Dexter Retrospective

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Jamil Scalese

Dexter Retrospective

"Shut up, cunt."

There is a very appropriate reason to start out this column with such an inappropriate line. Simply, uncluttered with any caveats, that sentence is the apex of Dexter, a singular, choice moment selected among its best scene during in its best season. 

Few will disagree that Dexter's fourth year, the Trinity Killer season, is its finest. It's the prime example of series operating at full efficiency, a rare occasion when the creators become absolute masters of their realm.

Writing can be confounding at times. There are occasions in the creative process when an idea can inflate into something unwieldy; its mass too much to cope. Or the opposite, there is the awesome framework for a killer idea but it lacks the engine to make it take off. I can relate to those problems, and because of that I hesitate to judge the writing of any TV show not excelling in its medium. Film and TV are the ultimate collaborative projects, an anthill of various experts uniting for a single cause.  If one or two cogs fail to operate it can make the entire endeavor seem like crap.

If you have the internet and also use your eyes I'm sure you've caught on to the fact that the final season of Dexter has disappointed the bulk of its fans. I've documented it well over the summer, and for that reason I will try to abstain from heaping on. There's no point in lambasting a group of writers for what they've already done; instead I will try to critique the work at hand. For what it is worth, the head writers have already responded to many of the common gripes and answered longstanding questions. It's atypical for show runners to air their explanation of the finale hours after its airing so I think they really wanted to get all that off their chests. 

That said, there are some things in the final hour that deserve examining from all sides, so I'll renege on the above statement of not firing shots, and hell, I might even get a little speculative about what could have been.

Inarguably, the Golden Age of Television is in full effect. Are we even fully aware as it washes over us? As the end of Heisenberg floods our senses it might be hard to scope how great all of TV is now. There are literally dozens of serialized programs just killing it, pushing the envelope in new and sexy ways, and, thankfully, reality TV has settled into its rightful niche. It's hard to put a finger on where or when this higher quality television began, but Dexter surely had a blood-soaked hand in it.

In 2006 Dexter Morgan harnessed the popularity of anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey and ratcheted up the intensity. Michael C. Hall came at audiences with a spooky, child-like charm and we fell under the killer's spell. Undoubtedly, Dex is an alluring character, a viewpoint that allows us to experience one of the most abhorrent, amoral acts in creation and get away with it on a weekly basis. Murder felt so good in Dexter that we happily accepted the "hyper-reality" (as showrunner Scott Buck calls it) that laced the show together, welcomed it even.  It worked to near-perfection in a world where our hero narrowly avoided, and even exploited, his co-workers to stab, chop and bag people before throwing them into the ocean.

I came to the show somewhere into the second season and I was super skeptical. I had heard of the books by Jeff Lindsay, and thought the source material might be a little hard to pull off, even on Showtime.  I was half right. Maybe a quarter right. Dexter maintained, almost proudly, that he lacked emotion, feelings, hobbies, empathy and any other semblance of humanity. He was nothing but a force of nature. To me, there was no way this character would survive if all he was merely a murder machine, a man-child refusing to face his human side

Smartly, the people who shaped Dexter took this very premise and wrapped the entire show around it. The first season worries greatly about making the character an acceptable protagonist. It centers chiefly on Dexter's fake life, particularly his relationship with his sister Debra, his girlfriend Rita and her kids. While fond of his girlfriend, Dexter demonstrates a particular soft spot for his sister by adoption.

The first season masterfully justified the character's existence, rooting him in a set of rules founded by his father (and, as we discovered in the latest season, a British psychiatrist) dubbed "the Code." Harry Morgan routinely tutored his son how to control and channel his urges, molding him into an effective weapon against criminals the law forgot. The Code works for a handful of years, but then is challenged by Dexter's brother Brian, aka Rudy, aka the Ice Truck Killer.

In the finale of the opening season Dexter chooses his surrogate sister over his genetic brother, the latter offering him a life of unrestricted homicide. Dexter spurns this for the rhetoric of the Code. He views Deb as a precious innocent, an ideal he'll never achieve and his greatest fear is if she were to find out his dark secret.

