Various people associated with "Dexter" have been promising for weeks that this season's finale would be a "game-changer." 
 
Having just finished Sunday's (Dec. 13) episode, I guess I can't help but agree, not in the sense that it was necessarily a spectacular episode before the final few minutes, but in the sense that a lot of consideration will have to be given to where "Dexter" goes in its fifth season. Some finales give you a mighty clear impression of the challenges that are going to central to the next run of episodes, but I don't instantly know what the next move will be for "Dexter."
 
I hope the writers know, because it's either going to be very interesting or very confusingly finessed. 
 
[I want to get into spoilers here, so I'm gonna toss the break in early. Don't click through or read through if you don't want to have the Shocking Game-Changer spoiled...]
 
To get what "Dexter" did in the finale, you have to remember exactly where the series began with Julie Benz's Rita.
 
When we started, Dexter had latched on to Rita because she was, if anything, even more damaged than he was. Coming out of an abusive relationship herself, she had intimacy issues and asked little of Dexter other than a little token kindness and an absence of clear betrayals. All he needed was somebody to call his girlfriend and to point to when people looked at him and started wondering if he was normal. When Rita started to be ready for additional intimacy, Dexter began to realize that he was a capable of providing more and he realized, in the process, that his cover only looked better the closer he and Rita were.
 
It was only in the second and third seasons that Dexter realized that Rita wasn't just making him look normal, she was making him aspire for actual normalcy, for a life that his father had led him to believe that he could never have. Rita and her two kids and Harrison, their child, weren't good for Dexter's moonlighting as a serial killer. He made him tired and sloppy and they put entirely unreasonable demands on his time, forcing him to adjust his killing schedule and make mistakes he wouldn't have otherwise made. But his level of emotional involvement was another mistake he never intended to make, one that we were always led to believe was a positive step.
 
And the finale progressed, for nearly 50 minutes, a long a line that had Dexter wondering, once again, about whether he was entitled to have a family, whether he was entitled to happiness, whether he was entitled to love. Ghost Daddy Morgan's opinion had always been "No" and Dexter spent at least some time agreeing, watching as the SWAT team descended on Trinity Killer Arthur's family and tore apart what was already a horrible life. In their misery, Dexter saw the misery of his own family when he's inevitably caught.
 
"Long after you're executed, they'll still have to go through life with your name branded across their foreheads," Ghost Daddy told him. And for a while, it seemed like Dexter was contemplating bolting on Rita and their kids, For Their Own Good.
 
But then Deb learned some version of Dexter's true story, at least the part about Dexter's mother, about the shipping container of blood, about Dexter's brother the Icetruck Killer. Deb did a terrific job of putting together many key pieces of Dexter's past, but blinded by her own love for her brother, she refused to look past his feigned incredulity. When he apologized for having brought Icetruck into her life, she wouldn't have any of it.
 
"You've given me confidence and support," she told him. "You've been the one constant, the one constantly good thing in my life."
 
So Dexter had been good for Rita and good for Deb, so he decided that he could continue along his current path of lies, deceit and regular well-deserved murders. He decided that he could live both lives. Woopsie.
 
The stuff with Dexter and Arthur in this episode was a little too easy, a little too obvious. That was intentional. Yes, there was the little inconvenience with the police that caused Dexter to lose track of Arthur after drugging him, but toward the end of the episode, Dexter was able to figure out where Arthur would be, capture him and tape him down for the kill. With his prey ensnared, there was plenty of time for Arthur and Dexter to have portentous dialogues that more than a few viewers probably went back and rewatched.
 
Dialogues like:
 
Arthur: "You think you're better than I am?"
Dexter: "No. But I want to be."
Arthur: "You can't control the demon inside of you any more than I can control mine." 
 
And: 
 
Arthur: "This isn't your doing. This is God's plan."
Dexter: "I accept nothing. Nothing is inevitable."
 
Job done, body being deposited in the harbor, Dexter even paused to stare at the sky and contemplate his wife, while also channeling his inner Fievel Mousekewitz.
 
"I wonder if Rita's looking at this same moon at this same moment," Dexter mused, all "Somewhere Out There"-y. "I like that, connected by light. The Dark Passenger's been fighting against it, trying to keep me all to himself. But it's my turn now, to get what I want, to embrace my family. And maybe one day, not so long from now, I'll be rid of the dark passenger. It all begins with the getaway, time away from the old me."
 
Dexter kept spouting Zen platitudes -- "Life doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be lived." -- until he got home and discovered that Rita hadn't made it to the Keys as he'd planned. That she had, in fact, been killed in the tub and that their son had been left in the bathroom, sitting in the his mom's blood.
 
After 45 minutes of only limited and sometimes muted tension, the finale closed beautifully, inexorably and tragically. Dexter gave Arthur his send-off with a mirroring of that seemingly primal scene with the train set and the old record of "Venus" and he returned home to see that Arthur had, perhaps inadvertently, restaged Dexter's moment of nascent transformation, leaving his own son sitting in a pool of his mother's blood, perhaps forever changed. That's just good writing.
 
