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.