I came a bit late to Dexter. Season Two had gone by, and the raves I was hearing didn’t really sway me towards investigatin in a series that had a serial killer as its protagonist. Surely it would be relentlessly grim and unsavoury? I’m glad I took the plunge because, while it isgarnished with the prerequisite tits, violence and swearing of a US cable show, it is possessed of an enduring wit and intelligence that have made it remarkably durable; despite of a formula that should have worn very thin very quickly.
While it’s surely a coincidence, the fact that both this and Breaking Badfeature covertly criminal lead characters closely affiliated with the police is a significant pointer to the heightened milieu both have created. There’s never any mistaking either for something approximating the real world but, by keeping the “reality” of its characters emotional journeys close to its chest, each series has exerted a vice-like grip on its plotlines and ensured a dedicate audience. The issue both now face is sustainability of premise. No one is mistaking the events depicted for something that might happen in the real world, but there needs to be internal consistency in order to maintain audience suspension of disbelief. Dexter has gone on for longer, and has sailed much closer to the wind with its succession of kills and killers. The further it drifts from resolution, the more problematic become the repetitions and the closer it sails to formula and away from the originality that so marked it out in the first place.
Ideally, Dexter would probably have told its story in three or four seasons. Most fans would tell you the first couple of runs were the best, although there’s a strong argument for Season Four being the series’ peak (its certainly the strongest in my view). It seemed as if the series let the cat out of the bag far too early, with the front-ended drama of Dexter’s past and his brother in the first season and the tightening of the screws as Doakes doggedly pursues his man during the second.
As a consequence, the third run felt merely solid (with Jimmy Smits as the guest nemesis). Then the ante was upped again with John Lithgow as the ultimate serial killer reflection of Dexter the following year. It was a series-changer, with the departure of Julie Benz (admittedly, I never found Rita an especially compelling character, but the series finale is a gut-puncher). It was also the last year with Clyde Phillips as showrunner, and the perceived drop in quality of the subsequent seasons has been attributed to his absence.
I went into Season Five with lowered expectations but, after a patchy start, it proved to be one of my favourite runs; if Johnny Lee Miller couldn’t compete with arch-villains of previous years, the plotline and character of Lumen (Julia Stiles) seemed like a perfect way to expand Dexter’s dimensionality. But Season Six really did turn out as a soggy dog’s dinner; even with the amount of forewarning I’d received. The “big bad” may have had a half-decent twist, but the character was slightly silly and underwhelming (Colin Hanks – the casting may be a signpost, but Dexter needs someone of equal presence to square off against). Worse, Debra’s discovery of her “true” feelings for her adopted brother seemed like the most unwise of Scully/Mulder developments, particularly as it wasn’t something anyone was clamouring for (was it a result of the real life relationship between Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter?) It left the series struggling for dramatic integrity, and it was only Debra’s final moments discovery of Dexter’s true identity that saved it from being something of a write-off. A number of the previous seasons had resolved major plot threads in the penultimate episode, or the early section of the final one, allowing something of an epilogue to take place. Four and Six stand out for ending with series-changing high drama.
Season Seven is certainly a massive improvement on Six. Structurally, I don’t think the whole is as well integrated as some of the past efforts and occasionally the liberal spattering of villainy comes across as slightly piecemeal. Some interesting choices are made with Ray Stevenson's character, who at first sight appears to be the major antagonist of the season but turns out to be all about perceived threat. As ever, the series uses its bad guys to mirror Dexter, and Isaac Sirko’s acts are motivated by passion. He isn’t fuelled by a demon, and doesn’t conform to the typical template of the series (he leaves a minimal body count and he is very far from being a serial killer). Indeed, he turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic, and Stevenson makes the most of a much more urbane role than his usual typecasting; Dexter’s discovery of love is verbalised by Isaac’s insight into it. But the knock-on of his slightly less dynamic behaviour is that this plot thread drifts out of view as early as the 10th episode, pulling into focus the relationship dramas that have been at the core of this run. It means that filler such as the arrival of Hannah’s father (Jim Beaver) is obviously just that.
