GODDAMN: How ‘Dexter’ Got His Guts Back

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Warning: Multiple SPOILERS for DEXTER, including last night’s season 7 finale.

The first time I watched Dexter, I was kind of confused. Everyone loved it. It was a hit with critics. Its second season was a ratings smash for Showtime. Everyone sang its praises, applauding the show for pushing television’s boundaries with its serial killer hero. As someone who had loved Michael C. Hall in Six Feet Under, I was psyched.

Then I watched the first episode.

I didn’t hate the first episode Dexter. I just didn’t get the big deal. We are introduced to Dexter on a sweaty Miami night, getting ready to murder, in his words, “A killer of children.” The episode slammed it down our throats: Dexter is killing BAD people. The WORST people. EVIL, EVIL PEOPLE. Sure, Dexter took joy in strapping these people down and dissecting them… Actually, scratch that; that was book Dexter. TV Dexter tended to finish them off with one swift knife to the chest. No time for the audience to really ruminate on how fucked up Dexter’s actions were. The show packaged itself as edgy and transgressive, but what it actually delivered was a pretty typical, conservative vigilante narrative. Hell, having to watch Jack Bauer torture information out of people on 24 offered more moral ambiguity than watching Dex off the baddest of the bad.

Dexter 2 But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t love Dexter at first. To be blunt, the writing seemed awful. The villains announced their guilt in ways so obvious as to be laughable. The jokes all seemed to be awkward double entendre’s about how discussing Dexter’s everyday life activities also sounded like describing how he killed people. Every side character seemed to be a boring, one-dimensional joke that offered little to the plot: Maria is a bitch! Masuka is a perv! Rita is neurotic! Deb says fuck a lot! And Doakes is the most generic depiction of an angry black man imaginable! On top of that, all the moral ambiguity we were supposed to feel was bullshit – each week, we got a new, obviously guilty killer, and each week, we didn’t actually think twice about whether or not Dexter should give him the axe. Even in the first season’s finale, when Dexter’s brother challenges him with the Big Moral Idea that “You can’t be a killer and a hero too,” we shrug it off and go, “Yeah ya can, if ya do it like Dexter.” Geez, Ice Truck Killer, didn’t you ever read The Punisher?

So if the writing is bad, the characters are one-note, the plots are repetitive, and the questions of morality really aren’t questions at all, why the hell have I kept watching Dexter for seven years? Two reasons:

Dexter 5 1.) Michael C. Hall. If the cast of Dexter often float through the episodes, unenthused or overplaying the one trait their characters have, Hall made Dexter himself both a slick, slippery devil and an emotionally befuddled train wreck. You can thrill to his sadistic charm and wit as he literally and figuratively chops up the world around him, and you can identify with his clumsiness as his sociopathic self tries to navigate the ways people are “supposed” to act. He’s a character with a little something for everyone, presuming you’re a bit fucked up.

2.) Despite Dexter’s writers’ attempts to water down the show for even the most good-hearted of Middle America (it says something that people like my mom and dad watch Dexter in between The Good Wife, The Mentalist, and re-runs of Bones), its inherent weirdness occasionally manages to seep through. Sure, Dexter decides to murder the Ice Truck Killer in the end of season one, but does that make up for a whole season of Dexter’s perverse interest in him, happy to have ITK out there killing and killing again, as long as they can play their game? How about Dexter’s father allowing his daughter Deb to grow ever more emotionally screwed up, in order to take care of Dex and his killing compulsion? What about Dexter’s ongoing inner monologue in season 2 about whether or not he should murder an innocent Doakes in order to protect his own freedom (even if the show cops out far from pushing Dexter to the extremes of his morality)?

To me, though, the best moments of the show have been when Dexter completely flies off the handle. Strangling a potential pedophile with no evidence because he’s pissed that the guy took a picture of his kid. Kicking off season 5 with a mental breakdown that leads him to bludgeoning a guy to death in a bathroom with barely any reason. Or the moment when Dexter has to deal with the fact that he straight up killed an innocent man based on faulty evidence in season 4. Those are the moments Dexter lives up to its potential as a show that pushes us. A show that considers what it means to kill someone because you think it’s justified. Or reminds us Dexter doesn’t do these things because he’s “good” – ithe does it because he wants to.

