I never know how seriously to take Dexter. This series’ mood is so incredibly hectic as one episode will place Dexter as a pitch-black dark comedy and have the series become a straight psychological drama just one week later. Similarly, the series will place Dexter a tragic sociopath trying to survive the only way he knows how and rapidly change lanes with Dexter as his alter-ego “The Dark Avenger.” This is central to any analysis of the franchise as it is a basic tenet of my critical philosophy to judge a work at least partially on how well it meets its own stated intentions and I am far more critical and serious about work that takes itself incredibly seriously than I am things that are a little more campy and tongue-in-cheek. There are honestly moments in this series where I can envision the writer’s imagining ways to troll the majority of the audience for this series who prefer the heroic Dexter over his  more complex, ambiguous, and, ultimately, interesting tragic counterpart. However, the fun the show has in teasing its own audience doesn’t outweigh some of the basic narrative flaws which are becoming endemic to the series and which threaten to tear down the validity of what has easily become one of the best villains in all of television, John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer.

Last disc ended with the shooting of Frank Lundy and Debra Morgan by an unknown assailant. While Debra survived with only a minor flesh wound, Frank died and the Miami PD all suspect that the Vacation Murderers from the beginning of the season were the assailants. Only Deb and Dexter think differently as both believe Frank got too close to Trinity and lost his life to this long investigation. While Dex steals the various notebooks and recordings that Frank made before he was shot (to keep the Miami PD off Trinity’s tail), Deb is laid up with guilt and malaise not only for Frank’s death but also because she cheated on Anton (who she breaks up with after she tells him of her affair). By the time the Miami PD learns that the Vacation Murderers didn’t shoot Lundy and Deb, the only evidence pointing them towards Trinity (besides Deb’s conviction and some cremated human remains found at the scene) is securely in the hands of Dexter. Trying to stop Trinity from completing his cycle, Dexter arrives just in time to watch Trinity mercilessly bludgeon a man to death. Trying to trail Trinity home, Dexter makes the shocking discovery that Trinity is married, with two children. He finds out that Trinity is just like him (except without a code).

It turns out that Trinity’s real name is Arthur Mitchell. He’s a church deacon, teacher, and a community leader involved with building houses for the poor. His charity work has served as his excuse to move around the country and carry out his ritualistic murder of three individuals every year or so (that we know of). It turns out that when Arthur was a child, he was watching his sister shower. He frightened her and she slipped and cut herself on the shower door and bled to death. This led to his mother’s death. Eventually, he murdered his alcoholic and abusive father who blamed and punished him brutally for the deaths. Dexter inserts himself into Trinity’s life and is nearly strangled by Arthur in his living room for  opening the urn which contain Arthur’s sister’s ashes. After Dexter accidentally murders an innocent man, he tries to finally kill Arthur as atonement. However, Arthur opens up to Dexter about certain aspects of his past and tries to commit suicide which Dexter stops him from doing as Arthur must die by his own hand. Also, Deb and Masuka find out that Trinity couldn’t have been Deb’s shooter so the mystery of Frank’s murder deepens.

John Lithgow just continues to impress week after week. Even more than the chillingly cold Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad, Lithgow’s Trinity Killer is the embodiment of every “he seemed so quiet” or “never would have imagined it in a million years” next door serial killer story you’ve ever heard. During his scenes with his family and friends, you would never imagine that this person has a deeply ritualized and sexualized pathology for murder (though there are chinks in his armor that only Dexter notices). Yet, when he’s in the act of killing or engaging in the inexplicably disturbing act of sanding down wood to make a coffin, there is potentially no character in all of television who is so frightening as Trinity. Lithgow is essentially forced to play two distinct characters, and he makes each one such a complete creation that the dichotomy that forms between his two personae is horror distilled. The scene where Arthur is unable to put a deer out of its misery is a highlight of the masterful way that Lithgow can slip in and out of these two characters.

A problem that I’m encountering with this season (and if I were to go back and examine the past seasons, I’m sure it existed back then) is its incessant need to layer plot twist after plot twist onto the over-arching narrative. While I understand the need to keep things fresh and to keep the audience on its guard, it’s almost as if the show has no confidence in the tale it’s spinning and it needs to constantly throw curveballs at the audience to keep it’s interest. I wouldn’t have had a problem with the “Dexter killing an innocent man” story if the series had managed to do something more with it than simply allowing Dexter to know he can feel remorse. As it stands, it was just a possibly exceptional plot device that was wasted on cheap character development. Similarly, the revelation that Trinity wasn’t the shooter of Deb and Frank reeks of an “author’s saving throw” (sorry for the D&D reference there) when they realized they had backed themselves into a corner by not letting Debra be on the Trinity investigation team. I may be wrong as future developments may some deeper planning in both areas, but as it stands, the exceptional writing for Trinity is being held back by the sort of cheap tricks of the serialized story trade that make it hard for me to take this show as seriously as it wants to be.

This season is playing lightly with a return to the relationship strife that plagued Dexter and Rita in Season 2. Although, instead of the fictional drug addiction (with the very real affair with Lila), Dexter and Rita are facing essentially real marital problems. Dexter’s cool emotional distance is no longer kosher now that the pair is married and Rita keeps catching Dexter in lies, the biggest of which is discovering that he is still keeping his apartment. I like this arc (though the teased possibility of Rita sleeping with a neighbor doesn’t sit well with me). Julie Benz does a fantastic job as Rita and she’s too often given very minimal material to work with. For once, she’s able to come off as an empowered and independent woman when she finally stands up to Dexter, and while I may complain that these issues were resolved a little too neatly (she called his bull shit lie about his dad’s gun but not his comment about needing space, since it was technically “true”), I at least know that Rita spent part of her final season being assertive and strong, a far cry from the broken shell of a woman Dex was dating back in Season 1.

A couple of thoughts before I finish this all up. First, I hope the series decides what it wants to do with this LaGuerta/Angel love story soon as the back and forth has grown old. Second, if Deb and Frank’s shooter, turns out to be a character we haven’t met yet or some incredibly minor background character, it’s going to be as upsetting as the reveal of the identity of the Skinner last season. My money right now is on Anton or Quinn’s reporter girlfriend (who could have been trying to fabricate a story). Last, I really hope more weight is given to Dexter’s murder of an innocent man though I’m really not putting any money on that working out. All in all though, this has still been a strong season of Dexter and John Lithgow can take a considerable amount of credit for the success. I can’t believe I only have four episodes left of the season and as soon as I finish the next disc of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, I will get draw this story to a close. It will be interesting.

Final Score: A-