There’s no doubting that television has changed dramatically in the last few years, particularly in regards to the acclaimed serialized fiction shows that have ground out a new niche as cinematic storytelling per excellence. Think of how Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad have utterly dwarfed episodic entertainment tailored to casual audiences. Randomly switch on Homeland midseason and you’ll be completely lost. Ten years ago, the hottest property on network TV would have allowed for a cave dweller to tune into any episode and get an hour’s satisfaction. This new form revolution certainly applies to Dexter, a show with its origins in literature adaptation and the narrative style to prove it. In many ways, you have to review the whole year’s pickings to get a real picture of where the show is headed, a better analysis of the quality on show. The findings are disconcertingly ambiguous.
Having slipped up during its underwhelming fifth year, Dexter’s sixth season proved to be almost legacy-destroying in scale of awfulness, with loose and unfocussed plot complimented by logical slip ups and general stupidity, which conversely covered the cracks of poor planning and unsuccessful efforts at innovation. It did, however, end on the bombshell which Season Seven picked up from a cliffhanger; ever suffering, ever cursing sister and Lieutenant Debra Morgan walks in on her brother ritualistically executing the year’s big bad in his church of residence, an unexpected disturbance creating an end of days scenario with no apparent way out. When it was further announced that seven would be the penultimate season, with the show set to wrap up its tale of an amiable everyday serial killer in 2013, the time for dallying was over: This had to be good.
And in parts, it was; from the very first frame it was clear that the staff within Dexter’s writing room (a team, it should be noted, who were not responsible for the first four seasons) had knuckled down and brainstormed intensely in a bid to find a suitable conclusion to their cliffhanger, with the knowledge that the show had an end date spurring them into action after a year of hopelessly immobile posturing. The result was one of the show’s greatest episode, the opener ‘Are You…?’, an installment that within itself best sums up the qualities, both good and bad, of the season. For all that it occasionally lacked cohesion and made a couple of missteps that were relatively minor, it tore up the show’s rulebook and delivered a breathless and captivating display of ruthless game changing. Dexter’s claim that his murder of Travis Marshall was a heat of the moment indecision simply didn’t sail, with talented detective Deb unraveling the truth and outing her adopted brother and platonic life partner as a serial killer.
The repercussions of this were and are massive, and were brilliantly handled in the season’s finest achievement, as the inner conflict within Debra gestated, mutated, deviated and finally crystallized by the final curtain. Traumatized initially, she forces herself to confront the ultimate moral dilemma with borrowed objectivity, demanding more and more of the truth until she has a clearer picture of who Dexter really is, and working from there. Leftovers from her startling discovery in therapy during the previous season leave an after effect here which is more resonant in subtext than it is on screen, with Deb’s love going beyond a sibling bond. Anyone damning the writers for coming up with this plot device should consider that Debra is a deeply damaged individual who has been through more trauma than any one person should – mother dies of cancer when she’s a child, father dies in her teens; love of her life and fiancée tries to kill her, turning out to be a murderous monster; second love of her life is murdered in front of her, and his killer commits suicide, again with her present; sister and law is killed. Throw in the stresses of her new found job responsibilities and it’s no wonder her emotions are off the scale of what we consider normal.
In this respect, Debra is the star of Season Seven, and Jennifer Carpenter is absolutely astonishing in the role. The actress has always mastered the role, but with the sheer volume of tough dramatic material this year allows her display her extremely wide range and talent for portraying reluctant, almost spiteful vulnerability. It helps that the writing in these scenes is top notch, with some dialogue exchanges being among the show’s best. The revelation that Deb’s reaction to shooting LaGuerta, to desperately run over and hold her body while overcome by despair, was improvised by Carpenter is both an incredible tit bit of trivia and a glowing testament to the actress’ grasp on the character. She outshines her colleagues, although it’s worth noting that Michael C. Hall is perhaps not fully utilized even when the darkness reaches its darkest.
This is part of the season’s main problem, unfulfilled potential. Dexter himself is put in to the biggest quandary of his life but this is never truly reflected by the way he is portrayed, and Hall is simply not given enough to work with to make us feel the pain of the situation he faces. Even though it lacked heart, Season Five at least gave the actor plenty of room to mine his character’s complex soul to deliver maximum pathos. Although it improved considerably, the show’s famed inner monologue also failed to do the protagonist justice, veering between simplistic exposition and overly stylized soliloquy. On a couple of occasions there was the echo of the once exquisite grasp on narration that the show had, but not nearly enough to write warmly of. Similarly, Harry Morgan was used more substantially, particularly during ‘The Dark…Whatever’ when Dexter began to question whether he really did have a lurking evil imbedded in his psyche, but no ground is broken.
