SPOILER ALERT: If you have not finished season six of Dexter, you may want to save this blog post until afterwards, because there could be some spoilers in it. That said, I proceed...
I've said many times that I have a fascination with religion, particularly because of the scholarship surrounding it, but also because of the variety of themes that religion encompasses, like philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, and so forth. However else you view it, religion is a human enterprise - it involves human interaction, not just with one another, but with a supposedly supernatural force too - and so I believe we can understand a lot about ourselves by what we understand of religion.
When it comes to entertainment, I do enjoy movies, music, and TV shows that have religious messages. Yet there are certainly things that I avoid like the plague too. I enjoy subtlety and creativity in entertainment, not stuff that hits you over the head with a symbolic cross, like Fireproof or Left Behind. As an example of the good kind, Breaking the Waves is a film with a very moving religious message, and it doesn't play out like a fairytale straight out of the Evangelical handbook. It depicts life as it is, with all of its complexities and struggles, and manages to find a glimpse of paradise amidst the darkness.
I have been a fan of the Dexter TV show since the first season, although there have certainly been ups and downs (who can dispute that season four was their best?). Once I saw that they were dealing with religious subject matter in this most recent season, I was very curious to see what position the show would take and how it might evolve over the course of each episode. It can be argued that there have always been religious undertones to the show too, such as the fact that Dexter imagines talking to his dead father, along with the whole notion of an eye-for-an-eye vigilante who carries out justice where the law is unable to reach.
While these undertones remained true to their name through much of the series, staying in the background and leaving the audience to speculate, this latest season brought them a lot more into the foreground. The apocalyptic theme was a nice touch in light of Harold Camping's predictions and the coming year of 2012. I loved the crime scene re-enactments of the Book of Revelation and the intense religious fervor they gave Travis and Gellar early on in the season. The contrast of Travis and Gellar with Brother Sam was also interesting and full of potential, and then there was the recurring question of what lessons Dexter should pass on to his son.
The later into this season I got, the more I started to feel let down. I had predicted that Gellar was an imaginary figure by about the second or third episode, after noticing that no one in the numerous crowded scenes ever looked at Gellar. This didn't bother me as much as how they used Gellar. The similarity between Travis' visions of his dead mentor and Dexter's visions of his dead father had tremendous opportunity in it. If they had simply had Travis be the devoted pawn of a religious lunatic who appears to him in visions, they could have given Dexter an incredible moral crisis. How do I know that I haven't been misled by Harry? This person truly believes he is enacting justice by killing others to end the world, but if he's wrong, am I possibly wrong too? This moral crisis could have led Dexter to re-evaluate his values in a Nietzschean sense, become his own person, and pass that on to his son. I would have really loved to see that.
But alas, Gellar wound up being nothing more than an unfortunate victim of Travis, and the visions had put words into the mouth of Gellar that Gellar never would have spoken while alive (Gellar says "I told you that you were delusional" when Travis mentions how he came to him talking about their responsibility as the two witnesses). Then they also revealed that Travis had stopped taking his medication. I honestly hated these two decisions to reduce Travis to a clinically insane religious fanatic. I would rather they have left him as a devout believer following the teachings of a wolf in sheep's clothing, because it would have produced a far more enthralling climax. Perhaps Dexter could have gone through his moral struggle to finally persuade Travis to the error of his ways. Yet the final tableau - a much more destructive lake of fire - would have already started to be underway, leading up to Travis sacrificing himself to "repent of his sins" by saving the city.
Instead, Travis becomes a bull-headed crazy person who is suddenly able to leave his vision of Gellar behind, deny his responsibility for Gellar's death, and continue on with a ridiculous amount of resolve. Everything started to seem pretty hard to swallow at about that point. It's as if the writers asked themselves, "Why would someone kill in the name of god?" Their answer: they have a psychosis that they're not being treated for. This is naively simplistic, though, especially for a show like Dexter. Think about the serial killers we've seen thus far in Dexter. Rudy, the Ice Truck Killer, wasn't a certifiable nutjob at all, he was the product of a disturbing past, like Dexter. The same is true of Trinity, who was even a father (albeit a bad one). Jordan Chase was a cunning and manipulative person who was an ego-maniac, but he wasn't explained away as a crackpot off his meds.
I can't help but think there was a strongly pro-religious bias in this season of Dexter, not just because of how Travis' behavior is explained, but because of other things I noticed too. Although Brother Sam is there to be the balance to the show's depiction of a religious believer like Travis, an atheist professor is introduced in one episode who is described by Dexter as "a self important asshole." I can't say for sure, but it does seem like the professor has a Richard Dawkins manner about him. Nonetheless, he is killed off in the same episode, and there is no balancing atheist character like the Christians get with Brother Sam. Maybe it's just me and I'm reading way too much into it, but it feels like excuses and defenses are made for religion, while atheism gets a one-sided depiction as supreme arrogance. The show also disappointingly summarized the second law of thermodynamics incorrectly, saying it's a predictor of disorder, the way it's often phrased by creationists.
On the other hand, I found it a bit surprising that Dexter seems to sink away from the religious lessons of Brother Sam in the last episode or two, taking up the label of "the Beast" and finally declaring that "god has nothing to do with this," as he kills Travis. Perhaps Dexter has found his own morality and recognizes that he alone is responsible for what he does. It could be that Dexter's journey through religion was only about seeing through the excuses of those who claim that killing in the name of god is justifiable. Still, I feel that the show missed some great opportunities and made some disappointing choices throughout this season, although the last minute of the finale was a breath of fresh air that I had expected to see in season five. I had moments during this season where I started to think that Dexter may be a lost cause, but it looks like the next season might be worth watching.