Yvonne Strahovski makes an instant impression as Hannah McKay, whom Dexter finds himself simpatico with when he realises he doesn’t have to hide his true nature from her. She’s a killer too (just not a serial one), and accepts his dark passenger (albeit disputing his label and pointing to it as an aspect of him, which goes towards a general interrogation of the principals by which he has survived). Strahovski makes Hannah an equal whereas, for example, Dexter was very much the mentor figure to Lumen.
One of the main features of the season is that Dexter is exposed like never before; Hannah knows who he is, LaGuerta is actively investigating him, and most of all he has to contend with Debs. Jennifer Carpenter seems to incite a fair bit of criticism from series fans, but I love her expletive-ridden performance. There are occasions during the first half of this season when she struggles with the character beats that the writers are clearly struggling with; how do they get Debs to a position where she accepts Dexter and the audience is convinced of the process she has gone through? I don’t think they were wholly successful while on the road, although I do buy into the destination.
The trouble is that, after the first couple of episodes, the mid-ground of the season flounders on her repeatedly getting furious with Dexter and asking what sort of person he is/covering up for him etc. Manouevring her to a point where she wants Dexter to “do his thing” is telegraphed at best and outright clumsy at worst (killer for a couple of episodes Ray Speltzer). Thanks to Carpenter you do buy that she takes the course of action she does because she loves her brother.
But there’s a definite feeling of, midway through the run when she admits to Dexter that she is in love with him, the writers apologetically admitting that, yes, they really went there with that last season didn’t they. They’d clearly rather forget about it but know they can’t sweep it under the carpet. At least, that’s my explanation of their reticence with the subject (no doubt partly steered by audience reaction to it). Debs doesn’t need the excuse of being besotted with her brother to justify not shopping him; the tie of them only having each other as siblings is much stronger than that (as Dexter expresses at one point). At least they didn’t encourage Dexter to reciprocate; indeed the relationship with Hannah couldn’t be a more effective kibosh on such a possibility.
Her antagonism towards Hannah makes sense, even if it weren’t based on amorous feelings for her brother, so I was half expecting the revelation that she had poisoned herself in order to induce Dexter to turn in Hannah. I can see why they didn’t do that (but I bet they considered it) given the final sequence of the season, as it would have unnecessarily doubled-up her dabbling with the dark side.
Reigniting the Bay Harbor Butcher inquiry on LaGuerta’s part initially seemed to be a bit of a tired move, but as the plotline progresses it more than justifies itself (I liked how what appears to be a terrible example of convenience from the scripters – the release of Hector Estrada – is nothing of the sort). It adds to the feeling that Dexter can no longer hide (it is only the sure-toned voice over of Hall that encourages any sense of comfort as tensions escalate) and builds to a point where Debs chooses Dexter over what is morally right. The final tracking shot as they arrive at Batista’s party sets the mood for the final act rather than leaves you on the edge of your seat. Will Debs go to pieces, or be able to live with what she has done?
Lauren Vélez has been saddled with the most unsympathetic of characters throughout the run, such that even in her final scene you aren’t coming down on her side (one of the best tricks the writers know – as with Breaking Bad – is pushing the buttons of the audience so that you root for the bad guy). At least she gets a strong plot thread for her final appearance in the series (nice to see Eric King back for some flashbacks in the last episode too). Desmond Harrington (Quinn) and David Zayas (Batista) aren’t nearly as well served. Indeed, although Quinn’s continuing storyline of an infatuation with a stripper is a sizeable one, it’s almost entirely clichéd and one-note.
I wouldn’t like to speculate on the closing stages of the series, but I expect the writers will rise to the challenge of finishing the Dexter on an appropriate note. I’d have been far less sure of that following Season Six. Hannah McKay will definitely be back (in the last half of the run) and I’m looking forward to seeing how Charlotte Rampling (as a shrink) fits in. A series’ reputation hinges on how it finishes, no matter what peaks it achieves on the way (just look at Lostand The X-Files to see how it can all fall apart) so I don’t think anyone will be resting on their laurels.