Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dexter (Seasons 6-8)

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, Aimee Garcia, Geoff Pierson, Lauren Velez, James Remar, Colin Hanks, Edward James Olmos, Josh Cooke, Mos Def, Jason Gedrick, Katia Winter, Ray Stevenson,Yvonne Strahovski, Charlotte Rampling, Sean Patrick Flanery, Bethany Joy Galeotti, Darri Ingolfsson
Original Airdate: 2011-2013

Season 6: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 7: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 8: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                    Spoiler Warning: Following Review Contains Major Spoilers for the Entire Series

It was with great apprehension I recently resumed my viewing of Showtime's Dexter after a nearly three-year hiatus, during which time the series reached its highly controversial, much malig conclusion. It was time well spent, discovering Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the former being its closest thematic competitor in terms of featuring an anti-hero engaging in criminal activity that destroy the lives of those closest to him. It's a comparison that would seem to do Dexter no favors, despite it actually premiering first in 2007, since settling into a satisfying, if slightly predictable routine for its next five seasons, its quality remaining relatively consistent throughout. But whatever surface similarities may exist, Breaking Bad is the pinnacle of television drama. Dexter is Dexter. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dexter opening title card
Having now actually binged it, it's a pleasure to declare that the final three seasons are as good (if not better) than much of what came before and the inexplicably reviled finale is a more than worthy show closer, ranking amongst the more intriguing dramatic finales of recent years. It's as gutsy as it is tragic, capping of a spectacular run of episodes under new showrunner Scott Buck, who followed through on promises to take the series in a different direction and shake things up. The series digs as deep as it ever has into Dexter's past and the creation of his Dark Passenger. With the big secret finally exposed to his sister and the introduction of some pivotal new faces, the lid gets completely blown off the series, resulting in a bloodbath that alters (or in some cases ends) characters' lives. This is what fans wanted, so it only figures once they get it, the complaining starts.

What really scared me away was all the internet bellyaching about how the show took a creative nosedive in its final seasons, a claim proven to not only be false, but littered with spoilerish details (i.e. lies) reconfigured to fit that very argument. It was impossible to avoid them all, but I should have known better than to even listen. An incest storyline. The Miami Metro Police Department not catching Dexter. Deb dying. Dexter as a lumberjack. And let's not forget a series finale many have already proclaimed the "worst ever." It's a a phrase we heard before when Lost concluded and again this year when How I Met Your Mother wrapped. Hyperbolic statements like that immediately kick my skepticism into overdrive, and for good reason this time.

An entire year has passed for Miami Metro's blood spatter analyst/part-time serial killer of killers, Dexter Morgan (Hall) since the events of Season 5. He's looking into schools for infant son Harrison while sister Debra (Carpenter) is promoted to Lieutenant, which is due less to an endorsement of her abilities than the fact she's caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war between Captain Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and superior Tom Matthews (Geoff Pearson). As her relationship with detective and former partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington) collapses and she deals with reluctantly accepting a promotion originally reserved for friend and mentor Batista (David Zayas), Dexter has a pair of new enemies to take care of.

"Doomsday Killers" Travis Marshall and Professor Gellar
Say what you will about Season 6 (a questionably scripted premiere sees Dexter taking inexplicable risks for mere shock value), but it is one of the more focused, thematically coherent seasons. That theme centers around religion and spirituality, with Dexter investigating a pair of ritualistic "Doomsday Killers" (guest stars Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks), whose murders are drenched in apocalyptic symbolism and cryptic tableaus, just as he starts examining his own spiritual convictions. With his Dark Passenger guided by the hallucination of late father Harry (James Remar) and a new confidante in murderer-turned-minister Brother Sam (Mos Def), Dexter attempts to curb his urge to kill, or at least tries to make sense of its origins. He isn't successful, but it sets the stage for the succeeding seasons.

No sixth season episode better illustrates this moral conflict brewing inside him than "Nebraska," which sees him driving cross country to investigate the mysterious deaths of the wife and daughter of the Trinity Killer. Guided not by the hallucination of Harry, but of his late brother, Brian Mosier AKA The Ice Truck Killer (Christian Carmago), it's a detour, but an important one as he continues to infuriate Deb with his secrets and wrestle with his past. While the sixth season does hue closely to the series' familiar format and is slightly hurt by a twist that could adversely effect rewatch value, it's better than most give it credit for and features a genuinely creepy performance from Colin Hanks that's anything but a throwaway.  But this season is mostly remembered for one moment that in hindsight divides the entire series into two parts: Pre-reveal and post-reveal.

How Deb would eventually uncover Dexter's secret life and what her reaction would be was already intensely speculated on by fans years before it happened. And the writers really couldn't have waited any longer before finally pulling the trigger since doing so freed them up to deviate from the show's format and start telling a different story. Would she turn him in and leave a son without his father? Help cover up his murders? How can she she go to work each day as a police Lieutenant knowing her brother's a serial killer?

