We're nearly halfway through the final season. So why does Dexter feel like business as usual?

By James Hibberd
Updated July 29, 2013 at 01:45 AM EDT

The good news: We’ve escaped the muddled Brain Surgeon storyline! He’s apparently dead as Trinity after Sunday’s “This Little Piggy” episode.

The not-great news: The episode was otherwise pretty sleepy, and a new murder case was introduced that looks right out of a CBS murder-of-the-week crime procedural.

So I’m going to say it: Five episodes into Dexter‘s final season, it feels like we’re killing time before the dramatic fireworks that we assume/hope are eventually coming. The season 8 premiere was tense, emotional and gripping; it felt like the show was evolving into an interesting and non-formulaic animal for its final round. But since, we’ve been lost in Dr. Vogel’s psychotherapy and chasing a Not-So-Big Bad.

Maybe everything we’ve seen so far will pay off later. Maybe all these various threads will tie together into a stunning knotty climax. And there have been developments this season — Deb and Dex’s relationship has continued to evolve. But I wish the final season was increasing stakes and tension every week and felt more like a cohesive story instead of a compartmentalized series of new killers for Dex to dispatch. There was the Brain Surgeon (and his minion), now there’s the Maid Murder, and the return of Hannah McKay is still waiting in the wings. Plus there’s the Jake Elway character who will eventually be doing … something other than drinking electrolytes, presumably.

If this season only exists to set up the rumored Deb-focused spin-off, then okay, maybe we care whether Quinn or Miller become sergeant. Otherwise, Quinn’s test, Masuka’s daughter and Dex’s hot neighbor all seem like pretty low stakes situations for what should be a ramp-up to a stunning climax (FX’s The Shield, for example, kept turning the screws on its characters every hour during its final season). Yet by the end of this episode, Dex and Debra’s relationship with each other and with the suspicion-free Miami Metro (you can’t even convince them you’re guilty by confessing!) feel like everything is more or less back to normal (more on this at the end of this recap).

It’s perhaps worth nothing that this final season of Dexter was written faster than previous years. The summer premiere date was picked to help fuel the launch of Showtime’s Ray Donovan, instead of Dexter returning in the fall like usual — which hugely crunched deadlines. So we arguably shouldn’t hold this season to the same standard as other seasons. But we gotta focus on what we’re given.

So let’s recap Sunday’s episode with eight things that happened:

1. Dexter and Deb had to scramble in the wake of the accident. Crashing a car into a lake along a suburban street in front of a witness and nearly killing Dexter naturally had plenty of serious consequences for our characters and the story — the police were called, Dex had to go to the hospital after being revived, the Morgans had to explain what happened to the insurance company, Dex had to buy a new car and …. and … and … oh. None of that actually happened! Or maybe it did and we were just spared it. Okay, there was some reaction, and that brings us to the first real thing that happened this week:

2. We see a new side to Dexter. Our favorite blood-spatter vigilante was uncharacteristically pissed about his sister trying to murder him. “You almost left my son an orphan,” he tells Deb. “I’m not perfect! You think it’s easy being your brother!?” Yeah, you tell her! We’re ready for mopey Deb to get a verbal smack upside the head. She has every reason to be depressed and upset, of course, but we’re ready for her to turn a corner. Dex declares to Dr. Vogel he’s going to get back to hunting a serial killer, “which according to you is all I’m really good for … don’t forget to write all this down.” Seeing bitter, angry, self-pitying Dexter is actually pretty fun.

NEXT: Dexter gets a Mini Me

3. Quinn can kinda run a meeting. Batista continues to favor his grouchy ex-partner over the less interesting but perfectly competent-seeming Det. Miller in the competition for Miami Metro’s Next Top Sergeant. He lets Quinn run the morning meeting. Mr. Mumbles goes through the motions just fine. We learn there’s a new case that’s going to occupy their attention — the maid/lover of a wealthy guy named Hamilton who was found murdered.

