Last weekend the penultimate season of Dexter wrapped up with an explosive cliffhanger finale. I discovered the show back in 2008 when I watched Season 1 and Season 2 in their entirety in about a week of time. I have been following it almost religiously ever since. Now that we are about a year and 20-odd episodes away from the definite series finale, I think it is worth to look back at the series as a whole.
How does it all stack up? Does it tell a cohesive story? Or is it as many successful series a meandering, formulaic aimless mess.
Tonight is the night…
These were the words Michael C. Hall uses to invite and introduce new viewers to the dark, strange universe of Darkly Dreaming Dexter. A loose adaptation of crime drama novels by Jeff Lindsay. A bold, unprecedented prime time series where the protagonist was the bad guy and the hero at the same time. A series which makes you root for the serial killer because he is such a nice, well meaning guy.
Dexter starts just like any other new series – without an established formula, fan-favorite characters, fan service, continuity nods or persistent status quo to which the series reboots itself after each episode. Everything is fresh and new – anything can happen, anyone can die. The hero is actually a raving psychopath with extremely violent urges and tenuous grip on his own sanity. The viewer is never certain if the protagonist is actually in control, or if he is having some disturbing Jekyll and Hyde situation going on.
The name of the game is tension – the show keeps you on the edge of your seat, and slowly ramps up the pressure with each episode. The mysteries of Dexter’s past are unraveling before your eyes and his world begins to crumble. The action reaches a crescendo in a shocking twist finale leaving you yearning for more. Dexter’s little crime drama gone wrong sucks you in with its strange allure.
The second season comes along and it is just as good. The writers turn the pressure valve so hard it becomes unhinged. By now the viewers know the protagonist is a good guy (at least in some degree). But then the entire body of his work is revealed, arousing shock and disgust. The series threads a careful balance between displaying Dexters victims and him playing house with his girlfriend Rita and her kids. On one hand there are rows upon rows of mutilated bodies, on the other a nice guy playing with kids and trying to protect them from an abusive father.
This time there is no villain who opposes Dexter. He is by far the biggest monster of the season. He is the person sought by not only the Miami police but also the FBI. The main conflict of the season is an internal one. Dexter is torn between his instinct of self preservation and his code of conduct. Will he break his code to get out of trouble? What would that make him though? Could we still root for him then? It is riveting, ground breaking stuff.
In season 3, things change. The show catches it’s stride, the ratings explode, the money starts rolling in. Some writers leave, other writers are brought on board. The show changes focus. The producers decide start playing it safe. They have found a goose that lays golden eggs, the last thing they want to do now is to change it into something else. They find a magic formula for breaking ratings records and printing money.
The Dexter formula is very simple: you crib main plot line either from season one or season two. If it’s season one your replicating, then you pit Dexter against a big bad guy who is either elusive and clever or who has some sort of leverage over Dexter. If it’s season two, you introduce Lila or Dokes surrogate – someone who gets dangerously close to the hero, but who does not meet the code and cannot be easily disposed. You also kill, maim or torture Deb’s current boyfriend (this happens every season without fail).
Don’t believe me? Big bad villains: Skinner, Trinity, Jordan Chase, DDK. Friends who got to close: Prado, Lumen, Hannah. Dokes replacements: Quinn, LaGuerta. Every season has at least one of these elements. Some have multiple. Almost invariably someone ends up on Dexter’s table which somehow resolves all the tension and restores status quo. Dexter skids under the radar and survives to kill another day
Which is not to say the formula is always bad. Season four for example is absolutely fantastic.
It features the the best villain in the entire series: Trinity Killer played by John Lithgow. A remarkable actor, portraying a complex and interesting character. Trinity is exceptional because he functions as a living mirror in which Dexter discovers truth about himself. He is what our hero could have become – or may yet become depending on circumstances. Like Dexter, he is a social chameleon who blends in, and hides in plane sight. Like Dexter he uses a family as a distraction and cover for his less than legal activities. Like Dexter he is considered to be an upstanding citizen, and an respected member of community. But Dexter is faking all of it, whereas Trinity really seems to live the dream. Or at least so it appears at first.
