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.