Season Finale: Dexter – “The Getaway”

“The Getaway”

December 13th, 2009

When Dexter started its season, I spent a lengthy post comparing the show to 24, arguing that the show’s initial interest in Dexter as a psychological case study has been all but eradicated by seasons which have turned the show into your basic serial thriller that fails to take into account just how complex the character truly is. The show took two seasons to establish that Dexter is someone who has a code, and who kills those who deserve to be killed, and now it has taken that stock character and turned him into the blood analyst equivalent of Jack Bauer, happening to find himself wrapped up in compelling cases each and every season that speak to Dexter more than something wholly random but often do so in a superficial way. And like 24, these situations can often be quite compelling, but if you stop and think about the real potential in this character and the series you can’t help but feel that all involved could do better.

If we choose to accept that this is all Dexter is going to be, the fourth season has been quite solid, benefitting from a terrific and terrifying performance by John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell, also known as the Trinity Killer. And much as 24’s fifth season was one of its strongest due to the amount of time spent crafting Gregory Itzin’s President Logan into a complex antagonist, the show works infinitely better when it takes the time to create a character that can give us chills, and who brings out interesting shades in Dexter’s character. So long as we ignore how convenient it is that Trinity is based in Miami, the consequences (like Jennifer Carpenter’s fine work post-shooting, like more time with Keith Carradine, etc.) are quite engaging, and viewed on their own represent some great dramatic television.

But they’re surrounded by a show that can’t help but call attention to its faults, and how those faults could have been prevented. Harry Morgan, once an integral part of the series’ mythos, has devolved to the point of serving as an exposition tool, a physical representation of Dexter’s self-conscience that the writer aren’t even willing to define as either angel or devil because they’re afraid that question would be too complex to handle. The supporting characters, like Batista and LaGuerta, are given stories that are literally just excuses for them to remain in the cast. Rita and her kids, once a beard for Dexter’s inner emptiness, have become a way for the show to investigate fidelity and suburban life, but never in a way that feels like it goes beyond melodrama.

“The Getaway” takes a lot of these elements and puts them to good use, unearthing Dexter’s bloody past in a way which feels organic and concluding the Trinity arc with the sort of momentum that the show is so very good at developing. And in its conclusion, which is in fact truly game-changing, there contains the DNA for the show to reinvent itself, to send it down a darker and more complex path that harkens back to the show’s first season.

And I’d be a hell of a lot more excited if I thought that was actually going to happen.

When I first compared the show to 24, I had no idea that Dexter would quite literally steal that show’s first season conclusion out from under it. I had never intended to make an argument for plagiarism, but certainly the “shocking” conclusion here is literally Teri’s death done again. The show’s protagonist believes that they have taken care of the problem (either Nina or Trinity), and the audience is led to believe the same, before a discovery is made which completely upends any sense of a happy ending (Teri shot in the back room, Rita dead in the bathtub), fundamentally changing the story’s trajectory. Now, as far as endings go, 24’s was pretty spectacular, so I don’t blame Dexter’s writers for taking it as their own. However, 24 didn’t exactly nail the landing with the ramifications, and Dexter has done little this season to convince me it can do differently.

I thought “The Getaway” was a really engaging finale, jettisoning the less interesting recurring elements of the season (Rita, LaGuerta/Batista) in favour of a healthy dose of Dexter’s past that has been all but irrelevant all season. For once, instead of being a backseat driver (which he actually was in part of the finale, much to my chagrin), Harry Morgan was an actual presence in Dexter’s psyche, his code emerging when it seemed most convenient for the show to discuss it. The episode was Dexter trying to convince himself (and succeeding) that he was doing good no matter what Harry said, and that people like Deb and Rita need him to a degree that Arthur Mitchell’s family could never have understood. Arthur Mitchell was an abusive husband and father, a loose cannon whose psychosis was entirely uncontrolled. Dexter had a code, and learned to live his life to protect the people who care about him and the people who enable him to live a normal life even with the Dark Passenger on board.

So when we get to that conclusion, Dexter has finally rationalized his behaviour and prepared for the future only to discover that the cycle is starting again, and another child has been “born in blood.” Considering my usual complaints, anything that unearths Dexter’s past is good in my books, and the final reveal sheds light on Trinity’s words during his death scene, which felt far more satisfying than anything Season 3 offered (Jimmy Smits’ performance aside, it’s clear that Season 3 lacked the drive of this set of episodes). Dexter tries to argue that nothing is inevitable, but fate is against him as Harry always argued it would be against him, although now he has no way to run: his wife is dead, and he is now a single father with kids to take care of. He is trapped in a life that he now wants to run away from more than ever before, and it’s the most complex position Dexter has been in since Season One.

On the whole, the episode was well-executed, as you get complex scenes like Dexter pretending to be surprised by Deb’s revelations regarding his biological mother or the Trinity skill scene with its hidden subtexts. And I’d say that the show really nailed the Trinity investigation as compared with the Skinner, as Dexter’s story and the police story were intricately linked, giving the story an almost Wire-esque feel of the investigation wrapping up officially before the work was actually done (its Wire-esque qualities stop there, just so we’re clear). And I was impressed with how in some ways Deborah has become more interesting than Dexter (at least until the final scene), as she discovers that her past was more personal than she perhaps realized, and there was even a moment where I thought she might soon begin to see Dexter as a reminder of Harry’s dark past and her own trauma.

