The arrival of the final season of Dexter was not the most auspicious of events. Coming in the same year as Breaking Bad’s denouement, there were inevitable uncomplimentary comparisons between a series that even it’s kinder critics thought had outstayed its welcome by several years and one that concluded at the height of its powers. For me Dexter peaked with Season Four, but I have no problem defending the (disappointing to many) fifth year, and Season Seven managed a rallying charge after the crippling misstep that was Season Six. Unfortunately the final year, while never quite descending to the quagmire of casting Colin Hanks as a serial killer, manages to consistently fluff decent ideas and is stranded listless by its lack of forward momentum. Worse, it delivers a final episode so shoddy that the season as a whole becomes a retrospective train wreck; Six at least managed a striking cliffhanger.
Empire magazine gave the final run a hugely snubby one star, which can only identify a series as actively terrible. I’d suggest few series (that were any good in the first place), even past their peak, fall into the territory of abject disaster. Season Six, even at its nadir, is fairly passable entertainment; it just doesn’t stand up in terms of the series as a whole. So too, most of the final run. It grasps hold of a strong central theme but keeps botching the batch. I hadn’t been aware of the general reaction to the series until dipping my toe online over the past few days. Dexterwasn’t a show that brought out the fan in me, so maybe it’s on those grounds that I’ve found the responses a tad on the strong side. It wasn’t a great series, but apart from the finale, was it really that bad? I guess I’m not invested enough in the show as a whole to see the final year as a travesty. In contrast, the final episode of Lost (which is more deeply disappointing than actively terrible) had a far more profound effect. That was a series I cared about, but in the final analysis it was revealed to be profoundly shallow (which the more discerning, distanced critics, had been proclaiming nearly from the first; I’d kept my fingers in my ears).
Ballsed-up denouement or not, there is definitely a whole load of pestilent plotting and meagre motivation throughout the final season. Repeatedly, strong ideas are clumsily executed. Added to this, the foes faced by Dexter are the of the least formidable variety, and lacking in charisma or distinctiveness. If you’re sending off your (anti-) hero, you should do it with a worthy opponent or two. In the early stages of the season I had a vague hope Dexter might face a compendium of super-killers, all former patients of Dr Vogel. A kind of Dexter Sinister Six. It might have been silly, but at least there wouldn’t have been much pause for reflection. That wasn’t to be, and by attempting to nurse a more considered “just” fate for its protagonist the writers expose their severe limitations.
In the best of previous years the sense of escalation and momentum (the first two years especially) was breathless. To such an extent that the holes in the plots were easy to ignore. There was a feeling that Dexter was permanently on the verge of being discovered, lending the series an abiding tension. Perhaps the most curious misstep of the last year is the glaring absence of any such vein of drama. The idea of Dr Evelyn Vogel, the Dr Frankenstein to Dexter’s semi-benign monster, is a sufficiently strong one and, in other circumstances, might have ensured a fitting send off for the character. Charlotte Rampling was a good casting choice, and she does her best to lend Vogel an enigmatic quality.
Unfortunately she’s scuppered by a characterisation that makes her field of Hollywood psychology appear only a few steps more advanced than Hitchcock’s frequently mirthful rendering of the practice in Spellbound. Her “insights” are mostly banal, and Dexter – who if nothing else over the previous seven years has announced a clarity and perceptiveness through the voiceover monologues that marble the show – is frequently made to look unnaturally foolish by listening to her. Of course, there’s the argument that the realisation of his unnatural mother has shaken up his world. Plus, the idea that he is “more than a mere psychopath” merits exploration if approached in any other than the inept, sign-posted manner of Vogel’s pronouncements. And the need to keep Debs close, as she does everything to distance herself from him, has shaken the foundations of his world. But if you’re going to attempt to breathe substance into those ideas you need to do more than pay lip service to them or drop them when you have “better” plot lines to introduce.
Part of the attraction of the first few episodes was the possibility that Vogel herself was behind the brain removals; it felt like an obvious solution and therefore one the writers would probably be unable to resist. That they didn’t go that route might have been the only surprise I encountered during the run. At least Rampling as the mastermind would have been a worthy arch-villain. But the writers didn’t have anything of equal weight to her. Even having Dexter suspect her might have been something. Instead, we were given an ultimately tiresome interplay whereby Dexter becomes the estranged teenager, continually absconding then returning to his absent parent. If Vogel’s “psychaitrist’s chair” manner fails to convince, her weak-willed parenting when confronted by her long lost son beggars belief. I don’t doubt that the writers’ argument is her piercing insights fall by the wayside when faced with emotional truths, but did she have to be made quite so ineffectual? She falls apart, and the most distinctive new character of the season (almost entirely down to Rampling) is immolated.
It didn’t help any that, since the latter stages of the sixth season, poor Debs has never recovered as a character from being forced into an inexplicable yearning for her foster brother. More than anything, this may have broken the back of the show. I like the character of sweary Debs, and Jennifer Carpenter is a good actress, but she’s been hamstrung into having her world revolving around Dexter when previously she was an independent spirit. Our first glimpse of her, hitting the substances in her role as a private detective, was a fresh and considered approach to dealing with the fall out from the Season Seven cliffhanger. But after that her development goes from okay to total destruct. After two episodes of her being a waster she’s becoming a bit of a bore but, even worse, the therapy sessions she receives from Vogel are the kind of thing old Debs would have had zero time for, especially as their miraculous success in reuniting brother and sister makes you wonder how much bullshit the writers thought we’d swallow (along the way there’s the amusing “attempt to drown Dexter” incident; amusing for all the wrong reasons). But the flip-flop of “I hate you and I can’t stand the sight of you” to “How will I survive with you in Argentina?” over the course of a mere few episodes takes some swallowing (as does Dexter’s opposite dependency direction).
