One of the most notable negative side effects of coming into a series several years late is the high probability that you’re going to accidentally expose yourself to series ruining spoilers. By the time I started reviewing seasons 4-7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for this blog, I already knew the fates of every major character and how virtually the entire final season played out. Because Joss’s writing was so sharp and my level of attachment to those characters so high, it didn’t bother me as much as it would have on a series where plot is the sole reason to continue watching. Similarly, on the television program Game of Thrones, I was still able to enjoy the battles between the Starks and Lannisters even though George R. R. Martin’s books had already let me know what was to come because seeing that epic fantasy world brought to life was such a marvel. I’ve known well in advance about the major twist at the end of Dexter‘s fourth season and unlike those programs I mentioned before, a lot of the surprise and weight of the moment was taken away because I wasn’t as attached to her character. Fortunately, this one little quibble was well weighted away by the top-notch storytelling that’s been on display all season in what I can easily say is the best season of Dexter yet.

The disc begins with Thanksgiving. After witnessing a confrontation between Arthur and his son Jonah, Dexter starts to see the first (of many) cracks in Arthur’s perfect family image. When he follows Jonah to the woods who is destroying Arthur’s car, Dexter learns that Arthur has been terrorizing his family their whole lives. After being invited to Thanksgiving dinner to help protect Jonah who fears his father’s retribution for smashing the car, Dexter finds his duties split on Thanksgiving between Arthur’s family under his assumed name of Kyle Butler and his own family with Rita, her kids, and Deb. At Arthur’s house, he discovers that Arthur locks his daughter Rebecca in her room whenever he doesn’t want her specifically want her out of it and that Arthur’s wife is completely terrified of her husband and what he could do to his children. Tensions at Arthur’s house reach a boiling point when Jonah gets into a physical confrontation with his father and smashes Arthur’s urn containing the remains of his sister. Dexter steps in to stop Arthur from strangling his son and pulls a knife on Arthur and nearly kills him in his household before Arthur’s family stops him. Back at the Morgan family Thanksgiving dinner, Rita shares a kiss with her neighbor Elliott though immediately regrets it and tells Dexter about it a couple of episodes later and Dexter proceeds to punch Elliott in the face (mostly for show as he wanted to appear concerned for Rita’s sake).

After the incident at Arthur’s house, the friendly nature of Arthur and Dexter’s relationship changes as each begins to officially hunt the other. It turns out that rather than killing in a cycle of three, Arthur actually kills four people each time. Agent Lundy never discovered that Arthur also kills a young boy to start off his cycle (the boy representing the innocent part of Arthur that he lost forever when his sister and mother died). While Dexter manages to stop Arthur from killing another little boy, this makes Arthur realize that “Kyle” may not be who he says he is. After killing a person actually named Kyle Butler, Arthur is able to trick Dexter into giving his position away and Kyle is then able to learn that Dexter is in fact a part of the Miami Police Department. After one last failed attempt to end Arthur’s life, Dexter tries to whisk Rita and the kids away so he can have his final confrontation with Arthur who the Miami PD finally know is the Trinity Killer after Deb busted the case wide open after she discovered that Christina Hill, Quinn’s girlfriend the reporter, was the one who shot her and Lundy and was also Trinity’s daughter. Though Dexter is able to finally catch and dispose of Arthur, he returns home to find one last Trinity victim bled to death in a bathtub. Rita.

While I enjoyed this season quite a bit, the parts that are going to stick with me the longest (outside of the image of baby Harrison lying in a pool of Rita’s blood) are the scenes this disc between Trinity and his family as well as those final cat and mouse moments between Dexter and Arthur. At first, I thought Dexter had grown depressingly domestic in the Thanksgiving episode by devoting so much time at first to the festivities at the Morgan home and lingering on the sexual tension between Rita and Elliott. Then the episode suddenly kicked into high gear, and every single moment of dread, anxiety, and suspense at Arthur’s home made it all worthwhile. I’ll discuss how terrifying John Lithgow became this season in more detail later, but those moments between Arthur and Jonah on the couch as they were watching football were as tense as any moment involving Gustavo Fring and Walter White on Breaking Bad. Also, the scene where Rebecca essentially tried to prostitute herself to Dexter in the hopes of escaping Arthur’s home were incredibly difficult to watch, and that was only made more heart-breaking by Arthur’s wife basically giving the OK to that sort of relationship as long as Dexter didn’t say anything to Arthur because she was so scared of him. The ultimate fight between Arthur and Jonah was done so well because the series allowed the tension to boil until it was just right for a moment of explosive action. The prelude of saying grace and what everyone was thankful for was the perfect preface for that kind of violent upswing in tempo.

I feel as if I hit on this during every review (almost like I did when I talked about Aaron Paul during Season 4 of Breaking Bad) but John Lithgow was simply phenomenal as Trinity. I got a literal sense of phyiscal dread and legitimate anxiety every second he was on screen. Along with the writing, Lithgow made his performance so intense and unpredictable that I never knew in any given second if we were going to see calm, polite Arthur or murderous psychopath Trinity. The look of smug satisfaction on his face as he marched into the Miami PD Homicide offices really sold Arthur as the capable serial killer who’s managed to get away with murder for 30 years. Similarly, John Lithgow just sold the hell out of the predatorial nature of Arthur’s personality. It would be impossible for me to overstate just how terrifying Lithgow was in this part. While I’m happy to see Trinity finally get his comeuppance for decades of murder and terrifying his family, I will certainly be sad to see John Lithgow leave the cast because he nearly makes everyone else look like amateurs.

If I had one major point of contention to make with the series, it is that Dexter fell far too closely on the heroic side of the equation this season. Very rarely did we see Dexter at his most psychotic and unsympathetic. While I certainly appreciate all of the character development that Dexter received, I’ve long vocalized my opinion that it is dangerous for the show to make Dexter too much of a hero and to not dwell long enough on the societal and personal consequences of his vigilantism and sociopathy. By pitting him up against a villain so clearly evil as Trinity, it makes all of what Dexter does seem incredibly mild in comparison and as even more of a hero than normal by finally stopping him. Yes, the series teases you with the death of Rita as perhaps a karmic consequence of Dexter’s actions, but honestly, the only mistake her death was a consequence of was Dexter not letting Arthur kill himself earlier in the season. One of the things Season 2 did so well was to really explore the moral ambiguity and darkness of Dexter’s character. It seems the show has accepted that most of the fanbase views Dexter as a hero rather than a tragic anti-villain and the series has become willing to rest on its laurels and not try and challenge its audience in that regard. It’s disappointing.

All in all though, this was easily the best season of the show, and this four disc stretch was the most consistently great the show has ever been and I really doubt it will ever be able to top this. Dexter as a franchise is unable to maintain consistently high storytelling for very long, and if my friend’s mixed reactions to the next season are any indication, it doesn’t live up to the nearly universal acclaim of Season 4. I’ll be taking quick hiatus from Dexter to watch Season 4 of Doctor Who (bye bye David Tennant 😦 ) as well as finally finish the first and only season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. After I get back to Dexter Season 5, my decision on whether or not to start Season 6 will rest on whether that season (which I believe is currently on the air) has finished or not. As soon as it is done, I will make every effort to integrate it into my viewing schedule.

Final Score: A