Dexter's strength comes from the primal majesty of its story lines, a strength beyond details that touches on bigger, viscerally psychological themes. The show provides broad strokes. Dexter finds a long-lost brother. Dexter breaks Harry's code. Dexter meets a best friend. Dexter gets married to longtime lover Rita. Despite the radical prospect of a serial-killer lead, the show has offered a classic set of obstacles: how to articulate emotion and loss, to connect with family, how to reconcile addiction, a wife and children, friendship and deception, isolation and love.
The fifth season of Dexter dramatizes the fallout of his wife Rita's death without always explicitly mentioning her. Here enters the character of blonde, embittered Lumen (Julia Stiles), who, as we've seen in recent weeks, has developed her own dark passenger that drives her to kill the men who beat and raped her and twelve other women. By this week's season finale, Lumen succeeded in killing all five of the abusers with the help of Dexter. Lumen marks a new honesty in Dexter's emotional development. He may have loved Rita, but his wife never suspected he sank knives into people. Lumen knew yet still cared for and practically worshipped Dexter. A genuinely tender romance developed between Dexter and Lumen this season, a slow chemistry evolving between two damaged personalities. Helping Lumen also allowed him to forget Rita, to transfer his guilt into action.
The brilliance of Dexter's fifth-season finale emerged in the raw and heartbreaking conclusion to this mismatched romance. Dexter again loses a loved one in this season's finale, but for a different reason than last year's. He cheerily approaches Lumen the morning after they kill her last abuser, Jordan Chase. Her tears interrupt his quips about breakfast foods. Her dark passenger, Dexter realizes, it's gone. She explains she needs to leave immediately.
"I can't do it any more," Lumen tells him, referring to the murder and double life that Dexter embodies. "What we've been doing."
"You don't have to." He begins to look visibly broken, his emotions not remotely an act.
"But you do. We both know that."
Dexter throws the plate he holds, shatters it, and the two devastated characters crouch on the floor. It's a moment of crushing, painful honesty reminiscent of the worst break-ups. Michael C. Hall and Julia Stiles deliver the scene completely and convincingly. Later, in the episode's final moments, Dexter's quiet acceptance of his own isolation (surrounded, it must be pointed out, by family and coworkers at his son's birthday party) is a damning reminder that he, on an internal level, still feels cut off from the world. Like a grotesque Pinocchio story, where wooden Pinocchio ached to be a real boy, the psychologically shut-off Dexter had experienced "the briefest chance to be human" with Lumen.
Those poignant scenes provide an anchor for the broad, big-picture themes of Dexter. They justify why fans love the show and understandably so. The underlying trauma is larger than life, with epic capacity as metaphor.