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Dark Defender to Lumberjack: ‘Dexter’ in retrospect

Dark Defender to Lumberjack: ‘Dexter’ in retrospect

Dexter Season One (2006) Banner

“I just know there’s something dark in me and I hide it. I certainly don’t talk about it, but it’s there always, this…dark passenger. And when he’s driving, I feel alive, half sick with the thrill of complete wrongness.
I don’t fight him, I don’t want to. He’s all I’ve got. Nothing else could love me, not even… especially not me.
Or is that just a lie the Dark Passenger tells me? Because lately there are these moments when I feel connected to something else… someone. It’s like the mask is slipping and things… people… who never mattered before are suddenly starting to matter. It scares the hell out of me”

Dexter Morgan

The dichotomy – raging battle ongoing – that engulfs the core of the protagonist summarized in one shatteringly honest, beautifully troubled confession…to an AA meeting, where he is posing as a heroin addict to avoid being exposed for his real vice. That “wrongness” is the joy and completion he feels with each kill, not the euphoria of dope pumping through his veins. Even when he is willingly lying on the table and vulnerable to the world, it is a caustic half-truth, a lie of convenience. Therapy by proxy. But the words, and the sentiment, are real. This is why we care. It’s why we took a serial killer to our hearts. He’s a monster who dreamed of being a man, always hidden in plain sight.

Few could have predicted how things would have gone down a mere seven years and twelve days ago when Showtime aired the startlingly assured and ambitious pilot episode, simplistically named ‘Dexter. It was the screen debut of a character already gaining something of a cult following among avid novel readers, a creation of darkly humorous storyteller Jeff Lindsay that matched the pitch black tone of Thomas Harris but with a far more enterprising attitude towards the real heart of such a fable; the human touch. Throughout eight further seasons of variable quality, a complete character study of Dexter Morgan took place which at times even eclipsed the journey of one Walter White. Reborn in blood and raised to kill by a code, he was almost alien, looking through a window at humanity, but never truly knowing whether he could ever achieve it. A show that sounds loaded with guilty wish-fulfillment and satisfactory funny games of death and retribution in many ways was more about what life is truly about.

Julie Benz, James Remar, Michael C. Hall, Erik King, Jennifer Carpenter, David Zayas & Lauren Velez in Dexter (2006) promotional image

A universally superb cast were provided with rich material to create living and breathing characters

It was this complexity that the show should be best remembered for now, three weeks after the finale aired to a decidedly divisive reception. That reception, and the increasing uproar among fans as the final year petered out in a sea of horrifying ill-quality and malpractice of storytelling, is quite telling and lent a tragic legacy that the earlier years do not deserve to be burdened with. Although it might occasionally be fickle and dictated by hype, the IMDb rating systems perhaps best summarize the sheer waste that took place during the final days, a downfall that Oliver Hirschbiegel would surely see as manna from heaven for a cinematic comeback; the tenth episode of Breaking Bad’s final season, the unforgettable Ozymandias, has amazingly (though not surprisingly) earned a perfect 10/10 score almost thirty eight thousand votes and a month since it hit the airwaves. By contrast, Dexter’s tenth episode of its final season (the ponderous ‘Goodbye Miami’) is rated at a paltry 6.8/10 with only a fraction of said votes. Both shows were set up for a riotous and iconic final run. One redefined the expectations of television drama in its final moments, the other redefined the manner in which Dexter will be remembered for the worse. The best thing one can honestly say about the grand finale is that it didn’t plumb the same depths of heartbreaking laziness as the episodes immediately preceding it. And, as the internet masses will never tire of declaring, it ended with Dex as a lumberjack.

Although it may seem churlish and hypocritical to concentrate on the downside, what happened to the show is an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed up front in taciturn, bluntly honest words. The is mainly because it is a decay seldom seen in fiction, without a great deal of precedent. The X-Files tailed off badly in its last two seasons due to off-screen upheaval and because the very concept was always vulnerable to running out of ideas; the dismay among numerous quarters at the concluding hours of Lost was resultant of an increasing controversial creative decision as to where the story would lead; Seinfeld, already weakened by the departure of Larry David, endured a dried creative teat which befalls most long running comedies; read the same for Scrubs, which turned to self-parody at the expense of decent laughs and meaningful pathos. Standing almost alone, Dexter fell down thanks to a stable of disinterested and un-ambitious writers who seemingly lacked the understanding of what made the show a hit in the first place.

