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Monday, November 2, 2009

'Dexter': Season 4, Episode 6

click to enlarge John Lithgow as "Trinity" (second from right): Killer knows best
  • John Lithgow as "Trinity" (second from right): Killer knows best

A side effect of the Trinity plot on this season of “Dexter” is that it makes the new remake of The Stepfather, starring Dylan Walsh, seem even more superfluous than it already was. The original Stepfather offered a dark satire of suburbia and the 1980s cult of family values, with a terrific performance by Terry O’Quinn (these days zipping between life and death on “Lost”) as a Ward Cleaver-wannabe who butchers his families whenever they, inevitably, reveal human flaws.

The PG-13 remake of The Stepfather seems to be vanishing with barely a trace, while John Lithgow’s Trinity killer, a.k.a. Arthur Mitchell, offers a vivid, fresh portrayal of an upstanding, all-American middle-aged male who happens to be a homicidal monster. This week’s episode, “If I Had a Hammer,” fills in the outline of Trinity’s life (I’ll call him “Trinity” for convenience sake) as husband, father of two, high school teacher, deacon at “Sacred Fellowship” church and organizer of the community home-building project called “Four Walls, One Heart.” “If I Had a Hammer” opens not with the Pete Seeger/Lee Hays protest song of the same name but the hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood?” The blood symbolism isn’t exactly subtle, but the song gives Lithgow a chance to zestfully sing an old-school church song.

Lithgow’s good enough that we could almost take Trinity’s cover identity at face value. It’s fascinating to try and square the implacability of Trinity during the earlier murders with the tenderness he shows to his family and his aggressive gregariousness at the church and building site. His freak-out scene when Dexter picked up the cremains was particularly unnerving: “Don’t! Touch! My sister!” Apart from that lapse, though, he’s better at compartmentalization than Dexter. This week Dexter excitingly tracks down the deaths of Trinity’s original family, deduces that his kill-cycles recreate those deaths and notices that his Four Walls, One Heart plaques match his previous murders: the plaques, displayed in plain site, double as Trinity’s kill-trophies, like the blood slides Dexter hides in his air conditioner.

“If I Had a Hammer” finds Dexter torn between his desire to avenge Deb’s near-murder and his need for a mentor. Will this play out in a surprising way, or an obvious one? A commenter on a Dexter fan community site speculated that this season would unfold like the previous three, with Dexter finding a sociopathic soul-mate (the Ice Truck Killer, Lilah, Miguel Prado), enjoying the company of a kindred spirit but eventually killing them. Will Season 4 throw curves, or follow a predictable trajectory?

It could be more surprising than it seems. Trinity, with his sinister nail-gun and aviator glasses, said “Glad to see you made it, Kyle Butler” when Dexter arrived at the building site. Is it me, or did he pronounce Dexter’s alias almost ironically, as if he knew it was a bogus name? If so, it would’ve been kind of stupid for him to give Dexter the lethal framing hammer. Otherwise, that would be an ingenious way to dispose of a murder weapon – loan it out to a friend.

Also, when Trinity’s teenage son Jonah sings his father’s praises and says “Best Dad ever!” the episode seems to be laying it on a little thick. Would a real teenager be so unconditionally positive about his father? Frankly, I’m a little suspicious of Trinity’s family. Trinity cryptically refers to a “lost relationship” in his “past” and says, “This is my home. I can be myself here.” Could his family be somehow aware of his current murders? For that matter, how did Trinity’s original family die: did he kill them over the years, or is someone else responsible? Even the shooting of Lundy and Deb seems rather impulsive compared to Trinity’s meticulousness.

This week, I find it a little odd that Dexter’s so bad at feigning his inner life for Rita. He wonders “People just do this? Say what they’re thinking? Out loud?” Perhaps he’s, once more, trying to figure out how to be selectively honest. There’s an amusing shot in the therapy scene that show’s Rita’s side of the coffee table covered with tear-tissues while Dexter’s was pristine.

Some of the dialogue seemed pretty clunky this week, such as the use of “Fuck!” as a transition from Deb to Bastita in successive scenes, or characters repeatedly employing “Duh!” as a rejoinder. Dexter looks at Trinity’s dishwasher-closet and thinks “This isn’t the dirty laundry I’m looking for.” Har-har. I also can’t stand the actress who plays murderous drug user Nikki. Like last week, she gets a terrible hysterical speech that’s like “Boo hoo hoo Johnny boo hoo!” It’s like exactly what actors who play junkies shouldn’t do.

However, I loved the transition from the therapy session to Dexter bashing plaster heads with a hammer, which probably anyone would find therapeutic after couples counseling (Rita too). It’s nice to see Roma Maffia as the therapist and Dexter’s explanation, “I really do need a place to put my stuff” seemed like an homage to George Carlin’s old “A place for my stuff’ routine. And it was funny when Dexter and Rita offered overlapping explanations about who was Lila: “My sponsor”/ “Some bitch he slept with.”

The episode ends with two scenes of domestic harmony crawling with creepy subtext: first Trinity gets in a bathtub with his wife for a moment that would be lovely if we didn’t mirror one of his regular murders. The milky bathwater dissolves to Dexter drinking milk before putting the finishing touches on his forbidden tool shed of murder, with the help of his family. Trinity could be Dexter’s new stepfather.

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