4. Dexter gets a Mini Me: The Miami Metro team investigate the Hamilton murder, where a man was having an affair with his devious maid and we realize almost immediately that his skulking creepy preppy teenage son probably did it. The son, Zach, takes an interest in Dexter and seems to be doing his best Michael C. Hall impression. Quinn later tells Batista that Zach was seen leaving the crime scene. “I wasn’t expecting that,” Batista says — because, as we’ve already established, he’s not a very good detective.

5. Masuka’s daughter may be a moocher. We’re not sure. I suspect she’s not. I’m not sure adding cheese to your burrito order at a food truck really exemplifies mooching. But as a single guy dating in Miami, Masuka is probably sensitive to excuses like “I left my purse in the car.” He employs Deb to dig up dirt on her.

6. Dr. Vogel, you’re going to be taken: Yates is apparently the brain surgeon, but he also might be a foot fetishist with pliers … I guess he’s both. Why the hell not. In my favorite scene from this episode, Yates simply walks by Vogel’s window, crashes through it and tackles her. There’s an invasive violence to this moment that worked for me. Just don’t think about Yates too much. Yates has been doing an extremely elaborate psychological tormenting of Vogel this season, re-arranging crime scenes and leaving little gift boxes of brains and so forth. He seems like a totally different character than somebody who would just do a rage-filled smash-and-grab. His major personality traits are being shouty and wearing a hat.

7. Jamie isn’t a great matchmaker. Dexter comes home in a rush during his hunt to find Dr. Vogel, but he’s ambushed by his nanny who has invited cute neighbor Cassie over for drinks to set her up with Dexter. She had breezily mentioned the idea of dinner previously but not really made it clear all she had planned. It’s “less awkward this way” she explains. Sure Jamie, there’s nothing remotely awkward about coming home after a hard day at work to a surprise first date in your own living room! Dexter protests and she’s outraged. “I planned this whole night for you!” she says. Dexter briefly relents, and agrees to spend some time with Cassie, who proves to be a good sport about everything. “Serial killer bested by 100-pound nanny,” he quips.

8. The brain surgeon dies — maybe: Deb wanted to help Dexter rescue Vogel since that will help her presumably get more over killing LaGuerta. Works for us! Vogel fends off Yates by pretending to be his mother and slapping him. She uses his phone to call Dexter, tipping him and Deb to their location. The killer Morgans arrive and rescue her, with Dex impaling Yates with a curtain rod. The therapy feels complete, for now — Dex and Deb seem like they’re on the same page again. “The family that kills together…” Deb says. All three of them participate in the solemn body-dumping/fish-feeding ceremony off the Slice of Life, one murderous family. Deb has it exactly right when she says: “If anyone really knew us, they’d run screaming.”

I know some of you will be in the “you’re being too hard on the show!” camp. It’s not like “This Little Piggy” or recent episodes have been unusually lacking based on previous seasons. It’s just that given the creative components this show has to play with — a final season, a serial killer working in a police department, his unhinged sister — you would think the regular characters would be actively working at cross-purposes against each other rather than merely getting into occasional arguments. You would hope each episode would leave you cliff-hanged with “I can’t wait to see what happens next,” or “How can Dexter possibly get out of this?” rather than “Well, I guess that wraps it up for that killer in the hat.”

UPDATE: There’s some readers below going “the brain surgeon isn’t really dead, it’s Vogel you idiot!” First, I try to only comment on what’s presented IN the episode, especially since I sometimes have an idea of what’s actually coming up so making serious predictions can feel like cheating — like using time travel to do fortune telling, or something. Having said that, I don’t know if Vogel is secretly the brain surgeon. I would be stunned if there wasn’t some dark Vogel secret that we will eventually find out. The idea that she might be building an army of serial killers sounds about right. The idea she might be responsible for Rita or Harry’s death is also very intriguing (again, I don’t know). But the theory that everything that’s been attributed so far to “the brain surgeon” — from the gift boxes to brainless corpses to crazy window-smashing Yates — is all directly part of Vogel’s plan, doesn’t really make any sense to me. Unsure if that’s a prerequisite for it not being right.

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