If Showtime’s Dexter had ended after Season 4, we’d still be talking about it as one of the great American TV shows of the 21st Century.
Instead, the show kept going because that’s what successful shows do. Creatively, however, the peak had already been reached and each successive season seemed to move further and further away from it. By the time the eighth and final season ended, Dexter was a shell of its former self, seemingly just trying to end before the whole concept came crumbling apart. As if that hadn’t already happened.
Now, Dexter is something of a warning to cable TV shows of today. The way the series squandered its uniqueness and tried to maintain status quo long past its prime are lessons that many modern shows have learned by giving themselves limited runs, anthology stories, or long-term plot plans. For that, we suppose we can thank the last few seasons of Dexter. At least it’s something.
When it premiered on Oct. 1, 2006 (10 years ago Saturday), the concept felt somewhat dangerous. The story of a “good guy” serial killer wouldn’t make 2016 audiences bat an eye, but the concept was a thinkpiece creator back in those innocent days. Should we be rooting for a character like this? What does it say about the state of TV that our hero is a murderer? The story worked as a book but could it work in “reality”?
The key to the show’s success was Michael C. Hall. While Dexter is now the iconic role that he’s known for, most audiences only knew him as the emotionally-repressed gay man David Fisher on Six Feet Under. To see him with a knife in his hand gleefully cutting people up took some by surprise. It’s a credit to Hall that he quickly made the notion so appealing.
The conceit was pretty clean. By day, Dexter Morgan worked as a blood-splatter expert for the Miami Police Department. By night, he stalked “bad guys” as a serial killer, always sticking to the code instilled in him by Harry Morgan (James Remar), the police officer who adopted him as a child. The police department was full of interesting characters, but none more so than Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), Dexter’s stepsister who lives in her father’s shadow, and James Doakes (Erik King), a detective who knows there’s something wrong with Dexter and sets about trying to figure it out.
The first season somewhat mirrored the initial book in the series by telling the story of The Ice Truck Killer, a serial killer who is eventually revealed to be Dexter’s brother, representing what Dexter would have become had he not been raised with a code. The season works great because the story is somewhat procedural. Each episode involves Dexter trying to trap and kill a Bad Guy of the Week while the bigger story unfolds around him. It’s a structure that the show wouldn’t be able to maintain for too long as the larger events would eventually overtake the value of seeing Dexter kill yet another BGofW. It works so well, however, that it ends up making this first season one of the two best the show will ever have.
The second season steps things up by having many of Dexter’s victims found. The FBI and Miami Police go on the hunt for The Bay Harbor Butcher, not realizing that he’s working for them, sabotaging the investigation while he tries to figure out how to get out of this. Things culminate with Doakes realizing that Dexter is the Butcher. Doakes is killed by Lila, a woman with dark secrets of her own who has a Fatal Attraction-style with Dexter. In what would become a theme for the show, Dexter lives to see another day through a bit of deus ex machina, which becomes harder to believe in the more it’s used. While the death of Doakes made story sense at the time, it was the loss of a great foil that would haunt the show in the years to come. No future version of “the doubting detective” would live up to Doakes’ tragic greatness.
Having survived after being discovered (basically), it was hard to figure out where Dexter could go from there. That was evident in Season 3, which follows Dexter’s doomed friendship with District Attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits). Ultimately, not only is the Prado story less satisfying than its predecessors but so is The Big Bad, a serial killer dubbed The Skinner, who doesn’t measure up to The Ice Truck Killer. Even then, some viewers had to start wondering if there was anything interesting left for Dexter.
Then John Lithgow showed up. The venerable actor was The Trinity Killer, Season 4’s Big Bad. Representing a potential future for someone like Dexter, Lithgow’s character is one that Dexter admires at first before realizing he needs to be killed. Unlike in the previous season, Trinity provides the show with something it sorely needed… a bad guy who was Dexter’s equal. Dexter kills him in the end, but Trinity “wins” when it’s revealed that he had already killed Dexter’s wife Rita. It was a legitimately shocking moment for the show, considering Rita was Dexter’s link to his humanity and a show regular from the beginning. The final shot of Dexter holding his son in a blood-covered bathroom while Rita lies dead in the tub is one of the most iconic in the show’s history.
Had the show ended right there, it would have been perfect. We could have been left to assume that Dexter would be blamed for the murder, an ironic twist considering he could go to prison for the one murder he didn’t actually commit. Plus, it was a lesson to him and the audience that in spite of his code, Dexter was always destined to ruin the lives of those he loved. It would have been a dark way to go out but that would have fit the show perfectly.