Dexter sees him as a mentor figure – someone he could learn from about being a husband and a father. It shocks him to the core to discover that Trinity is more like him that he ever expected. Trinity is Dexter without Harry’s code. A monster without a conscience, an abusive father and a wife beater. Dexter’s wish to learn from him was foolish, and ultimately it becomes his downfall. His attempt to become a better husband and father is what dooms his family, gets his wife killed and exposes his son to the same kind of trauma that awakened his dark passenger. It is tragic, deeply ironic and masterfully executed.
Imagine my disappointment when Rita’s death is treated as mere afterthought in season five. Dexter grieves for exactly one episode, then gets busy doing what he does, neglects his family and finds a new girlfriend.
Broken suspension of disbelief…
The fifth season is when Dexter’s incredible knack for avoiding capture starts to slowly grate on me. Months of waiting to find out what will become of the hero and his family in aftermath’s of Rita’s death result in a disappointment. Excellent opportunities for character development, and serious paradigm shift are squandered. All in the name of the all-mighty formula.
The writers pay a little bit of lip service to what should have been a life changing event, and then get back on track. They hook Dexter up with a new villain (Jordan Chase), give him Lumen – a new secret confidante in the style of Lila and Prado and set up Quinn as the new Dokes. We are off to the races again – there is a little bit of suspense, little bit of action and then things go back to normal. Quinn backs off, Chase ends up on the table and Lumen gets on the bus and leaves town.
There is a scene in season five that broke the series for me. When Dexter and Lumen team up to kill Jordan Chase, Deb is hot on their tracks. She walks in on them while they hover over still warm cadaver. She can hear their voices but a thin sheet of plastic obscures their faces. She pulls out her gun, then reconsiders and leaves never even pulling down the cover. Why? Because of some contrived idea about love, devotion and some other bull-crap that the ever-competent detective that she is should not and would not care about. For me that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. My personal shark has been jumped.
From this point on, I am no longer an immersed participant of the story. I no longer inhabit Dexter’s Miami. From this point on I am merely an impartial observer, suddenly aware of every plot hole, loose end and annoyance.
The worst season
Season six is a travesty. It is an affront. It is a betrayal. No, worse – it is padding. And yet, I watch it just the same because I still hope against hope they can pull this plane out of it’s nose dive.
The series takes a few months leap in time, trying to distance itself from Rita’s death. An event that should have changed Dexter’s world forever, but instead merely registered as a tiny blip on the radar. Dexter sends his late wife’s kids to live with their grandparents and hires a full time nanny for his own son so that he can get back to living the way he lived in season three and four. The writers pressed the plot reset button so hard that the bottom fell out
If Trinity was the best villain of the series, then DDK was the worst. Despite attempts by Edward James Olmos to breathe some life into this character, it becomes almost a joke. Three episodes into the season the entire internet already knows that the two Doomsday Killers: James Gellar and Travis Marshall are actually just one guy with a split personality. There are memes, mash-ups, and jokes floating all about but the show plays it straight for dozen more episodes, until it plays it off as if it was a big reveal. It is the laziest kind of writing I have seen on the series. They use the cheapest plot twist taken directly from shitty soap opera play book, and they try to pass it off as a great revelation.
I’m not even sure if Travis Marshall actually meets Dexters’ code. What does Harry say about people who are actually criminally insane, and not in control of their on actions? Marshal has hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, and suffers from extreme paranoia. Does he actually deserve the table? Next to Brian Moser, Trinity or even Jordan Chase, Travis’ case seems rather sad and pathetic.
The main themes are similarly ill chosen. Dexter, a staunch atheist and a man of science suddenly dabbles in religion, and looks to it for answers. His sister has an incestuous fixation an a mental breakdown, and a bunch of new faces appear at Miami homicide to distract from the fact that all the established characters are running on full auto-pilot, deathly afraid to deviate from their traditional roles and routines.