Dexter 3 One thing that has stifled Dexter repeatedly throughout its run, though, is its dependency on returning Dexter to the status of “good guy.” Without more complexity, how do you make a long-running narrative out of someone whose sole purpose is pretty much to kill bad people? How long can you keep from repeating yourself? Dexter’s writers came up with some interesting ideas – Dexter branches out and finds a friend (season 3), Dexter wrestles with a reflection of who he might become (season 4), and have Dexter use his abilities as a killer to help/train a new killer (season 5). But despite these narratives, Dexter basically continued to do the same thing every week – question whether or not he should kill people, and then drug and kill them. Arguably, the show hit its biggest wall in season six, the season where Dexter was supposed to “take on religion.” Of course, ole’ middle-of-the-road Dexter had nothing much to say about religion, other than “it’s okay to kill violent religious zealots. But some religious people are nice. Especially if they’re Mos Def.” As someone consistently frustrated by Dexter’s conservatism – if Dexter could just settle down with the nuclear family that’s teaching him to love, and kill the bad people, all would be well! – I was ready to see the show take its knife to organized religions of all kinds. But it didn’t. It just went on with business as usual.

In Season 7, Dexter was supposed to tilt its whole world on its axis. Dexter’s sister Deb discovers he’s a killer. How the hell can the world go on? But even in that moment, the show couldn’t push the hard questions. Deb, despite being a homicide cops for years, suddenly realizes there’s evil in the world, and her big bro’s murdering ways may be completely justified. And Dexter relives a question asked in seasons 1, 2, 3 and 4 already – can a serial killer find someone to bond with without the whole thing going horribly, horribly wrong? The show gives us a little wiggle room with his new killer girlfriend, Hannah – she’s killed people because they’ve abused her, but she’s also killed people just, you know, ‘cuz – but as soon as we know that not all of her victims have been 100% guilty, we know what’s gonna become of her. That’s the corner Dexter’s ideology has put the show in. (We’ll skip how hilariously evident it has become that the writers have no idea with the show’s side characters anymore.)

Dexter 4 So how did Dexter turn that around in a single episode? First, as an individual episode, season 7’s finale may be the tightest, most tense fifty minutes the show has ever produced. With our knowledge that next season will be the last, with Maria closing in on Dexter, with Dexter questioning if he should utterly discard his principles, the show nails pacing like it never has before; we can only tremble as we guess as to how far the series is willing to impinge upon its conventional rules. With renewed purpose, we see Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter (Deb), Lauren Velez (Maria), and Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski (Hannah) throw themselves into their roles with a darkness and gravitas that’s long been absent of the show. We see Dexter’s questions about whether or not to kill Maria dive into an amorality that the show hasn’t engaged in years. And in the episode’s final moments, with Deb’s execution of Maria, the show rattles its audience to its core. Finally, viewers are actually given reason to think about the consequences of Dexter’s lifestyle. Instead of “bad guys deserve to die” we get “where does all this violence lead?” No one walks away from the season finale clean, the way you should have to experience a show about a serial killer.

You might argue that Dexter doesn’t have to be such a heavy show, that it’s better off as a slightly dark, but enjoyable riff on serial killers. And if I thought it ever managed to be particularly funny or intense in that mode, I might agree. But its critique of suburbia has always been lightweight stuff, Weeds with stabbings instead of drugs, and a lot less laughs. You can say that stuff about morality and controversy isn’t important to the show, but again, without that, Dexter’s just vigilante tough guy stuff, a repetitive 80’s revenge flick with a better actor in the lead. And then on the flipside, you might argue that this big, dark twist is all for naught – Dexter does tend to take its own narrative lightly, writing itself out of corners with barely any semblance of coherence or logic. But this time, it seems like the writers know what they’ve gotten themselves into. Dexter and Deb have done something dark, disturbing, and morally inexcusable; it’s going to turn all of the eyes of their broken, corrupt police headquarters on them; and Deb’s guilt is going to be eating away at them, forcing them to think about what they’ve done. If nothing else, it’s finally going to bring up questions about what happens when you try to murder your way into solutions. And when, or if, you stop trying to kill your way out of trouble. And that’s one hell of a way to bring this twisted show to the close it deserves

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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