Dexter learns many lessons over the mostly excellent second season. Immediately, he's dealt two huge problems, first, divers discover his cache of corpses at the bottom of sea, and secondly, co-worker Sergeant Doakes is extremely suspicious of his activity and won't stop trailing him.

Both of these plotlines seemed far off in the early going of the show so their unsuspected arrival raised the stakes dramatically. Asked in a recent AMA about the choice to bring forth these ideas so quickly, former head writer Clyde Phillips responded with a bit of advice I think many writers, regardless of genre, should perk up and take in: "You always have to tell your best story as soon as you can and not save anything."

Dubbed the Bay Harbor Butcher the acclimation of bodies created a tense and electric backdrop for Dexter to operate in, often putting him in awkward situations where he was essentially investing himself. The rivalry with Doakes notched things up to extreme levels, particularly because Erik King played such a domineering and capable opponent.

Narrow, fantastic escapes were of regular iteration in this season and one of the most miraculous ones was the lie of heroin addiction to cover up a series of even more hideous truths. Through his faux-recovery Dexter met Lila, his path to a carnal, devilish pleasure, something he would return to several years later. Lila ended up being a nutjob, but the relationship opened him up to a joy outside of killing. She functioned as a kind of antagonist, and the show also proposed Special Agent Frank Lundy as a possible adversary. Weakly, that aspect of Lundy never really materialized as he was neutralized by a weird fling with Deb.

Season 2 showcased a gripping internal battle. Early in the year Dex discovered his cop father committed suicide via med overdose only a few days after walking in on one of his son's first kills. This knowledge, coupled with other tidbits (adultery!), deconstructs the powerful image of primo papa Harry Morgan and makes our hero teeter the line of morality. It's here the concept of the Dark Passenger really wove itself into the fabric of the show. Dexter considers killing an innocent man to maintain his cover, and might have if Lila didn't blow Doakes to high heaven. It took the moment out of the main character's hands, but hey, ultimate result: he adheres to the Code.

Soon more challenges are tossed in Dexter's direction. Rita announces her pregnancy and Dexter quickly proposes, preparing himself for life with offspring. He also adjusts to the addition of friendship in his neat and ordered existence. Meet Miguel Prado, Assistant District Attorney and overall fucked-up dude.

For awhile Season 3 was not well regarded, but I'd venture a postulation that most Dexter fans look back at that block of episodes with longing admiration. Jimmy Smits succeeded in his portrayal of manipulative creep Miguel, a demonstration of someone who possessed the darkness and structure but not the morals. Dexter realized that his stringent set of rules was not transferable. Miguel scoffed at the Code, and he paid the price.

Flashbacks were employed heavily in the first two seasons to demonstrate the origin and boundaries of the Code. In the third season the choice was made to manifest Harry Morgan in Dexter's present life. That is, Dexter would hallucinate his father, often times in very ideal "family life" situations. The Harry element stuck around for the rest of the run, and it took on slightly different aesthetic and thematic forms. For awhile I theorized that Harry Morgan was actually the Dark Passenger, an indifferent, though culpable voice that gently nudged Dex toward violent solutions. I got debunked hard late in the run. Final judgment: Harry was just a weird ghost.

When Season Four opens Dexter is already dealing with the wondrous joys of fatherhood, like sleepless nights and diaper changes.  (Put a mental marker here.) He wonders if being a dad and a serial killer are mutually exclusive.

Yes, it's the heralded Trinity Killer season. By far the best of the entire series. I already reviewed the greatest moment in my baiting, shocker opening, and I'm not kidding; the show achieved a clockwork functionality that it barely sniffed at any point after.  

