Dexter: revisiting the highs and lows

At one stage, Showtime's Dexter was the best show on TV. A decade after it first aired, we revisit its extreme highs and lows...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This article contains major spoilers for Dexter.

Mention Dexter nowadays and you’d be hard pressed to get a response that isn’t either a snort of derisive laughter or an exaggerated eye roll. On the rare occasion that anybody does devote more than the briefest exhalation of breath on discussing that show, you might hear the word ‘lumberjack’ before more laughter and a hasty subject change. The fact is, in 2016, ten years on from the debut of Dexter’s first season, the show has become a punchline.

Lest I accidently give the impression that I’m bemoaning this fact, I’m really not; Dexter spent its twilight years doing everything in its power to squander all the goodwill built up from a superlative early run of seasons, turning itself into an embarrassment long before its laughable conclusion. It managed this through a succession of terribly judged plot developments, a total lack of anything in the realm of believability, and an apparent fear to ever do anything that might change the status quo too much, a crippling factor that lasted until the final episode that wasn’t all that final (just in case Showtime ever commissions that revival they’ve occasionally threatened). No, Dexter’s tepid reputation is thoroughly earned, but it’s hard not to feel a little sad about it when you consider how the show started and what it could have been.

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When talk about Dexter does extend to more than just mockery, you might get a ‘season four story’, an excitable rant about just where someone was when they burned through the near-perfect 2009 run and exactly how they reacted when they arrived at that twist ending. Misty eyed recollections about late nights and missed appointments due to an inability to stop watching are not uncommon, and with that season in particular arriving at a time when the ways in which we consume television were starting to change, I’ve often heard Dexter season four proudly touted as various people’s ‘first binge’. It was definitely mine.

And while season four more or less managed to remain unmarred by the derision that characterises discussion of Dexter today, people seem to forget how excellent what went before that was too. From the skin-crawling antics of the Ice Truck Killer to the escalating tension of Dexter’s chess game with Sergeant Doakes; seasons one and two were great TV and even the weaknesses of season three are easy to forgive considering what came after. At least Miguel Prado never uttered the word ‘tableau’. At least characters we had gotten to know and love as siblings weren’t suddenly positioned as potential romantic pairings. At least the prospect of the series endgame evoking a Monty Python song was still laughable.

Around the time of season four I remember reading an article that called Dexter the best show on TV, and honestly, that wasn’t too far off. The Wire had ended, The Sopranos was a distant memory, and Breaking Bad was only just hitting its stride. For one moment in the sun there, Dexter hit the sweet spot of being a critical darling and a popular hit. So what went wrong?

The truth is, the flaws that would bring Dexter down were present from the start, it just took a while for them to become obvious. A couple of easy escapes were forgivable and the lack of any real suspicion ever levelled at Dexter by his friends and loved ones was easy enough to ignore; after all, they would be saving those moments until later on.

A reluctance for the show to take a real side as to whether it thought Dexter’s actions were good or bad made sense too; the ambiguity and debates it invited were half the fun and again, rock solid consequences to his actions could wait until an eventual third act. And if the characters occasionally seemed a little eager to forget what should have been life-changing events? Well, the show had new and exciting territory to wade into. So what if Dexter and Rita ignored that Miguel Prado’s wife was their best friend or if Sergeant Doakes barely got mentioned again after his death?

Season four has a lot to answer for in some respects. The first signs of rot really started to creep in in season three, but a resounding success like the run that followed was enough to restore any waning trust and believe that whatever was coming next would be mind blowing; after all, how could the show possibly top Rita in the bathtub?

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Of course, in retrospect the automatic assumption that it could or would even try seems beyond naive. The truth is that Dexter’s premise was more or less exhausted by the time season four ended. Everything we could see this man/monster go through short of a fall had happened; the only real direction left to go was down. Rita’s death was the perfect catalyst too; definitive proof that Dexter’s actions had real, devastating consequences. Season four could have served as a respectable ending if the potential for what came next wasn’t so ripe.

If you think back to the first trailers for season five, the excitement felt by anyone watching was palpable. That early footage seemed to promise a spectacular and entirely logical next step; suspicion would fall on Dexter who, in the wake of Rita’s death, was more scattered and less morally stringent than ever before. Quinn would become a whole new threat, Deb would get pulled into the crossfire and the audience would be dragged on a terrifying, white knuckle roller coaster ride into hell.

