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dead to me?

for the last several weeks, dom and i have been re-watching every season of "dexter". with the final [or not] chapter about to get underway on june 30th and the release of the penultimate season on dvd [for those of us who would become serial killers if we were forced to wait a week between episodes], we thought we'd get all primed for the big finale.

"dexter" is one of those shows that i knew just from hearing about it that i'd like. after all, it starred
michael c.hall, the only interesting thing about the vastly overrated "six feet under" and was about a serial killer who hunted other serial killers. what could be more entertaining than that? it helps, of course that the eponymous central character is surrounded by a lot of other well-drawn ones and that the plots are designed to draw you in over both the short and long haul. i appreciate the fact that the show's premise will likely determine whether you'll be a fan or not. if you think you're going to be offended by a show whose protagonist is a serial killer, then you're not going to like "dexter".

having just watched the entire series, seasons one through seven, i figured i'd offer a road map of viewer experience for anyone who's interested.

fyi, there are many spoilers ahead, which is why i'm putting the break right here. if you haven't seen the series and think you might like to check it out, i'm going to ruin everything for you. if you don't care, by all means carry on, but either way


season one :: this is where we meet everyone. where we get to know everyone who's inadvertently complicating dexter's life by forcing him to act like the normal human being he clearly isn't. it's established from the start that dexter knows there's something wrong with him, which is a good device to ease the viewer into sympathy for him. plus, of course, there's the trump card that the people he's killing deserve it on some level.

we spend the season slowly having his character revealed to us and, through a clever writing strategy, simultaneously to himself. yes, he's a killer, but there's a reason that he's a killer, something that's buried under years of carefully practiced sociability. it's easy to like the characters surrounding dexter, they're decent, funny, warm people and- most shocking of all- have a great deal of complexity. but what's truly shocking is how genuinely likeable dexter himself is. he is a monster [by his own admission], but he's also child-like, trying to understand the world around him. it's this conflict that lends a crucial element of dark humour to all of the proceedings. [the more obvious humour comes courtesy of those around him at the police station.]

high points :: so many... the slow, onion-peeling reveal of dexter's past and the formation of his "dark passenger". the refreshing detail put into the female characters in particular- something which is often lacking. the undeniable tension as the plot ratchets up each episode. and of course, the surprisingly touching climax.

low points :: the plot isn't perfect. there are some points where it's obvious writers had to come up with something quickly and didn't worry too much about it being coincidental. and perhaps the reveal of the killer's identity comes a little too early. but it's easy to forgive when everything else is so engrossing.

season two :: in an interesting twist, the serial killer target for this season is dexter himself, although no one but him knows it. we get to see all the characters from the first season develop, but unfortunately, that turns some of them into caricatures. dexter's girlfriend rita seemed to project an inner strength and emerging sense of self-confidence in the first season, but comes off here as more shrill and condescending. this, of course, facilitates dexter's affair with femme fatale lila, or at least makes him seem innocent of cheating, but is this really necessary? there's a world of possibilities opened when we see that aggressive sergeant doakes, still convinced that dexter is hiding something, has his own dark side and is willing to cheat the justice system a little. so much possibility... so much lunch-bag letdown.

there's still humour present, but much of the season feels heavy, melodramatic, like eating steak with a side of sausages and a meatball garnish. i'm being harsh, because there is a lot of great tension and the introduction of special agent frank lundy, the sherlock holmes to dexter's moriarty, is wonderful. it just doesn't quite have the spring in its step of the first season.

high points :: the character arc for debra, dexter's long-suffering sister, is fantastic. her post-traumatic reactions to everything around her following the events of the first season, her electra-complex crush on lundy, everything about her in this season makes her more vital and more endearing. and the concept of treating serial murder the way that one treats a drug addiction is quite fascinating. the scene where dexter tells the beleaguered battista that if he could choose to be like anyone, it would be him, is the series at its achingly human best.

low points :: three words.

after carefully, painstakingly setting everything up: james doakes is willing to kill people he knows have done him wrong; he shows an awkward vulnerability when deborah is around; dexter saves his life and he seems genuinely appreciative. surely this can only be leading to one thing: doakes is going to reverse his antagonism and become dexter's uneasy partner going forward?!?!? no. doakes gets killed by lila and gets fingered as the bay harbour butcher. it conveniently exempts dexter from having to kill an innocent, but gets the suddenly hypocritical doakes out of the way. boo.

