Friday, December 18, 2009

Putting Away Childish Things: Dexter Goes Fourth

After four seasons, it's easy to become blasé about the magnitude of Dexter's accomplishment.  In a television landscape in which so many shows flare brightly and briefly and then go to pot, and others are cut off in their prime, and others still are content to wallow in carefully maintained mediocrity, Dexter is that rare artifact--a series that has maintained, with some peaks and troughs, a high and highly satisfying level of quality for four years.  It's not a perfect show by any means.  It relies too heavily on clomping, obvious dialogue and an times insultingly over-explanatory voiceover; its pacing is often off, with seasons dragging in their middles and racing towards their endings; it tends to shunt off interesting minor characters into uninteresting, dead-end plotlines.  The fourth season, just now concluded, suffers from all these flaws as well as other, more serious ones, which we'll discuss below.  But it also displays the show's strengths--a rollicking, twisty plot, well done intrigue and high-intensity storytelling, and some of the best character work currently on our screens.  Dexter maintains this quality, as I've written in the past, by constantly reinventing itself, while holding fast to its core elements.

The fourth season is thus simultaneously a break with tradition and return to the show's roots.  After two seasons that deliberately broke with it, the fourth season returns to the format established by the first--Dexter playing a game of cat and mouse with another serial killer.  This time, however, Dexter is the predator, insinuating himself, under a false name and false pretenses, into the life of his quarry, a killer known as Trinity (John Lithgow, in a chilling, magnificently creepy performance) who has evaded capture for thirty years while killing dozens of people.  But if previous seasons portrayed the battle of wits between Dexter and his psychopathic antagonist as something self-contained, a game which Dexter could, for the most part, control and keep separate from his normal life, the fourth season is primarily concerned with the collapse of these barriers, between Dexter the serial killer and Dexter the upstanding citizen.

As the fourth season opens, Dexter is a family man: married to Rita, living in the suburbs, raising his two stepchildren and infant son, Harrison.  The loss of the privacy he enjoyed as a single man living on his own on the one hand, and the new responsibilities of a husband and father on the other, leave Dexter very little time or space in which to pursue his second life.  The season begins by treating this dilemma as a joke--Dexter can't get around to killing his latest quarry because he's kept hopping by the demands of job and family, and just as he's about to carve the man's body up, Rita calls him with an urgent request that he pick up medicine for Harrison--but as it draws on, the pressure it causes begins taking its toll.  Rita becomes impatient with Dexter's secretiveness and emotional distance, and suspicious of the occasional flare-ups of his violent temper.  The increased demands on his time make Dexter sloppy and frazzled--he kills an innocent man, having rushed to the conclusion of his guilt based on circumstantial evidence, antagonizes and arouses the suspicions of Quinn, a detective in his department, and even gets himself arrested while in hot pursuit of Trinity.  Despite his scrambling and furious effort, Dexter's life keeps slipping through his fingers--his marriage crumbling, his camouflage fading, and Trinity constantly one step ahead of him.

The result is the show's darkest and most tragic season.  In its previous seasons, Dexter showed us its main character playing childish games, rebelling against the rules laid down for him by his adoptive father and toying with the possibility of giving his murderous urges freer rein.  These experiments invariably ended in failure, with Dexter learning, as I wrote in my third season write-up, that "Though none of the people who love him will ever truly know him, their love is worth so much more than the love of the kind of person who would accept him for what he is."  As the fourth season begins, Dexter has finally taken this lesson to heart.  He's given up on the games and experiments of his bachelor life, and fully committed to hiding his true nature from the people whose love he wants--Rita, his children, his sister Deb.  What he discovers is that he may not be able to have this love: that he can't have a happy marriage with woman to whom he is constantly lying and from whom he is hiding the most important part of himself; that his children are rapidly outstripping him in their emotional development; that his sister won't be swayed from investigating their father's past, and thus coming closer to the truth about Dexter.  The same in-between-ness that makes Dexter such a successful character--monstrous enough to be interesting but human enough to be appealing--may also doom him to a life of unhappiness.  He's not so much of a monster that he can't love or desire the love of others, but he may be too much of a monster to keep it.