But as much as those final scenes add a really intriguing element to next season, I can’t help but feel like the show has yet to demonstrate that it can really pull that off. There was a lot of dead weight this season, especially amongst supporting characters, and as with 24 before it I can’t help but feel we’re going to return with Dexter in a deep, dark place only for him to emerge as his usual self so the show doesn’t have to adjust its storytelling too extensively. If we find Dexter in a psych ward, the kids off with Rita’s parents, he’ll get out of that psych ward in a few episodes, perhaps to consult on a case which happens to have intense personal connections. And every time I think about these potential avenues, I think of shows like House and Monk, shows where messed up protagonists occasionally have “very special” episodes that really delve into their problems before eventually reverting back to the same behaviour, just like Jack Bauer went from grieving widow to using a hacksaw to cut off a guy’s head in just a few episodes.

This finale was really compelling, but much of the season didn’t have the same execution, and more importantly the show isn’t capable of killing a major character or having a villain quite as compelling as Trinity ever again. I’d love for Showtime to announce that the fifth season will be the last, giving them license to actually close off Dexter’s journey and giving us the suspense of where this path is actually going to lead, but instead they’re treating the show like it’s 24, like Dexter Morgan is a punching bag that will keep getting punched each and every season. And while they might argue that this only makes the character more complex, and while Michael C. Hall keeps trying to convince me that this is actually the case with his strong performance, I keep realizing that the show just isn’t complex enough to display that complexity, just as 24 rarely stops mid-storyline to delve into Jack’s past until someone he knows happens to be caught up in the middle of the conflict.

I won’t argue that this season was a waste of time or a failure in any major respect, as Lithgow’s performance was a revelation (that will be garnering an Emmy nomination) and the idea of focusing more closely on Dexter’s life elevated it over what Season Three offered in Miguel Prado. However, a shocking ending doesn’t make for a shocking season, and Dexter’s trajectory wasn’t actually surprising in the least: we knew he would kill Trinity, we knew it would teach him something about himself, and we knew the show would do something to complicate things for Dexter’s home life considering how much of a focus the season had on the story (which was great when it involved Trinity, boring when it didn’t). Each season is so self-contained that no amount of shocking cliffhangers can actually change how predictable it is, and unless you’re just “along for the ride” it’s hard not to notice how far removed that is from the first and second seasons where things felt like they could unravel at any moment.

I want desperately for the show to regain that spontaneity, but if 24 taught us anything it’s that a cliffhanger doesn’t actually change a show’s formula. The proof is in the follow-through, and right now Dexter has spent three seasons with very similar storylines that have moved it further away from what made the first season so strong. In this finale we have the potential to return to those themes and ideas in earnest, and the show could well surprise me by really taking risks moving forward.

However, I’m not holding my breath.

Cultural Observations

  • I like Julie Benz, but Rita was an utterly worthless character beyond being a distraction in Dexter’s life. As soon as they started a real relationship, and she went from being melodramatic to creating melodramatic storylines (huge difference, just so we’re clear), she was a waste, and to see her leave only gives me false hope for the show moving forward.
  • To continue the 24 reference, Deb’s sort of like what Kim Bauer might have been like if Elisha Cuthbert had stuck around. To be honest, around Season 2/3 I was about to write Deb off, but this just goes to show you that you can survive some rougher, weaker storylines and still become an important part of a show…although I don’t think Kim could have survived the cougar.
  • Note also that Dexter actually threw out the “fake your own death, start over” plan that Jack used at the end of Season Four – I swear these comparisons were intentional, because if not I’m actively concerned about the capacity to create original work in that writers’ room.
  • In all seriousness, for Season Five, I want to see Deborah Morgan as the centre of this show. Hall needs some time off, McNulty in The Wire Season 4-style, and I think it would be interesting if Dexter made a getaway to somewhere and Deb had to go to him for help on a case (which, yes, is not that dissimilar from some of the lame scenarios I discussed above, but focusing on Deb would at least make it feel different).
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13 Comments

Filed under Dexter

13 responses to “Season Finale: Dexter – “The Getaway”

  1. Ben

    I’m totally down with the notion of Deb being the main character next season. You’re right – they need to do SOMETHING to break out of their formula, and I think Jennifer Carpenter has done some fantastic work this season.

  2. Jason

    I think next season Dexter will become a suspect in Rita’s murder, Quinn already thinks he was cheating on her, Dexter has no allibi for where he was at the time of the murder and Rita does not fit the profile of a bathtub victim. It will be interesting to see Dexter as a suspect.

    I have to give Dexter a lot more credit than 24. Dexter is better show than 24, on 24 everything is about how Jack Baur saves the day… everything else is just window dressing. Dexter is more deeper show than that. This ‘gamechanger’ might not be as gamechanging as the flashforward twist on LOST but I believe is still a more impactful twist in the long run than anything 24 has ever done.

