Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Dexter' Season Four (2009)

Starring Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter and Julie Benz
Developed by James Manos Jr.

Two words: John Lithgow.

Now, going into "Dexter," I'd heard many people tell me that Season Four was the best of the lot.  As I delved further into the series, from its razor-sharp first season, messy second and interesting third, I was looking forward more and more to this ultra-hyped fourth season, which would have Michael C. Hall's titular serial killer squaring off against John Lithgow's sinister "Trinity" killer.

Picking up several months after the end of Season Three, which saw Dexter and Rita (Julie Benz) tying the knot while preparing for the arrival of their baby, Season Four opens with the happy couple having settled into their new home with their new family.  They've integrated into their neighborhood as friendly newlywed neighbors, attending parties and barbecues and the like.  Their kids play regularly with the neighbors' kids, and participate in carpools to school.

Elsewhere, Dexter's sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) has moved in with her boyfriend Anton (David Ramsey) and forged a better working relationship with her partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington).  Detective Angel Batista (David Zayas) and Lieutenant LaGuerta (Lauren Valez) have begun having an affair.  Things are quiet in Miami, but Dexter finds that the daily grind of being a full-time father is depriving him of sleep.  It starts to affect his work, both as a police forensics analyst and as a serial killer.  He brings the wrong case file to a court appearance, allowing the defendant to go free, and later falls asleep while stalking his prey, causing him to lose his victim.

Into this all this comes Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow).  At first glance, Arthur is a kind, middle-aged husband and father of two.  He volunteers his time at both his church and at the Four Walls charity group which builds houses for needy families.  But Arthur has his own "dark passenger" - He kills according to a pattern.  First, a teenage girl killed in her bathtub.  Second, a mother forced to jump to her death.  And third, a middle-aged man bludgeoned to death outside a bar.  When the pattern begins in Miami, it attracts the attention of now-retired FBI agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine), returning from Season Two.

Lundy's return throws a wrench into Deb's relationship with Anton when she realizes she still has feelings for Lundy.  But his return is short-lived: both Deb and Lundy are shot down in the parking lot of his hotel.  Deb survives, but Lundy is killed.  Deb's mission for the rest of the season is to find Lundy's killer, a mission that eventually puts her in pursuit of Lundy's "Trinity" killer, whom he has been tracking across the country for over a decade.  When Dexter discovers Trinity's identity, and that Trinity has apparently led a successful family life for decades while still being a sick murderer, he gets the crazy idea that perhaps there's something he can learn from Trinity.

And so Dexter befriends Arthur, hoping to learn the secret of his success.  But what he finds there isn't success.  Instead, it's a twisted cycle of abuse, fear, murder and kidnapping that threaten to unravel everything Dexter has worked hard to build.

I can't say it enough: John Lithgow is fucking awesome.  Much like Jimmy Smits' portrayal of Miguel Prado, Lithgow's Arthur Mitchell is a character who at first seems solidly built, but becomes more and more unhinged as the season goes on.  But while Prado just turned into a dick, Arthur becomes one of TV's scariest serial killers, a man entirely lost in his own pain.  Lithgow's performance is incredible, able to switch between charming family man, twisted psycho and tortured soul on a dime.

It wouldn't be quite as good without the writing to support it, and the twists and turns in the Trinity case are first-rate.  Especially the last few episodes, where the tension is ratcheted up to eleven as Dexter and Arthur bring their cat and mouse game to a head.  An episode where Dexter sits down with Arthur's family for Thanksgiving dinner is incredible, with Arthur's family life unraveling right in front of them, and Dexter's final realization of what an awful mistake he'd made allowing Arthur to live.

I've come down hard on Deb in previous seasons.  She'd alternated between fun and annoying so wildly that I often didn't want to care when she was around.  Deb had shown glimmers of being a great cop, showing good instincts, but always became so over-emotional about everything that she could grate.  But here... I have to admit, the Deb character has really grown on me.  Not only did I totally care about her character arc, but I was ultimately even moved by it.  Jennifer Carpenter also knocks her role out of the park in Season Four.

And then, well, there's the ending.  I won't spoil it.  When I informed Nicole that I was just about to watch the final episode of the season, she replied "You're going to be so shocked."  Damn, what an understatement.  The final moments of the season actually made me sit forward in my chair, saying, "No, no nonononononono!" because I could see what was happening, but I didn't want to believe it.  The final scene of the finale is an incredible punch to the gut, one that drops the floor right out of the whole setup of the show that has been building since Season One.

Ultimately, that's the perfect way to end this incredible season of television.  As much as my own, visceral emotional response might disagree, it's just a fantastic twist to throw into things.  The Dexter character has evolved so much in four seasons.  At the beginning of the show, he was with Rita because it was convenient and because he needed the guise of being a normal person with a normal girlfriend.  But after four seasons, Dexter had actually grown to love her, to want to be with her and their children.  The end of Season Four throws a massive monkey wrench into that, and I simply can't wait to see what shape things will take in the future.

See Also:
Season One
Season Two
Season Three