Dexter's secret is finally uncovered by Deb
Of course, few could have guessed all these questions surrounding Deb walking in on a Dexter kill would have been preceded by the realization (prompted by her psychologist) that she had fallen in love with her own brother. Other than to hammer home Deb's sordid history of falling for damaged men like him, I'd agree with those unsure what the writers were trying to accomplish with this, but we can least give them credit for backpedaling fast and not following through with it. Occupying only two or three episodes and presented as a more of a psychological undercurrent, it's hardly the "incest storyline" it's been referred to as, almost immediately pushed aside in the wake of Deb's discovery.

Already having growing pains in her new position as Lieutenant, it's fair to say she doesn't take the news that her brother's a serial killer all that well, naively thinking she'll be able to rehabilitate him and help control his urges. Despite worries they wouldn't go through with it, the writers don't hedge their bets and go all the way, fully incorporating Deb into Dexter's dark universe. She knows everything, even as he tries to placate her with his explanation of Harry's Code and defenses that those plastic-wrapped victims who end up on his kill table deserve their what's coming, having evaded the law and prepared to kill again. The scariest part of the series has always been how true Dexter's defense is, but what it doesn't explain is why he enjoys killing so much, or even at all.

There's a lot going on Season 7 between the big reveal, Dexter tangling with the Ukranian mob and LaGuerta closing in on his crimes, as Deb still struggles to come to terms with it all herself. His ongoing feud with crime boss Isaak Serko (guest star Ray Stevenson) would feel like filler as we wait for the other shoe to drop with LaGuerta, if not for Stevenson's cool and cunning performance, but the entire story arc still brings back unfortunate memories of Miguel Prado from Season 3. But the  mob storyline does provide an excellent showcase for the continued downfall of Quinn, who must break some kind of record in terms of how much drinking, corruption, tampering and sleeping with witnesses one officer can engage in while not only keeping his job, but eventually being up for a major promotion. Whether he's taking payoffs from a strip club owner (Jason Gedrick), stealing evidence, or sleeping with a stripper (Katia Winter), you're aghast at how this guy is even still alive and not in rehab, much less following leads on big cases. He can thank Deb, Batista and eventually even Batista's sister (and Harrison's incredibly patient nanny), Jamie (Aimee Garcia) for keeping him on the straight and narrow.              

Yvonne Strahovski as spree killer Hannah McKay
With already enough plot for multiple seasons, it's the introduction of another killer, Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski) that ends up shaping the remainder of the series and Dexter's emotional development. Finding the perfect match in a like-minded psychopath, he appears to have found the one person who finally understands his urges and accepts him for who he is. Unlike Julia Stiles' Lumen from Season 5, this isn't the single season, "one and done" guest arc we've gotten used to and those only familiar with Strahovski from Chuck will be surprised how chillingly she exudes a vacant,  cold detachment in the role, while still keeping Hannah stable enough to remain a viable long-term candidate for Dexter's affections. The only question is whether he's willing to risk the safety of his sister and son to enter a serious relationship with someone as potentially dangerous as he is.

The bumbling ineptitude of the Miami Metro police department has always been the show's creative Achillies' heel, as it was always tough to buy that they wouldn't have figured it all out by now, especially considering Dexter's increased sloppiness in covering his tracks. And it's that carelessness that points a suspicious LaGuerta in his direction.The image of Dexter being brought into Miami Metro in handcuffs as the Bay Harbor Butcher with his dumbfounded colleagues looking on ranks up there with the shocking moment John Lithgow casually walked into police headquarters to pay someone a visit. Of course, it doesn't take long for Dexter to play the victim card, successfully painting LaGuerta as a raving lunatic trying to frame him. But she won't give up that easily. While the seventh season finale could easily double as a series finale with Deb literally forced to choose between her brother and the life she's built for herself. Of course, she'll always choose Dexter.

Having Deb kill off LaGuerta was one of the best creative decisions they made, eliminating a character who had outstayed her welcome while sending Deb down a self-destructive rabbit hole for which Dexter's responsible. Season 8 belongs to Jennifer Carpenter, with the actress giving the performance of her life as Deb's self-loathing and seething resentment toward Dexter pushes her off the deep end. Regardless of what's been said about the final season, there's no way around the fact Carpenter was robbed of an Emmy nomination, even amongst the stiffest of competition. She's asked to play an entirely different character than previous seasons, so stung by her own actions that she's descended into an abyss of drugs, murder and sex.

Deb and Elway on the job
This all occurs under the guise of her new career for Elway Investigations, run by former detective Jacob Elway (Sean Patrick Flanery), who at first seems to merely be a slick used car salesman type. It's a surprise when he turns out to actually be a cool guy and an extremely fair boss, but a bigger one when Deb's allegiance to Dexter starts getting in the way of business, both personal and professional.  Bounty hunting and skip tracing would seem to be quite the fall from being Lieutenant of Miami Metro, but it fits Deb, a tough, foul-mouthed cop who was always more comfortable with the grunt work of active duty than dealing with red tape and politics. But this is really to escape, from Dexter and her guilt over killing LaGuerta to protect him.