    As for the supporting cast it baffles me no end why the writers don’t focus on Masuka who is arguable the most interesting supporting character on this show. Granted, he may feel like the most interesting character because they haven’t done much with him but I can bet that even a boring romance involving Masuka will be a lot more interesting than Batista-Laguerta drama.

  3. jake

    deb has got that weird eye thing, which honestly i think precludes her from becoming the main character. also showtime knows that if they switched to a female lead, the show would loose much of its audience

  4. ben

    why would they change the formula? the ratings were thru the roof

  5. Jason

    Haha… it’s ironic that you just wrote this essay comparing 24 to Dexter and less than 24hrs later Dexter’s showrunner steps down only to be replaced by 24’s showrunner.

    I’m slightly less optimistic about Dexter’s future now :(

  6. I’m not sure if I agree. Dexter is much more human this season.

    As for your note about Deb, the show is called Dexter and not Deborah. He is the center of the show. If they stop focusing on Dexter, I’ll stop watching.

  7. Honestly Myles, if the show ends up focusing on Debra next season, I may just have to jump off board ;) She’s been better this season, but she remains one of the worst cop portrayals on television. Then again, not many of the cops on the show look too smarter either.

    I’m more intrigued with her learning more about Dexter’s past, and the potential for her to find out about his darker side as well. Given the climactic scene between them, I could buy Debra trying to protect Dexter from the law once she learned the Truth.

  8. First, I almost cheered at the demise of Rita. She increasingly became an annoying character. In a generous mode, I could rationalize her nagging personality as necessary — her original appeal to Dexter was a safe cover who made little emotional demands on his supposedly empathy-deprived psyche. But that changed quickly and soon Dexter was caught in some suburban drama whereby wife and kiddies try to tame his savage beast. Spare me!

    The TV series parted company with the novels at the end of the first season and both have been tracking very different Dexters. I’ve always been interested that the novels explore the idea that Dexter’s adopted kids already show signs of being serial killers and want Dexter to, er, “show them the ropes” (so to speak). Now that Dexter has the kids to himself and his own progeny has suffered a similar birth in blood, it would be interesting to see the dilemmas of Dexter passing on The Code. But I think the TV series has shied away from this theme for a reason and is not likely to pick it up. Or, well, I wonder if the TV series will be more willing to explore this dynamic when the pupil is Dexter’s own kid rather than his adopted kids. The idea of Dexter as a Harry figure helping a murderously rebellious kid control impulses holds drama and appeal; the idea of a sympathetic serial killer passing on his skills to young kids who lack an obvious excuse for being serial killers feels a bit too taboo. Still, that edginess could be a welcome break in the Dexter formula.

    This past season had its strong points (Lithgow foremost among them) but it also had some really bad writing. The episode where Dexter is called in to examine (on site, no less) the discovery of a woman inside an alligator was possibly one of the worst plotted episodes of the entire series. They needed Dexter — the blood splatter guy — why? They called him in from his boat and waited for his arrival in the Everglades — how long did that take? And then his subsequent error is such blatant violation of The Code with only the barest suggestion of a hectic suburban-life distraction for explanation. Given the angst around The Code, killing an “innocent” seems like it should have had more lasting ramifications — but as your review above notes, no ramifications last very long in the multi-writer rush to reestablish the familiar formula.

    The show has ultimately created its own impossible conundrum. Dexter is at his most appealing when he isn’t “normal” even as he strives to be or appear to be normal. Unlike 24 which enjoys making Bauer loathsome, Dexter is rarely willing to let its title character be unlikeable. He’s the serial killer its okay to like because he’s cute and he has The Code and he only kills bad guys anyway. In fact, if he weren’t taking care of the scum (cleaning up after cops, who are always ineffective and too tied up in bureaucracy), he’d kind of be boring and annoying. So he can’t stop killing and he can’t continue to kill but be more rounded (i.e. less likable) as a character.

    I don’t know where the next season goes. I do think the end of this season raised the stakes — return to formula-as-usual, and the show will die a painful death. Shall we slice its cheek now or wait to see if we can learn anything from it?

  9. I totally agree w/ your point regarding the melodramatic role of Rita and the kids. I think the one major success of this past season was a greatly heightened tension b/t Dexter’s need to be a good man-on the side of justice-and his personal interests… as a killer.

    The gimmicky, prop-y family was used to this end, lending to a season highlighting Dexter on a much more personal level-essentially reproducing past seasons in a new light. Eventually, the show needed to address the darker implications of Dexter’s isolated schema; and I look forward to a publicly isolated Dexter in next year’s season!!!(hopefully they’ll pull it off. how? no idea)

  10. Jason Hart

    Im a huge 24 fan, just starting to watch Dexter. I like it alot, it is a very dark show like 24, but the tempo is much different. Nothing will ever compare to Season 5 and 2 of 24 for me, that was edge of your seat stuff. I have to disagree though, I give 24 more “credit” because the writers and producers have to script plots in real time, MUCH more difficult. Dexter is better in a sense that they have more room to work with.

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