Stumptown is ABC’s highly anticipated new show starring Cobie Smulders as Dex Parios, an unorthodox private investigator in Portland, Oregon. Dex has a chip on her shoulder and deep roots in the community. Unlike many TV and film private detectives, she’s not afraid to show a little vulnerability, though she’s also suffering from PTSD due to her 5 tours in Afghanistan. She’s new at the PI game, so she leans on her military experience, local contacts and well-honed instincts while she’s learning the tricks of the trade.
The show is created by Jason Richman, based on the the graphic novel series of the same name by Greg Rucka, with art by Matthew Southworth and Justin Greenwood. Stumptown also stars Jake Johnson as Dex’s best friend, Grey, who owns the bar Bad Alibi; Cole Sibus as the younger brother with Down Syndrome who lives with her, Ansel Parios; Tantoo Cardinal as Sue Lynn Blackbird, who runs the Native American casino where Dex frequently gambles and runs up a debt; Michael Ealy as police Detective Miles Hoffman, who encourages Dex to become a PI and is a potential love interest; Camryn Manheim as police Lieutenant Cosgrove, Hoffman’s boss; and Adrian Martinez as Tookie, a food truck operator and one of Dex’s sources of unofficial information.
The episode begins at the end, with a couple of thugs driving Dex’s car while taste testing coffee. This is Portland, after all. Dex is locked in the trunk. She gets the upper hand by spraying the thugs with a fire extinguisher, then climbing into the front to fight both of them while the car is still moving. Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline plays over it all.
I haven’t figured out yet whether Dex is a little bit psychic and she’s unconsciously controlling the car’s malfunctioning stereo, or if the car is a little bit sentient, so it’s consciously choosing the perfect song for each moment. Whichever one it is, they did great at matching 20th century pop songs to particular moments in the episode.
After the title card, we rewind back to the real beginning of the show. Dex is hanging out at a casino bar, where a guy sits down and tries to hit on her by pretending he’s an Afghanistan war veteran who’s only in town overnight. It only takes her a few seconds to have his whole life figured out and to call him on his lies. Since she actually fought in Afghanistan, she especially enjoys exposing that lie.
From there, she goes to the craps table, where she wins big, then loses it all. This is the story of her life. The casino boss, Sue Lynn, has her second in command, Hollis, bring Dex to her office. Dex thinks Sue Lynn wants to talk about her gambling debt and asks for another $2,000 in credit. Sue Lynn points out that Dex has just gambled away her military disability check for the month and now owes the casino $11,000. Like all gambling addicts, Dex swears she’s good for it.
Sue Lynn says that she’s actually called Dex in because her rebellious granddaughter, Nina, is missing again. Dex suggests they cancel Nina’s phone and credit cards in order to flush her out. Sue Lynn and Hollis say that Nina didn’t take anything with her, and anyway, they thought Dex would care more about Nina, given how close she and Nina’s father, Benny, were.
Sue Lynn broke up Dex and Benny’s relationship when they were kids because she didn’t think Dex was good enough for him. But the older woman knows that the military gave Dex a medal for finding enemy combatants, so maybe she’ll have better luck finding Nina than the tribe has had so far. They don’t want to call the police and bring them into tribal business. Sue Lynn implies that she’ll forgive Dex’s gambling debt if she takes the job.
Dex turns her down and walks out.
The implication that Dex should care about Nina because Nina could have been her daughter if things had been different was a low blow from the woman who made sure it didn’t happen that way.
Dex goes home, where her brother, Ansel, is waiting up for her. He’s worried about their finances because of her gambling debts. She tries to reassure him and sends him to bed, then calls Hollis to accept the job.
The next day, Dex drops Ansel off with her best friend, Grey, so that Ansel can help Grey get his bar ready for its opening night. Grey and Dex discuss whether she should work for him at the bar as well, but decide that it would eventually ruin their friendship.
Dex visits one of Nina’s friends, Lucy, who refuses to give her any information. Dex leaves, but then quickly circles back and snatches the girl’s phone after correctly guessing that Lucy would call Nina as soon as she left. From the phone, Dex can see that Nina is at the Aloha Motel with a boy named Michael.
Dex goes straight to the motel and pulls the fire alarm to get everyone out of their rooms. When she visits Nina and her boyfriend, Michael, in their room, they tell her they’re eloping. They’re saving up for a ring. Dex makes Nina leave with her anyway.