Season six not only fails to do anything interesting with the main cast – it also brings some of worst recurring supporting characters: Brother Sam and Louis.
The former is an ex-convict, turned holy man. A guy who took his gang-banger bravado and replaced it with holier-than-thou shallow, insufferable religiosity. A man without an original thought in his head. His mind a void filled with undigested and unreconciled dogma and self-satisfied smug ignorance. A man who has performed a self indulgent full frontal lobotomy on himself by the means of one book which he read dozens of times without understanding a single word.
This is the guy they pick to be Dexters new frenemy and a mentor. He is a little bit like Prado in the way which he instantly bonds with the hero, and a little bit like Trinity in the way Dexter wants to study him to better himself. But this shallow, reprehensible man cannot even aspire to feign the complexity of the two characters he tries to mimic.
Then there is Louis… Louis is an alien visiting from a parallel universe of CSI Miami. He is a computer expert with plot driven superpowers who can Build a GUI in Visual Basic to solve any problem at hand. He is a plot wizard that the writers use as a crutch at every opportunity. He can hack any website, rig Ebay auctions, he can track people down based on their IP address without a warrant. He can be called upon to plug any plot hole – he just waves his laptop like a magic want and things happen.
The worst thing is that this plot wizard seems to be groomed to be next season’s big bad. He is digging in Dexter’s past, dragging out secrets from season 1 and playing some sort of cat and mouse game egging the hero on, and interfering with his plans at every step.
Even the “shocking” season finale feels weak. It is a rehash. It seems like something that was long overdue – an event that realistically should have taken place at the end of the last season. Back when it would have made sense. Back when it would be poignant and devastating.
This season, Deb wants to confess her incestuous feelings to her step brother, and accidentally walks in on Dexter as he kills Travis Marshal. How does that happen? Well, the normally cautious and cunning hero decides to indulge in his hobby at work. He stupidly performs the kill at a crime scene while he is doing a routine sweep, that is logged on the books. The circumstances of this event are so monumentally, so contrived that you are more shocked by the writers ineptitude, than by the plot twist they just delivered.
Somewhere between the end of season 6 and beginning of season 7 the series runs into a contractual wall. Showtime is unable to extend the contracts for the main cast past their current obligations at a reasonable cost. Neither Michael C. Hall nor Jennifer Carpenter are truly interested in continuing the series past season 8 which they already signed up for. They are both ready to move on to new projects, they are both concerned about being typecast. Their people can’t come to an agreement, the negotiations break down, and it is decided: Dexter will have to end with season 8.
Ironically this is the best thing that the fans could ever wish for. Writers and directors finally get their proverbial shit together. The long term plans, and padding episodes are mostly scrapped and reworked. A new, more aggressive and edgier direction is penned out for season 7. The cast and crew realize it is time to stop milking the old formula and start bucking it and making bold choices and sweeping character arcs.
First order of business? Kill Louis! Kill new Dokes surrogate. Drop the plot crutches, tighten the reins, focus on relationships, and get back to character driven drama.
When Season 7 hits the screens it the return to the old form. The Miami Police actually starts to investigate crimes again, rather than being led by the nose by Dexter. Deb, while traumatized, somehow regains her cop instincts and convictions she lost two seasons ago when she became a blubbering, emotional mess. LaGuerta, who has been a major player in the first two seasons, and then settled comfortably into the role of sometimes mean, but harmless boss lady is back in the game, more ruthless and unforgiving than ever.
The villain of the season is an original idea. No longer a rehash – not a monster who Dexter needs to hunt down, not an individual he wants to study and imitate. The new bad guy is a honorable, cultured mobster with a personal vendetta. He is someone who Dexter can actually relate to as an equal – a worthy adversary, albeit from a completely different world.
Rita’s death and its implications are finally discussed openly. Loose ends from previous seasons come back to hunt us as plot twists and unexpected hardships. For the first time since season two Dexter is in the cross-hairs of a police investigation, dangerously close to having hos cover blown.
