Unlike the other major players in this golden age of television, Dexter isn’t sophisticated in a showy way. It’s not telling a macro story in micro form (Mad Men). It doesn’t employ History Channel documentaries as lead-character Rorschach tests (The Sopranos). It doesn’t even do “It” band guest appearances or statement handbags (Gossip Girl). Dexter is a willfully interior show. The outside world is thinly sketched, a place where bad people do bad things to good people and Dexter punishes them for it. The complexity is all in Dexter’s head. To watch the show is to be in his head with him. It’s an intimate arrangement. And any of Dexter’s previous girlfriends would tell you, being close with a morally principled sociopath is tricky. You could ask them to elaborate, but they’re all dead.
Considering how much Dexter worries about not being a real person, his conflict is pretty basic human nature: He wants to be understood, but thinks if he reveals his true nature he won’t be accepted for who he is. The universality of this dilemma is part of what makes him relatable. But let’s be serious. Dexter has killed 67 people (and counting). If he wants to stay out of the electric chair (and if we want a season six), he can’t be unburdening his soul to new buddies. They’ll just end up wrapped in cellophane on Dexter’s table like all of those who’ve claimed to understand him in the past: his pushy pyromaniac ex-girlfriend Lila Tournay; vengeful Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits); and last season’s candidate for new best friend, veteran serial killer and family man, Trinity, also known as Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow in a Golden Globe and Emmy winning performance).
Trinity was special. With him, Dexter thought he’d finally found a mentor, someone who’d figured out how to balance domestic bliss with bloodletting. But he soon realized Mitchell was as much of a rageaholic terrorist at home as he was with his victims. In the finale, Dexter comes home after murdering his nemesis to discover that Rita, his wife, was Trinity’s last victim. (Someone’s seen Se7en.) The killer left her dead in the bathtub and marooned Harrison in a pool of his mother’s blood, just like daddy. This is where season five picks up. “Harry taught me a few simple rules: never hurt an innocent and never make a scene,” Dexter thinks as he stands outside the cute little stucco home he shared with Rita, hearing silence in his head where the voice of his father’s ghost usually echoes. “Where are you now, when I really need you? When it’s my wife in the body bag, everybody’s looking, and it’s the neighbor crying, not me?” One of the cops asks what happened. “She’s dead,” Dexter says, his face blank. “It was me.” So much for assimilation.
In a controversial move, Lieutenant LaGuerta cedes jurisdiction of the case to the Feds, who descend upon Dexter in bad suits and mirrored Oakleys. (There’s no Deputy Samuel Gerard in this crew.) Most of Dexter’s Miami Metro colleagues are convinced Rita’s death is just the latest Trinity killing, but not Detective Quinn. Never a big Dexter fan (Dexter busted him for stealing cash from a crime scene), Quinn listens to the tape of the 911 call and mistakes his precision in describing Rita’s wound (“an approximately one-inch incision mid-way up her right thigh, dissecting her femoral artery”) for cold dispassion. (Precision is how Dexter handles stress!) Masuka tells Quinn about the “significant exchange of saliva” he witnessed between Rita and Elliot, her generic good-guy neighbor, during Thanksgiving dinner, which further fuels Quinn’s suspicions. He shows up at the crime scene under the auspices of helping Deb clean, but all it takes are a few you-don’t-have-to-go-through-this-alone platitudes and they’re naked on the kitchen floor. (At least they picked a different room.) Post-coitus, Quinn spots Elliott watering his lawn and confirms the affair with Rita. Quinn’s next stop is La Guerta’s office. “If this was anyone but Dexter, we’d at least be thinking like detectives,” he says to his boss. “What do you always say? If the wife is dead, 90 percent of the time the husband did it.”
Quinn is a shifty sleaze but he’s saying what no one else wants to admit. Dexter didn’t kill Rita, but she’s dead because of him. The question is: Which of Dexter’s two personae is responsible for her death? Both of them feel guilty. Dexter the family man is convinced he duped angelic Rita into believing he was the kind of one-dimensionally good Regular Joe that only a sociopath could think actually exists. At the funeral home with Deb, Dexter watches a widow cry over her husband’s casket and marvels, “this is what she [Rita] would have wanted, a grieving spouse, for once doing what a person’s supposed to do.” The sight triggers a flashback to Dexter and Rita’s first date. Turns out that Dexter used her for cover, half listening to Rita’s painfully earnest getting-to-know-you chatter while watching his target sitting at a nearby table. “I lied to her from the very beginning,” Dexter laments. The suggested takeaway: Dexter’s maniacal devotion to his serial killer self is the reason Rita’s dead. Actually, if Dexter had been more committed to his inner serial killer, Rita would probably still be alive. “There’s nothing you could have done,” Deb assures him. “I could have killed Arthur Mitchell the first chance I got,” Dexter thinks. And according to the code, he should have. Trinity killed innocent people, which means Dexter was supposed to kill him. But he let Trinity live because the family man side of Dexter wanted to learn from him, to study the intricacies of his balancing act.
Rita is dead because Dexter couldn’t fully commit to either of his identities. As he grieves, he initially faces the same problem: Should he manufacture the kind of accepted emoting he saw that widow display at the funeral home? Or should he retreat to his storage space, sharpen his knives, and plan a stress-relieving next kill? The answer becomes clear when Astor and Cody come home. Wearing a set of Mickey ears the kids had made for him at Disney World, Dexter attempts to tell them what happened. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he ends up saying, horrified by his own insensitivity. And that’s it. “I’m a serial killer,” he says to Rita’s corpse, the funeral home his last stop on his way out of town. “That’s what I am. I know I led you to believe I’m a human being, but I’m not. That’s a lie.” Then he’s gone, out on the water somewhere.
If Dexter really believes his “dark passenger” defines him, and he’s sure he can’t be both who he really is (serial killer) and who he wants to be (family man), then he should leave. But one tank of gas later and Dexter’s already looking for an excuse to come home. As his family and friends (and the FBI) wait for him at Rita’s grave, Dexter stops for fuel at a dilapidated south Florida filling station. An obnoxious yokel pisses him off and Dexter ends up pummeling the guy to death on the dank, piss-soaked bathroom floor. It’s the first moment in the entire episode where Dexter seems like himself. And it’s also the moment when Harry shows up. “They’re not better off without you,” Harry says. “And you’re not better off without them. You need to go back.”
Dexter has spent four seasons trying to coax his two conflicting personae into coexistence, and so far he’s failed. He now seems determined to try again. But questions abound: What do we make of the fact that Dexter gains clarity in this episode only after committing a murder that breaks his own code? The gas-station guy may have been a dick, but he wasn’t a killer (that we know of). Murdering him was about primal release, not justice. How is that okay? Would Quinn rather pursue Deb or go after her brother? Can he do both at the same time? What’s going to happen to Rita’s kids? And Harrison? Is Dexter going to add “single dad” to his collection of identities? And even if Dexter can forgive himself for Rita’s death, how is he going to handle the FBI? Dexter didn’t murder his wife, but he is responsible for her death. Will his guilt cloud his killer instinct?