[Now yes, if we want to get all quibble-y, that provocative image of Harrison sitting on the bathroom floor, surrounded by crimson, makes no sense at all. The exact timing of things is a bit confusing. Arthur picked up his car in the late-afternoon light, having presumably already killed Rita. Dexter got him probably at dusk. Figure the killing, the clean-up, the dumping of the body, etc. That means that Harrison, a baby, but still an ambulatory child, was just sitting there unmoving for several hours to maintain the integrity of the tableau. Yes. I know. This isn't the sort of thing I'm supposed to be pondering. Sorry.]
 
[Also, it isn't that John Lithgow wasn't great on "Dexter" this season. He was. But he gave roughly the same performance I've seen him give in several different films, from "Raising Cain" to "Harry and the Hendersons." That last bit was a joke. But still, Lithgow has done this sort of thing before. There was something more interesting about how dark Jimmy Smits let himself go last season. It was more unexpected and therefore more pleasurable. But maybe that's just my qualm.]
 
I'm not gonna lie. I wasn't even slightly surprised by where the season ended, for a trio of reasons.
 
1) I've seen "Seven." The minute Arthur accused Dexter of being prideful in his celebration of capturing his nemesis, I sat up straight on my couch and started crying, "What's in the box? What's in the booooox?" I can't tell you if I was doing my Brad Pitt impression or my impression of Cobie Smulders doing *her* Brad Pitt impression from the start of of this week's "How I Met Your Mother." Regardless, the minute the excessively serene Trinity started lecturing Dexter on the unavoidability of fate, while Dexter protested with his own feeble protestations about free will, it was clear that Trinity had already made one additional move and there wasn't any real question what he'd done, even if I don't have a grasp on the timeframe, or how he learned Dexter's actual address after mistakenly going to Dexter's old place, now Deb's.
 
2) I've seen "24." "Dexter" got to this move three seasons too late, but the hubris of a man doing what Dexter (or Jack Bauer) does and thinking that they can have it all, that they can save the day and keep their family together, is just too fruitful a source of tragedy.
 
3) The season began with a bathtub murder, which we came to learn was preceded by a kidnapping/missing child. We had the kidnapping/missing child last episode and just because Dexter thwarted that aspect didn't mean that the cycle was broken. So the season ended with a bathtub murder. I'm appreciative when you can tell that writers on a show actually *did* know where the story was going from the beginning. This was nicely circular.
 
So now what?
 
Well, for one thing, the writers may be surprised to see just how many fans aren't grieving Rita's demise. I have a couple female friends who do very good impressions of Rita's sexy doormat purr. Benz has always been too good at playing that side of Rita. She won't be mourned by the show's fans, but within the show, who the heck knows what comes next. 
 
A few key questions:
 
1) The police are going to guess that Arthur killed Rita. But with the absence of an available Arthur to arrest for the crime, does Dexter become a suspect? He was arrested for fleeing the scene of a crime and for violent behavior in the aftermath. You think that with his wife dead in the bathtub, Quinn's going to wonder about Dexter assaulting him and the philandering neighbor's going to do the same? Dexter may have become a bit domesticated this season, but he's also started becoming more aggressive with inanimate objects and civilians. He probably needs the killing to channel his rage. And will anybody ask why Dexter would have become Arthur's target?
 
2) What of Astor and Cody? What of Harrison? Next season's going to be a hard sell with Dexter as a single father.
 
3) What of Dexter? Psychologically, I mean. Rita's death *is* his fault and his tether to the suburban world, to the white picket fence and the lack of suspicion, has now been severed. How do you get closure or seek vengeance when you've already killed the person responsible? How many killers and molesters will he have to dispatch to set things right? Will his three kids be enough of a beard? Will Deb be able to keep him under control?
 
4) What of Deb? Deb's not stupid. That was one of this season's themes, especially the finale. Deb put together a lot of information in a very short period of time without any chance to reflect. Do you think that, given long enough, she might start wondering at all of the tragedies and mysteries that have started to surround Dexter? Like I said, I figured Rita was a goner before it happened, but for most of the episode, I was really expecting that Deb was going to connect all of the dots and that she'd wander in on Dexter at an inopportune moment. Deb learning about Dexter and learning about her father is probably the final frontier and I'd guess the writers are saving that sucker for when they or Showtime decide that the last season is at hand.
 
5) What of Laguerta and Batista? Whose TV and furniture will they keep? Will they buy a new house? I KID! I couldn't care less about Laguerta and Batista, but presumably they're going to learn the same harsh lesson about forcing domesticity that Dexter did, though probably with less blood.
 
6) A sixth question, raised by Greg Ellwood without even watching the episode: Is there any point in entertaining the possibility that somebody other than Arthur killed Rita? Our list of alternative suspects isn't very long. Quinn? Deb? Arthur's son? None of those feels potentially dramatically fruitful, so we assume that, timeframe aside, Arthur did the deed. But I'd have been remiss in not at least raising the Second Bathtub Slasher theory.
 
Wow. This recap was not supposed to be this long. Apologies. My Best of the Decade essay series has me in long-writing mode.
 
What'd you think of the finale? And what do you reckon it means for next season?