Even worse, during the fourth season Dexter is constantly accosted by characters who insist that he is not only going to fail as a husband and father, but that he's going to hurt his family terribly.  A fellow psychotic who murdered her husband and daughter (Christina Cox, in one of the series's most memorable guest appearances) promises him that one day he'll snap and do the same.  The ghostly apparitions of Dexter's father Harry warn him that he won't be able to hide his murderous activities forever, that his increased engagement with the world will in fact hasten the day he's discovered, and that Rita and the children will be destroyed by his arrest and execution.  When Dexter learns that Trinity, far from being a loner, is a family man like himself, he puts off killing his quarry in order to learn how to juggle serial killing and a normal life, but Trinity's happy home life turns out to be a facade.  His wife and children live in terror of him, with hints of physical and even sexual abuse, and Dexter is forced to wonder whether he too will have such a corrosive effect on his family.  It is with a growing unease that we viewers, along with Dexter, dismiss these concerns.  It seems impossible that Dexter could ever hurt his family--on the contrary, his uncontrolled violent urges invariably express themselves at the suggestion of a threat to Rita and the children.  Dexter's arrest seems more likely, especially given his growing sloppiness over the course of the season and Deb's slow closing in on the connection between him and the first season's Ice Truck Killer, but Dexter's evaded the law for long enough that his capture doesn't seem like a foregone conclusion.  By the time the ugly truth about Trinity's family is discovered, however, Dexter's own home life is so strained that it's hard not to wonder with him whether twenty years by his side will have the same effect on Rita and the children. 

In previous seasons, Dexter's fears that he might be damaging his loved ones, or might simply not be human enough to function as they need him to, were always allayed by the story's conclusion.  By killing the season's antagonist and rejecting the freer expression of his monstrousness that they offered him, Dexter would shut down the possibility of danger--from himself or from external sources--to his family, while reinforcing the good that he was doing in their lives.  The fourth season makes it clear that that good is inextricably bound with damage.  When Deb confronts Dexter with the knowledge that the Ice Truck Killer was his brother, Dexter first feigns shock, and then genuinely apologizes for bringing such a horror into her life, making her the target of a monster simply for being his sister.  Deb angrily shuts him down: "If you hadn't been in my life, I wouldn't be who I am.  You've given me confidence and support.  You've been the one constant... the one constantly good thing in my life."  She's right, of course--it's impossible to imagine Deb growing up with only the emotionally distant Harry as her family and still becoming the awesome, confident, strong person we know (and though this post is mainly about Dexter, I would be remiss not to note that the fourth season continues Deb's growth as a person and a detective, and that Jennifer Carpenter continues to deliver a stellar performance in the role)--but at the same time Dexter's right that his presence has twisted and distorted Deb's life, if for no other reason than that, unbeknownst to her, Deb is in the classic position of the healthy sibling of a sick child--Harry was neglectful of her because he was so busy trying to manage Dexter's psychosis. 

By the same token, as good as Dexter is for Rita and the kids, he also damages them, at no point so horribly as at the end of the fourth season, when, in the most prosaic and tragic way possible, Dexter's vigilante activities come back to haunt him.  Returning home after disposing of Trinity's body, Dexter discovers that the older man, having learned Dexter's true identity and eager for revenge, has killed Rita.  So not only has Dexter caused Rita's death, but he's orphaned her children (in fact, Dexter is responsible for the deaths of both their parents--he framed their abusive father Paul for drug possession and got him sent to prison, where Paul was killed in a fight) and possibly doomed his son Harrison, who witnessed his mother's murder, to the same psychosis that afflicts him.

What makes this ending all the more grim is that it comes as a counterargument to the seemingly hopeful reply that Dexter gives to the season's underlying question.  The fourth season is essentially the drawn out process of Dexter's life falling apart under the combined weight of his two personas.  In the series finale, Dexter for the very first time not only acknowledges the impossibility of continuing in this fashion, but chooses his family over his murderous activities.  He takes the huge step of admitting that he wants to stop killing, but whether or not that is even possible for someone with his deep-seated psychological trauma, his progress is undone by the loss of Rita, his reason for wanting to change.