The Trinity Killer, a role that won John Lithgow an Emmy, represented a whole different kind of monster for Dex. While brother Brian stood as a mirrored, wholly corrupted version of himself, Trinity, seemed to be an aged, more accomplished iteration of the main character. Trinity was implied to be the most prolific serial killer in the country, and the show even brought back Frank Lundy to reaffirm the severity of the killer's presence in Miami, only to promptly kill the Special Agent (but it was well done and extremely purposeful to the plot).  Dexter's investigation into the Lundy's death revealed Trinity's identity, family man and social servant Arthur Miller.  

With the arrival of baby Harrison into his life Dexter craves any guidance he can find, and Trinity seems to have the answers. Although he's presented with the chance to kill Arthur he instead befriends him, playing the man to learn the key to "having it all." The results are disastrous. At the conclusion of a raucous season full of sweet twists, Dexter finds his wife murdered and his son sitting in a pool of her blood.  While this outcome isn't completely related to the Code it does stem from Dexter's inability to do the right thing at the right time. He learns that his homelife and his nightlife are a volatile mix.

It's at this point, between the fourth and fifth seasons, that Clyde Phillips left the show. Phillips started as writer midway into the first year and eventually moved his way into lead position. Leaving the show due to family/travel issues (although there are rumblings he felt that concept ran its course) it's not as if he left the cupboard bare, there were many writing staff holdovers.  Obviously, TV shows don't start and end with one person, but it's undeniable that the quality slipped on the backend once Phillips departed.

Much of Season 5 centered on the aftermath of Rita's death. "Jumping the shark" is a beautiful idiom, and it has a rightful place in the lexicon. Some have labeled Rita's murder as a shark jumper, and I'm not sure that's completely fair. Still, I won't argue that it's not a "Okownkwo meeting the whites" moment.

I'll relate it to one of my favorite shows, Lost, a network program that I loved dearly. It had many flaws, some excusable, some not so much. One of its main problems was also arguably its single best achievement, the Season 3 finale "Through the Looking Glass", which not only threw a format-shattering flashforward in the mix, but also firmly established a world outside of the Island, which up until that point was the perfect bubble to tell a TV show riddled with mysticism. That episode is one of the most brilliant moments in an often smart show, but it broke the camel's back. By camel I mean audience, and by back I mean some vague social contract that says "If you go big, you're telling me you can go bigger"

Both Lost and Dexter never went "bigger."  Season 5 had the expectation to go "bigger" than Trinity. The first mistake was doing the opposite of that.

The choice at the time was to splinter the threats for Dexter. Instead of a big bad he'd have a number of problems that would come to a head at the end of the season. That sounds fine and all, but to maximize that idea the writing would need to be supremely tight and connective. While the previous season had traits of that magic, the flawless plot mechanics required were not in the Dexter kill kit (remember, hyper-reality).

While Dexter's problems were always twofold, split between home life (or maintaining his cover) and his penchant for slicing people open, he now dealt with a trio of dilemmas in Lumen, Jordan Chase, and an ex-cop named Liddy.

Let's start with the last first. Liddy functioned as an extension of Joseph Quinn, a detective introduced in the third season. In the rearview mirror it's very apparent that Quinn was built to be Doakes 2.0; a formidable obstacle inside the Miami Metro Police Department. Quinn was portrayed as something of a dirty cop, and disliked Dexter for several petty reasons, but also was romantically interested in his sister. At the outset of Season 5, Quinn suspects Dexter of killing his wife, and hires Liddy to investigate the strangeness. It's a tantalizing subplot, but eventually went nowhere, with Dexter killing Liddy and the whole thing culminating in an impotent truce between Dex and Quinn.

In addition to this bland subplot the fifth season is divisive for its main focus, a group of serial rapists and their loose end, a victimized blonde named Lumen.

That's some heavy stuff, even in a show about murder. In my (unsolicited) opinion, either you avoid that type of topic completely or you go way darker. The show tiptoed around it a bit and the intensity and gravity waned quickly. I suddenly didn't care about Lumen and the rapists that much, and there's a disconnect there that makes me a little uncomfortable.

