The twilight of the so-called ”anti-hero” has begun. Dexter is gone, put down after eight seasons (three of which were too many) by masters that finally realized that old age wasn’t doing this wheezy, arthritic dog any favors. We shed no tears, and not because we are as unfeeling as Dexter Morgan used to be: A listless and lazily plotted finale season made it very easy to bid him adieu. The wicked spark, the glint of devious irony — summed up by the smirk and conspiratorial glance that Dexter throws to camera in the credits sequence (I?m a sick serial killer playing hero! Can you believe this s–t?!) — had long faded. But we shall not easily forget him, and the finale’s last seconds, while far from cut-to-black provocative or go-into-the-light sentimental, contributed meaningfully to the ongoing conversation about morality and redemption that attends shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and they?re worth talking about, provided Dexter?s uninspired last years didn?t kill any desire to care.
We give the devil his due: Dexter was a cutting creation when he made his television debut on Showtime in 2006. Masterfully played by Michael C. Hall, Dexter was The Shadow for the Saw generation. He was a crazy, unforgiving form of justice, responding to a gone-crazy, unfair world. He was not just catharsis for the 9-11 horror show and ‘the justice system doesn’t work’ wah-wah. He was catharsis for a school of post-modern thought that is deeply dissatisfying even if it might be correct, one that says that evil doesn’t lurk in the hearts of men, only psychological damage. Dexter passed judgment on that perspective each time he stripped his victims bare, forced them to loom at the faces of the lives they destroyed, and then executed him.
But he was a hypocrite. Dexter was all psychological damage, forever acting out like petulant arrogant self-absorbed self-justifying teenager. (At least he kept his room neat.) Dexter was a product of trauma. He was taught to believe the worst about himself by a father figure terrified by certain tendencies. He was imprinted with a ”code” that meant to tame and train perverse urges but really just cultivated a synthetic, twisted persona. Dexter?s series journey was teaching him by degrees that he should and could shed his bogus, noisy ”dark passenger” crowding his head, that he could transform his consciousness and character. Yet he betrayed his own doubts and cynicism about his success by refusing to give grace to his victims and allow them shots at redemption. Doing do would crash an operating system that seemed to work, that offered its rewards (the visceral, sensational pleasure the slay! like a drug! like cutting!), even as it enslaved him and degraded him. His final fate might have been averted has he made these connections earlier. Oh, well.
Dexter was an outrageous vigilante in a decade enamored with the archetype. With its bright colors and dark shadow, dark humor and quips, grotesque villains, wild plotting and pulp sensationalism, the show more artfully brought comic book sensibility to television than most comic adaptations. Other critics apparently have a problem with the very notion that Dexter’s writers would draw inspiration from superhero comics to construct Dexter’s character. I liked this choice because it made the show a sly comment on the culture, not just another product of it. Dexter himself also seemed to be a good-natured poke at consumers of the freaky and geeky stuff. A nerdy analyst with a horror fanboy appreciation for the spectacle of blood splatter? A socially awkward, emotionally challenged man-child with a violent imagination and an ironic self-regard? Sounds like your stereotypical geek. Interesting, then, that his series arc was basically, reductively, about ”a guy that just needs to grow up, already.” Was Dexter saying that we kinda need to grow up, too? 21st century cable TV pulp pop: The new ”Ten Cent Plague?” A question for Dr. Frederic Wertham, perhaps. Dexter was all of us who like to wallow in blood and guts, whether we wanted to admit it or not. The wink that Dexter threw at us in those credits was also saying: You know you want it.
For awhile, it seemed like Dexter could thrive for years if it carefully nurtured to its best relationship ? Dex and sister Debra, his salty grounding and emotional support system (Jennifer Carpenter, always present and engaged) ? and kept the great, well-cast villains coming. Dexter?s equally messed-up but codeless brother, Brian (Christian Camargo), The Ice Truck Killer. Lila Tournay (Jaime Murray), a sociopath desperate to feel. Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow), the Trinity Killer, forever trapped in a rut of rehearsing past evil as a means of maintaining a sense of control over his life. Most of these rogues were riffs on the fear of change or intimacy, souls willfully stuck in the past, actively choosing retardation over progress. Jimmy Smits? Miguel Prado may not have been the most colorful of the villains but he might have been the most relatable and relevant in his portrait of regression — idealism to cynicism, lawman to vigilante, Harvey Dent to Two Face. Still, Dexter didn’t have many different stories to tell. Season 2 was its most artfully realized, cohesive statement; by the end of season 3, it had run out of new things to say. It kept on keeping on, anyway.
