After eight seasons of blood and fun, Showtime’s Dexter ended Sunday night on a note of ponderous sorrow and penitence. You might as soon have expected Hannibal Lecter to open a funeral home for the indigent, or the Talented Mr. Ripley to sculpt balloons into animals for nursing-home patients.
So what happened to Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan, the Miami forensic analyst who, in secret, was a serial killer who got off on murdering fellow serial killers?
SPOILER ALERT: Plot details to follow.
He grew a thin red beard and, from what I could tell, became the very depressed employee of a logging company.
To boil this down and get the spoilers out of the way:
Dexter’s plans to flee Miami and start over with his soul mate, fellow serial killer Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski), and his sweet little non-serial killer son, Harrison, went completely to pieces after his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), was shot in pursuit of another serial killer, nicknamed the Brain Surgeon, and left comatose and on life support in the hospital.
Dexter, who lately had been feeling surprisingly free of his fetishistic lust for blood, expertly killed the Brain Surgeon in jail and got away with it: His boss was willing to pretend that Dexter plunging a pen into the killer’s jugular with one well-aimed thrust was self-defense.
Dexter, moving quickly as a hurricane moved in on the city, removed poor Deb from life support and, noticed by no one, carried her corpse into his boat, the Slice of Life. He sped out into open waters while black clouds roiled the sky and he dumped the body, which floated down beneath the waves with suitable mournful poetry.
Meanwhile, Hannah boarded a plane with Harrison. Dexter’s boat was later found splintered on the waves, with Dexter presumed lost in the storm.
It was then that we saw Dexter again: Accepting a life of unhappiness, regret and guilt as his destiny, he had opted for the solitary lumberjack lifestyle.
He was, perhaps, still pursuing serial killers and murdering them on the side. Or perhaps cutting down trees had become its own form of therapy.
It was all horribly heavy handed, an attempt to inject deep feeling into a show that thrived on playful shallowness.
I can see how difficult it would be to end the show in a way that was satisfying or even logical. The show’s central conceit – a serial killer, trained by his cop father to be a moral instrument for good by destroying amoral psychopaths – was absolutely ingenious. But always fundamentally implausible. Plenty of thrillers manage to lure us into identifying with a killer, setting off what can be an oddly pleasurable dissonance and suspense.
But Dexter was also a shy, winsome boy next door, devoted to his sister (who happened to be a dedicated cop) and longing for acceptance, true love and the banishment of his internal “Dark Passenger.” Sometimes he was Norman Bates. Sometimes he was John-Boy Walton.
You could only stretch this conceit so far until it finally snapped.
The season began with an inspired twist that seemed likely to deliver a corker of a finale: We met Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a neuropsychiatrist, and learned that she was responsible for crafting (along with Dexter’s father) the so-called Code that guided him. She was a delicately sinister figure with some perverse but, within the context of the show, valid ideas: Couldn’t other young serial killers be trained, like Dexter, to channel their murderous instincts?
This vision of a sort of Hogwarts for psychokillers lead to an interesting subplot, with Dexter briefly serving as mentor to a rich Miami brat with a homicidal itch.
But then everything unraveled: Hannah, whom Dexter rejected at the end of season 7, sidled back into view, rekindling their romance without any of her old femme-fatal, film-noir duplicity: How could this expert, cold-blooded poisoner be trusted to serve as Harrison’s new mommy, let alone his au pair or nanny?
Vogel turned out to be fairly insignificant, a tiresome hand-wringer, and was killed off without much regret. And Dexter – whose father’s insistence that he “blend in” sometimes seemed like an unacknowledged allegory of homosexual repression – decided that his romantic happiness with Hannah freed him from the desire to murder.
Debra’s death made Dexter see the folly of such dreams. In a word: Timber!
Luckily, the show will continue to exist apart from this letdown. Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter both gave excellent performances from episode to episode – sexy and clever. And at least two of its eight seasons are classics: The first, with the Ice Truck Killer, and the fourth, with John Lithgow as the Trinity Killer the most psychologically believable of any of the show’s villains and, as a result, the one truly scary one. These deserve to be watched, along with season 7, which set up the surprisingly intense ménage of Dexter, Deb and Hannah.
The show was also beautifully designed, with a vibrant palette of Miami hues that shimmered in the age of high definition.
Overall, in fact, it was terrific entertainment. Thanks, Dark Passenger. Be careful of splinters.