The writers' willingness to reveal exactly how Dexter came to be at the risk of demystifying him elevates the final season into its strongest since the fourth. And it makes sense that there's no better person to do this than a criminal psychologist. Played by Charlotte Rampling in one the series' most rewarding guest arcs, Dr. Evelyn Vogel is initially brought in to help Miami Metro catch the "Brain Surgeon," a new serial killer removing pieces of victims' brains and leaving them at her doorstep. But she's really there for Dexter, as his surrogate mother figure who had a hand in creating him and the infamous Code. Now she desperately needs his help and protection.

Dexter's complicated relationship with Vogel hinges on her frequent inability to see him as anything more than a lab rat or a Frankenstein's Monster she created as the "perfect psychopath," unable to control his urges, but fine tuned to channel them in a direction that would cause the least amount of collateral damage.Her insistence that he's incapable of empathy, love, remorse or any other feelings associated with a normal, functioning human being is tested with Hannah's return and the responsibility he must take for essentially destroying Deb's life. For the first time, the siblings are at each others throats, with Dexter seriously contemplating his future as he plays a cat-and-mouse game with the mysterious Brain Surgeon, who proves to be his most dangerous adversary since Trinity.

Dexter confronts Dr. Vogel
Coldly robotic and almost Terminator-like in his presence (while being deeply obsessed with Mama Cass' "Make Your Own Kind of Music"), the reveal of who the Surgeon actually is and his purpose proves to not only be an absorbing look into the mind of a stone cold killer, but a bona fide shocker that actually makes sense in the context of the narrative. Besides leaving a trail of deaths, who he eliminates is important and personal, calling Dexter into action for reasons beyond merely the thrill of the kill. This time it feels like his moral duty. We also get the opportunity to see Dexter as a mentor, attempting to take a troubled young man under his wing afflicted with the same dark demons as he. But that project is short-lived, in more ways than one.

With LaGuerta gone and Batista, Quinn and Matthews taking on more prominent roles, Miami Metro isn't portrayed as incompetently as before, with even resident laughing stock Masuka (C.S. Lee) being given a somewhat serious sub-plot that subverts and challenges the character's loony reputation as a perverted horndog. And the writers knew something we didn't, as a long-term term plan was apparently put in place for Quinn that only comes into full view when the series concludes, as he becomes a rock for Deb when she needs someone most. Aside from Carpenter, Harrington's the actor who's grown the most in the series, ending his run ten times the performer than when he started.

Too often, series finales are judged by what fans believe THEY want to see or think should happen based on their expectations, rather than what serves the characters and story. Perhaps in their ideal finale, Dexter would be fully exposed for his crimes, caught by the police and sentenced to death. That's the only explanation I can think of as to why so some were disappointed by "Remember The Monsters?," which not only serves as a fitting final chapter, but one those rare finales that deserve to be considered amongst the series' best episodes, closing the door, yet leaving it cracked open enough to contemplate future possibilities. Some finales tie a series up neatly in bow. Others shock and polarize. There's no question which category this falls into. Dexter technically "survives," but the spiritual death he suffers is far greater punishment than his actual demise would have been.

Dexter says goodbye to Deb
The bond he and Deb share has always been the glue that holds the show together and in the last episode it's permanently torn apart. Him being thrown in jail or even sent to the electric chair for his crimes would have been too easy. Having seemingly rid himself of his Dark Passenger and need for Harry's advice, he's prepared to start a new life with Hannah and Harrison, at least until the full magnitude of his actions finally catch up with him.

With a potential escape from Miami cleverly juxtaposed with the landfall of Hurricane Laura (Mosier?), Dexter's final scenes with Deb where he's forced to pull the plug on his sister are the most emotionally devastating of the series, only magnified by the fact few saw her death coming, especially given her state at the beginning of the episode. And it's all his fault. He knows this, which is why he has to protect Hannah and Harrison from this monster. His Dark Passenger. As long as that side of him exists, he knows they're not safe. Just as Debra wasn't.

Seeing Dexter Morgan as a bearded Lumberjack having faked his own death and living under an alias in an Oregon cabin, it's hard not to be reminded of the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, "Granite State," in which Walter White is hauled up in a New Hampshire cabin dying of cancer. But even he got to put things right to an extent. We leave Dexter trapped in his own personal hell, staring vacantly into the camera knowing he'll never see his son and sister again. Without them and Hannah, he's nothing.

Lumberjack Dexter in "Remember The Monsters?"
The ending is more poetic and ironic than it's gotten credit for and doesn't feel manufactured so Showtime can milk more Dexter with a spin-off. For all we know they eventually might, but it sure doesn't feel like the motivating factor for a creative decision that more than holds up under logical scrutiny. And Michael C. Hall probably has enough offers on the table that the idea revisiting a character he's just played for the past eight years wouldn't be enticing. Could it happen? Absolutely, but it would take a lot of ingenuity to make it work.

That any continuation of the series is even being speculated is proof enough how compelling an end this was for the character and should silence dissenters claiming everything that came after Season 4 was "worthless." One can only hope the cast and crew tuned it out, especially Hall and Carpenter, who for 8 years carried this show on their backs. Everyone can agree their work never wavered. But   they couldn't have done it without an equally strong story driving them.              

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