there are other problems. the perpetually underclothed lila goes from potentially interesting to stereotypical "fatal attraction" sideshow in the blink of an eye. the parallels of serial killing with addiction are dropped in the middle of the season. lila's inevitable death seems like a bit of an afterthought. doakes' obsession with dexter is far-fetched for a trained black ops killer. but the biggest problem is that a character with fantastic potential is snuffed out and he takes a half dozen interesting story lines with him.

season three :: i find this one better than it's given credit for being. yes, it's flawed, yes, it's weaker on the whole than the first two, but it's far from terrible. post-lila, post-doakes, dexter has things more under control than at any point since the very beginning of the series. you don't have the phenomenal mystery of the first season, or the insanely converging plot lines of the second, but it remains entertaining. yes, dexter seems hopelessly naive for much of the season, because jimmy smits' oily prosecutor is just too easy to pin as a bad guy from the first time he's introduced. he's undoubtedly the smartest of the "dexter" villains and for the first time, it seems our protagonist is outmatched in wits, but knowing where the season is headed makes it less exciting.

high points :: it's easy to overlook the season's "secondary monster"a former honduran government sadist now trimming trees in miami, because he's given so little screen time. but that's a real shame. jesse borrego is phenomenal with the limited time he's given and his quiet composure while being questioned by police is way scarier than smits' explosions of temper. and the story arc about the death of police file clerk camilla figg is the most heartbreaking point of the entire series.

low points :: for starters, there's an uncomfortable whiff of racism that seems to lurk behind the entire season. there are too many latino bad guys floating around and too many stereotypes for comfort. but even if you dismiss that as paranoia, there are some obvious flaws: there isn't one second when the audience is going to believe that smits' character is actually going to be good for dexter, or that he can even be trusted. the character of joey quinn is a weak substitute for doakes and the whole story of his investigation by internal affairs seems to be filler, trying [unsuccessfully] to make him into something more interesting than he is.

season four :: riveting. dexter's attempts to be a family man while maintaining his secret identity barrel headlong into the hunt for a serial killer who seems to have figured that game out. john lithgow's haunting performance as the mercurial "trinity killer" is heart-stopping. the return of frank lundy, his reunion with debra and his sudden death all add to the incredible tension. most surprisingly, for a season where so much is clear from the beginning, there are a lot of surprises, from the reveal of debra and lundy's shooter to the swerve that closes the season.

high points :: lithgow. he's an underrated actor who has never been better than he is here. frightening, pathetic, hateful, lost, he finally gives the series cast the villain they deserve. there's also the moment when series pervert masuka goes to pieces after seeing rita kiss her neighbour that stays with me. it's a strange insight into his character that he so desperately needs everyone around him to be normal and happy so that he can comfortably play the freak.

low points :: the love story between battista and laguerta seems like a distraction from the real action and the animosity between quinn and dexter seems forced and like a pale imitation of the earlier tension between dexter and doakes.

season five :: "dexter" as romantic comedy? well, not quite, but i do think that, despite the predictable recriminations over rita's death and the convenient dispatch of the children in the early episodes, this season represents the light point of the series. it may seem odd to refer to a story line about a series of brutal gang rapes and murders as "light", but there are more moments of gentle humour here than anywhere else in the series.

this season moves fast, which makes it eminently watchable, but also leaves you with the impression that you're not being allowed to savour the hunt for the bad guys. they're too easy to dispatch, too incidental to the story, which is more about dexter's rebound romance with lumen pierce, the only person to see his dark passenger in action and live.

high points :: it's the television equivalent of a page-turner. after five seasons, you know things are going to work out in some form, but how? what loose ends will be left? will lumen leave? stay? get killed? as dom pointed out, a villain with infinite resources isn't exactly the most original idea in the world, nor is the idea that "inspirational" and "self-help" gurus are a bit frightening, but jonny lee miller still makes the character of jordan chase work. in addition, you have peter weller as the repulsive dirty cop quinn hires to look into dexter. he kind of looks like he should be repurposed into robocop, but he's hideously human at the same time.

low points :: the bad guys need more development. aside from miller, there are the others, the manson girls to his charlie and they're never given their due. yes, miller is the ring leader, but there's clearly something wrong with the others that warrants investigation. one of the casualties of the rushed pace. the further adventures of laguerta and battista are unworthy of either character and the secondary story line of apparently religious murders is snuffed out before it can emerge from the chrysalis, along with the character of an ambitious young cop looking to get into the homicide department.