Anyway, Lumen embodied another type of love interest for Dexter. Rita was the confronting home presence, Lila was the lustful fling, but Lumen became a partner-in-crime. Fueled by vengeance she helped track and kill the motivational speaker Jordan Chase and his gang of freaks.  Once she fulfills this need she thanks Dex for the help and goes on her merry way.

A key scene happens slightly before that. Debra, deeply disturbed by the capture, exploitation and murder of young women, suspects a duo of killers are enacting revenge on the now growing number of dead rapists. Unaware it's her brother and his new lover/protégé, Debra releases the pair after momentary capture. Like her father Harry, she is a slave to a "greater justice." It a key sign of what's to come for the character.

From here noticeable unspooling commenced.  Season 6 is widely derided as the show's worst, and it's hard to argue. A myriad of side characters were introduced, all of which contributed nothing to the show's endgame. The premise of the season was Dexter's flirtation with religion, which wasn't as campy and cliché as it sounds. Some of the ideas were handled quite nicely, but primary antagonist Doomsday Killer didn't do much to excite viewers (Sorry, Colin Hanks!). With a mundane plot, and very loose ties to the core Dexter values, it's appears the season was built to solely usher in the last scene. Both that year's and this one's.  

For parts of Season 6 Deb met with a counselor who unearthed a scary truth about her inappropriate romantic relationships:  they derive from a latent affection for her brother. After some denial Deb opens herself up to that possibility she love loves her bro, and just as she goes to approach Dexter about those "fucked up" feelings she walks in on him eradicating the Doomsday Killer.

It's the first of many moves that point to the final plans for the show. Season 7 opens with Debra and Dex hashing out this huge revelation. Sis reacts as expect: horrified, confused, sickened, concerned. Bro plays damage control, and for the most part succeeds. Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter, former real-life husband and wife, manage to pull off one of the weirdest sibling relationships in TV history. The penultimate season works well on many levels. It called back to many vital moments and was carried by generally good acting.

Outside of that, though, it was a pile of recycled ideas. Dex meets Hannah McKay, kind of a Lumen stand-in, and the two fall for each other like teenagers. An intense spiritual and physical attraction make the pair giddy with love and they fantasize about a shared life together. In a simmering subplot, longstanding side character Maria LaGeurta follows up on a Season 2 thread and tracks down the real Bay Harbor Butcher, suspecting him to be longtime colleague Dexter Morgan. LaGeurta goes public with her discovery, but without proof most of Miami Metro shrugs their shoulders in inert stupidity. When it all comes down to it Dexter must end LaGeurta's life, but again the chance to soil the main character is lost. Maria LaGeurta is killed by Debra, protecting her brother while in turn sacrificing her sanctity. She kills a good person to save a bad one.  

Over the course of the seventh season the main plot points looked to tear down ideas like the Code and the Dark Passenger, concepts that formally buttressed the show. When Dex kills a conman just to protect his secret lover, or when he accepts the Dark Passenger as an adolescent scapegoat for his urge to kill, it seemed the character had gone overboard like one of his victims. Was the unlikely hero becoming the villain he was always meant to be? The crimson red frosting was that his sister was now fully in on his secret, his fear from way back in Season 1.

As Deb would say, "Holy fuck!" The journey has been notable, and the viewership was strong coming into this summer. Just before the premiere, Showtime announced that this was indeed the last season. Fans strapped in. We were ready for this, and after the big time accusations of serial killing laid out by Captain Maria LaGeurta it seemed that we would have crop of 'sodes crushed in a vice of excitement and explosive meaning.

I've chronicled the eighth year, piece by piece. It's been a string of confusing choices and dead-end concepts. I'm really not sure there's much more to say in that regard.

That brings us to the occasion warranting such a longwinded recap, the finale episode. Why did I detail all that stuff that I'm sure you remember? Well, to better explain how Dexter finale did its job, it ended the show. Thematically, at least.

