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.
- 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).