Still, the concluding season should have been more compelling than it was. It began with a pair of promising storylines. The first concerned Deb’s despair over killing Captain LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) to protect Dexter’s secret, an angst that morphed into a desire to punish Dexter for his sins and herself for her own. But following a failed attempt at murder/suicide, Deb’s storyline took a 180 turn that never felt credible: By the end, she had come to accept Dexter for what he was and was telling him things like ”I don?t want you to feel guilty about anything. You were meant to be happy so go f—ing be happy.” She made a series of choices in the last couple episodes that made no sense except to extend a plot designed to give Dexter a final test of character. First, the policewoman too gamely permitted Dexter to murder The Brain Surgeon (Darri Ingolfsson), the season’s big bad, an almost arch construction of gleefully vengeful evil. Second, after Dexter realized he didn’t need to kill and decided to let the justice system do its job, Deb left The B.S. unattended, and of course, The B.S. escaped. The B.S. shot her, and she died in the finale after Dexter — convinced she’d never recover from her injures, never fully return to her true self — took her off life support, and metaphorically, removed the support system for his life. But who cares? The scene was disappointing for not making me feel anything. Hall looked like he was going through the motions, not show emotions; and anyway, the story had nothing to earn the moment. If Dexter was banking on our accrued affection to get us to cry, they underestimated the cost of too many whiplash character turns and storytelling cheats: Deb and Dexter/Deb became too incoherent to care about by the end.
In the other season long storyline, this one slightly better realized, Dexter learned that the code that stepdad had instilled in him has actually been developed by a psychologist, Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), who specialized in treating serial killer pathology. Her work had produced bunches of high functioning yet hopelessly flawed psychos, and I chose to view her as commentary: we are a culture awash with monsters, that has romanticized or rationalized or explained away monstrosity. The early part of the season sent Dexter on a mission to clean his city of Dr. Vogel’s past patients in pursuit of one in particular who was still killing and might be hunting her. Again: meta? Was Dexter saying: Time to clean the culture of these characters/characterizations? The storyline evolved to give Dexter and Dr. Vogel temptations to go off mission. Dexter took on a protégé named Zach (Sam Underwood) — a fanboy with psychotic tendencies — and envisioned passing on code and vigilante franchise to him. Dumb idea, and the aptly named Brain Surgeon put an end to it by killing Zach with a power tool lobotomy. Meanwhile, Dr. Vogel learned that The B.S. was her own assumed-dead son. She couldn’t bring herself to sanction his murder, then realized he was beyond saving.
On the whole, this was a compelling if bumpy arc, and it set up Dexter’s endgame: The Brain Surgeon murdered Dr. Vogel right before his eyes, just as the drug lords murdered Dexter?s birth mother and made him and his brother watch. The Vogel arc basically functioned as regression therapy for Dexter: it allowed him to access the creation myths that forged him and then rewrite them, thus giving him control over his life, making himself into give man he wanted to be, and completing his journey to maturity. He realized he didn’t need to and didn’t want to murder The B.S. per Harry?s code; with that, Dexter finally purged the pesky voice if his father (embodied by James Remar) from his head. In the finale, Dexter killed The B.S., anyway, but it was a very different kind of murder for him, and not just because he did it with a pen to the neck. It was vengeance for Deb’s death; it was personal; it was a measure of his humanization.
But this is not how Dexter saw it. He took his desire to euthanize Deb and destroy an evil man as proofs of his own immutable, unforgivable monstrosity. The dark knight who played pitiless judge, jury and executioner for his victims turned on himself. Or seemed to. He decided he did not deserve happily ever after with trophy lover Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski, largely wasted in her return appearance) and innocence incarnate son Harrison (Jadon Wells) in Argentina, that legendary haven for despicable mass murders and war criminals. He sailed out toward a raging storm about to swamp Miami as if submitting to furious judgment of higher powers… and instead, faked his death and sent himself into exile in a woodsy lumbertown. One last killing joke: Dexter gave himself a life sentence, not a death sentence. What mitigating factors did he decide earned him such mercy? Or did this hardened survivor simply lack the ability to commit suicide?
Regardless, Dexter fades to black wasting away toward death in the same way that he lived for years: As someone who pridefully operates outside and above the law, beyond the conscience of others, who knows and kneels to no authority except that of his own biased, self-serving invention. Here is the sum total of his batty Batman thinking. Here is a still life of moral cowardice. We left him with a bad Brawny Man beard and head full of quiet, looking to camera, no twinkle in his eye. Enjoy the silence, Dexter. You get what you decided you deserved. C-