The pilot of Stumptown opens exactly the way it should: With two local Portland henchmen guessing the origin of the single-source coffee in a thermos they split between them. We never get into the finer points of Ethiopian vs. Kenyan coffee because that's the exact moment Dex Parios (Colbie Smulders), who was stuffed in the trunk of her own car, emerges to take down two criminals with nothing more than a fire extinguisher.
As the car is plunging off an unfinished overpass, Stumptown rewinds to the actual beginning of its tale. Despite being adapted from Greg Rucka's indie comic, Stumptown is the last place you'd expect to find Smulders, a Marvel movie star. That's because Stumptown operates fully in the real world: There's no supernatural or powered twist, these are all real people struggling with real world problems. Sometimes it's not about saving the world, it's about saving yourself.
At the start of the story though, that's the last thing on Dex's mind. Dex is an army vet, with five tours of Afghanistan under her belt. After losing someone very dear to her, she does her best to leave that chapter of her life behind, but finds she has just as much trouble reintegrating into civilian society. Struggling to hold down a steady job, to take care of her brother who has Downs syndrome, and to stop self-medicating with gambling, sex, and booze, Dex is at odds with the world and herself.
Until that is, she's drawn into detective work by an old acquaintance who's equal parts friend and foe. Sue Lynn (Tantoo Cardinal) is not just a leader in the Confederated Tribes and an influential power broker via her casino (which Dex frequents), but also the mother of the man she loved who died in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that Sue Lynn drove Dex and Benny (her son and Dex's former boyfriend) apart because Dex was an outsider to the Tribe, the pair are connected through their mutual grief.
Sue Lynn proposes a mutually beneficial arrangement to Dex. She'll forgive all of Dex's debt (and it is A LOT) if Dex brings Sue Lynn's granddaughter, Nina (Blu Hunt), the child of her former love, Benny, and the woman he left Dex for, home. At first Dex turns down the offer — she's got her pride after all. But it's Dex's brother who makes her reconsider.
Ansel (Cole Sibus) is more gainfully employed than his sister. He works at the bar of Grey McCollins (Jake Johnson), who is one of Dex's oldest friends. But Dex knows that despite Ansel's independence, she's ultimately the one responsible for him now that their parents are gone. When he asks her if they'll be okay, she can finally swallow her pride and accept Sue Lynn's proposition.
Here's where the detective part of the show kicks off. Dex tracks down one of Nina's friends and when the teen refuses to hand over her phone to an obviously fake cop, Dex drives off around the corner and waits for the friend to give Nina a call. Sensing an opportunity, she leaps out of the bushes in a moment that can only be described as true comedy, and runs up behind the friend to snatch her unlocked phone out of her hand. With a simple scroll through her texts, Dex discovers not only where Nina is but who she's with.
It turns out that Nina ran away from Sue Lynn and the tribe. She's hiding out at a hotel with her boyfriend — also someone from outside the Confederated Tribes. When Dex catches up to them, she easily pulls Nina from the room to take her back home to her grandmother. After all, what's a teen who is still saving up for a wedding ring gonna do when a P.I. with military experience shows up at his door?
But to Dex and Nina's surprise, it's not Nina's boyfriend who stops them from making it back to the reservation. It's the two coffee drinking minions from the intro. After Dex gets out of the car to deal with a fender bender, the two goons beat her badly, and she can't get her feet under her because the only thing she can see is Afghanistan. While Dex's PTSD takes her out of this fight — the goons grab Nina and drive off before Dex can recover — she's not the kind of woman to stay down for long.
As the ambulance crew check her out, she calls Sue Lynn to report what happened, only to be interrupted by a fine ass detective named Hoffman (Michael Ealy). There's obviously a flicker of attraction here, the banter is marked by little smirks and lingering gazes. And then Hoffman arrests her for a dozen unpaid parking tickets so he can take her in for questioning.
In the interrogation room, Dex meets Hoffman's partner, Lieutenant Cosgrove (Camryn Manhiem), the bad cop to his good cop. They let her go, but also let her know that they still have to eliminate her as a suspect. Feeling disheartened, she calls Grey to come bail her out. He does, but warns her about the obsessive path she's going down.
The next step for Dex is to find Nina's boyfriend, who she thinks is hiding something. While the audience knows where Nina is (with Coffee Goons in a generic empty warehouse), Dex, wrought with guilt over the fact Nina asked if she hated herself for helping Sue Lynn to do to Nina what she did to Dex and Benny, is compelled to find out where she's been taken. Nina's boyfriend admits that another part of the reason they're running away is because Sue Lynn is in a turf war with a crime lord named Baxter Hall. After finding his opium on her reservation, she burned his entire shipment putting him out thousands of dollars, and kidnapping Nina for ransom is his way of getting back what he's owed.
