Jul 27, 2014

Narrative Explored: Dexter, Season Four

The fourth season of Dexter forms the middle of a triumvirate of perfect seasons. It is bookended by Seasons One and Five.

By now the show is settling into a season template where a single Miami serial killer provides the seasonal arc. While each episode develops that arc, there are many side plots or one-episode plots to keep the story moving. At this point the writers have clearly found their stride and they take their time developing this season's serial killer.

And he's possibly the best, the scariest and the most charming of them all. It is John Lithgow playing Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer, known as such because he kills in three set pieces on an annual basis. (If you want to pick this season apart, you could easily make the case that the current crop of criminal databases, supercomputers and sophisticated data mining algorithms would pick his pattern up in a heartbeat, but then you'd deprive the viewer of the return of Special Agent Frank Lundy, who redeems himself and Debra from the absurdity of Season Two).

Season Four is carefully constructed and has a masterful pace. The dialogue is just right, occasionally witty but with an emphasis on that blend of reality, plot development and characterization that really marks excellent writing. You could teach a course on writing just by analyzing this season.

Here's where the plot is perfect. Dexter is now married and with a newborn. He has moved in with Rita and her kids. He is as domesticated as it becomes. Except that other thing, the serial killer lifestyle. Reconciling the domesticated husband and the serial killer is his biggest problem, and the Family Man side of himself is winning when the season opens. The serial killer in him is literally on the verge of killing him. He needs to go home and get some sleep. New parents don't get enough as it is. And he certainly cannot get advice on how to do this from Harry, who has been telling him all along that the family life is not for him. More than one bachelor has gone down this path of trying to reconcile his old lifestyle with his newly married, newly father reality, although without all the bloodshed.

Dexter finds an unlikely role model in Lithgow's Arthur Mitchell: family man, pillar of church and community, long time serial killer. So he lingers around Mitchell, trying to figure out how he does it.

It is perfect because Dexter believes that by reconciling these two sides of himself, he will become whole, and becoming whole and complete is the goal of life, great art and generally anything that interests us. And it is not a simple exercise of adding the right tattoo or wife.

Very quickly Dexter finds Arthur's flaws. He also loses control of the situation, making the last three episodes gripping.

When Jerry Seinfeld walked away from his sitcom, he was asked why he did it. The show was at its peak. The network wanted more and was willing to pay. But he said his years of doing standup had taught him how to walk off the stage just as the wave was about to crest. Season Four was the crest of Dexter. With a few modifications, Season Five could have been the perfect ending for the series.

Jul 21, 2014

Narrative Explored: Dexter, Season Three

Season Three of Dexter does not exactly pick up where Season Two left off, which is a good thing. Season Two ended on an absurdist note: Lila had to be taken care of, Dexter's victims had been discovered but he had not, and a kind of harmony had been restored to Dexter's life. He could get on with the business of being a serial killer.

But Episode One starts off with the same contrivance that marred Season Two. Dexter acts like a heroin addict to get close to his next victim. We've not really seen Dexter operate up close to his victims like this. Until now, he's been in the shadows, watching from a distance. He's better in the shadows. He is our shadow selves as so perfectly stated in Season One.

Adding to his most-un-Dexter self, he tries a kill in full daylight and without doing his reconnaissance. He fumbles it. The observant viewer at this point would believe we're viewing the imminent decline and death of a series.

Enter Jimmy Smits as assistant district attorney Miguel Prado. It is Prado's brother that Dexter has accidentally killed and this brings the full force of the law and the political pressure of a government onto the investigation. In Prado Dexter finds a friend. They see each other for who they really are and there is a sense that Dexter is becoming even more human. Smits is so good in this role that you can imagine cracking a beer with him and spending a long night shooting the shit. Smits has real screen presence and projects the rising star of a politician. (Loved Smits in Switch, another movie where he plays a perfect drinking buddy with an exceptional Ellen Barkin; Tea Leoni makes an early career appearance).

There are some other nice plot lines that make you believe Dexter is becoming human. Finding out that Rita is pregnant, he works through not only the idea of himself as a father but as a husband. Anyone who has been around a pregnant woman can easily write off Rita's craziness, although it is at times overdone.

But what really makes the season work is the chemistry between Dexter and Prado. Dexter is the seasoned serial killer who has created an elaborate code, rituals and covers for the only thing that once made him feel anything. Prado is just beginning to become a killer. Prado's motivations are a crazy concoction of rage, vigilantism and ambition. You really believe that Prado is a killer going mad. Strangely you never get that feeling with Dexter. Dexter is not insane. He's simply becoming something else, something not empty.

There are some duds. Dexter doubting his father is a leitmotiv that never belongs. His father made him, gave form and order to his life, loved him and continues to be his guide. Throwing all of this aside would drive Dexter either to renounce the code and become a killer of anyone he wants. Or Dexter's rage would turn inwards and he'd finally kill himself or synchronistically run into death. Trying to find Debra a mate is tiresomely played out again. She's not believable as a steady. Really what is missing is the flash of brilliance of Season One and Season Four. Season Three is a good recovery from Season Two.