Dexter: Season Four Review

WARNING: This post contains massive amounts of spoilers.

Well done, Dexter. You made me eat my words.

All season long, I had been saying that Dexter, while entertaining and still one of the best shows on television, was in danger of growing stale. The show needed to introduce a game-changing twist to enliven the series. Well, they did, and it was devastating.

The final episode was, for most of its duration, more or less what any viewer would have expected: With Dexter’s real identity finally revealed to Trinity, the cat-and-mouse game between the two of them finally turns into an outright chase, with Trinity/Arthur Mitchell trying to escape Miami before Dexter can catch him. Dexter cleverly (and luckily) circumvents many obstacles, ultimately getting Trinity on his table. In their final scene together, Dexter resolves not to be the plague on his family that Arthur Mitchell was.

And then Dexter returned home to find Rita murdered in the bathtub* and, even more disturbingly, his son Harrison sitting in a pool of his mother’s blood, in an almost exact replica of Dexter’s own memory.

*Here’s something that has been nagging me since I saw the finale, cheapening it a little for me: What exactly was Trinity’s motivation for killing Rita? He killed her as he killed his first victim, depicted in the season premiere, but he clearly wasn’t starting a new cycle of kills—he was leaving the city. I can understand why he would want to kill Dexter—who knows his secret and has ruined his life—but why Rita? The only possible answer is emotional cruelty, which doesn’t really fit with the portrait painted of the character. Plus, if he merely wanted to kill someone close to Dexter, then why didn’t he just hang around Debra’s apartment and wait for her to come home? He didn’t even know Dexter was married. I guess the show wants us to believe that Trinity just showed up at Dexter’s house, ready to kill whomever he found. Which, again, rings a little hollow.

This twist was completely unexpected (for me, at least) and, as I said above, devastating. The death of Rita, while sad, was not the truly disheartening element: Rita, while innocent, was always on the verge of being collateral damage to Dexter’s lifestyle, as the illustration of Arthur Mitchell’s family proved. What was truly debilitating was the image of Dexter’s son—a wholly innocent infant—stained with the blood of his mother in the same way Dexter was. Within the context of the show, in which this history was what made Dexter who he is, this is a fate even more depressing than death.

The final scene raises two important questions. The first relates to the past: Can a shocking and disturbing twist ending make a whole season? In general, Season Four of Dexter was much better than Season Three, but it nevertheless followed the same formula. Every season of Dexter, in fact, has followed the same essential formula: Dexter encounters a kindred spirit (the Ice-Truck Killer, Lila, Miguel Prado, Trinity) who he thinks will finally understand the “real” him. After some initial hesitation, the kindred spirit gets Dexter to open up. Ultimately, though, Dexter realizes that this kindred spirit is a monster who must be killed, both because s/he meets his Code and because s/he is a threat to the people Dexter cares about.

Now, this is obviously reductive, and there are elements of nuance within each season. Season One, for example, left open the question of whether or not the Ice-Truck Killer, who turned out to have suffered the same trauma as his brother (!) Dexter, was any worse than Dexter himself. Season Two added the element of a second person, Doakes, who saw the “real Dexter,” and was repulsed by him. Season Three, however, lost any real semblance of moral ambiguity. Miguel Prado went from a normal civilian with a dark thirst for justice, to a monster who had been using Dexter all along. There was no doubt, in the end, as to whether Miguel needed and deserved to be killed. The show even abandoned the idea that Dexter had helped turn him into a monster, basically asserting that Miguel had been evil from the beginning.

Season Four, even with the final scene, bears a much closer resemblance to Season Three than it does to either One or Two. John Lithgow was probably better in his role as Trinity than Jimmy Smits was as Miguel, but it’s close. And the return of Agent Lundy for four episodes was certainly a compelling element (if only because the Deb/Lundy storyline was the best, or least bad, story Deb ever had). But, in general, the Trinity story was similar to the Miguel story. The strain of moral ambiguity introduced in the middle of the season—that Trinity had a family he appeared to love and care for, just as Dexter was beginning to grow attached to his new wife and children—was quickly dispensed with; shortly after the family was introduced, Trinity was revealed to be a terror to them. Unlike Dexter, a model father and husband to any outside observer, Trinity was a monster to those who he purported to love.

