November 22nd, 2009
There is no question that I have been highly critical of Dexter this season, which isn’t to suggest that I wasn’t also critical of season two (where the conclusion fizzled) or season three (where things felt as if they wrapped up too neatly): this is a show that I have always felt struggled in the balance between the parts and the whole, and this has been especially clear this season. While I’ve enjoyed the majority of the story surrounding the Trinity Killer, and Michael C. Hall is delivering as compelling a performance as ever, I’ve found myself watching episodes out of obligation more than interest, and fastforwarding through anything not involving Trinity, Dexter, or Deb.
If we follow that strategy, “Hungry Man” contains perhaps the best connection yet between Dexter and Trinity, offering glimpses of two theoretically similar Thanksgiving dinners that in reality tell two very different story or, more problematically for Dexter, two very different stages of the same tale. The problem is that this isn’t actually a new theme, having effectively been the purpose of the Trinity story since we meant “Arthur,” and despite some really fantastic execution throughout it (like seasons before it) feels a bit too on the nose, thematically.
However, when you have a show that likes to meander about as it does and (in my opinion) waste our time with storylines that are irrelevant until the show decides to deliver a bombshell like at the end of this episode, I’ll take compelling contrivance over mundane mind games any day.
What bugs me about showing the dangerous side of the Mitchell family is that it was so inevitable. The storyline has always been an extravagant excuse to investigate Dexter’s family more carefully, a conveniently Miami-based serial killer who happens to also have a family. Over the past number of episodes, the show has created excuses for Dexter to see what Arthur is made of, discovering last week that he’s not even close to stable and discovering this week that his family has consequently suffered. And in those scenes the show has created a lot of legitimate dramatic tension, as Arthur/Trinity is unpredictable in a way that Dexter simply isn’t. We know how Dexter responds to situations, and we’re so far inside his head that the show has felt the need to more consistently use Harry as a second voice in order to diversify his inner monologues. To have a new character who is similarly complex to be able to investigate is both useful for Dexter (who loves self-inflicting psychoanalysis) and for the show, and Lithgow has been a great addition as a result.
However, my problem is that this episode goes too far to vilify Arthur, to take him so far away from Dexter’s current position that he becomes simply a cautionary tale rather than a complex individual to be dissected by Dexter and by the audience. It’s one thing to shatter his image of the perfect family by suggesting that his son resents him for the emergence of his violent tendencies, or to suggest that he is over-protective of his daughter to the point where he locks her in her room and has effectively turned her into both a creepily sexual 15-year old and a replacement for his dead sister. I think those cracks in the perfect family were both really interesting (especially with the daughter, who until this episode seemed a waste of the acting talents Vanessa Marano showed on Six Feet Under or Gilmore Girls), and they created consequences that wouldn’t be visible from behind a tree in his front yard, Dexter’s first vantage point into this family.
And yet, when Jonah went off during Thanksgiving dinner and Arthur went on a murderous rampage choking out his son and throwing his daughter across the room, the scene went too far. Yes, the scene was an enormously compelling piece of drama, and we’re conditioned to gasp when Dexter reveals the Dark Passenger to Arthur in that moment, but it makes things far too easy, which is the same thing that has happened in every past season. In Season Two, Lyla was a lifeline for Dexter, someone that he was able to talk to about his problem (albeit veiled in the context of Narcotics Anonymous), and killing someone who offers him solace would have been an intriguing moral dilemma; of course, she turned into a kidnapping arsonist psychopath, so all questions of morality disappeared. The same happened in Season Three when Dexter found Miguel Prado, someone who could be a friend and confidante who knew about his problems but understood and even assisted with it; however, he was revealed to be a corrupt attorney who was using Dexter to kill innocent victims, which made Dexter’s decision to kill him less morally complicated and more “satisfying.” It was a “Hell yeah” moment on a show that, late in each season, loves shifting into that mode.
For once, I’d like to see one of Dexter’s foils actually remain complicated to the point where Dexter doesn’t know if he should kill them. I’m aware that Trinity doesn’t make a great candidate for this considering the fact that he has murdered nearly 100 people in his lifetime, but having Dexter witness it first hand in such vivid detail creates too simple a trajectory. Dexter is at its best when it is investigating moral complexities, in particular within Dexter, and that ship has officially sailed: from now on, we’ve switched from being compelled by the intricacies of this friendship to a sort of bloodlust, hopeful that Dexter “gets another kill” (a common complaint amongst some fans is that they aren’t satisfied unless Dexter draws blood). The scene was enormously compelling, don’t get me wrong, but it also signals that the compelling series of episodes more carefully investigating Arthur have passed, and a serial killer is effectively all that’s left.
I thought that this hour was one of the best so far this season in terms of connecting Trinity and Dexter’s experiences, and Harry’s observation that Rita was, at one point, also just a cover for his true identity is spot on. Dexter has been holding onto hope that Arthur somehow figured it out, but in this episode any sense that Arthur has anything under control was eliminated as soon as his family was revealed as so tragically flawed. While it involved one of the subplots I fastforwarded through (Elliot and Rita’s transgression), it was interesting to see how Dexter returns to his family and sees what he believes to be happiness (Cody volunteering thanks for Dexter, the same thanks that had to be coerced out of the Millers) when in reality Elliot has whispered in Rita’s ear that Dexter isn’t around as much as a real father should be. It allows Dexter to believe his family is different when, based on what we know (and what Dexter should know, considering Rita’s less than stable past) there is every chance that ten years down the line they could be just the same.
But, unfortunately for the season as a whole, this is as far as this investigation is really going to get, if we follow the traditional patterns of the season structures (which, as noted, to this point have been almost slavishly adhered to). While we learn that Christine is Trinity’s daughter, and Deb puts together that she was likely the person who shot her and killed Lundy, we’re entering into the part of the season that completely demystifies the villains in an effort to allow Dexter to be a hero. Now, killing Trinity is avenging the thirty years of murders, protecting against future murders, protecting the Miller family, and protecting himself (now that Arthur knows his inner demon); there’s nothing complex about that, an inevitability tied as much to Lithgow’s guest star status as it is to the show’s ongoing pattern.
And if this was all surrounded by a more compelling set of ancillary storylines, I’d probably be less likely to complain about it, but forgive me if Batista/LaGuerta and Quinn/Reporter aren’t doing it for me.
- I do think that Jennifer Carpenter deserves a lot of credit this season. She was really solid in her scenes with Cody/Astor tonight, and more importantly did a good job of various revelatory moments that wouldn’t have worked without a good performance (as she’s basically acting with herself).
- However, I thought Masuka at Thanksgiving dinner was a huge disappointment: instead of letting him loose comically, they tied him up in Rita and Elliot’s drama, which could potentially lead to long-term hilarity but actually makes me less likely to care about the character moving forward. Did Masuka really need to be connected to that storyline?
- I’m going to presume that the title is as much a reference to the TV Dinners (which defined Deb and Dexter’s post-Mrs. Morgan Thanksgiving traditions) as it does to Dexter/Arthur’s hunger to kill.
- I thought Deb’s realization that the killer is working on a school pattern makes sense, but wouldn’t the bludgeoning have taken place during the school year, thus making Deb realize that he’s Miami-based? I know that she was at Thanksgiving Dinner and not in front of the board, but it was just something that she didn’t get to follow through on.