The most memorable part of the season was its unpredictability, arching and writhing as it shook off convention and cliché and made a mockery of fan speculation. Entertaining as this proved to be, it also landed a few blows that would perhaps have been judged misguided under normal circumstances. Having set up a tantalizing subplot involving the Ukrainian mafia, represented by the darkly charismatic and enigmatic mobster Isaak Sirko, the show chose a different direction and threw the well developed story overboard to gain more speed. Ray Stevenson, portraying Sirko with a dangerous swagger and surprisingly un-clumsy English accent, was one of the highlights and his arc took an unexpectedly poignant and melancholy turn, and he was unlike any villain seen on the show before. His loss and emptiness at losing his lover Viktor was sensitively and brilliantly handled, and proved to be just as sad as the antagonist departing early.
Less positive terms can be applied to the manner in which the rest of this facet of the story was handled afterwards. While Sirko’s deadly dance with Dexter was posing the foreground threat, it also stretched into the life of another main character, Quinn, whose dalliance with a stripper and regrettable transactions with club owner George Novikov looked to have put him in an impossible bind. With Sirko dead, George delivering the killer strike to set himself up as the new big bad, the writers lost interest and the second story point behind the Koshka arc ended abruptly, anti-climactically and insultingly, with Jason Gedrick’s stooge killed off easily and simply. Having been at the mercy of ruthless gangsters an episode earlier, Quinn was now in the clear and free of repercussion with no lessons learned. This scene was easily the low point, a lazy contrivance reminiscent of the awful ‘auto-erotic mummification’ scenario during Season Five.
The disappointment at how the Ukrainians were removed from proceedings was offset, however, by the increasingly seismic significance of Maria LaGuerta. Having found a blood slide at the scene of Travis Marshall’s death, the political animal quickly made a connection to the Bay Harbor Butcher and was unable to resist the possibility of clearing her dear dead friend James Doakes. After chugging along slowly for a few episodes, LaGuerta’s efforts became the show’s main conflict as she dug up more and more evidence linking to Dexter. These discoveries, referencing back to the show’s history with a superb attention to detail, were thrilling in of themselves and set up a decisive confrontation. It’s unfortunate that this endgame came just as the season lost steam, with the final two installments easily the worst, and saw an outclassed Maria using her one advantage too soon and then falling prey to a killer only held back by the morality of his sister. Her demise was both inevitable and oddly low key, coming during a show down lacking flair or invention. It was, however, nice to see the character finally get something to do.
The other pivotal player still alive and kicking at the end was Hannah McKay, former sidekick to a killer and stealer of Dex’s heart but not his lizard brain. Shoehorning a love interest into proceedings seemed like the worst possible idea when the season kicked off, but an excellently worked introduction via a minor character showed great creativity and Yvonne Strahovsky proved to be more that just a pretty (nay, gorgeous) face with a strong characterization, particularly during her more villainous side shown in ‘Surprise, Motherf-r!’ and any of her interactions with nemesis Deb. Her bond with Dexter was always uneasy, not evenly tempered with the suspicion of wish fulfillment, but always had a necessary spark and the passionate embrace as they truly seized each other was a memorably intense moment. Her survival and ambiguous destiny should make for some interesting conjecture until things start up again.
On the eve of the season’s start, this writer wrote an article designating which aspects Dexter had to dramatically improve on in order to improve and start reaching its previously set heights, and one entry that was clearly addressed was perhaps the most important; an arc and a theme. While Six lacked a real point, Seven chose consequences as its overlying topic and managed to carry it off more successfully than the previous two seasons. Dex nearly gets himself killed by the Koshka’s because of one his murders, Debra discovers his secret and later is almost murdered by his lover, and his actions result in the death of his boss. For all that he dreamt of a happy ending with Hannah and cursed the presence of his judgmental sister, he always knew that his own acts and choices meant he was doomed to a dark and lonely life evading capture. Everyone around him is put at risk by his presence, those he cares about most of all, and now the future of both he and the dearest person in his life is unclear.
In this respect, Season Seven works, as it sets up a clear message and sticks to it, in the meantime creating a splash and some of the darkest periods in terms of tone that the show has ever produced and providing maximum entertainment. Almost too much entertainment in fact, as aside from the blood feud with Sirko, Maria’s investigation and Debra’s increasing complicity there is time dedicated to Batista’s retirement, Quinn’s latest squeeze and resultant problems, the haphazard participation of Louis Green and two notable killers of the week who get double the screen time their title would suggest. Season Six lacked plot or depth; if anything, Seven overdoses on content to the occasional detriment of potential emotional impact. It does, however, create a great scenario to the final season, albeit not the explosive one it promised, and delivers by the merit of its own efforts. Flawed? Yes. Back to its best? No. Damn good television? Absolutely.