This would all make for an extraordinarily satisfying and well-done season if it weren't for one very big problem--Rita herself.  Dexter has always walked a fine line where Rita is concerned, somehow avoiding the ever-present danger of making her seem like a deeply deluded and even pathetic character--a woman who has fallen in love, married, and had a child with a serial killer, a man she doesn't really know.  It did so by insisting that not only did Dexter have genuine feelings for Rita, but that the two shared a connection that ran deeper than the secrets Dexter kept from her, that at their core they wanted the same things.  Even so, there's no avoiding the fact that much of the romance in Dexter and Rita's relationship was rooted in Dexter's lies and Rita's willingness to interpret them in a way that best suited her desires and the image of the life she wanted.  When Rita discovers that she's pregnant, she rejects Dexter's first few marriage proposals for being utilitarian and unfeeling, telling him that she wants a proposal from the heart.  In a darkly demented scene, Dexter cribs lines from the confession of a woman who murdered a man she was obsessed with in order to propose to Rita properly, which she tearfully accepts as a true expression of his feelings for her.  Once they're married, however, it becomes impossible for Rita to avoid seeing that Dexter is holding back a vital part of himself.  If in previous seasons Dexter used half-truths and careful elisions to maintain a balance between exposing himself emotionally and concealing what he was, in the fourth season these are insufficient.  In couples therapy with Rita, he emotionally explains that he's afraid to let her see his dark side for fear that she'd reject him.  Rita tearfully promises not to do so, but what the fourth season stresses is that this promise only comes because she doesn't understand the full extent of Dexter's darkness.  Every step forward in Dexter and Rita's relationship is only achieved because Dexter has found a new way to lie, massaging the truth about himself in a way that makes Rita think he's being more open while still concealing the most important part of it.

None of this would be a problem if it weren't for the writers' handling of Rita herself, who stops being that subtle blend of obliviousness and deep sympathy and becomes a nag and a shrew.  Again and again, Rita is painted as a spoilsport, who interrupts Dexter's nocturnal activities and the flow of the plot in order to demand prosaic things like medicine for Harrison's ear infection or Dexter's presence at Thanksgiving dinner.  None of these are, of course, unreasonable expectations, and it has been enormously dispiriting to read reactions to the season that have castigated Rita for being a bitch and cramping Dexter's style.  "Rita the big fat nag returns this Sunday when she guilt-trips Dexter into escorting the kids on a camping trip. Girlfriend needs to either accept the fact that her husband has a higher calling that involves killing bad people or simmah down now," writes TV Guide's Michael Aussiello, and TWOP's Dexter recapper Joe R wonders whether the writers "know they've written Rita past the point of no return for most fans."  When really, Rita's sole crime is that she believes the lies Dexter has told her, that she isn't aware of his second life, and that she expects him to be a full and equal partner in the marriage he chose to enter into.  The problem is, these are exactly the reactions the show's writers are courting, not only by marginalizing Rita as a point of view character and locking us into Dexter's view of their marriage, but by using her to spoil the audience's fun, to interrupt the story we want to see--Dexter's pursuit and capture of Trinity.

Rita's death, though not really a refrigeration--it not only doesn't motivate Dexter but takes away his main motivation to change, and revenge is impossible because an unwitting Dexter had already killed Trinity before discovering Rita's body--serves to flatten her character.  She can no longer make demands on Dexter, no longer complicate his life.  She exists now solely as a saintly and tragic figure who might have granted Dexter salvation, not the damaged and slightly screwed-up person with whom he had a loving but troubled marriage (and her death comes at the end of a season finale that sweeps away all the problems in that marriage and paints Rita in a suddenly saintly light as she once again promises Dexter to accept him along with his demons).  Add to that the fact that the fourth season seemed to take far too much pleasure in depictions of women's suffering--Trinity kills two women and a man on screen, and whereas the man's death is bloody but clearly driven by rage, when Trinity kills the women it's clearly a sadistic urge that's driving him, the desire to see them in terror, which they oblige; Quinn's girlfriend is so desperate for her father's approval that she kills for him, and realizing that he doesn't care for her, kills herself; Rita's death, though not seen, was clearly in the same fashion as Trinity's first victim--and it's hard to keep seeing Rita as a person rather than a plot device.

