Case in point, I was watching Dexter yesterday. Yes, I know I was supposed to be reading, but I was still struggling with being under the weather. For those of you waiting anxiously to see what pronouncements I will make on The City & The City, I promise they’re coming. I did manage to read about 100 pages. OK, it was closer to 50 but according to my son’s 3rd Grade teacher that still rounds up to 100.
So I’m watching Dexter, “Let’s Give the Boy a Hand” (Season 1 Episode 4, for those of you keeping score at home) and there is this wonderful bit where Angel brings two different anniversary gifts to get Dexter’s approval. They can’t be more than 10 seconds of dialogue a piece and both are a complete aside to the action at hand, but they are both tremendously revealing and funny. On the surface they are revealing because it’s a natural thing for a guy to do – look for approval from another guy on the great gift he has bought his wife. Angel’s action clearly shows that he is nervous about the gift and that it’s important to him. The characterization is simple, true, and effective. The humor comes from Dexter’s response. First, both times Dexter sees something else – a butterfly instead of a clover and “ox” instead of x’s and o’s for hugs and kisses. His matter-of-fact alternative is enough to tip the balance of Angel’s doubt. The additional layer of humor comes from the fact that Angel has sought validation of the gift from the one person who self-describes as having no capacity for feeling love or human emotion, Dexter. Dexter has a truly different window on the world and of course he offers a different view on the gift. By contrast, when Angel brings the third gift attempt to Dexter’s sister not only does she state that she likes it but through her manner she also expresses some empathetic recognition of Angel’s nerves. Dexter does not.
The big reveal, however, comes later in the episode when we discover that Angel is separated from his wife and not entirely welcome in what was their home. The moment of realization for the viewer brings both an appreciation for the depth of Angel’s nervousness and for the mask he is wearing. In an episode for which masks are the thematic cohesion, we see how simply and subtly Angel’s mask is presented. Kudos to the writer.