Dexter: "If I Had a Hammer"
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Dexter: "If I Had a Hammer"

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Dexter

"If I Had a Hammer"

Season 4, Episode 6

There’s a pretty great scene toward the end of “If I Had a Hammer,” and it’s great precisely because it strips away a lot of the bullshit that the show sometimes leans too heavily on. Rita has dragged Dexter to couples therapy, where he’s hoping to come up with the right answers to salvage a marriage that seems like it’s about to be torn asunder on rocky shores. He knows that he needs to preserve his marriage to preserve the façade of normalcy that keeps him from falling under anyone’s suspicion. The major question at the center of what’s going on here is how honest Dexter is with his wife, how much he lets her in on what goes on in his life. Naturally, he cannot tell her everything, because that would push her away, but he needs to come up with a lie that satisfies her need to think that he’s making as many changes for her as she’s making for him while simultaneously seeming like he’s telling the whole truth. He needs to tell a half-truth, in other words, and one that will keep anyone from coming close to unraveling the truth.

Because there’s a third person in the room, after all. The therapist, played by the great character actress Roma Maffia, who’s been stranded over on Nip/Tuck for too long, is someone who could, potentially, puzzle Dexter out. She knows from sociopaths, and as soon as Rita reveals that Dexter’s mother was killed right in front of him, you can see the fear wash over his face. He’s going to get led down a line of questioning that won’t be pleasant for him, and she might start to pull at threads he doesn’t want to talk about. Hadn’t he just metaphorically pulled at one of Arthur’s threads by holding his dead sister’s urn? And he saw how Arthur lashed out. How might he lash out as well?

This being Dexter, of course, Dexter finds his way out of the conundrum by talking about how he has abandonment issues and wishes to have his own space, all of which both the therapist and Rita find plausible, but he’s put in a position where he has to accept Arthur’s apparent philosophy that life, sociopathic tendencies and all, is to be lived right out in the open. Better yet, the whole scene mostly ditches things that the show has come to lean on too heavily, like Michael C. Hall’s coolly dispassionate voiceover or Harry turning up behind the therapist, telling Dexter exactly what to say. Because we know the character well enough by now, the series doesn’t need to use these crutches as often as it does, but it still over-relies on them to clue us in on Dexter’s thought patterns. But in this scene, just seeing Hall’s face as Dexter struggles to think of an answer is enough to let us know what he’s thinking, which paths he doesn’t want to go down.

“If I Had a Hammer” is one of those pure, character-building hours that Dexter occasionally indulges in, particularly when the major serial killer antagonist turns up and the show wants to show us how the killer and Dexter are or aren’t like each other (though in season three, this character was not a serial killer at all). It’s the episode where Dexter finally meets Trinity, named Arthur and living the life of a subdued family man – more BTK Killer than lone wolf like Jeffrey Dahmer – and the series shoots their first handshake from a low angle, complete with sinister music on the soundtrack. This is clearly an important and portentious moment, but only one of them knows it at the moment, and when the show cuts back to the two of them making small talk (Dexter disguised as “Kyle Butler”), it’s appropriately banal. I can see some fans are attacking this hour for having nothing happen, but it’s vital to understanding just why Arthur works the way he does (the moment when he re-enacts the bathtub murder with his wife is wonderfully creepy) and what Dexter can learn from him.

Of course, everything going on with Arthur is going to be fascinating at this point. He’s the main case Dexter is trying to “solve” at this point in time, and as Dexter picks at the threads that make up his life, as obsessively trying to pick him apart as he thought the therapist was trying with him, Arthur reveals more and more how much he lives his life in the open. His murder weapons are just right there, out in the open. He feels free to have minor snaps in front of his family. The advice he shares with Dexter about building a solid relationship with spouse and kids is genuinely pretty good and would probably be layered with sappy music on some other series as two men talked about learning to be better fathers and husbands, but the roiling subtext underneath all of it made for something quite effective.

Another thing that worked well for me was Deb’s plotline, which is something I haven’t been able to say for a while. Last week, I feel like I was a little unfair to Jennifer Carpenter, who was really good in that scene where she broke down at Lundy’s murder site but was ill-served by a script that rushed the moment. After a number of you and a number of critics I respect singled out the scene as worthy of commendation, I went back and looked at it a number of times and realized I was missing how much Carpenter had exposed herself in the scene. Since it came out of nowhere from a story perspective, I was a little too hard on her, rather than the writing, and that was the wrong point of view to take. That said, the “Deb figures out who Dexter really is” plotline is something that’s been festering away behind the scenes of the show since the series began, and it seems like the show is taking a few tentative steps toward that, as she begins her research into who really killed Lundy and discovers that some of his materials were taken – by Dexter. Similarly, she’s about to find out about Dexter’s secret origin story. Even though Dexter has moved all of his murderous implements into his new tool shed, can it be that long before Deb asks to take a look?

I don’t think “If I Had a Hammer” is a great episode of the show, but it mostly eschews some of the things that are troublesome for the show in favor of some interesting character beats. Yeah, no one dies, and the storyline is practically non-existent in favor of Dexter and Arthur having some bonding time, but that’s bonding time that needs to happen if the rest of the storyline is to play out. It seems that Dexter is mostly returning to its formula of Dexter coming up against a great adversary and then figuring out a way to defeat that adversary, but Arthur is a worthy adversary, and just seeing how he tries to help Dexter out, even without knowing it, is going to be worth watching the rest of the season.

Stray observations:

  • I do like Dexter catching on to the fact that Arthur is recreating the deaths of his family members, even if the show clued us in to it weeks ago. Actually, the episode filled in a lot of questions about Arthur, revealing that he uses his charity to travel the country and kill, among other things.
  • Also, LaGuerta and Angel decided to dissolve their relationship so they can both stay within the homicide division. Is there anyone out there who’s seriously into this plotline or the Quinn and the reporter stuff or any of the other staff-centric plotlines? If so, please make a defense of it in comments.
  • I did like Masuka preceding every bit of information he provided with an elaborate preamble.