(There are spoilers to pretty much the entire run of Dexter here.)
I am a huge Dexter fan and I was pretty upset about the end of Dexter this past week. The reason is less because it was a terrible ending and more because that last episode (actually, most of the whole last season) betrayed the whole scope of what the show has always been about. To really communicate how awful this conclusion was, I have to explain why I always loved Dexter, even the “bad” seasons (which are mostly still awesome on second viewings).
Dexter was one of the best shows ever to grace television because it was a show that had the great human questions drive its drama: “Who am I?” and “If you really knew me, would you love me?” In every season of Dexter, Dexter confronts that question of who he is and how he can find acceptance through his origins, his actions, and his relationships. How deftly the seasons have explored this theme is what made Dexter a powerful show instead of CSI: The Worst Homicide Solve Rate In The History Of Law Enforcement.
In the first season, we start figuring out who Dexter is by first examining his origins. “Born in blood” with an adoptive father who taught him how to stay alive while satisfying his compulsion to kill, we see a Dexter who is content to live in isolation, giving a show of normalcy to the people he knows.
When Dexter discovers that the brother he had never known is a brilliant, compulsive serial killer just like him, we get our first real glimpse at how much Dexter wants to find acceptance. The fact that Dexter must choose between a brother who knows him and accepts him and a sister who, if she knew him could never accept him, is a powerful stab at Dexter’s heart. Can Dexter truly show himself to a brother? No.
In the second season, Dexter meets Lila and thinks that perhaps there is someone who might be able to know him and accept him. This turns out poorly, as Lila is merely a sloppy sociopath / Glenn Close. Dexter’s greatest moments of danger in the entire season come not from the ex Army Ranger bodybuilder who stalks him or the FBI manhunt that has dozens of highly trained agents looking for him but from the woman who he believed might be able to accept who he really is. Can Dexter truly show himself to a lover? No.
While I was watching it, I felt the third season was a let-down on the quality bar for Dexter, but watching it again I saw how much it set up for the fourth season, so I have trouble separating them. In this season, Dexter thinks he may be able to have a friend in District Attorney Miguel Prado. This, too, spirals out of control when Miguel bends Dexter’s rules to include far more people on his kill list than any upstanding vigilante serial killer should and Dexter needs to take him out as well. Can Dexter truly show himself to a friend? No.
I think everyone agrees the fourth season is the best and I’m not going to argue with that one at all. But I love it because it breaks from the mold. Previously, Dexter had to kill the person he thought he could find acceptance from. In the fourth season, Dexter never meant to find acceptance but to learn how the Trinity killer, with dozens of murders under his belt, could maintain what seemed like a healthy family life at the same time. Dexter has found that, while he has been faking emotions for most of his life, he actually does love his family. Here, instead of finding acceptance from someone else, Dexter wants to find a way to be who he is as a serial killer and also be a father and husband. Dexter always knew he had to kill Arthur, but thought he could learn something first and find a way to balance family and acceptance with his life as a monster. Can Dexter truly have a family? The infamous end of this season says no.
The fifth season suffers from the fact that it has to follow the fourth season, but having re-watched it I actually find it pretty compelling. Dexter’s point of human contact here is Lumen, whom Dexter helps exact revenge on the men who tortured her. Part of why I didn’t like this season as much was because I didn’t feel it broke much new ground on who Dexter was and his desire to find acceptance. We had covered the “lover” territory with Lila, but Lumen wasn’t a sociopath so maybe the idea was that Dexter could have a companion who could accept who he was while still being a part of his “normal” life. Her departure at the end of the season made little dramatic sense, except as a point to drive home how Dexter cannot ever love someone and is destined to a life of isolation.
The sixth season took a different tactic of looking at religion. As a religious person myself, I very much disliked this season at first, feeling like the professor character was absurd and over-the-top and that the “twist” was strange and weak. But here Dexter’s big point of contact is actually a tertiary character, Brother Sam. Brother Sam struggles with a Dark Passenger like Dexter but has found forgiveness and redemption. Dexter tries to extend that concept of forgiveness and redemption to Travis (the Doomsday Killer), but since we are never really convinced that Dexter has grasped that concept himself, the potential power of this dramatic connection is lost.
At the end of the sixth season, we finally get what I knew had been coming since season 3: Debra discovers Dexter. I’ve never read the books, but I knew that this was a dramatic requirement at some point. Because Dexter and Debra genuinely loved one another, Debra needed to confront who Dexter really was. I was eagerly awaiting the seventh season to see how the writers would handle this confrontation.
I thought they did it fairly well. They eased Debra into the concept of accepting Dexter as he is. As the season progressed, they set up scenarios in which Debra confronts the need for someone like Dexter in a world where monsters can run free. They then set up Hannah McKay as a foil against which Debra and Dexter can struggle with their evolving identities. When Debra has to choose between her serial killer brother and a police captain, she shows how deeply she cares for Dexter, just the way he is. I know people say “oh, Dexter went downhill in the later seasons” but I felt season 7 was a powerful continuation of the themes and character drama that had made Dexter such an amazing show.
Which brings us to season 8.
First of all, I said at the beginning that the show investigates who Dexter is through his origins, his actions and his relationships. Dexter’s origins are fairly simple (the whole “born in blood” thing plus Harry’s tutelage) but made somewhat more complex in season 2 when Dexter discovered that Harry, horrified at what he had done in raising Dexter, killed himself. But we learned that in season 2. So here we are 6 seasons later with almost no changes to the “origin” part of who Dexter is.
