Sunday, September 26, 2010

Father Knows Best: A look back at the Dexter Season 4 finale

Season 4 found Dexter Morgan embarking on a new life as a suburban family man.  It’s a situation that his ghostly father, Harry, greatly disapproves of and he isn’t shy about saying so.  It's a bone of contention between father and son throughout the season.  In fact, by the finale, Harry’s constant harping on Dexter’s attempt to balance a normal life with his homicidal urges, and his dismissal of Rita and the kids is downright callous.  But it’s hard to fault a guy when he turns out to be right.

The Season 4 finale of Dexter has already gone down in television history as one of the most jolting and unexpected moments ever seen on the small screen.  One of the things that has always made this show so good is its willingness to make and execute the difficult story ideas that other shows can't or won't.  A network show will usually only kill off a character if the actor wants to leave, and then the character’s demise is usually well-publicized as an “event” episode and will not come as a surprise to viewers.  Cue announcer voice: “...and things will never be the same!”  

Dexter has done this once before when they killed off his nemesis, Sgt. Doakes, at the end of Season 2.  Season 4 also killed off Special Agent Frank Lundy, who returned in search of the Trinity Killer.  It’s an indication of how strong this show is that it can dispatch major characters and not be weakened by their departure.

The annual season-long arc for Dexter was his attempt to "live the dream" of normalcy (combined with serial killing), and his fascination with Arthur Mitchell, aka The Trinity Killer.  Initially, Trinity seemed to be pulling off the trick Dexter is having trouble with, balancing family life with his homicidal urges.  Despite having satisfied the Code of Harry (confirmation that Mitchell was, in fact, a killer worthy of some Dexter-style justice) early on, Trinity was allowed to continue to live so that Dexter could study him in pursuit of a successful double life.  This delay produced horrific results for the Morgan family.

Eventually, we learn that Arthur's happy home life is a facade.  Nonetheless, late in the finale, Dexter is still determined to have it all, even if he has to figure out the "how" by himself.  Unfortunately, waiting to dispatch Trinity to his great non-reward meant that Dexter gets himself not a happy home, but a nightmare Seven-ish finale: He got the bad guy, but the bad guy got him too.  Played by John Lithgow, who would win a well-deserved Emmy for his portrayal, Arthur/Trinity is the first person we've seen beat Dexter at his own game.

In the end, as Arthur lies on Dexter's killing table awaiting his fate, the veteran serial killer seems to be imparting advice to a young upstart; this morphs into an entirely different and much more chilling conversation when re-watched knowing what awaits Dexter back at the house, especially the chuckles at Dexter's insistence that, unlike Arthur, Dexter is good for his family.  Arthur makes the cryptic comment, “It’s already over,” (both the first and last thing we ever hear him say) and Dexter doesn't know it yet, but he has just been completely outplayed.

The episode's seemingly stubborn insistence on plodding toward a happy ending made the last reveal all the more jarring.  And upon finding his dead wife, Dexter knew instantly that by not cutting Trinity's killing spree short much earlier, he was responsible for Rita's horrifying end as Trinity's final victim.  One of his first comments after discovering her body: Harry was right...

His unsuccessful attempt at normalcy and at keeping the Dark Passenger from being the biggest influence in his life would seem to put Dexter back on track as far as Harry’s Code is concerned.  He ran wild in Season 4 and the result was deadly and devastating.  He became increasingly careless, eventually leading Trinity to his place of work, his true identity and eventually to his family.  Early in the finale Harry tells him, “The messes are piling up,” and that pile soon came crashing down.  Harry didn't mince words when it came to Dexter's ill-fated attempt to be someone he's not.  One can only imagine the conversation they'll have when Season 5 begins.

The sad fact is that Harry was right all along.  The family was a liability that Dexter simply could not balance with his true nature and his attempt to do so caused their ruin.  If Dexter had listened to Harry, followed the Code and offed Trinity earlier, Rita would still be alive and her children wouldn’t be orphaned.  Granted, she’d still be married to a serial killer, but as long as she was blissfully unaware of this fact, she was happy.

In addition to dooming his wife, Dexter also inadvertently helped Trinity complete his final quartet: The kidnapped boy, the young woman bled out in a tub (Rita), the suicidal young woman (Christine) for once not staged and the bludgeoning of a middle-aged man (rather than his usual knife, Dexter used Arthur’s own hammer for the lethal blow).

Michael C. Hall did his usual fantastic job as everyone's favorite sociopathic serial killer, embroiled in his toughest battle yet.  This was made all the more impressive later when it was revealed that Hall spent the latter part of the season being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma (he has since made a full recovery).

Also major props need to go to Jennifer Carpenter.  Always excellent, she really stepped up this season as Debra suffered the loss of her boyfriend and things became more and more traumatic for the foul-mouthed detective, culminating with her discovery of Dexter’s lineage.  It was touching - and kind of pathetic - hearing her tell Dexter that he’s only constantly good thing in her life. You have to wonder how it would utterly destroy her to discover the truth about him .  Finding out about Harry’s numerous CI’s/mistresses has damaged his memory for her.  It’s hard to imagine her finding out that not only is her beloved brother a sociopathic killer/monster, but that Harry knew it and not only failed to institutionalize him, but taught him how to hide in plain sight while satisfying the Dark Passenger’s homicidal urges.  His good intentions notwithstanding, Dexter will always be potentially harmful to those closest to him.  Trinity made that abundantly clear.

Dexter wanted to learn from Arthur, specifically how he balanced a normal, successful family life with the Dark Passenger riding shotgun.  What he ended up with was an unfortunate lesson in the importance of Harry’s Code and why it had been put into place to begin with.  The Code is there for a reason and when you deviate from it, bad things happen.  Dexter has had the occasional doubt about Harry and the Code in the past.  I doubt he’ll have them in the future.

On a cheerier note:

Image snicked from here.

Dexter returns tonight on Showtime.

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