Alas, Dexter was still way too popular for Showtime to consider pulling the plug at that point. It was the network’s standout TV program and cash cow. Still, there was an obvious setup for Season Five: The Trial of Dexter Morgan. Throughout the fourth season, there are moments peppered in that even set this up. We could have seen Dexter on trial, perhaps also trying to get away with murders while out on bail, while being tailed by the police. Perhaps that would have happened had the same showrunners stayed on, but executive producer and showrunner Clyde Phillips left and, it seemed, that great concept left with him.
Instead, Season Five moved on way too quickly from this catastrophic event and even give him a new love interest, played by Julia Stiles. The season involves Dexter trying to figure out if he should train her to be like him or live like a lone wolf from now on. It’s ultimately a letdown from the previous story and the ending is another convenient series of contrivances that keep Dexter unrevealed. From here, it also became clear that successive seasons were likely to be based around new serial killers and how their mantras reflect what Dexter is going through.
Season Six involved the last decent twist the series would have, introducing a serial killer team of Professor James Gellar (Edward James Olmos) and student Travis Marshall (Colin Hanks), the Doomsday Killers. It’s later revealed that Marshall is, in fact, working alone and Gellar is a now-dead figment of his imagination. Dexter eventually subdues him, but at the cost of FINALLY being figured out by Debra, who stumbles onto the scene as Dexter plunges the knife. It’s the last big reveal the show has been waiting for and while it felt inevitable, it also felt a little too soon. As if the show had run out of ideas (which it had) and just had to get on with it (it did).
Despite a great performance by Ray Stevenson as Isaak Sirko, Season Seven sputtered. The show was clearly just going through the motions. Dexter killed some people. Sometimes, he had the upper hand. Sometimes, he didn’t. In the end, he survived. Wash, rinse, repeat.
By the time Season Eight rolled around, many in the audience were grateful to learn it would be the final one. Once they watched the season, however, they were mortified to find that their once-favorite show had become a farce and shell of its former self. All of the bad signs were there. The Big Bad (The Brain Surgeon) was possibly the least interesting of the bunch. Dr. Evelyn Vogel’s (Charlotte Rampling) reveal as one of the architects of Dexter’s code felt contrived and unearned. The production value seemed to drop. There was a distinct lack of care in set design and direction. Emotional moments towards the end of the season, like Debra being fatally shot, felt completely lacking in depth.
And we haven’t even gotten to Harrison Falling On The Treadmill, the single-worst scene in the entirety of the show.
Watching the final season of Dexter was like watching a bunch of people do something they used to love, but were now only doing it because they had to.
In a way, they did. Showtime had told the producers they weren’t allowed to do certain things, like kill Dexter off. They were still seeing dollar signs at the time and wanted to keep the possibility of bringing him back at a later date going. That and other decisions had a ripple effect on the storytelling, which is why we ended up with Lumberjack Dexter instead of anything that made sense.
Unlike the ending to Breaking Bad (generally enjoyed) or The Sopranos (forever debated), the ending to Dexter was almost universally hated. Even Michael C. Hall seemed to hate it. At that point, the show had lost the entire point of the series. Dexter never truly paid for his crimes, and the show and its characters ceased being their own people, simply being subservient to justifying Dexter’s existence. Even Debra, the moral compass of the show, made it all about Dexter when she died, absolving him of his sins and paying the price on his behalf. As others have pointed out, the show stopped having the guts to tell a story that might turn the audience on Dexter after Season 4, and that’s how we end up here.
The finale came and went with little fanfare, other than everyone saying how much they hated it. There were rumors of a Dexter spin-off, which didn’t quite make sense since no other character still alive on the show seemed worthy. Then Showtime president David Nevins, the architect of the character’s prolonged descent into mediocrity, announced that the only way he’d do a Dexter spin-off is if Dexter were in it, thereby defeating the purpose of a spin-off. Soon after that, the show faded from our pop culture consciousness and is remembered less fondly that it perhaps deserves.
It’s a shame because it’s hard to explain to people today how fresh that first season felt. Or how shocking that fourth-season finale was. Or how altogether, the first four seasons told a symmetrical story with an open-ended conclusion that would have satisfied and kept people wondering. Hindsight is 20/20, but if we could go back and hack off the last four seasons of Dexter like a drug dealer’s head before putting a drop of his blood in our trophy case, we would. And the show’s memory would be better for it.