Instead we got Lumen.

Imagine if season five had been the end. Imagine if the series had cashed all its chips and spent its final run tearing everything down. Or even used season five to build up to the moment of Deb discovering the truth and made season six the end. We might have looked back on the show as one to rival Breaking Bad. Instead Dexter made it clear that lasting consequences weren’t actually all that interesting to the creative team, or at least to the Showtime accountants desperate for another four years, and so instead we got a run of events designed to be tied off in a neat bow so that the next year the series could essentially start again. We got increased emphasis on the lives of the supporting cast, who started off as likeable and soon became tiresome as the show desperately tried to use their marriages and relationships and purchasing of restaurants as ways to bolster the increasingly stretched central storylines. And then, as it became more and more evident that there was not much left to do short of making some creative decisions that the show couldn’t come back from, the writers got desperate.

I remember the moment the show first hinted that Deb might have romantic feelings for Dexter. I remember being bemused and then, as it slowly dawned on me that it was actually a feasible thing that the series could do, scared then sad as I watched through my fingers at a development that made me feel more sick, uncomfortable and tense than anything involving the Trinity Killer. Characters we had grown to love, characters so well drawn and well performed, were bent and twisted out of shape just so that something new could happen. Couple this with the clumsy attempts to explore religion, the embarrassing twist involving Travis’ split personality and the fact that the long awaited moment of Deb learning the truth came about entirely due to the forced and sickly romance subplot and the show had gone far beyond jumping the shark. It went from something in the realm of a prestige drama to something that Two And A Half Men would turn its nose up at.

And yet we still got two more seasons. There was a brief glimmer of quality in season seven when the series was finally allowed to explore some new territory, but the damage had been done. The Deb and Dexter we watched working out their issues were no longer the characters we cared about, just sad parodies of them. And any threat of a return to form was swiftly extinguished as the show continued to just tread water in the same way it would right up until the final moments.

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In the end, Dexter had to become a lumberjack because honestly, nothing else would make sense. The series obviously thought he was some kind of hero so he couldn’t really be punished, but at the same time he was a serial killer so a happy ending was out of the question. Plus enough of a door had to be left open in case Showtime were a bit strapped for cash down the line and needed a reboot, so none of the supporting characters could find out the truth and Dexter certainly couldn’t die. Honestly, think about it: for the show that Dexter became, the only real surprise about the ending was that anyone was surprised by it.

The truth is Dexter was not built to last, and with a revolving door of showrunners, none of whom stayed long enough to craft something resembling a true creative vision, the exciting storytelling of the early seasons was never going to survive eight years. A five-year run would have been ideal, but Dexter was hamstrung by its own popularity, by the fact that it kept getting renewed year after year with no chance given the writers to craft a satisfying ending that felt thematically of a piece with what was so beautifully set up in the early seasons. Plus it can’t have helped that as it went on Dexter invited more and more comparison to Breaking Bad, a series which took a broadly similar premise and was unafraid to carry it to its logical conclusion, even if that meant destroying the central relationships of the show and ending at five seasons instead of eight.

Breaking Bad did almost all the same things as Dexter but it pulled them off. Walter had a partner he kept secrets from, but she learned the truth and got dragged in against her will, Walter lied to everyone in his life and it resulted in people distancing him the longer it went on and while Walter certainly had moments where he came off as cool or heroic, they were all necessary to make us believe that he would keep doing this for the thrill, even as the show reminded us again and again that Walter was a bad, bad person. Dexter never quite made the same themes work.

Maybe it’s wrong to feel sorry for a series that ran for eight years and managed to be wildly popular despite swiftly decreasing quality, but at the same time looking back ten years after it debuted it’s hard not to think about what could have been. A decade on the series’ legacy is a few laughs and warnings to long running shows not to ‘do a Dexter’. But maybe it deserves more than that. It was a gripping, thrilling and clever show that lost its way due to mismanagement and prioritising its moneymaking potential over creative integrity. Ultimately, maybe Dexter is just a victim of the harsh reality that television, as much as we all like to think otherwise, is first and foremost a business. Maybe if it came out today its fate would be different.

As it stands, the best way to think about Dexter is to remember the brilliance of the early years and try to forget the later ones ever happened. Any other approach is just too sad.