The bits and pieces of the old formula are still there, but now that Dexter’s sister knows his true nature there is no going back to the status quo. Hall and Carpenter have a new dynamic, their characters bonding and clashing in new unexpected ways. For the first time in years the series has tension and pressure turned back on.
Season finale is unexpected, heart wrenching and powerful. Not as powerful as the Trinity cliffhanger, but definitely second best. I am once again somewhat engaged, immersed and hopeful. It looks like the series will go out with a bang or die trying.
Despite it’s flaws, and a terrible season six slump, the series as a whole actually flows pretty well. While all the seasons after the second tend to be formulaic, there seem to exist threads and concepts that bind the entire story into a cohesive whole. The chief of those unifying themes is Dexter’s journey to become human.
The first season establishes our hero as someone who is emotionless, remorseless and un-feeling. Dexter is always cool, aloof and detached. He approaches every problem analytically which allows him to always operate on all cylinders. Where normal people’s judgment is often clouded by emotion, Dexter’s mind is always sharp. In his own mid, he barely considers himself to be human. There are multiple instances throughout the series where his narration singles him out as an outsider, an aberrant creature that merely feigns human behaviors to blend in. He is more of an observer of the human condition, rather than a willing participant. His morality revolves around a memorized code, handed down onto him by his father. This code functions both as a survival mechanism, a way of blending in and also as a code of honor of sorts..
In a master-stroke of genius Harry convinces Dexter, that if he must kill, then the safest victims are those who truly deserve to be killed – murderers who fell through the cracks of the legal system and avoided capture or punishment. People with estranged families, low social profile, many foes and few friends – dregs of the human society. At the same time, the pure and innocent tend to be high profile targets. Their deaths always cause media frenzy, and thorough investigations. Thus amoral Dexter inherits a code of morality that keeps him taking out the bad guys, and protecting the innocents for purely selfish reason: self preservation. Because will to live is Dexter’s only motivation, other than his dark urge to kill.
But as the time goes by, this seems to change. As Dexter tests, and deviates from the code, he discovers new aspects of himself that he did not know were there. He unearths whole continents of human emotion that he buried deep in his childhood, under the careful guidance of his father.
In season two, Dexter runs into Lila and learns a thing or two about lust and desire. This relationship, while ultimately disastrous seems to open the emotional floodgates that Harry probably hoped will stay sealed forever. His explosive tryst with a crazy pyromaniac gives Dexter some much needed perspective and forces him to re-evaluate his own relationship with his fake-girlfriend Rita. This process culminates in season three, where Dexter realizes he not only has real feelings for her, but that he also cares for her children who have became his extended family.
Season 3 also throws Dexter a curve ball, allowing him to break Harry’s code for the first time. Harry forbade friendships, and was absolutely adamant about never revealing Dexter’s secret to anyone. Dexter breaks both rules when he befriends the prosecutor Miguel Prado. This is the first, but not the last time Dexter takes a companion – a partner in crime who knows about his Dark Passenger and who aids him in pursuing his night-time activities for one reason to the other. After his affair with Lila, Dexter is naturally cautious and when Prado situation spins out of control he is prepared. Still, it leaves him open, and hungry for more human connection. So he turns back to his adopted family and seeks to strengthen and improve the connection he has with Rita and her kids, even if it’s build on a huge lie.
Season four is about family. Dexter is about to become a father (something that would probably set Harry not rolling, but spinning in his grave). He does not want to fail – he wants his fake marriage to work. And so he tries to find a mentor in the Trinity – the most successful serial killer he has encounter. A man who like him pretends to be a family man. He engages in a game of wits with him, and ultimately loses because of his desire to become a better husband and a parent. His newly found human needs and emotions lead him down a path that gets an innocent person killed, and leaves Dexter devastated and vulnerable.
