much real tension for Dexter even more. Now he has no one to answer to but his son and the moral pull of a baby apparently isn’t enough (and certainly isn’t compelling enough narratively).