season six :: well shit. i guess religion and the upbringing of children is something we haven't dealt with to date, so let's try that. there's something uncomfortably cloying and cutesy creeping in as dexter's son harrison continues to grow. we get that dexter has to be a father, but there are moments when things seem a little too 'after school special', assuming there were after school specials for being a parent.

the facets of religion- as collective conscience, as salvation, as dangerous obsession are ripe for exploration and the writers haven't shied away from any of them, but none of these is nearly as interesting as you would think, or it isn't allowed to be.  the writing has never been so heavy-handed, so obvious, so consistently predictable. but what's worse, even the moments of surprise, like debra's promotion to lieutenant, feel as if they've been jammed in like an incorrect puzzle piece, added just for the sake of putting something there.

high points :: mos def's redeemed murderer brother sam, who is killed off way to soon. i can't get over how everything- the way he speaks, the way he stands, every movement he makes- reinforces my belief in the character. his death brings about one of dexter's most flamboyant failures [to forgive] and ushers out the moderately interesting part of the season. the visuals of the different tableaux murders are stunning to behold. and of course, the final scene of the season, where debra walks in on dexter at work, is the ultimate cliffhanger.

low points :: much of the frustration of the season is that colin hanks is simply not up to the role of the principal villain. he can be acceptable, but when real emotion, real tension is required, the scenes range from unbelievable to cringe-worthy. getting promoted sucks the life from debra's character, which may point to professional development, but makes her look like a limp imitation of earlier seasons. worst of all, inserting a "road trip" diversion that harkens back to the triumphs of season four does nothing but reinforce the notion that the plot for this season is pretty thin.

season seven :: i'm sure that debra would be able to come up with a fantastic string of curse words that expressed my absolute contempt for this season. i'm at a loss. everything that made the earlier seasons strong has basically been sucked out, as if by the world's largest shop-vac. the knife-edge tension of debra's discovery at the end of the previous season was ultimately going to lead to some high drama, but the descent into maudlin soap opera territory was entirely unnecessary. more to the point, it basically flushes all the likeable parts of the earlier seasons out to sea like so many garbage bags stuffed with human remains.

and the introduction of hot blonde serial killer hannah, the juliet to dexter's romeo, actually makes things worse. their scenes of domesticity just go to prove that murderers can be just as boring as the rest of us around the dinner table.

the hysterical, overblown ending- the denouement of a plot line that felt tacked on to begin with- drags three of the series' best characters down with it. dexter caps off his descent into a whiny, castrated version of his former self, laguerta, once politically savvy, sexy and smart is reduced to an obsessed corpse and debra becomes a snivelling mess, incapable even of standing.

high points :: ukrainian mafioso and closeted homosexual isaak sirko is virtually the only part of this season that made me sit up and pay attention. as the single character who moves from being a villain to being sympathetic in the entire series, he deserved better than getting killed off at the halfway point. and of course, the moment when debra discovers the full story behind what she saw at the church is the season's only point of true brilliance.

low points :: there are many, but probably the worst would be the inexplicable amnesia suffered by the writers. there are too many instances where events ignore what's been set up in previous seasons, or where the staff indulges in some revisionist history or where they choose to indulge the most ludicrous of coincidences in order to move things to a predetermined point. there's a single-episode "saw" ripoff and the main crime story is literally abandoned part way through the season. but even that's not unquestionably the worst part, since the removal of any trace of the sly humour that made the early seasons so exceptional makes many of the episodes almost unwatchable. even the reappearance [in flashback] of doakes can't make things any better. the whole situation reminds me uncomfortably of the fall of "twin peaks" in its second season.

so that's my take on things thus far. please feel free to take a peek at the trailer for the upcoming season... i'll be honest, it does nothing to inspire my confidence that they'll pull off a miracle recovery.

i'd rather remember the good times...


Shadowy Lady said…
I've been watching Dexter religiously since it aired few years back and I agree with most of your points. I almost gave up on the show in season six though, just NOT good :/ I could write a novel about all that was wrong with that season...
Kate MacDonald said…
I'm already dreading the final season, because I don't know how they're going to be able to fix things...

Which season was your favourite?
Shadowy Lady said…
Season one is my fave, I loved the character development and Dex vs Biney relationship. Close second would be season 4.

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