Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Dexter, including the most recent, “My Bad.”
My first reaction to watching the fifth season premiere of Dexter was to wonder whether I want to continue watching. This may be the first time I’ve ever considered breaking up with a much beloved show not because I feel the quality has gone down or because I object to a plot point. I find the show just as brilliant as ever and I applaud it and its writers for having the conviction and guts to follow through on its dark premise to the dark places that such a premise demands. I have always found Dexter to be one of the most complexly layered shows on television, and this is mostly due to its most unreliable narrator, Dexter Morgan, a man who no one knows completely and yet who also doesn’t know himself for the ironic reason that were he to let someone else in to gain perspective on his nature, it would end in his imprisonment and/or that person’s death. Dexter thinks of himself as a monster, pure and simple, always viewing the world from the outside looking in, but what he doesn’t realize is that, to some extent, all people feel this way, and further, that he does in fact have emotions. No one completely unaffected by the people in his life would be so upset when they came into danger and/or he lost them.
At the same time, while the show puts us in the perspective of a serial killer, it never actually asks us to forgive him for his actions. Time and again, the writers have played with the nuance that Dexter is not a hero to be commended, that while he may rid the world of some dangerous people, his motives are still selfish. For example, if he were truly interested in protecting the innocent from people like Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer, he would have eliminated him at the start instead of letting him live longer so that he could learn from him, indirectly resulting in Rita’s brutal murder. So, we have a protagonist who both is and is not a monster, who is just like us yet completely different. From a dramatic standpoint, it makes complete sense that Dexter’s attempts to carry on a normal life in the light of day while continuing to be a serial killer at night would lead to tragedy. So, when Rita died, it felt poetically right that Dexter lose the person who kept him grounded in humanity as punishment for indulging so often in his inhuman side, and further that she died because of his own obsession with carrying out revenge personally rather than involving the police, even though he works for them–another of the show’s ironies. Her murder also continued the cycle that birthed Dexter the Serial Killer, for now his son also watched his beautiful, blonde mother be murdered before his eyes, and spent hours bathed in her blood, just as happened to Dexter when he was a child. In the past, Dexter wondered if a child of his could be good or if it was fated to be evil, due to his genetics. This uncomfortable parallel to his own story would serve as yet another sign to him that he and his progeny might be doomed.
This is all brilliant stuff, and I have nothing but the deepest respect for the writers who not only killed off such an important character but did so, so unforgivingly. Rita, as played by the marvelous Julie Benz, was a kind soul, an innocent woman who began the show broken and seemingly helpless and who, over its course, found her own internal strength and became empowered. One would like to take comfort in the notion that such a good person who loved her kids and her new husband so deeply wouldn’t have to die in such immense fear and pain, and yet Dexter provides us no such comfort. Although they spared us watching Rita’s death, the season was deliberately written so that the initial Trinity murder of the woman in the bathtub in the premiere bookends the finale. Because we have seen a similar murder–that woman’s terror and agony–we can imagine precisely what happened (though even worse, because in Rita’s case, there is a baby in the room). Although I know some viewers had grown weary of Rita, she was always my favorite character on the show. As a viewer, I cared for her immensely, and her death hurt me like no other fictional character on a television series I can remember. Over the course of the long hiatus, I gradually put it out of my mind and thought that the absence of months might cushion the blow when the series returned. Again, though, Dexter offers no such comfort. The episode picks up precisely where the finale left off, and all of the wounds reopened at once.
Again, I applaud the series and its writers for their conviction, for not making it easy for the viewer or for Dexter, for showing us how much pain he and the other characters are facing. Though we were spared seeing Rita die, they don’t spare us seeing Dexter tell Rita’s children and parents. And in the style of Dexter‘s typically pitch-black humor, he does so with Mickey Mouse ears on, moments after the kids strap a pair to his head when they return home from Disneyland, which also makes the scene all the more difficult to watch. Dexter has no clue how to provide comfort or how to express his emotions. I was also floored by the funeral home scene, in which the writers seemed to quite deliberately comment on Michael C. Hall’s former role as David Fisher, the funeral director, in Six Feet Under. It was quite surreal to see Dexter being treated with the same care with which David Fisher treated so many mourning people. The scene was even shot in a style reminiscent of that series, and fans would of course recognize that moment where the man passes the tissue box over to Dexter. Dexter’s internal monologue questioning how the man can be so empathetic is also highly reminiscent of conversations between David and his brother, Nate, and their partner, Federico, over the course of Six Feet Under. The irony is that Dexter doesn’t realize that this is an act for the funeral director, too. The consoling, caring individual is a facade he has to wear for his business.
One of the most perceptive aspects of Six Feet Under was in how it depicted the ways in which people grieve. Many of the characters in this episode of Dexter criticize him for not crying, for seeming so emotionally shut down. People seem to think everyone should mourn in the same way and feel almost irritated when someone doesn’t behave the way he “should.” I can actually relate to this. When I was ten, my grandfather, to whom I was very close, died, and yet I found myself in such shock that I didn’t cry. I don’t think I cried once, but that didn’t make my loss feel any less palpable, although many relatives mentioned it as being somehow wrong. The irony is that, in the case of Dexter, he thinks there’s something wrong with him for not crying, as does everyone else, but that doesn’t mean there is. Being completely shut down, emotionally, is not healthy either, and so Harry does make a good point when he states what is perhaps the episode’s greatest irony–that Dexter never seems more human in this episode than when he murders a man in cold blood for being disrespectful to Rita and his pain. In a twisted way, this is when Dexter is most himself, and the fact that he broke the code out of grief for Rita reaffirms his humanity. I also commend the writers for picking up on the threads from last season in order to demonstrate how events such as his altercation with the neighbor who kissed Rita, and his behavior with the Mitchell family, might lead to him being suspected in this murder. Of course, the irony is that Dexter should be convicted of murder–just not this one.
Overall, I thought this was a brilliant opener that refused to cushion the blow of Rita’s death for the viewer, making it seem all the more gutwrenching and real. At the same time, this is paradoxically one of the reasons I imagine it will be a struggle for me to watch the show, at least in the near future. Speaking purely from an emotional level, I found myself so heartbroken while viewing “My Bad” that it was truly difficult to sit through; on an intellectual level, I can recognize the brilliance of the writing, the acting, and the directing and yet that is also what is making it so harrowing to watch. One of the things I always found so fascinating about Dexter is that in the early seasons, its message seemed ultimately optimistic, that although Dexter couldn’t recognize his own humanity, there was hope for him. This point-of-no-return, however, indicates that there might not be hope, after all. He is most likely doomed. On the one hand, it’s understandable, because allowing him a happy ending might seem akin to absolving him of his crimes, and yet on the other, I can’t help but perhaps naively wish for better for him. One of the inherent dangers in any series is that once viewers emotionally bond with a character, it can be difficult to separate out what that character deserves from what the viewers want. Again, intellectually, I understand. Emotionally, I can’t get the image of Rita’s murder out of my head each time I think of the series. The irony is that that is a sign of how brilliant the show is, but also an indication that it may no longer be for me.
I won’t actually abandon Dexter, because not only do I love Michael C. Hall and the entire cast but I respect the writers immensely. This is one of the best written shows I’ve ever seen, and I’m in more awe of the writers than ever before for not making this journey easy on us. At the same time, my love for the series and its characters might paradoxically be what keeps me from enjoying it to the extent that I used to do–a rather unique dilemma, if you think about it.
PS. The Rita flashbacks? Magnificent.