Season Four drove home Dexter's vulnerability to human error.

Season Four drove home Dexter’s vulnerability to human error.

Rewind to 13th December 2009. As a parting gift, showrunner Clide Phillips and head-writer Melissa Rosenberg oversaw the completion of Season Four’s sensational and brutal arc before walking off into the sunset, only seen again in the net-based periphery as the former criticized the direction of his baby. After an error-strewn and fatally ill-judged battle of wills against fellow monster Arthur ‘Trinity’ Mitchell (played unforgettably by John Lithgow), Dexter thinks he has finally won the day and succeeded in balancing his murderous needs with his demanding job and paramount family responsibilities when he comes home to find his beloved wife Rita murdered in the bathtub, the last victim of his last victim. His infant son sits in her blood, crying and confused, perfectly mirroring the harrowing origin story of Dexter’s dark passenger. With this heartbreaking, shocking and amazingly bold conclusion to a truly epic saga that was the fourth season, Dexter discovers that he has failed. Badly. Oh so badly. While it made fans cry as frantically as little Harrison, or simply sink back in shellshock, there was no doubting the sheer visceral and emotional impact of this moment. What made it so brilliant wasn’t just the audacity, however, it was just how appropriate a choice it was. Often eschewing the code and becoming bloated with his own ego, Dexter took too many risks, tried to balance too many books, and these strains become a long list of mistakes that would cost him dearly. He had to lose something, and Rita was the perfect choice. A sacrificial lion, as it were.

This climax is a good place to go back to now, as it is the last time Dexter was truly Dexter. The show, that is. It would be simplistic to say that it went downhill immediately, but with the start of Season Five it wasn’t the character making those mistakes, it was the writing team. Often using irony and toying with Deus Ex Machina in keeping Dexter safe in a near-constant game of cat and mouse, the show had never before slipped into the sheer stupidity of the ‘auto-erotic mummification’ gambit in that season’s ‘Everything is Illumenated’ (sic). Although the fifth year hit some heights and mostly kept the show on an even keel, it showed some worrying signs of danger, particularly with the dismissive treatment of an interesting villain and the ‘stunt-casting’ trick failing for the first time. While John Lithgow and Jimmy Smits (as Season Three’s murderous attorney Miguel Prado) sold their characters well and justified the use of high profile actors as guest characters, Julia Stiles was significantly unable to sell the richness of character within Lumen Pierce. The downhill trajectory was confirmed by the distinctly poor sixth season, a year that hit all the wrong beats (poorly written and over-used antagonists; contrived plotting; uninteresting filler confirming that the season lacked content at the planning stage) and was only barely saved by its shocking conclusion, as Deb learned the truth about her adopted brother.

Season Six only provided vaguely curious religious touches and a crucial cliffhanger

Season Six only provided vaguely curious religious touches and a crucial cliffhanger

That big cliffhanger, the first proper one the show ever deployed, set up very nicely for what proved to be a highly significant and revealing seventh year. Looking back, the quality that a writing team ran by veteran staffer Scott Buck were able to produce shows that the final season defies comprehension. It wasn’t a case of a creative team with no creativity, since they had already shown their chops with a truly great tale of Ukrainian mob bosses, Dexter-hunting within the department and the true cost of the dark and horrible truth. Season Eight, a badly written and horribly botched twelve episode run that pushed many to homicidal levels of frustration and apathy, defied reason, understanding or logic; it should have been glorious, not God awful. Explanations are hard to come by, but not impossible. There was the claim that Showtime were calling the shots on many creative decisions, specifically whether Dexter Morgan would survive the show or not. Small hints, such as a strangely ignorant rebuff on the subject of Dexter’s paternity at the 2013 Comic Con, suggested that many of the crew simply did not know the show well enough to be helming it. Nothing substantial, nothing that can’t be explained away as circumstantial. The only thing that is really clear is that Executive Producer Sara Colleton’s claims that Season Eight was always intended as the last salvo, and a direct sequel to the seventh year, were in retrospect completely bogus, even dishonest. If there was one thing the last season lacked, it was a plan.