Instead of the moral perspective of the first two seasons, then, Season Four was more about the cat-and-mouse game between Dexter and Trinity, just as Season Three boiled down to how Dexter could outsmart Miguel. Dexter has always been great at building suspense and having Dexter find his way out of tricky situations—the scene from the finale in which Dexter has to elude the SWAT team’s storm of the Mitchell home was particularly fun, if pretty much entirely unbelievable*—so the show can still be good while it does this. But it doesn’t have much depth.

*I’m pretty sure forensic analysts aren’t sent in until the SWAT team has completely secured the location. But I’m no criminologist.

So, can one final scene—no matter how heart-wrenching it is—add depth to an entire season that was more or less a thriller? I don’t think so. Maybe it could have if the question of Rita’s death had ever been hinted at. In theory, the entire season was about the possibility of Dexter losing his family, but it was always a more abstract “loss”: that they might discover who he was, or grow tired of his detached emotions. There was never any real threat on their lives. Trinity’s desire to kill Rita was never even implied—his motives remain a mystery even now. This made her death more surprising, but less resonant.

This is probably why the impact of the final scene was more about Harrison in a pool of blood than Rita dead in the tub. The questions and emotions raised by the final scene are almost entirely about the future. This brings us to our second question: Where does the show go from here? The ending, in addition to being gut-wrenching, introduces a lot of possibilities for the show and its main character. The question of fate, always a central question for the show, was raised explicitly by Dexter in the last scene: “It doesn’t matter what I choose, or what I do: I’m what’s wrong.”

Dexter has always been inclined to accept fate, to attribute his “dark passenger” to that seminal moment in his childhood when he saw his mother get hacked to pieces. He hasn’t so much used this an excuse—since he’s never tried to “excuse” his actions—for what he does, but he has used it as a convenient explanation: My mother was cut up, and now I slice people to death. Surely, though, Dexter will be less inclined to accept fate when the person in question is his son. He doesn’t want to curse his son with the same life that he’s had. Nevertheless, this opportunity could put Dexter in the position Harry himself was in during Dexter’s childhood: the watchful guardian of a fundamentally disturbed child. Given Dexter’s coldness toward the memory of Harry since the end of Season Two, though, how he responds to that role is an open question.

Almost easily forgotten—given Dexter’s constant declarations of his own lack of emotion—is how Dexter will respond to the death of his wife. Unlike many viewers, I did not find Rita a constant irritant during this season. Her role as an unknowing interference in Dexter’s secret life was often handled somewhat glibly, but seemed like a natural extension of the story. More importantly, I think the relationship between Dexter and Rita was integral in illustrating to Dexter that normalcy was within his reach. The bond between them—not love, but some mixture of fondness and mutual dependence—is one of the subtler elements of Dexter’s characterization.

So losing Rita will obviously bring an element of darkness and guilt to Dexter’s life. He could respond to this sadness by closing off even the few remaining relationships he has now. This could be both good and bad for the show: On the one hand, Dexter has always been in danger of losing its edge, of making its protagonist too likable to be threatening. Making Dexter pull away from human contact could therefore restore some of the macabre tone the show established in Season One. On the other hand, I worry that this would not lead to anything new. Every season of Dexter thus far has ended with Dexter doubting his own ability to be close to people, and every new season gives him the opportunity to get close to someone new. It’s true Dexter now would be more bloodthirsty and vindictive, but he’s already killed Trinity: Any attempt for vengeance is doomed to fail.

The more interesting way for Dexter to handle his guilt, however, would be for him to try to quash his need for killing. It was, after all, his selfish need to feed his “dark passenger” that ultimately caused Rita’s death and Harrison’s trauma; it would make sense for him to blame this element of his personality for that disaster. This would also allow the show to deal with the question of fate: Could Dexter quit if he wanted to? He and Trinity disagreed over this very question in their final scene together, but that was before Dexter had the motivation he has now.

Ultimately, this finale bears some similarities to last month’s Mad Men finale, capping a by-the-numbers season with a thrilling finale that leaves open so many intriguing possibilities for the next season. I probably have more faith in Mad Men, though, to fulfill these expectations. For one, that show is better executed in general, but also because that finale brought together disparate elements of the season’s plot. Dexter, however, seems to have tacked a twist ending onto a formula. Having taken what one friend described as the “Teri Bauer route,” it will be far too easy for the show to portray Rita’s death as “the cost of doing business,” as 24 viewed Teri’s death. Dexter may become angrier and more withdrawn, but, based on the show’s past, all they need to do is introduce a new slightly-disturbed-but-ultimately-drawn-to-Dexter’s-darkness character to pull him out of his shell.