That said, I am very much looking forward to Dexter's fifth season. After all, my main problem with the series this season--the writing for Rita's character and the manner in which she was killed off--won't be an issue next year, and there are so many questions I'd like to see answered, so many possible avenues of story the show could go down.  Will Dexter be raising his stepchildren and son?  Will Deb finally make the last logical connection and discover his true nature?  Will Quinn continue his investigation of Dexter?  Most importantly, will Dexter commit fully to Harry's code, cutting off all human contact, or will he reject it completely and become a full-fledged monster?  Every time Dexter delivers a triumphant conclusion to an excellent season, I find myself praising it and nervously hoping that the next season will be the show's last--after all, how much longer can the writers keep up this streak?  I have the same reaction to the fourth season, mainly because it feels like crunch time--Dexter's lost most of what was keeping him human, and in the wake of that loss he needs to make a final choice between his two personas.  After four years, Dexter's writers have certainly earned enough indulgence from me to believe that they can pull off that story successfully, and who know?  Maybe even keep going after it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I was really upset with the ending for a number of reasons and you've put some of them into better focus.
I love reading your thoughts on tv and have been lurking for a long time!

Tzvika Barenholz said...

did not read the essay for fear of spoilers. will come back once I'm done viewing the season. just wanted to drop a line to say the blackadder reference was not lost on this reader.

Andrew Stevens said...

Most importantly, will Dexter commit fully to Harry's code, cutting off all human contact, or will he reject it completely and become a full-fledged monster?

Somebody check my memory on this. All this season, I've been finding this to be revisionist history. Wasn't part of Harry's code in the first season that Dexter was supposed to fake normality and emotions to fit in? Isn't that why he was with Rita in the first place? Then, all of a sudden this season, we're led to believe that Harry's code requires Dexter to be a loner. I don't want to make too much of this, since I believe it can be easily reconciled. ("Yes, you're supposed to fit in and act normal, but this doesn't mean marrying and having children.") But it's niggled at me all season long.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

"Yes, you're supposed to fit in and act normal, but this doesn't mean marrying and having children."

I think that's it. In the first season Rita is repeatedly referred to as camouflage, and it's stated that Dexter chose her because he thought she was too damaged and traumatized to demand a meaningful relationship. I took Harry's point during season four to be that it's one thing to sham a relationship, and another to be in a real one, and that the latter was bound to get Dexter caught sooner or later.

Let's also not forget that Harry isn't Harry but an expression of Dexter's subconscious and the part of his that has imbibed Harry's belief that Dexter can't have a normal life. So if Dexter is worried about failing as a husband and father or hurting his family, naturally the Harry in his head is going to harp on those points.

Anonymous said...

Isn't there something dreadfully safe about a serial killer figure who is so completely unlike real serial killers?

Also, valorizing a human being who kills other human beings, especially when his real life equivalent would do so for really stupid, pathetic reasons, seems as fundamentally tasteless and grotesque as blackface, Jar Jar Binks, John Norman's sexual politics, etc.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read any of the original novels that the series is based on, but I'm curious about them. In particular I wonder how the issues of the code are adressed there.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's my understanding that the books are very different from the series. The first season follows the first book's plot, but later seasons deviate from the books. Also, in the books the shape of Dexter's psychosis is more pronounced - he has conversations with his Dark Passenger, for example.

Alexander said...

It should be noted that the basic structure of the Dexter books is a lot worse written and incoherent. Dexter is a much sicker puppy in the book, but the narrative also glorifies him to an extent the show doesn't, as well as making every other character stupid, immoral, or both. Plus, in the third book the Dark Passenger becomes more than psychosis--it's shown to be an alien/demonic force that possesses him.

With regards to the fourth season great review, it's effective in mapping out the show's arc and it's accomplishments. While you're also perceptive into the main failings, I think you're a bit over-generous. This season was a lot better than the third, but it's still has a lot of TV as usual, with some very contrived plot holes that were difficult to accept, and at times the show revealed an insulting tendency not to trust the viewers at all. The two things that come to mind are Arthur Mitchell having to go 'I am found!' to make the point clear in episode four, and at the end the actual flashback to Dexter's baptism by blood, when the parallels were obvious and had been clearly described earlier in the episode.