At the start of the final hour Dexter is departing for South America with Hannah and Harrison, leaving his southern Florida home to chase a normal life. He's unaware his sister is en route to a hospital with a gunshot womb inflicted by Oliver Saxon, for all intents and purposes, an average Dexter villain. Debra and Quinn have a very sweet moment in the ambulance, where Deb (again) tries to confess her sins. Quinn hushes her, telling his partner no matter what evil she's participated in, she's done plenty more good to balance it out (a reiteration of a sentiment Dexter tried to get across to her earlier this season). I want to speak up and give major credit to Desmond Harrington for his performance in this episode. I've mostly loathed the Quinn character throughout the show. Bluntly, the actor was cast to be a douchey villain and they foolishly turned him into a love interest and everyman cop. But I'll dispense credit where it's due, Quinn rocked this episode.

Incoming Hurricane Laura (named after Dexter's mom) puts a damper in the Morgan/McKay travel plans. This keeps Dex on the ground to deal with his sister's injury and he rushes to the hospital alone. When sister and brother meet, it's an appropriately typical Dex/Deb convo -- a couple "fucks" and a goofy face contortion thrown in for good measure -- and while their interaction is not riddled with sadness it is extremely poignant. Dex apologies for ruining his sister's life, but she wants none of it, owning up to her decisions and coming to peace with them.

Dexter insists on taking the blame, and decides to stay in Miami until his sister is healthy, he sends Harrison and Hannah off to Argentina early, planning to meet up later.

In perhaps the series' most shocking move Dex returns to the hospital to find that Deb is rendered catatonic from complications stemming from a blood clot. She's trapped in living death, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Yes, Deb half-dies off-screen. From now on "to Deb" something will mean to do so in the most anticlimactic way possible.

Without question, the loss of his sister tops as the most serious laceration our hero has ever suffered. Even worse than bearing witness to his mother's murder as an infant, even worse than finding his wife sliced open in a bathtub.  Deb's bleak status sends him reeling.

A succession of flashback scenes are imbedded in the finale, a look at Dexter and Deb meeting Harrison for the first time. (Activate mental marker!) I had totally forgotten how strange it was that Rita had Harrison off-screen, but I appreciated the time jump when it aired. This throwback to a missed moment was pretty savvy move. In the scenes Dexter frets about becoming a father, and his sister reassures him that he'll do fine as a caretaker and protector because he was always a great older brother.

Back in the present, Dexter mulls over his failure to do that. This episode featured little voiceover and the contemplation projected more outward than ever, a drastic change for a character defined by his haunting inner monologue.  Dex accepts his part as the cause of his sister's unfortunate state, aware he has "ruined her life." Unsure what to do, he handles a last piece of business, the mistake that put his sister in such a horrible spot, not killing Saxon.  In one of the best moments of the season, maybe the series, Dex feigns self-defense and stabs Saxon in the neck while the dude is in a holding cell in the police station. And it's all on camera.

The subsequent scene is so fucking bizarre and mocking that it's almost enjoyable.  Dexter sits in the interrogation room with Quinn and Batista and they review the video evidence of their friend efficiently stabbing someone and calmly pushing the room's panic button. Quinn flashes some knowing looks toward a brooding Dex sitting in the corner. Angel is flustered, baffled, but doesn't seem totally thrown about what really happened. Both cops declare that the murder is a non-issue, and release him into the general public.

In the link to the EW interview posted above, the producers mention this scene and do state that there's an understanding in the minds of Quinn and Batista about something deeper going on with Dex. It's a hard sell, considering the plot of Season 7, with LaGeurta screaming "Stop that serial killer!" in the face of just about anyone who locks a glance with her. Quinn I buy, he's always skidded on the other side of the law (and I'm just a tiny bit disappointed that the Quinn-as-new-Dexter finale rumor didn't pan out), but Batista... yeah, the dude should have pulled the fire alarm, drew his weapon and ordered Dex to the floor.