In the car, Nina tells Dex that she’s eloping so that her grandmother can’t break her and Michael up the way she broke Dex and Benny up. Then they’re rear ended by another car. Before she gets out to deal with the accident, Dex handcuffs Nina to the steering wheel so she can’t run off.
It’s the thugs from the cold opening. One fights Dex, while the other picks the lock on Nina’s handcuffs with a knife so he can get her out of the car. Dex has a hard time fighting back because her PTSD is triggered. The thug gets her at gunpoint, but they leave once they have Nina.
The police and an ambulance respond to the kidnapping. Dex wants to leave once she’s recovered a bit, but Detective Miles Hoffman informs her that there’s an outstanding warrant out for her because she has 14 unpaid parking tickets. He uses that as his excuse to take her to the station.
Hoffman and Lieutenant Cosgrove, his boss, question Dex after she’s been in a holding room for 2 hours. Dex figures out that they’ve done some investigating during the wait time. They have a bantery, mildly flirty exchange of information until Cosgrove tells Dex that the thugs were seen at the hotel at the same time as her. Cosgrove figures Dex either led the thugs straight to Nina or she just happened to beat them there. Then she calls Dex an amateur who makes amateur mistakes.
Grey picks Dex up at the station and gives her a hard time for not realizing that some of the lowlifes at the motel were after Nina. He thinks she should let the cops handle it. Dex can’t do that, because she feels responsible for losing Nina. Hoffman apologizes to Dex for the way that Cosgrove came down so hard on her.
Dex returns to the motel to talk to Michael, who blames her for ruining his beautiful romance. Dex tells him she can sense that he’s holding back something which could help her find Nina. She used to interrogate people in the military and developed an intuition about her subjects. He needs to tell her whatever he knows, or he’ll blame himself when Nina gets hurt.
Michael spills his his guts. Sue Lynn used to do business with a gangster named Baxter Hall, until he went behind her back to sell opioids on the reservation. She retaliated by torching one of his shipments, which cost him a lot of money. This kidnapping is his revenge. Michael doesn’t know where to find Baxter, but Dex has her own connections.
Meanwhile, Sue Lynn receives a ransom note asking for $2 million. If she involves the police, they’ll start cutting off Nina’s fingers. Instructions will follow. Sue Lynn shows the note to the police.
Cosgrove asks to speak to Nina’s parents, but Sue Lynn refuses to give her access to Nina’s mother. We already know her father died. Next Cosgrove wants access to the casino’s records, employees and surveillance footage. Sue Lynn agrees, but wants her people to be involved in the investigation. Cosgrove smugly says they work alone.
American Indian tribes often have their own police forces, and the casino would obviously have its own security. It seems reasonable for Sue Lynn to expect that they would be involved in the investigation, even if she’s otherwise involved in shady activities.
Dex visits her former employer, Tookie, who’s run a popular food truck for 20 years and is plugged into the city’s gossip and information loop. He lets her know where to find Baxter Hall. Her next stop is a local club, where she had a one night stand with the bouncer, which gets her in the door.
Once inside, she easily finds Baxter and talks him into taking her to “the girl” by saying she has the ransom money. It’s a little too easy. Baxter takes her to the club’s back alley and shows her an expensive vintage car. It turns out he’s mistaken her for the buyer.
When the real buyer arrives, Dex makes a quick getaway in the vintage car. Right after she escapes, Hoffman calls to tell her that Nina has been returned to her family. Dex drives straight to the casino and asks to talk to Nina. Sue Lynn refuses. She tells Dex a story about hiring the wrong person for the job. Dex tries to return the money she was paid for operating expenses, but Sue Lynn doesn’t want it back. She says that Nina’s already suffered enough because of Dex.
Still not sure how any of this is Dex’s fault. Seems to me Sue Lynn is the one who drives her children and grandchildren away, does business with mobsters, and then antagonizes them. Dex has just gotten caught in the middle of Sue Lynn’s mess. Sooner or later, Baxter was going to find Nina and kidnap her for revenge, or find another way to get back at Sue Lynn.
As she leaves, Dex tosses the money on Sue Lynn’s desk anyway. Good for her.
Dex flashes back to the IED explosion in Afghanistan that injured her and killed Benny. She can’t handle the pain of the memories by herself, so she looks for a booty call and settles on Detective Hoffman.
