Sunday, September 22, 2013

DEXTER SEASON FINALE CUTS AND RUNS

Jennifer Carpenter and Michael C. Hall in DEXTER (original caricature copyrighted by Jeff York)

After eight seasons, Showtime’s most popular series “Dexter” ended on Sunday, September 22. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading now. If you did catch it, you most certainly realized how fitting a finale it was because the conclusion was just as meandering and misguided as the entire last season. Dexter the character may have escaped death but the show was not as lucky. Its heart stopped sometime last season, if not sooner.

It didn’t have to be this messy, but the final season introduced far too many new characters and wasted oodles of time on superfluous secondary storylines like CSI Masuka’s long-lost daughter (http://bit.ly/1Ymu6b). Worst of all, the show simply stopped being smart. Would Dexter really choose a life with a woman who tried to kill both him and his sister Deb? And how was it that no one in the police department could put two and two together after all this time? The horror wasn’t in its serial killer premise, it was in the insipidness of the writing this year. The sloppy storytelling made the once great show a shadow of its former self. 

“The Walking Dead”, “American Horror Story”, “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries” are horror shows thriving on TV, and they all have “Dexter” to thank for it. “Dexter” paved the way for prime time horror, starting a renewed interest in it on TV with its runaway success after its 2006 premiere. “Dexter” forced studios to reconsider a genre that had too often failed there in the past. (The ambitious “American Gothic” in 1995 comes quickly to mind. http://bit.ly/vyRT2) And Showtime’s biggest hit not only stretched the boundaries of horror, it asked us to relate to and even cheer for a sociopath. That’s rather remarkable.

The very first words of the series were “Tonight’s the night” as Dexter trolled the streets of Miami looking for his next victim. Yet he wasn’t some drooling, Ripper-esque fiend. Dexter was a handsome, all-American boy type. He was a snappy dresser and terrific at his job, working as a blood spatter expert for Miami Metro homicide. Irony like that was one of author Jeff Lindsey’s droller jokes in his Dexter book series. And the Showtime adaptation got a lot of mileage out of such wit early on in the show’s run. At times, “Dexter” played like a black comedy juxtaposing Dexter’s ‘dark passenger’ against Florida’s candy-colored hues.

But the show wasn’t just a near-satire with Dexter cheekily taking his blood work home with him at night. It was a dissertation on what constitutes evil. The show posed a complex query about whether or not a psychopath had the capacity to change, to learn to change, and if so, how far could he go in his empathy. Not surprisingly, as Dexter became more and more immersed in the normal world around, he realized he too could have friends, date, and even love. He was still a monster in many ways, but he was trying to be less beastly.

And as Dexter grappled with his demons, Michael C. Hall gave one of the sharpest performances ever in the history of the medium. To his great credit, he never shirked from showing the unflattering sides of Dexter – the self-satisfied smirks, the hateful glares, the shocking swiftness of his violence. And Hall showed the lighter side of Dex too, that side that could feel. He shrewdly infused his character with a boyish curiosity, making his awe at how humans behave into something almost adorable.

As good as Hall always was, his show wasn’t as consistently on the same level. Like any series dependent upon foils, “Dexter” the show was only as good as the guest villains that challenged the killer side of him. The villains in season 1, 2 and 4 (played by Christian Carmago, Jaime Murray and John Lithgow, respectively) were a cut above the others. Their baddies were so despicable you couldn’t wait for Dexter to get them on his kill table. Dexter may have been a killer but his father’s code taught him to only kill those that had it coming.

Thus, Dexter made moral choices in his killings, and as he tried to be more adaptive to the normal world around him, he started to become more humane. He learned to love his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) and even married her. They had a baby together, Harrison, and Dexter became a doting father to him as well as Rita’s two kids from her previous marriage. Dexter became more and more sociable as well. Heck, he even joined the bowling team from work. And most importantly, he came to truly respect, care for, and look out for his stepsister Deb.