This is perhaps the worst part, worse than the stupidity of characters adhering to an easy plot or the lack of imagination and ability showcased by the lifeless direction of episodes. For the first five seasons, and again in the seventh, the core strength of the show was its attention to a cohesive whole. In line with its literary adaptation roots (albeit a loyalty which lasted less than one season), each year was presented like a novel, with twelve hour-long chapters. Rather than simply spin out a dozen installments, the key was in producing a sequence that could quite legitimately play out as one very long film. The plotting had to be tight and focused, interlinking and significant. Subplots involving supporting characters may night not directly tie in with the overlying arc, but would provide character development and insight. This was strength of the early era of the show, the respect and intelligence shown towards every cast member. The strict ethos was that no player would return for a new season the same person that they were at the beginning of the previous one. Debra Morgan, Rita Bennett and Maria LaGuerta in particular benefited from this policy, becoming full fledged, three-dimensional people. Most importantly, every season had its own collection of rich and resonating themes that would broadly cover every episode and every event, mostly involving Dexter learning a new life lesson as he slowly became the mask.

Rita developed from traumatized cover to revitalized soul mate.

Rita developed from traumatized cover to revitalized soul mate.

It was this sense of growth that made the show such a rich and fulfilling experience, and what made the big awesome set pieces and events all the more satisfying. The first season, which still stands as probably its finest achievement, set the benchmark by combining numerous elements into a densely packed narrative. The hunt for the Ice Truck Killer and Debra’s ascendancy through the police force is superbly dark crime noir thriller, while Dexter’s self discovery and flirtations with said serial killer are the best of character study. This build up meant that Dexter uncovering the repressed memory of his mother’s death provided the show with one its greatest moments, a truly stunning and absolute heart wrenching climax to the sublime episode ‘Seeing Red’. It also made the revelation of the ITK’s true identity a source for adrenaline pumping excitement, and his end a strangely heartbreaking scene.

The next season featured a bold arc as Dexter both learned the value of self-acceptance through his kinship with the dangerous Lila West and played a dangerous game of tag with both the FBI and his nemesis, fan-favorite Sergeant James Doakes. Having learned who he was Dexter now had to decide on his purpose, whether it be self-serving killer or celebrated ‘Dark Defender’ vigilante; the hero worship of the ‘Bay Harbor Butcher’ would suggest that for all his darkness, Dexter was actually providing a legitimate service. Dealings with Keith Carradine’s amiable yet deadly Agent Frank Lundy were pure cat and mouse, as Dexter’s deadly deeds were uncovered but he remained hidden in plain sight, with Doakes taking the fall after a sensational climax to their face off which had the benefit of two years worth teasing and tension. Scenes of Doakes as Dexter’s captive in a cabin in the Everglades still stand strong as some of the show’s best written scenes. This conflict proved to be an excruciating moral conundrum, an unsolvable puzzle as we rooted for both men and realized that against convention, the protagonist was the bad guy and the antagonist was the hero. The sort of risk taking usually reserved for the end of days in a show was employed merrily less than two years in. Bravery in plot and intelligence in subtext were touchstones. Every season had to have a main point: Season One: Identity. Season Two: Purpose. Season Three: Change. Season Four: Responsibility. Season Five: Redemption. Season Six: Um…faith maybe? Season Seven: Consequences. Season Eight: Damned if I know.