Season one Dexter would never try to learn from Trinity. He would set a trap, and put him on the table in his fast, efficient and detached way. But season four Dexter is a different person. He poked holes in previously air tight Harry’s Code, and through these holes he has seen parts of himself that are human. These holes slowly allow emotions to flow in and occlude his reasoning. He starts making mistakes – big ones at that.
In season five, Dexter experiences grief, and finds out about vengeance. The inescapable dark irony the season four finale is that he can never actually avenge Rita’s death. He is not only stricken with grief, but also filled with rage for which there is no outlet. No matter how many murderers he will strap to his table, none of them will be Trinity again. He can never wipe those feelings away with a cathartic stroke of a knife, and must instead deal with them like a regular person.
He eventually finds some closure by taking on another companion, Lumen, and helping her get revenge on her tormentors. But that in itself is very sloppy. Dexter’s mistakes start to compound at an alarming rate. His relationship with Lumen threatens to expose him to Quinn. Lumen’s chosen revenge target – a high profile celebrity Jordan Chase is an extremely risky kill, and also rather capable opponent. Dexter is no longer fully capable of operating in the cool, detached, calculating manner that was his season one trademark. Jordan Chase is able to exploit Dexter’s newly found human emotions to lead him into a trap, and almost gets him exposed. Dexter’s secret survives only thanks to bad writing.
In season six, Dexter realizes that Harry’s code is in tatters. He has stretched, broken and twisted it in every imaginable way and it no longer holds that much value. He begins to re-evaluate it and starts searching for a replacement. He flirts with faith and religion as possible substitutes. Harry’s code is no longer enough because it was designed for a remorseless monster concerned only fit self preservation. The new Dexter has experienced lust, love, loss, grief and anger. He formed attachments, lost loved ones and it changed him. It made him more human. The old tenants of the code do not take into account friendships, family and fatherhood. And so Dexter tries to see if a faith based moral compass can be a better fit – if not for him, then for his son.
Ultimately, this self exploration is also disastrous. Dexter makes more mistakes. He kills more people who might not have deserved it. He also endangers his son, and fails to uncover the identity of the Doomsday Killer until it is almost too late. His attempt to become more human, once again makes him more vulnerable and more exposed. What is worse, his increased humanity seems to interfere with his infamous hunch. In the past, Dexter had almost a superhuman ability to “detect” evil. He could see someone on the street and immediately feel the monster inside of them. But now his sixth sense completely fails to detect the evil side of Travis Marshall. In season seven it will similarly lead him astray when investigating the pyromaniac and suspecting the completely wrong guy. Becoming human, seems to blunt Dexter’s edge quite considerably.
In season seven, Dexter falls in passionate love for the first time. He more or less settled for Rita – his feelings from her grew very slowly. He became attached to her bit by bit over a long period of time. With Hannah, he is swept away in a torrent of uncontrollable emotion. He experiences the kind of explosive passion that drives you stupid, leaves you blind and vulnerable. As with all of his relationship, this one goes sour as well. Hannah turns out to be too unpredictable and dangerous to be trusted.
Even if the relationship itself fails, the experience is what finally shatter’s Harry’s code. Dexter has a painful realization that the code might have been what kept him apart from the world. He realizes that perhaps the lack of human emotion he was experiencing in season one, was not a byproduct of his Dark Passenger but rather a result of Harry’s training. In fact, Dexter goes as far as to internalize his Dark Passenger.
At the beginning of the series this Dark Passenger is established to be almost an external entity – a part of Dexter that drives him to kill, but somehow exists apart from his otherwise wholesome and good natured persona. Thank’s to Hannah, Dexter absorbs the Dark Passenger back unto himself. He finally acknowledges that there is no separate “Good Guy Dexter” and “Dark Passenger” persona. Both are actually one and the same – both are integral parts of his personality. This realization is painful, shattering but at the same liberating.