As played by the raw and riveting Jennifer Carpenter, Deb exemplified everything that Dexter wasn’t. Like him, she was a good cop, but where Dexter was cool and in control, Deb swore like a sailor, drank to excess, and chased bad boys into bed. She wore every emotion on her sleeve, and while Dex couldn’t relate, he learned to understand and care for her. Theirs became the true ‘love story’ of the series.

And for the first four years, with those themes in place, it all worked spectacularly well. The high water mark came in its fourth season when Dexter became enthralled with Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow). Mitchell was a family man who also happened to be the Trinity Killer, an elusive serial killer who’d gotten away with his crimes for over 30 years.  But as Dexter befriended him, under the alias of ‘Kyle Butler’, he realized that Mitchell was not a mentor, but rather a horrible man, butchering innocents and sadistically bullying his family at home. Dexter took him out too, but not before Trinity slaughtered Rita. Dexter’s dreams of a happy, normal existence were now of the pipe variety. And it was time to pay the piper.

 But the piper never came to collect the bill. Despite ‘Kyle Butler’ being a person of interest in the Trinity case, that plot thread was abandoned. The show was renewed for two seasons after the record Lithgow ratings and its success may have softened its edge. It didn’t help that guiding force show-runner Clyde Phillips also departed after the fourth season and the show started to falter immediately.

The next three seasons saw Dexter battling not only weaker villains but less than inspiring storylines. Dexter softened too much. He became too nice, too sweet, a real mensch. Dexter was now a great dad, a friendly co-worker, and a man who loved everything from his Cuban sandwiches to sex with various lady guest stars (http://exm.nr/OyRL5x). “Dexter” had become cute and cuddly. And he stopped being scary. It was a horrific mistake.

Deb’s discovery of the truth about her brother at the very end of season six gave the show back some of its spark. (http://exm.nr/Z98RPz) And when Deb killed her boss at the end of season seven when she found out Dexter’s secret as well, the show was teed up to be startlingly dramatic in its final season. The horrors of Dexter’s double life were all coming home to roost. The collateral damage was substantial, and Dexter was going down.

Only he didn’t. Sure, Deb spiraled out of control for a few episodes, quitting her job and binge drinking, but her threats to confess both their crimes never came to fruition. And along with that pulled punch, the rest of the season careened from one silly subplot to another, like Quinn’s relationship with Harrison’s nanny, and the introduction of a police psychiatrist (Charlotte Rampling) and her long-lost serial killer son. When serial killer Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) returned, all hope was lost. Dex went all lovey-dovey for her and planned to run away to Argentina with the woman who tried to poison him. This once vital show had sadly turned into an unintentional farce.
The cast of BREAKING BAD (Original caricature copyrighted by Jeff York)

And it all looked even worse compared to how stunning the final season of “Breaking Bad” has been. With only two episodes left in that series, Walter White’s double life has been utterly exposed and he’s lost everything. That could’ve been Dexter’s storyline too. Instead, Dexter escaped largely unscathed. No one left at Miami Metro found out he was a serial killer, and his son and Hannah escaped. Only Deb died, and her death seemed like another contrivance, considering her bullet was fatal. She lost oxygen to her brain in the operating room and was declared brain dead.

If the show had concluded in its fifth season, with authorities closing in on Dexter and his ‘Kyle Butler’ connection to Trinity, the show would’ve gone down in history the way we’re seeing “Breaking Bad” conclude. It would have been fascinating to see how all of those in Dexter’s inner circle would’ve reacted to finding out the truth about him. And what would Dexter’s experience of shame and humiliation have been like for him? It would have been amazing television to see him deal with that much feeling.

Ultimately, the show chose not to go that route and its reputation suffered because of those missed opportunities. And its last season was almost a debacle. Still, “Dexter” will go down in history as a show that was once truly groundbreaking and an exceptionally challenging drama. My God, we rooted for a serial killer for eight years. Dexter had us all breaking bad. Unfortunately, his ending just wasn’t any good. 

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