If the supporting characters are generally undernourished in this run, the attention Debs receives does her character little service. The choices of the last couple of episodes make sense on paper; as the character that deserved a ray of hope, cutting it from under her and leaving Dexter still standing makes a perverse sense. That he should be punished for making a positive choice even more so. But the detail of this map is completely skewed; Debs turned into a cabbage off screen, her fate told by a tearful Joey? Dexter given a dopey deathbed moment before taking her out to sea? The delivery is all wrong. A series that had been so tonally sure of itself careers off the rails and ends up looking faintly ridiculous. The overcooked CGI of the oncoming storm doesn’t help matters either (Steve Shill, who has done solid work over the years on series including Deadwood, Rome and The Wire, completely drops the ball).
Dexter was always as much about the (reflection of the) prey as the hunter, so it’s a shock to find so little of either in the last year. The only memorable aspect of serial killer Yates (Aaron McCusker) is the appealingly goofy manner of his demise (skewered through a bed by a curtain rail). Actually, although I said Vogel was the most distinctive new character of the season, it’s probably Zach Hamilton (Sam Underwood). While his is the classic example of getting rid of a character before they have fulfilled their potential, Zach’s exuberant, upbeat version of the Dexter’s moody murderer was a breath of fresh air. Indeed, Zach’s probably there somewhere if there’s a genuinely funny scene during Season Eight (he even nearly makes the clumsy, telegraphed line “Are we there yet?” in the episode of the same title bearable).
As I say, I’m not au fait with Dexter fandom, so I hadn’t realised that Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski) had found disfavour. I liked her in Season Seven, and there was good chemistry between Hall and Strahovski. But in Eight they reintroduce her with nothing (interesting) for the character to do. The one aspect of Dexter’s changing disposition I almost bought into was that the discovery of genuine feelings for an individual was supplanting his bloodlust. The problem is, again, that it is translated in such a clueless manner. You can’t maintain a viewer’s respect if every choice draws attention to lazy construction and motivation (so of course Dexter leaves Oliver Saxon in the operating chair rather than does the sensible thing and ensure Debs is safe; it’s not that he decides he doesn’t need to kill that’s the problem – even though this is introduced with insufficient forethought – but that it’s accompanied by “No, don’t go in there! Look about behind you!” moronic plotting).
Hannah’s only good scene in the season is her first, where she has drugged Dexter and Debs. Everything else is tiresomely reactive, borderline damsel-in-distress. From the too brief appearance of Julian Sands to the dogged pursuit by The Shield’s Kenny Johnson (does he have bad luck with characters meeting nasty ends or what?) And then there’s the tiresome rush to the ER when Harrison cuts his chin. Of all the things the final season might have become, the least expected was a domestic disaster. It seems like half the season was spent planning a trip to Argentina. I won’t even go there with regard to Hannah’s basic inability to change her appearance as a means to avoid the clutches of the law; maybe Strahovski refused to muss with her lovely blonde locks?
Former Young Indiana Jones Sean Patrick Flanery’s slightly sleazy tec Jacob Elway had the potential to become a decent adversary, in that he’s the only character with sufficient (intentional) irritation factor to build up a dislike towards. So why the writers didn’t realise what they had and ensure there was a nasty fate in store, I don’t know.
There was absolutely noting distinctive about series foe Oliver Saxon (Darri Ingolfson). I don’t think Ingolfson did anything wrong, he just had nowhere to goi with the part. Intentionally appearing early on as a piece of misdirection and then, when he appears, nursing an all to familiar fixation with the mother who abandoned him, there was never the time to turn him into a foe of substance. And the DNA match twist had appeared way earlier, to superior effect. I did like the swift, tidy final dispatch Dexter visits on him but it hardly makes up for predictability of what went before.
The other regulars were almost reckless disregarded. Joey (Desmond Harrington) had the glimmerings of a case when he was in pursuit of Zach, but he was relegated to romantic tribulations with Aimee Garcia and her body double. David Zayas is a big roly-poly pile of inconsequence, while poor C.S. Lee was finally given a proper subplot but it turned out to be a shit one (his daughter Niki -Dora Madison Burge – is introduced). There was at least a larger role for James Remar as Harry Morgan but even then his vanishing because he is no longer needed was strangely perfunctory. Like most of the season, the writing and realisation were at best a little off and at worst tipped over into a crevasse.
As for Dexter’s fate as an Oregon lumberjack with a glue-on beard, my first thought was that they writers were inspired by Man of Steel. If inspired is the word. I don’t know. He’d really leave his son – who meant everything to him – because he felt responsible for losing Debs? The best I can summon is a shrug; that’s the best they could come up with? Perhaps it was a case of low expectations; series of late have tended to end on greater or lesser missteps so I’m somewhat inured. I assume disappointment. By struggling to come up with a profound place for Dexter to finish, the writers succumbed to the most facile of options. In the end, there isn’t even the gentle let down of Hall’s reassuring voiceover (his steady delivery can make even the most stodgy dialogue palatable). I referred to the finale as a train wreck but, for all its impact, it’s more like falling off your bike and grazing your knee. A momentous episode shouldn’t leave the viewer underwhelmed and unaffected.
Dexter Seasons Ranked: