A review of the “Dexter” series finale coming up just as soon as I tell you what the pen is for…
“I don’t want you to feel guilty about this. I don’t want you to feel guilty about anything. You were meant to be happy, so go and fucking be happy.” -Deb
This final season of “Dexter” has had the very poor timing of airing opposite the final season of “Breaking Bad.” In a vacuum, “Dexter” is ending with a whimper: another once-vital drama that stayed on the air too long and lost all sense of what made it so good in the early days. But airing at the exact same time as what may turn out to be the greatest final season of a drama ever – not to mention a show that occupies the same anti-hero space and has, like “Dexter,” at times asked its viewers to question their sympathy for a killer – it’s been an outright catastrophe.
“Breaking Bad” has confronted the viewers and the other characters with what a monster Walter White is, and though it’s often been difficult to sit through, it’s also led to some of the most amazing television we’ve ever seen. “Dexter,” on the other hand, long ago decided(*) that Dexter was a good guy – the recent episode of Sundance’s “The Writers Room” featuring the “Dexter” writing staff was sadly illuminating in this regard, as they compared him to a superhero and said that people like Dexter because of his “innocence” – who was becoming a real boy with real emotions. This season wasn’t about revealing the monster beneath the man, but the man beneath the monster, which could be interesting in its own way but sure wasn’t here.
(*) So much of the second season – which, until the finale, was as close to greatness as the series would ever get (Lithgow individually was great, but the Trinity storyline was not) – seemed designed to make us question our beliefs about Dexter’s serial-killing ways, through both the wise and sympathetic Frank Lundy character and the period where Doakes is Dexter’s prisoner. That season could have ended with Dexter killing Doakes, which would have kept the show’s status quo in play but made clear once and for all what we were dealing with in our main character. It could have ended with him choosing to let Doakes go and turning fugitive, which would have kept our sympathies but necessitated a major format change (and would anyone have actually missed Miami Metro?). Or it could have ended in the lame, half-assed way it did, with Lyla committing the murder so we would let Dexter off the hook. Once that happened, it was clear any attempts to pivot our sympathies were half-hearted at best, and the writers gave up on the idea altogether a while back.
In this much blander take on the character, Dexter is presented as Dr. Vogel’s victim. If she hadn’t been so eager to test her theories on psychopaths, perhaps she and Harry would have come up with a better solution to young Dexter’s bloodlust than the Code of Harry. After all – despite many seasons of evidence in support of the idea that Dexter needs to kill, and that the Code is just a way to channel this unshakable need in a more socially-productive way – we’ve seen in these final weeks that Dexter can recognize that nope, he really doesn’t need to kill people, after all, not even an unrepentant, unstoppable bastard like Vogel’s son. In this conception of Dexter, his compulsion to kill is just a habit that can be kicked in the same way a smoker ditches cigarettes or a gambler learns to stay away from the card table.
And if the “Dexter” creative team decides this is their take on the character, and the series – even if it’s a take that flies in the face of what he and it were in the early seasons – that’s their right. But if they were going to run away from the idea that Dexter is the bad guy, they had to come up with something much, much more interesting than what they gave us.
After toying with the idea over last season and the first few episodes of this one that Dexter’s moonlighting job has emotionally destroyed his sister, the show tossed that idea aside, making Deb into Hannah’s only slightly reluctant roommate and having her cheer on the idea of Dexter, Hannah and Harrison living happily ever after in some other country. Before she has post-surgery complications and goes into brain death, Deb absolves Dexter of all his sins against her and everyone else, and I guess if the writers believe that Dexter is a good guy who deserves a happy ending, then that’s necessary?
But what we ultimately got was neither fish nor fowl. It wasn’t Dexter being exposed as the Bay Harbor Butcher – Quinn and Batista even watch a video of him calmly murdering Vogel’s son, and while there’s perhaps a hint that Quinn (who once upon a time wasthisclose to learning Dexter’s secret) understands what’s what, poor Angel is as baffled as usual – but nor was it Happily Ever After. Instead, Dexter realizes that while he doesn’t need to kill, the work has been valuable – but also much too costly to Rita, Deb, Harry and everyone he’s ever cared about – and fakes his death so they can all do well without him while he moves up north to join the lumber trade. And we have no idea if he’ll return to his butchering ways up there, or if he’s meant to live out his remaining decades in peaceful solitude. (Though if that’s the case, wouldn’t he have just gone to Argentina? It’s the killing that brings trouble for his loved ones, not his very existence.) It’s another heroic sacrifice, of a sort, but the whole tone of the finale was oddly melancholy and tired, as if nobody was quite sure what to do with the story at this point.
Would I have preferred for “Dexter” to close out its run with Dexter’s identity exposed and/or with the show admitting that we’ve been rooting for a villain (albeit someone dealing with even worse villains) all these years? Probably. But at this point I would have settled for anything dramatically interesting on any level. And in addition to having a fundamentally different philosophy about the show and their hero and his show, the “Dexter” writers seemed to be phoning in this entire final season. Is this an ending that will satisfy anyone?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org