Dexter has always, for me anyway, had a redemptive message. Our hero wrestles with some manifestation of his demons in each season before ultimately making the right choice. There’s been more than enough moral ambiguity to go around but, on balance, the series arc has been Dexter moving closer to humanity. Before slamming us in the gut with a framing hammer, that’s where this season’s finale seemed to be headed. Dexter realizes that it’s his dark passenger and not his family that’s the problem and that his real goal should be to conquer his demons, not balance them with his home life; in short, he must try to be a better man. Then, just as the episode reaches it’s “YES HE CAN!” crescendo, we find Rita in the tub.
I was not among those that hated Rita’s character this season but, even if I were, her death would still be a tragedy for what she meant to Dexter. Deb may represent the “true” familial connection, but Rita represented hope. Their relationship was Dexter’s foundation for growth, his opportunity to learn to connect with someone as they both moved toward their shared dream of “a normal life.” Without her, he has nothing to aspire to, a fact brought home by the brutally despairing voiceover that ends the season. Without a doubt, this was the bleakest moment of the show, topping even Brian’s death (something I didn’t think possible), and enough of a game-changer to leave me at a loss for what season five will be like.
If I have one quibble with the episode, it’s that Rita’s death was telegraphed in her little pep-talk to Dexter. Anytime a character reminds us why they’re important is a time to get worried. That being said, the final image of her in the bathtub with Harrison wallowing in her blood was more gruesome than anything I’d imagined, and there were enough twists and turns along the way to make me forget my suspicions. The by-the-numbers nature of the rest of the episode probably helped lull me into a sense of security, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t satisfying before the twist. The episode did what the series does best with Dexter racing the cops to catch a killer who’s menacing the life he’s built for himself. The takedown in the parking garage, the raid on the Mitchell household, the altercation with Quinn, the simple/brilliant trap with the oil cap; all classic Dexter, all flawlessly executed.
The exchange with Harry in the jail cell was also classic Dexter, but it deserves some special attention after a season of lackluster Harry moments. James Remar was better than he’s been since the first season, making seemingly logical arguments for protecting the innocent while simultaneously limiting Dexter’s human impulses. Dex has seen through the BS before, but this time felt much more definitive. The code was revealed as a limitation on his humanity in season one, but this was the first time he’s really confronted it as an enabler for the dark passenger. The code may have kept Dexter out of jail, but it isn’t a real solution. The real answer is fighting the dark passenger, not finding a way to live with it. The realization’s predictable, at least in the sense that I predicted it, but it was so well executed that I don’t care.
Where denying Harry provided one piece of the puzzle, accepting Deb provided the other. Dex may have accepted the need to fight the evil in him, but his ability to do good for others seems undermined by the trauma that Arthur’s discovery inflicts on his family. It was a pleasant surprise that Deb learning about his past had a positive outcome (at least for this season). Her flat denial of Dexter’s self-pity was perfect. He has been a positive force in her life (possibly the only one), and can continue to be one for her, Rita, and the kids.
Armed with the twofold reason to change, Dexter seems to have all the answers once Trinity’s on the table. He’s transcended his onetime mentor and discovered the real way to live as a killer. Don’t. Trinity’s claim that Dexter is no better than him is refuted by simple statement “No, but I want to be.” The mere fact that he actually wants to change (as opposed to just praying for an ending) is what separates Dexter from Arthur. He finally appreciates just how his family can save him and is resolved to follow that path. Of course, Trinity’s aware of the lie in Dexter’s words. Hope is being killed just as it’s being discovered and the cycle of trauma and violence is horrifically renewed in the image of Harrison crying in Rita’s blood. The real tragedy here is that everything Dexter’s just realized is still true. He still can and should change, for his own sake and his family’s. It’s ironic that his utterly human reaction makes the chance of this actually happening seem impossibly remote.
The finales of seasons 2 & 3 of Dexter worked thematically while (at least partly) missing the mark dramatically. It was nice to see this season deliver a conclusion that was satisfying on all levels.
One of the aspects of Dexter that I love is its exploration of superhero archetypes. Comic book devotees should recognize this episode as the “Jason Todd/Gwen Stacey moment.” The hero, well established in his career and at the top of his game, fails the person closest to him in the most tragic way. The consequences of this failure haunt him forever and colour everything they do afterwards.
I desperately need to see this episode again as I was far to caught up in the events to really appreciate everything. The table-talk scene in particular should be amazing on 2nd viewing when we know what Arthur knows. Oh well, must wait for DVD.
Hats off to the entire cast for this episode; just outstanding work all around. Michael C. Hall’s performance, always stellar, was at its best when Deb “tells” him about his brother. I’m always impressed by his ability to move between genuine and false emotion, but the truly incredible moments are where he seems to be doing both at the same time. The surprise at the revelation is obviously feigned, while the remorse at having caused Deborah pain is genuine. This is why I call him the best actor on TV.
I’ll be posting one more “Final Thoughts” on the season as a whole. After that this blog will be moving on to… something else.