As soon as they finish, she gets dressed and ready to leave. While she’s putting her shoes on, she notices he has a mini murder board made of colorful post its. He tells her he’s working on a particular mystery: “Subject’s marriage falls apart, and despite having a cushy job in the family business, he joins the army and deploys to Afghanistan. Six months into the tour, he gets leave, but he doesn’t go home. He goes to Kabul, where his Humvee hits an IED, killing him instantly. Personal effects for Benjamin Blackbird- items on the deceased: $86 in cash and one diamond engagement ring… You were the reason Benny was there, Dex. Maybe you thought saving Nina would somehow make up for losing him… We had to know how you fit in.”
Next Dex sees Hoffman’s file on Nina and questions him about the case. She realizes that Hollis and Sue Lynn told her one story about Nina’s return and gave the police a different story. Now the local police have turned the case over to the Feds, who will likely drop it, since they think Nina is home. Dex won’t give up that easily.
She goes to Grey’s bar to pick up Ansel, who’s fallen asleep in the back. Grey is annoyed with her because he knows that when she’s this late to get her brother, her PTSD was acting up and she picked up a one night stand. He wants her to get proper treatment instead of using all of these unhealthy behaviors to cope. He points out that 12 years after she finished 5 tours in Afghanistan, it’s time to finally get some help.
Dex is too caught up in the case to hear what he’s saying. She knows that Sue Lynn wouldn’t let the kidnappers get away with it so easily. Dex thinks that the kidnappers still have Nina and Sue Lynn decided to handle the ransom herself.
Dex’s instincts are telling her there’s something wrong with this situation, but Grey thinks that what’s wrong is Dex. He wants her to move on from Benny, and thinks trying to save Nina is part of feeling guilty about Benny’s death.
In the morning, Ansel finds Dex looking at a photo of herself and Benny. He tells her he misses Benny, too. He tries to cheer her up by telling her that he plays ball at the park when he’s sad. She tells him to get his ball so they can go do that. But they have another stop to make first, at the Aloha Motel.
Dex leaves Ansel playing ball in the parking lot while she visits Michael in his room. She lets him know that Nina is back home, then offers him the diamond engagement ring that Benny bought for her. She figured he could give it to Nina, so they wouldn’t have to save up for one. She doesn’t want them to make the same mistakes she and Benny did.
She realizes that Michael is acting strange and asks what he has to do with Nina’s kidnapping. The two thugs who grabbed Nina from Dex’s car run out of the bathroom and knock Dex out. Then they tell Michael to go exchange Nina for the ransom. They take Dex outside, load her into her own car trunk, and drive away.
Ansel is playing ball in the parking lot. He sees the car leave without him and calls Grey, who calls Hoffman. Hoffman puts out an APB on Dex’s car, saying it’s a possible abduction. We reach the fight in Dex’s car from the cold open. The car survives more than any car should, Dex comes out of it unscathed and with the gun, and subdues the thugs.
Michael goes to the warehouse where Nina is being held. She thinks he’s there to rescue her, but Sue Lynn is already outside with the ransom money.
Dex puts the thugs in her trunk, then heads for the warehouse she recognized in Hoffman’s file. She picks up some police car followers along the way, but they don’t shoot.
Sue Lynn meets Michael and exchanges the money for Nina. Michael holds a gun on her after the exchange, threatening to shoot her. They’re interrupted by Dex and her caravan of police cars. She knocks Michael down using her car door, then gets out to kick his gun away just as Hoffman and the other police catch up. Hoffman tells the others not to shoot her. She tells him the other two thugs are in her trunk. Hoffman and Cosgrove are impressed with her style.
Nina thanks Dex for saving her life, while Sue Lynn admits that maybe Dex didn’t do a terrible job. Dex takes that for the closest thing to an apology and thanks that she’s going to get. Nina’s mom is still nowhere to be seen. Guess that’s a mystery for another episode.
Grey’s bar opening is a success. Dex has already chosen her regular spot, which is where Hoffman finds her. He returns the diamond ring she gave Michael and thanks her for following her instincts.
She’s not going to be rid of everything the ring symbolizes as easily as she hoped. Of course not. That ring is the nuclear football of this show.
Then Hoffman says that there are other cases that the police can’t help people with, but she might be able to. He refers Dex to a friend who needs some help and can pay her. He tells her to pay her parking tickets and whispers in her ear that he doesn’t want to have to arrest her again.
