(Warning – spoilers ahead for anyone who isn’t keeping up with BOTH Dexter and Breaking Bad.)
While Breaking Bad continued to BRING IT in last night’s penultimate episode, leaving viewers counting the hours until the finale ,and anticipating fireworks that could take out the entire city of Albuquerque and its environs, Dexter ended not with a boom but with a meh.
Why did Dexter peter out while Bad burns?
There are a whole bunch of reasons why Breaking Bad is simply a better show, and certainly going out after five tight seasons is better artistically than ending after at least one too many, but mostly the problem with Dexter was a lack of self-awareness, an ignorance of its own nature.
It’s charm was in its ridiculousness. It wasn’t just the premise – a “good” serial killer. It was the execution. Breaking Bad had a pretty far-fetched premise as well – middle aged nerd becomes a drug kingpin and then retires, having amassed $80 million dollars in just a little over a year. Yet, Bad always weighted itself in the reality and complexity of its characters. While it could go for the occasional laugh, it was clear, certainly by the time we watched Walt watch Jane choke on her own vomit, that a tragedy was unfolding.
But what was Dexter? Go back to Season One and you’ll see something near satire. A cynical look at Miami, or Dahmerland, as Dexter so aptly put it. It was a comic book with Dexter having near super-strength and an unfailing ability to get the bad guys. The “on the table” dialogue with the soon to be dispatched bore no resemblance to real end of life conversations. And this was a good thing. It kept us emotionally detached from the horror. There was Dexter telling a pedophile priest/killer of altar boys, that “I’d never do what you do. I have standards,”or seeking relationship advice from a couple who killed together and didn’t seem especially upset to die together. The kills became increasingly bizarre as the seasons progressed, including one with a makeshift “kill room” at Miami International Airport.
What hooked us early on was the humor, and there is nothing wrong with that.
The show used the talented Mr. Michael C Hall and his wonderful ability to make us identify and like whomever he is playing, whether it’s a humorless and long-suffering undertaker or a serial killer with a code. His Dexter was an everyman who worked in an office full of people who really don’t know the real him. Who doesn’t? He told us that everyone fakes emotions, he just fakes all of them. Who can’t identify with that?
At first, Dexter’s awkward courtship with Rita played like a satire on men from Mars/women from Venus. They just didn’t “get” each other. Nor did he get her kids. Again, except for the slicing and dicing of humans, Dexter is us.
Even Dex’ fantasies were mundane. He wished to be recognized for his secret good works in ridding Miami of its worst offenders. He longed for a Dexter Morgan Appreciation Day. Raise your hands please if you never wanted fa thank you for some good deed which no one ever even acknowledged.
But that initial charm and our identification probably couldn’t have sustained us for eight seasons. While the show was known for introducing interesting villains for Dex to have to bring down each season, the regulars were not so interesting, and the formula got old. Dexter’s potty-mouthed sister was the deepest supporting character, and she was mostly a girl-cop who cursed a lot. The cops couldn’t be too bright or they would have noticed the murderer in their midst. One, in fact, did notice and had to dispatched. Compare this to Breaking Bad where Walt is the protagonist, but Jesse, Skylar, Hank, Marie and even Flynn are strong characters who seems to have lives independent of the protagonist. None of them are stupid. We care about them in a way we never cared about the characters on Dexter.
While Dexter like all the modern classics was a serial, its seasonal arcs were more contained than those of other shows such as Breaking Bad, Lost,The Sopranos or even Mad Men. Yes, Season Six ended on a hell of cliffhanger (Deb’s discovery of Dex’s “true” identity), but most of the seasons could be watched individually without any need to have seen previous seasons. Each was different in tone.
Season One was the freshest and funniest. We were getting to know Dexter. He was different, even for an anti-hero, and we began to love him, especially when he chose his adopted sister the cop, over his blood brother. He does have standards.
The second season, with Doakes on Dex’s tail was almost Hitchcockian, except in Hitchcock, the protagonist would have been an innocent man being framed, not a guilty one, hoping to frame someone else. Dex’s ploys to get Doaks off his trail were often played for comedy, albeit comedy-suspense, and we were meant, again, to identify with Dex. We cared about what would happen, and what would happen could change things. Clearly, our hero would get away with it, but would have have to kill Doakes and break the code?
The answer was cheap and contrived. Dex didn’t have to choose, as Lila took care of the problem.
Season Three was weak (and I say that as a Jimmy Smits fangirl) – its only redeeming feature the courtship of Rita.
Season Four is thought by some to be the best. Certainly John Lithgow was fantastic. There was humor as well as a sense of danger and weirdness, but it ended in melodrama. It was a major tone shift from which the series never recovered. Rita’s death may have been shocking, but did anyone in the audience feel that loss as intensely as we cried out for Breaking Bad’s Hank? Did we scream at the television, causing our non-watching spouse to run out of the den asking us what was wrong?
Yet, her death, marked the beginning of the end. Suddenly, we were asked to not only care about a character who had mostly been comic relief, but to care about the consequences of Dexter’s antics.
Not only that, but making Dex a single dad presented many logistical issues and unlikelihoods.
Season Five was set months later.. Lumen brought back some life and humor. Who couldn’t love the matching kill outfits? When she left Dexter, we were both relieved to see her get out alive, but sad that our hero would once again be alone. If she’d stayed, and they’d become the family that kills together – or she had at least become the knowing spouse who occasionally covers up or acts as an accomplice – might that have been something new and exciting?
Season six was the worst. It wasn’t just the lameness of the woefully miscast Colin Hanks, or even the obviousness of the Sixth Sense plot device. It was generally mediocre writing and a feeling of filling time. Deb had to have known who was behind the curtain in the previous season finale. Her Season Six realization that she was “in love” with her brother seemed like a crazy plot contrivance to get her into the church so that she could “discover” him, and have a reason not to turn him in.
Introducing a new “love interest” in Season Seven also seemed tired, and Hannah was a hard character to love or trust. It strained even the credulity of the show’s world to believe that LaGuerta’s death would end her investigation of Dexter’s involvement in the Bay Harbor butcher case.
Season Eight was both the silliest and the least fun. Out of left field we are introduced to the possibly psychopathic Dr. Vogel – Dex’s “spiritual mother.” There was an opportunity here, a road not taken. We could have come to understand once and for all, that Dex was never what he thought he was, that he had been programmed, brainwashed. But that was never made clear. Instead what we got was some kind of mess with yet another seasonal nemesis with a personal grudge against Dex – Vogel’s “real” son. We saw something beyond a stretch when Deb takes in Hannah – a woman who poisoined Deb’s love interest because he was writing a book about her. We got what we’ve been getting, another case where if Dex had gone to the police with what he knew instead of trying to solve the case on his own, lives would have been saved. Meantime, Dex somehow unloaded his Dark Passenger. We weren’t given a great explanation for why the urge to kill dissipated so quickly after we were told for seven previous seasons that it would never leave him, but it might have had something to do with Hannah and “love.”
Deb dies. Why? Because. That’s why. It’s a finale and someone had to. And I bet no one felt half as much about it as the average Breaking Bad fan did at the climax of Ozymandias, or last night watching Jesse successfully get out of his cage, only to get caught by the fence, and punished in the worst possible way.
But then Dexter didn’t have to make us feel. Tragedy makes you feel. Comedy makes you think (and laugh). The problem with Dexter was inconsistency. It should have ended as it began – a creepy, suspenseful comedy, with an adult dose of irony and wit.
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