I hope, however, that the show embraces the new opportunities this twist affords them. Dexter is a show that can carry moral weight and deal with complex ethical questions, even while it maintains a fast-paced, energetic plot. That the final scene of the finale seems to be all anyone is talking about should indicate that these dark elements can take the show from “very good” to “great.” This is the kind of game-changing moment that the show needed; now I just hope that they actually change the game.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Hi. First I’d like to address the surprise ending. Several times throughout the season I thought that Trinity was going to take Rita into his sites as a victim, either after discovering Kyle Butler’s real identity or simply as a mother of two children (the latter which would have been really hokey). That never happened and I kind of forgot about it until I was taken completely by surprise by Rita’s murder and lay in bed for quite a while in horror.

    I don’t have a problem with that part of the plot line. Trinity was at Deb’s apartment. After he calmed down, he looks around, finds Dexter’s address and heads to the home to hunt him. He sees pictures of the family then Rita shows up. He figures killing her is just as good a revenge, if not better, than getting Dexter so he kills her and takes off.

    The plot details sticking in my craw are these: 1. When did Dexter get the oil cap? Are we to believe he walked into the auto shop and pulled it off then? Okay, fine, so no one noticed him. But then wouldn’t he have followed Trinity to Deb’s place and thus prevented Rita’s murder? 2. When did Rita call Dexter and how did he miss the call? He ALWAYS picks up the phone. Perhaps I just missed that part. 3. One of the first thing the police department would have done is run down Trinity’s car registrations and put out an APB on both of this vehicles. They would also have interviewed the family. All of Florida would have been watching for those cars.

    Also, the part where Deb finds Dexter in the garage was ridiculous, but it’s consistent with Deb almost busting him through-out the seasons – she catches him doing something suspicious but is so caught up in her own emotional drama that she never notices.

    The plot line does leave exciting possibilities for season 5. I wonder what Dexter’s alibi for Rita’s murder will be. He has left many loose ends this season and has not been nearly as careful as in the past. Her death does not follow the Trinity pattern and Dex has many hours to account for. The TV show started out following the plot lines of the books very closely, then strayed (thank god since the books are really bad). However, in one of the books, Dexter realizes that the Cody character has sociopathic tendencies and starts to take on the roll of Harry (guiding Cody to hide his true self, etc.). Perhaps Harrison’s character will develop this way.

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I’m such a geek!

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on December 19, 2009 at 3:25 PM

      In response to some of your plot questions: 1. I think if Trinity had time to kill Rita, then Dexter had time to find the auto shop, take the oil cap, and hide himself in the trunk, or somewhere else. The way the show was shot, it seems like Trinity didn’t pick up his car until after he had killed Rita (I guess he cabbed it to Dexter’s?), so that would explain why Dexter couldn’t prevent the murder. 2. The phone call was never shown, but Dexter could have understandably switched his phone to vibrate when he was hiding in Trinity’s coffin, sneaking into the auto shop, or hiding in trunk. He had a pretty busy day. 3. Yeah, this is a pretty big flaw that I didn’t even think about. But the show often skirts around a lot of basic law enforcement points. Luckily, it’s easy to believe that Miami Metro is incompetent enough to screw that up.

      Anyway, I do think “Dexter as Harry” story has a lot of potential going forward. One storytelling choice the show will have make, though, is when to start Season 5. I’d like to see the immediate aftermath of the death, particularly if, as you imply, Dexter is a suspect. It’s also intriguing to see what happens to Cody and Astor. But the show might jump forward, to make Harrison older and to keep the timeline consistent.

      Reply

      • I would like to see what happens with Cody and Astor; I like the characters and the kids are good actors. However (as a friend pointed out) they’ve built in an easy-out this season – there have been two or three times when the kids have been swept off by the grandparents. Next season could open by having the two older kids being adopted by the grandparents and Dexter just keeping Harrison. I hope that’s not the case though.

        Meanwhile, Terminator was canceled and V was merely a blip – I have nothing to watch!

        Reply

  2. […] Season Four’s game-changing ending, I’ve never been more excited for a new season of this show. And the fact the previews for Season […]

    Reply

  3. […] wasn’t just the lack of a bloody twist, like the one that ended the last season of Dexter—it would be unfair to expect them to top Rita’s murder every year—but that everything ended […]

    Reply

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