Doakes vs Dexter: One of the show's pinnacle moments

Doakes vs Dexter: One of the show’s pinnacle moments

Perhaps this is key; the show’s two most inferior outings were decidedly lacking on the thematic front. Notably, both also neglected the development of the main character. Season Six ignored every lesson that he had learned since Rita’s death and resulted in him putting his son’s life at risk, while Season Eight offered no insight into what was going on in his head other than “I love Hannah. I want to go to Argentina with her”, and the dubious suggestion that he had gone off killing, an insulting notion to put on fans. We had learned so much about Dexter Morgan, about his good and bad sides, about the complex dance in the pale moonlight he was forced into with his dark passenger, about his dearest desire to be content and human. The idea that he could just stop because a gorgeous blonde was in his life is laughable. It is a crucial misjudgment of the show’s core, a near callous attempt at simplicity in a field of psychological analysis and scientific study. Dexter’s mind is shared by three forces; the dark passenger, the code, and himself. The three constantly duel, with his own personal facet the weakest. He learned over seven years, however, that perhaps there was only ever one, despite his incessant attempts at compartmentalization. It is subject to debate based on his actions, not his narration, and this level of complexity defines the character and Michael C. Hall’s iconic and Emmy winning performance as one of television’s most fascinating protagonists, an interest that goes beyond his killer strokes or double life. It is light years ahead of simplistic alteration of motive…

At this point, the critic stops and realizes what he’s just written. He smiles warmly, feels reassured and almost content. Because it is only when you dissect just how bad things got that you truly start to appreciate how wonderful they once were. The sheer joyous quality of the early seasons is best appreciated when in sharp contrast. That elephant in the room perhaps cannot be banished, or even completely ignored, but eventually the lumberjack meme will peter out into irrelevance. When it does, talk of Dexter will return to the subject of re-watching. You can choose any point you choose as the preferred ‘true’ ending, as the smiling writer already has scribbled about. It can cease where you want it to. It doesn’t matter, since the levels of ingenuity, dark comedy and overwhelming insight into the human condition, into the potential darkness and the conflict it holds, cannot be undone by a bad final run. The show is episodic by season, so can be stopped whenever you choose. Even then, there is so much that remains unfettered. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter, for instance, giving world class performances even in the darkest days. David Zayas, Lauren Velez, James Remar and Julie Benz creating wonderful characters for the ages. Desmond Harrington resurrecting his flagging acting career with a mannered and apt portrayal of new boy on the block Joseph Quinn. C.S. Lee and Erik King becoming overnight YouTube compilation heroes.

Michael C. Hall in Dexter Ep 1.02 'Crocodile'

Dexter Morgan: One of the greatest TV characters of all time

Then there are all the great moments to live long in the memory, those big moments. Beyond Dexter’s origins, how about the Ice Truck Killer reveal, the horrible realization that Deb was now in the firing line? The truly hair rising spectacle of Dexter’s underwater graveyard being discovered was matched only by the sight of a handcuffed Dex tackling and subduing armed ex-marine Doakes, or the provoked office space ass kicking which preceded it. The sheer horror of understanding as Dexter comes to find that adoptive father Harry killed himself, then discovers that he was the reason. There was Dex sharing a kill room for the first time, followed soon after by being on the table himself at the mercy of the horrific skinner. The wonderful foreshadowing of his blood dripping on to Rita’s wedding dress proved the perfect set up for the fourth season, so jam packed full of amazing scenes that they cannot be listed here. We’ll settle for “Hello, Dexter Morgan” and the death of all things good that followed. So much to take, to cherish and to watch over and over again.

When the calamity fades, and the uproar dies down, there is a single indisputable fact left remaining; on a hiding to nothing, Showtime accepted a seemingly unbroadcastable concept that proved to be so much richer, fulfilling and unforgettable than the sum of its parts. Forensic tech by day, serial killer by night, life and soul of a sensational eight year journey by retrospect; choose to remember Dexter Morgan as the Dark Defender, the Bay Harbor Butcher, the monster in our midst…not as a lumberjack. It may not have wrapped up in a manner it deserved, but this year TV audiences lost two of the greatest shows of the century. As Dexter himself says, “I’d rather remember my old playmates as they were. Neat, clean little packages”. Who are we to argue with a mass murderer?

Scott Patterson