Showtime will finally say goodbye to one of its cornerstone programs Sunday when Dexter makes its curtain call. The show, on the air since 2006, was of indisputable importance to the network and to television – bringing credibility to Showtime, competition to HBO, and sustainable sympathy for serial killers to viewers everywhere.
Based on the novel by Jeff Lindsay, Dexter tells the story of Dexter Morgan, whose story begins as a young child who becomes orphaned after witnessing the gruesome murder of his mother. Police officer Harry Morgan adopts young Dexter but sees the darkness the unspeakable trauma has produced, which soon evolves into unstoppable urges to kill. Conflicted, Harry’s love for Dexter outweighs his moral crisis, so he develops a “code” for Dexter that will save the child from the ten most wanted list: Dexter can exercise his dark urges but only on murderers, and he must be able to gather irrefutable evidence toward their guilt. To fully satisfy his obsession for killing, and to allow him investigative access to his future victims, Dexter becomes a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, where he works alongside his stepsister Deb.
Central to the show’s essence is a continual thematic grey area; we are exposed to both extremes of Dexter’s character and the lines of morality are terminally blurred. Judgment is suspended in favor of compelling confusion, and our unsettling familiarity with our own dark sides generate a form of twisted empathy for a character who is as savage as he is humane.
The success and influence of Dexter can largely be attributed to its adaptation to the trend of the tortured antihero who perpetually toes the line of good and evil, of genius and madness, of heroism and destruction. Whether James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, or Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan, all possess the components of a classic Bruce Wayne complex: greatness, individuality and rage – which serve to strengthen their image but weaken their spirit, and further isolate them from society.
In its prime, Dexter masterfully blended ghastly darkness with playful intrigue, further contributing to the inherent irony of the show. Simply setting the show in Miami always brought literal sunlight to an otherwise aphotic landscape. Tension, the key to maintaining or advancing the mysterious, became second nature through brilliant writing that made every line unnerving. The characters all contributed their own crooked charm, and the show’s addictiveness was justifiable.
Dexter saw its peak at the end of season four, which delivered a delightfully tragic twist in the wake of a captivating performance from guest star John Lithgow, who won an Emmy for his villainous role. Subsequently, showrunner Clyde Phillips and head writer Melissa Rosenberg left, and former 24 co-executive producer Chip Johannessen took the reins.
Since then, the show has never come close to approaching the quality of any of its first four seasons. Abundant suspense and bewitching uncertainty have been replaced with contrived storylines and soapy nonsense. The guest characters, who used to be relied upon for their added element of mystery, are now tired distractions or underperforming gap-fillers who are usually conveniently eliminated by Dexter with no consequences. The show was always perhaps a bit far-fetched, but has made an Olympic long-jump to the preposterous.
But most responsible for the show’s descent is the taming and simplifying of Dexter himself as a character. He’s not any less violent (in fact likely more so), but his inner conflicts and weaknesses have been abandoned. He has become a silly vigilante who is somehow physically superior to his often larger enemies. His thirst for murder is now shared by a few characters every season, which strips him of his foundational distinctiveness. He is now far closer to Jack Bauer than to Dexter Morgan, which perhaps was Johannessen’s goal in the first place.
What made Dexter great in its first four seasons was its lead character’s identity struggle: his darkness wrapped in innocence, his guilt over his natural inclinations, his struggle to adapt to the outside world, his unwillingness to accept himself for who he truly was. His fears were our fears, so his pain became our pain. Staring into the eyes of a murderer, we somehow were acquainted with our own humanity.
Now, we see a different Dexter Morgan. He has not evolved, he has changed entirely. He is more confident, more efficient, more detached – and less vulnerable. He lost the very thing that made us love him, that made him unique. As it so often does, conformity prevailed over ingenuousness.
This is not a typical tragedy, where our hero precipitates his own demise through his fatal weakness. Instead, the writers killed him – their desperation for him to change, to fit the mold of justice-seekers we’ve seen over and over again, to fail to embrace the shortcomings and contradictions that reside in us all.
Just as Dexter‘s rise became a mirror into our own lives, perhaps its downfall can be as well. And since Dexter always found its solace in the irony of its conditions, perhaps it’s appropriate that it ends on an ironic note as well.
Dexter, in the end, was his own greatest victim.