Dexter abandons his ritual, throws away his blood slides and becomes bolder and more unrestrained. Internalizing the Dark Passenger makes him whole and for the first time in many seasons gives him back some of control over his life. Up until this point Dexter was drowning. His Dark Passenger was pulling him one way, his good guy persona in another. He was torn with conflicting emotions and loyalties. His judgment was clouded by this internal turmoil. He was threading water, unable to move one way or another – the code, like a broken life raft taking on water, and starting to pull him under instead of keeping him afloat. After internalizing the “passenger” this all goes away. The false dichotomy is broken. There is only one Dexter – an emotional human being and driven by passion, love and commitment. Driven by the same things that motivate us all. Very human emotions that Dexter never knew he had in him.
When the push goes to shove Dexter abandons the code. He now has new goals, and new priorities. There are now things he cares about more than self preservation. The fake life he built for himself as a cover became real. A life he cares about deeply, and one which he is willing to fight for. In the final scene, Dexter marvels at the simple fact that he is about to kill a person for “normal” human reasons for the first time in his life. Not because his Dark Passenger tells him to, not to satisfy some urge but to save his sister. For the first time a kill will not bring him satisfaction, or relief but guilt, regret and remorse.
Harry was always afraid that allowing Dexter to kill an innocent would open some sort of a flood-gate that would turn the boy into a true monster. That it would rob him from the small semblance of morality that he was able to impart onto him. But it seems that killing La Guerta might have had the opposite effect. It might have been the kill that would finally close a chapter in Dexter’s life. It could have been a kill that finally made him human. His entire character arc has certainly lead him up to this.
At the end of season 7 Dexter is no longer a cold, calculating serial killer. He is a man, doing something desperate to make sure no harm comes to his family. He is almost human, even if he does not realize it yet.
The New Dexter
Where does this all lead? I honestly don’t know but I fully expect the writers to wrap up the series by concluding Dexter’s character arc by having him becoming, and accepting himself as a normal human being. It seems that internalizing the Dark Passenger has been a huge development. As long as he viewed this part of himself as a separate entity, he had no control over it. Now that he acknowledged that it does not exist, can Dexter reign in his dark impulses and simply choose not to kill?
And if so, what would that say about Harry? Would it make him at least in part responsible? If he took Dexter to therapy, instead of instilling the code in him, could he become a normally functioning member of society?
Season one Dexter only experienced human connection when he was interacting with his victims while they were on the table. Those were the only brief moments when he allowed himself to talk openly, and be himself. Throughout the series there are countless scenes during which he confides in his victims or even has impromptu therapy sessions during which he just vents and works out his personal issues. He could never talk like this with friends of family – it was against the code. In his day-to-day life, he kept it all bottled up, and his behavior was a tightly controlled, scripted and premeditated act. Perhaps this social alienation, dictated by the code was part of the issue. Perhaps that’s what made killing so hard to quit for him.
The new, emotional Dexter no longer needs to hide. He had Lumen, Hannah and now Deb – people who knew his secret, and did not betray him. People he could confide in, and have normal human interactions with. Perhaps having someone to talk to, will help him control his urges. Granted, this did not work in season two, but a lot has happened since then.
If this is the path the writers choose to explore, it will be certainly interesting to see Dexter trying to work out these problems.
On the other hand, perhaps they will choose to end the series with a bang. Perhaps Dexter, having all but freed the beast inside him will become sloppier, and even more unhinged as he becomes more and more human. Perhaps his human emotions and attachments will become his downfall. Driven by love he will eventually make one mistake too many and either end up dead, or behind bars.
Or perhaps the writers will choose to have him do a full circle. Perhaps season eight will shatter Dexter’s world, and destroy all the attachments he has formed so far. Perhaps he will experience so much pain and grief that the humanity he fought so hard to gain will be pealed away from him. Perhaps the series will end with the old, cool, calculating, unfeeling Dexter emerging from the ruins of his old life, and starting a new blood slide connection in some remote part of the world, this time vowing to never stray from Harry’s code, no matter what.
Or we may get some variation on an open ended “and he killed happily ever after” theme which after all this buildup and character development would be a bit disappointing.