While Dex talks to friends who know the seedy underbelly of Portland better than she does, Hoffman and Cosgrove run into stiff resistance on the reservation. Sue Lynn is not just limiting access to people who know Nina, she insists that the police involve her staff in their investigation and reminds them they don't have jurisdiction on the reservation. They're guests there and Sue Lynn rules with an iron fist.
Dex hunts down Baxter at a club, and fakes her way through what she thinks is an exchange of money for Nina. When she sees "the girl" however, it's clear this (admittedly swotty, rich and white) overlord isn't thinking about Nina — he's selling an antique car that Dex gets in under the pretense of an inspection. Of course that's when the real buyer comes out, and Dex peels off into the night, effectively stealing a crime lord's wares, which Sue Lynn later comments has only made the Tribe's problems worse.
As Dex is driving away in a stolen car, Hoffman unexpectedly calls to say Nina's been returned. Shocked, Dex goes by the casino and asks to see her. When Sue Lynn denies her, she tries to return her fee and Sue Lynn cruelly tells her to not worry about it; it's Sue Lynn's fault for hiring an amateur. Dex leaves the money anyway and in the car ride home, her PTSD, triggered by her failure to save Nina (and subconsciously Benny), overwhelms her to the point where she turns to self-medication. It's not booze or gambling this time, it's sex. She ends up at Hoffman's place and after a sordid hook up (which will undoubtedly come back to haunt them), they discover that they were told different stories about where Nina was dropped off. Dex is also astonished to learn that Sue Lynn wouldn't let the police talk to Nina either — an unusual move for a woman who is driven by the need to protect her family first and foremost.
That sole clue — that Sue Lynn isn't doing everything possible to catch the bastards that did this to her granddaughter — is what makes Dex realize that Nina's still out there and not home. When Dex goes to Grey's bar — not just to pick up her brother who she forgot in the midst of PTSD-induced bad choices, but also to bounce ideas off of about Nina's case — Grey reminds her that Nina's home and so is she. Maybe she should finally deal with her PTSD and find a way to move on.
It's brutal honesty in the moment, perhaps not something Dex is ready to handle at that time. But after she goes home she realizes Grey might have a point. The next morning as she's driving Ansel to the park, she stops on the way to see Nina's boyfriend. She gives him her engagement ring — the one Benny was on the way to give her when he died in Afghanistan. This is how we find out that despite Sue Lynn's meddling, Benny and Dex found their way back to each other in the army. But their future was stolen by a roadside IED and now all Dex has to remember him by is an engagement ring she'll never get to wear. But when she gives the ring to Nina's boyfriend and tells him not to make the same mistake Benny made, she sees something on his face that pings her military interrogation skillset.
As he quietly closes the door to his hotel room, the Coffee Goons spring out of the bathroom and knock Dex out again. Nina's boyfriend has always been in on the plan, and as he heads off to the warehouse to handle the final trade (Nina for a suitcase full of cash from Sue Lynn), the Coffee Goons throw Dex in the trunk of her own car, and we catch up to where we started in the pilot.
While Dex is busy figuring out how neutralize two criminals with just a fire extinguisher when she's locked in her own trunk, Ansel comes back from the park to see Dex's car gone. Knowing that Dex would never leave him, he calls Grey and Grey calls Hoffman who puts an ABP out on Dex's car.
It's lucky for everyone that while the police are scrambling to find her, Dex has already forced the Coffee Goons to drive off an unfinished overpass, and when the car lands she finally knocks out the Coffee Goons, but not before finding out where they're really keeping Nina.
With the Coffee Goons in the trunk, Dex tears off after Nina, who has cleverly escaped her bonds at the warehouse only to run into her boyfriend. She thinks he's there to rescue her, but she soon learns the truth when he holds her at gunpoint and trades her to Sue Lynn (who came personally, herself) for the cash. But as he's debating whether to pull the trigger anyway, Dex rides in like an oncoming storm, with half of the Portland PD chasing her (because of Hoffman's APB). Dex knocks Nina's boyfriend down by neatly opening her car door into him, and the cases rush towards a close.
Hoffman is there to arrest all the right goons; Dex gains the grudging respect of Sue Lynn (and the absolute adoration of Nina), and later that night at Grey's bar, Hoffman tips her off to another case. It's for a friend of a friend and he's willing to pay, Hoffman says, reminding Dex that there are people and places the police can't get to. Dex may be their only hope. Turning to Grey, Dex looks at him with hope. Maybe this is a viable career path for someone as messed up as she is. Maybe it will even keep her out of her trouble. Grey isn't so sure, but we all know what's about to happen anyway. A private detective is born.
Stumptown airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on ABC.