Alas, the writers did not go in that direction, even though they did discuss it. I can see some justification for that, three different Miami Metro employees squinted past Dexter's pristine exterior and peered into the spooky fog inside. Two ended up dead and the other fell in love with his sister. I think there was a feeling that the concept was old news, but it was the central premise. A serial killer working as a blood splatter analyst for a police department is begging to be caught. Sure, they played with that many times over, but a show should never forget what originally put audiences in the seats. I suspect that the writers ended up suffering from a case of the "can't see the forest for the trees," thinking the most obvious route would be the most boring, which isn't necessarily true. The "don't save anything" philosophy works and all, but you also have to save a bunch of fireworks for the grand finale too.

They did save one big rocket, and it's kind of a key about why the last few seasons were such a bummer. It's the enigmatic, grandiose ending that will surely live on as one of the most daring in this Golden Age.

Broken from the loss of his main confidant, Dex visits his sister as the hurricane bears down on Miami. He goes to her room and speaks to her one final time, remaining extremely contrite about his responsibility in her death. He tells his best friend "I love you."  One more time he takes on the role of protector, of big brother, and pulls the plug, struggling with the most effortless killing action he's ever committed. He then leaves the hospital with her body (just ignore the specifics of that, it's an emotional moment, damnit!), and drives out to sea with her corpse. Dex drops Deb in the ocean, his final "victim." Our hero takes a call from Hannah who reports she and Harrison are boarding their plane (they literally spend the entire finale standing in lines), and then he tells his son "Daddy loves you."  

Dexter's voiceover returns to let us know what he's thinking one more time. He's realizes he's a poison to whoever is around him. His need for killing always leads toward terrible results for his loved ones. He decides he can't do that to Hannah and Harrison. Then he drives into a fucking hurricane.

The Slice of Life is found ripped to pieces. Hannah reads about his death while living abroad. She doesn't tell Harrison anything about it, takes his hand and they walk into anonymity. Fade to black.

An epilogue brings us to a lumberyard where we find Dexter still amongst the living. He doesn't speak to anyone, not even the audience. He walks home, enters his abode, sits down and stares hollowly at the camera.

That's how this bitch ends. And guess what? I kind of loved it.

The last few seasons make sense if this idea was in place for awhile. Corrupt Debra so Dexter is forced to kill her, thus making him think he's a destructive force that deserves exile and emptiness as punishment. It's a clever callback to the Dexter we were introduced to back in 2006, a vessel that proclaimed emptiness, an idea pounded into his brain by his father. He bucked that idea repeatedly through the show, and found a normal life despite his glaring fallacy of dismemberment addiction. Along the way he gained a sense of responsibility for his "trail of blood and body parts". Dexter has done a lot of shady shit, and deserves to be penalized for it. In the end he must again strip himself down to the bare essentials, this time to preserve life instead of for the purposes of ending it.

A poetic, layered ending, for sure, but holy fuck shit jeez wow did they fumble and bumble their way there.

The finale was pretty decent. Maybe a C+? However, the last season as a whole really stunk up primetime TV. The worst part is that Dexter has so many fans, and that results in a lot of disappointed people.

Dexter Morgan is an awesome character. I'm grateful to creator Jeff Lindsay for dreaming up such a wonderful addition to contemporary fiction. He's a marker of culture, a time when TV took a turn to new and better things. Viewers accepted a serial killer into their homes. Meth kingpins, booze lords, and cutthroat womanizers would follow. I'll miss the Bay Harbor Butcher dearly.

Dex isn't dead. He'll live on in novels and comic books. He's a franchise after all. Apparently, the only chance of a spinoff is with Michael C. Hall's involvement, and I'm sure Showtime is falling over themselves to sustain the Dexter rating numbers. I wouldn't hold out for that though. It's probably over.

No one can predict the future, and no one could have predicted the Dexter finale. There is some merit in that, as well as some thoughtfulness into the final moments. After a rough final four seasons the book is closed on a show that ascended into one of the best of its era. Dexter was never my favorite show at any time, and I rarely ever watched it on its premiere night, but for some reason I never left.

Often good, sometimes great and towards the end, very, very bad, life with a serial killer turned out to be a rich experience. Thanks, Dex, and happy chopping.

Jamil Scalese is just like you -- an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.

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