In terms of troubling gender issues, I think everything the show did with Christina was also misjudged, having her as the hot girlfriend eventually shown to be the daughter of Arthur Mitchell. Overly melodramatic, doesn't make much sense with Arthur's shown timeline, and makes her into a hollow plot-shell that's also used to provide a lot of nudity. Combine this with Rita as an unsympathetic antagonist in plot terms, and La Guerta's continuing focus on sentiment over prfoessionalism, and I'd say the show has major issues with the portrayal of women. It's partially redeemed by the great work done with Deb this season, but still.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree that both of these points have been consistent problems for the series and were no less problematic in the fourth season. I mention them (as well as the slackness of some of the middle episodes) in the first paragraph, which to be honest is about as much prominence as I feel that they deserve. I'm always bothered by these flaws while watching the season, but once it ends its overall success tends to drown them out.

You're certainly right, though, that with the exception of Deb Dexter's handling of its female characters is very hit and miss. I'm less down on Christine, however, which is to say that I found her pointless (and her frequent explicit sex scenes quite gratuitous) in the first half of the season, but felt that her existence was vindicated by her connection to Mitchell, which also went some way towards explaining her twisted and manipulative relationship with Quinn. By the end of the season I found her quite affecting.

(As for Arthur's timeline, I think she fits perfectly well. We know he had a relationship before his present wife, who is anyway much younger than he is, and he's certainly old enough to have a thirtyish child.)

Alexander said...

Well, I suppose there was one brief allusion to an earlier failed relationship before he became Mr. Family Man. I'd still say that the final setup for her involvement looks contrived--Arthur actually went on a kill with her along, which she witnessed, causing her to be messed up and to shoot Lundy? It seems like a case of drying to drudge up mystery at the expense of having a backstory that really fits.

Returning to the gender angle again, the thing that's most annoyed me with that is La Guerta's shift after S2, when she went from vowing to investigate further and clear Doakes' name to accepting the whole situation, and this season being relegated to sitcom-esque romance tensions. That her focus on dating, and then marrying, Baptista were directly shown to make her a less effective cop makes for a troubling type of subtext, and even Deb had an irksome love triangle that made her to be overly irresponsible early on.

Well, different judgments I suppose. I'll certainly be watching S5, but I think the show will lose a lot of credibility if they do their standard thing and jump forward three months, skipping the immediate raw messiness resultant from Rita's death.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'd still say that the final setup for her involvement looks contrived--Arthur actually went on a kill with her along, which she witnessed, causing her to be messed up and to shoot Lundy?

Besides the fact that this would be entirely in keeping with Dexter's own genesis as a serial killer (and his brother's), I don't think that's what the show is saying at all. I think it's saying that Arthur was an abusive, manipulative father, and that Christine had it even worse than his younger children because on top of the abuse we see him pile on them he was also absent and withholding with both his love and approval. Most importantly, I don't think Christine is nuts, just messed up and confused. She's clearly remorseful about killing Lundy - it's her remorse, really, that puts Deb on her scent - unlike Dexter and Arthur, who kill without feeling guilt.

the thing that's most annoyed me with that is La Guerta's shift after S2, when she went from vowing to investigate further and clear Doakes' name to accepting the whole situation

I think that's an extreme way of putting it. As LaGuerta puts in in the second season finale, she can't prove that Doakes was innocent but is choosing to believe in his innocence nonetheless.

her focus on dating, and then marrying, Baptista were directly shown to make her a less effective cop

I certainly didn't see this.

Deb had an irksome love triangle that made her to be overly irresponsible early on

Once again, when was this? It's clearly not a good thing to cheat on your boyfriend, but how is it irresponsible?

the show will lose a lot of credibility if they do their standard thing and jump forward three months

The gaps between seasons are anything but standard. Five weeks elapse between the end of the first season and the second, the period between the second and third season is never mentioned, and there must be at least a year between the end of the third season and the beginning of the fourth, because Rita goes from about midway into her pregnancy to having a child who is close to a year old.

Tzvika Barenholz said...

First of all, the last minute or two of the season finale had a disemboweling effect on me. I did not see that coming.

Second of all for predictions: I think the 5th season will be about Harrison (Harry's son) and does he deterministically become a killer. Certainly he would have to be raised by Dexter (though Astor and Kody will surely be shipped to their convenient grandparents), so there's room for plot there. The only trouble with this kind of plot is that it would have to veer quite a long way away into the future from the present time.

By the way I think you're criticsim of Rita's role in the 4th season was spot on. She might have played a bigger part. I wouldn't be surprised to see her join Harry as a figment of Dexter's imagination. Once she knows everything she could become more interesting. Certainly she would be able to talk about more than baby medicine.

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