By which he means he’d rather experiment with the handcuffs at home with her. That whisper gave me chills.
Hoffman can definitely stay in the love interest category. I’m liking these two for a slow burn friends with occasional benefits who gradually become more without realizing it, until they wake up one morning ten years from now and figure out they can’t live without each other.
Hoffman leaves, Grey teases Dex about taking the next job, then Ansel joins them and they all make a toast.
I almost skipped Stumptown, because the endless promos were giving me such strong Jessica Jones vibes and I don’t need that much female self-loathing in my life. Dex definitely has issues similar to Jessica’s, but in the pilot she’s also less self-destructive. Her protective streak is emphasized as an essential part of her character, and she’s already using it to find redemption, even before she helps Nina.
However, Dex is surrounded by critical men and unfriendly women in the pilot. I’d really like to see her find a female friend or two to spend time with. Sue Lynn and Lieutenant Cosgrove are the only two women I see listed as regulars. Neither seems likely to become a supportive friend, though she might gain Cosgrove’s respect. Maybe Dex can become a surrogate aunt to Nina or pick up a female assistant. Nina seems like she needs someone to talk to who’s outside of her complicated family, but understands the situation.
This episode was only the beginning of Dex’s origin story. I have a feeling it will take all or most of season 1 for Dex to find herself as a PI and for the show to fully explore her tragic past. In this episode, we weren’t told what happened to her parents or what happened to her during her 5 tours of Afghanistan, only what killed Benny.
Dex is a rich character who could go in many different directions. Several of the side characters also already have backgrounds just itching to be explored, such as Sue Lynn’s ties to the mob and Hoffman’s need for detailed, color-coded charts and files. That was a lot of post its for such a short investigation.
I just hope they tone down the judginess from some of the characters. Right now, I’m not sure why she’s friends with Grey, when all he does is undermine her while calling it concern. They need to get a better handle on writing insult humor, if that’s what they want it to be, and convince me that it’s healthy for Dex and Ansel to be around a man who uses that kind of humor as his main form of conversation.
We’re certainly crossing Grey off the list of potential love interests. Anyone who doesn’t trust a longtime friend’s instincts, when that’s her main talent, is friend-zoned for life. She definitely needs to deal with her issues, but finding work that she’s passionate about could be a big part of moving on from the past.
They spent the entire episode telling us that she’s not suited for a desk or behind the bar job, so it should be obvious to Grey. She’s a quick thinker who’s at her best when there’s a lot of action. That doesn’t have anything to do with her PTSD. Some of us, male or female, are allergic to routine and can’t handle having to stay in one place and do the same thing all day.
Dex needs a romantic partner who’ll either be action-oriented with her or who’ll accept that they’ll be the one who’s at home, keeping the routines and house in shape and she’ll add excitement to their life. They showed Hoffman having a balance of both qualities, since he’s a cop who likes the excitement of fighting crime but also very detail oriented and thorough, with a nice apartment and a caretaking streak.
Owning a bar can also bring some excitement. Grey clearly has his own caretaking streak, given the way he looks after Ansel. Some of his attitude toward Dex may come from unrequited love and many years of watching her pine after someone she can’t have, but that’s a lame excuse. If that’s what it is, he should’ve taken his own advice long ago and moved on.
I’m as sick of whiny man babies in TV and film as I am of self loathing women. Can’t the self loathing women and the whiny man babies all finally find happiness together and move on to some new tropes already? Maybe they can find empowerment in their lives as helicopter parents on shows I’m not interested in?
Please, Stumptown, focus on Dex’s PTSD as a real illness and don’t turn her into another suicidal woman who’s mentally ill because she’s overwhelmingly guilty about things that aren’t her fault, like Benny’s death. That’s disrespectful to all of the real life veterans with PTSD from their real world combat experiences and the IEDs that disabled them and killed their friends.
Dex’s PTSD was caused by the enemy and the IED. That’s where the focus should be. She’s also grieving the loss of the love of her life, and maybe she will for the rest of her life. But let’s call it grief, as any normal person would feel, not guilt because she thinks it was her fault.
Benny was an adult who made his own life choices, including doing what his mother said when he was young, in order to continue his family’s traditions, and running away from home when he was older, in order to pursue his own dream. Let’s not turn a character we haven’t even met yet into a weak man baby who blamed his choices on the women in his life.
Images courtesy of ABC.