All of the sudden Evelyn Vogel shows up with this “I gave Harry the code! Tada! I’m your spiritual mother.” This is absurd and undermines virtually everything that had come before. The character of Harry is flattened to nothing but a pawn of this unbalanced psychiatrist. This is an insulting development to Dexter, Harry and everyone who has taken these characters seriously for 7 years.
We get a little hint at Dexter making a human connection as he realizes that he might have found a protégé in Zach, a potential serial killer driven by a warped sense of justice. Dexter feels that Zach might be someone whom he can help by teaching him the code. But this is such a well-worn path at this point, it is almost boring. Dexter tried to teach Miguel the code. Dexter tried to reform Travis. Dexter tried to bring Lumen in on the code. Dexter thought he could teach the code to Jeremy Downs (who ends up killing himself). This is nothing new and we were never going to learn something new about Dexter by going down this road yet again.
The only possible reason for bringing Zach into this equation is to set up yet another loss for Dexter as he careens toward the final answer to who he is. And here is where the show had a chance to end well but went completely off the rails.
Dexter’s answer to “Who am I?” is “I am poison”.
Dexter destroys everyone he cares about. He is a tornado of brokenness and mayhem. With this in mind, we can understand what the writers were trying to do with season 8. Set up a surrogate mother for Dexter so she can be killed. Set up a protégé for Dexter so he can be killed. And then make Deb’s death the final straw, the nail in the coffin of Dexter’s realization that everything he cares for will ultimately be destroyed.
But the handling of this was so forced that the impact was completely lost. I didn’t care for Vogel, who was narcissistic, vicious, naïve, and two dimensional. I didn’t care for Zach, who came and went so fast that there wasn’t a really good chance to establish the character.
We all knew they had to kill Deb to make this point. That was a given. But they needed someone after Deb was gone whom Dexter could still care about so his realization that he is a poison can come with actionable consequences. Harrison is the obvious choice, but Dexter can’t just abandon his son with no one to take care of him. So they ham-handedly re-introduce Hannah McKay into the equation, thinking they can kill two birds with one stone: Add another person Dexter cares about so he can save them from himself and have someone to take care of Harrison.
This makes no sense for a dozen reasons, the biggest one being that Hannah tried to kill Deb not even a season ago. If Dexter is poison, Hannah is worse. Entrusting Harrison to Hannah is like insisting that your kid ride a motorcycle because cars are too dangerous. And Harrison doesn’t even seem to really care for Hannah one way or another. We get a couple scenes where Harrison says he likes Hannah, but we never get the feeling that is a connection that has really taken hold. Instead we get “Hey Harrison, wouldn’t you like to fly off to Argentina with this lady you pretty much just met 2 weeks ago. Also, you’ll never see your dad, aunt, brother, sister, grandparents or nanny ever again.”
Side Note: Speaking of which, I understand the need for character efficiency but the complete disappearance of Code and Astor really bothered me. Dexter is their f***ing dad and he doesn’t so much as think of them the entire season. Would it really have been so hard a writing task to find a way to leave Harrison with his grandparents instead of Crazypants McKay over there?
Deb’s death was meant to be this big event that finally drives Dexter to his ultimate doom. And it was on the surface. But it was so poorly written that it felt entirely fabricated. Dexter was only responsible for Deb’s death in the sense that they were kind of in the same place when it happened. Dexter was on a path to escape his dark passenger so he decided to leave Oliver Saxon to the police instead of killing him. Saxon is then set free by a US Marshal who apparently has no idea that there is a gigantic statewide manhunt for the guy he’s about to set free. Deb is then shot by Saxon, but recovers enough to have a deathbed scene whereupon she has a blood clot… and so on and so forth. Instead of deus ex machina, it is mortem ex machina.
Contrast this to Dexter’s culpability in Rita’s death, where for nearly half the season he made decision after decision that could have saved Rita’s life but chose every time to indulge himself by either letting Arthur live so he can learn more about him or insisting that he and he alone be the one who catches and kills the Trinity killer. Rewatching season 4 is gut-wrenching as you see Dexter fail to take the tiny actions, make the smallest decisions that would have saved Rita’s life all because he is laser focused on his own needs: first to understand, then to kill.
And Deb doesn’t even die due to the (random) gunshot wound but is rendered brain dead by an ensuing brain clot so that we can get the “Dexter kills Deb” scene. It is a classic example of how a writer knows the conclusion they want and walks backward from there.
Lastly, concerning Dexter’s fate. I was actually OK with Dexter killing himself in a hurricane. I didn’t like it or want it, but I was willing to accept the dramatic requirements that forced this situation (if they had handled Deb’s death and Harrison’s continued well-being in a way that had reinforced the dramatic arc).
But the coda showing Dexter the trucker was inexplicable. The whole show revolved around “Who is Dexter?”. We’ve followed him through dozens of kills and scenarios challenging his sense of self, his assumptions of who he is and who he might be able to become. We’ve empathized with his drive to kill, his sense of justice, his need to balance his true self with his projected self. We are finally given a this powerful but painful answer to “Who is Dexter”, an answer that we’ve all sort of known to be true this whole time. We see Dexter react to that answer with a certain bravery as he moves to protect those he loves from himself.
Then this action is immediately invalidated. We see that Dexter has survived, but now we know nothing about him. Is he empty inside? What kind of empty? The same kind of empty he was before? Now that he has torn himself from all he loved is he still killing? Why did he go there?
It’s not that the ending didn’t make any sense (it didn’t). It is that it was a complete betrayal of everything the show had built up. I know it’s fashionable in writer’s circles to make your loyal viewers angry at the end (see Sopranos, The) but, for all his faults, Dexter deserved better than this.