I still think back fondly on my torrid love affair with the first three seasons of Dexter. After hearing a few buzzes about the show from friends in 2009, I decided to sit down with the opening seasons (back when they were still on Netflix) and see what all the fuss was about. I was hooked almost instantly by the unique anti-hero of Dexter, complete with his complex morality and fantastically melodramatic inner monologues, and over the span of maybe two weeks, finished all three seasons and added Showtime to my cable package so I could be ready for season four. Sunday nights soon became one of my favorite times of the week, as friends would gather at my apartment to follow the cat and mouse battle between vigilante Dexter Morgan and the depraved Trinity Killer (played masterfully by John Lithgow). It was one of the most exciting TV seasons I had experienced to that date (though this was a simpler world in which I had not been exposed to Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or The Wire, so maybe my standards were lower).
Why am I getting all nostalgic? I just wanted you all to know that what I am about to say comes from a place of love and respect for the show, or at least what the show once was. Here it goes: Dexter Season 6 is one of the worst seasons of a television show I have ever had the misfortune of investing myself in. Now, I am not saying that Dexter is on the same level of junk food drivel like CSI or NCIS (though man is it getting close). But, in those show’s defenses, we know exactly what we’re getting with them, and they don’t aspire to much else. Dexter, meanwhile, flaunted the promise of something deeper and more compelling, a study of vigilantism and moral ambiguity, centered around a memorable character, and after season four, as a show where anything could happen. Yet, two years after the shocking reveal of Rita’s death, not only are we being subjected to one of the most mind-bendingly bad plots imaginable (and this is the same show that offered a serial killer long lost brother), but to a season that is actively pissing over every good thing it established in the previous five.
The season finale encapsulated all I hated about this season perfectly. Not even five minutes into the episode, we see the absolutely massive character break of Dexter stabbing a robber with a harpoon and leaving him for dead in the ocean. It’s not unprecedented, I suppose, but this is a show that has spent five years establishing the main character as something of a vaguely heroic figure, one with a (admittedly warped) moral code that usually finds him investigating his targets and dispatching them in isolation only after he has proven them guilty of taking a life themselves. But apparently when it’s convenient Dexter will stab a man in front of a half dozen witnesses and think nothing of it. As a character that goes to such pains to hide his dark secret, it’s mind-boggling. Did he figure the witnesses couldn’t speak English? That maritime law would leave him off the hook? That they’d be appreciative enough they’d let it slide? It’s just stupid and sloppy and contradicts the mythos that Dexter has any sort of “code” to his killing, especially because Dexter has absolutely no inner conflict afterward. It doesn’t even mention it again, reducing the whole thing from drama to throw away action.
Meanwhile, the incompetent Miami Metro PD continues to bungle everything that doesn’t involve getting eerily specific clues from vague drawings and magical Google searches (I will never forgive them for the whole “I deleted it from the internet” line from Louis the Intern). They hang around outside a crime scene for no reason so that Dexter can go deface damning evidence that keeps him undetected yet again. They fail to make the connection that the burning boat tableau just happened to occur at the exact same time Dexter was missing at sea. I realize we don’t want Dexter to get caught, but for the love of crap can we have some semblance of stakes or realism? In seasons one and two we had Doakes’ ever-present suspicions to ratchet up the tension, and he got impressively close to uncovering Dexter’s secret before the writers lazily decided to hit what would be the first of many season resets by blowing him up, and even then they didn’t have the stones to make Dexter the one to do it.
At least in the mostly hated season five we had Liddy trailing Dexter and the writers forced Dexter to take responsibility for offing him. But if I remember correctly, Quinn was pretty close to figuring out Dexter too that season, but has now apparently forgotten about all of that (possibly because he’s a hilarious drunk this season). So now none of the detectives appear to have the slightest inkling about Dexter’s killings, nor the slightest idea what they are doing on the job, except when the plot needs them to. Even throwaway procedurals pretend to get involved in the details of police work. Perhaps in Miami, detective work really is just looking at drawings, using computers, and saying the word “tableau” (or some sonic equivalent if you’re Batista and aren’t even trying anymore to deliver your lines intelligibly) so the plot can keep rolling.
In fact, no one in this show feels like a real person anymore. We have a bunch of pretty people acting as plot cyphers, going against established backstory and characteristics when it’s convenient and losing weeks of personal progress for no reason in the process. It’s a world without true consequences, where a drunk, ineffective cop can keep his job against all odds and where everyone who isn’t a bit player or guest star will be saved at the last minute in the latest deus ex machina contrivance without ever facing lasting consequences when the next season hits the reset button. I mean, even big things like Dexter’s wife getting murdered seem all but forgotten this season.
And because of that, the plot has no real tension or high stakes anymore. Dexter likes to bill itself as a show where anything can happen (mostly thanks to the deaths of Doakes and Rita), but in reality it’s become formulaic, and its popularity with average viewers ensures they won’t touch taboos like killing a child, which led to the entire abduction of Dexter’s son plotline to just feel yawn inducing. Of course the boy will live, and of course Dexter will kill Travis. I know people will retort with the final ten seconds of the show, with Deb finally catching Dexter in the act (which she really should have done last season, sparing us this season’s train wreck), but that was such an unearned moment, as if a final shock can salvage the season. They could have worked up to the moment, showing Deb’s increasing suspicion with her brother (Why was he lost at sea? What was up with his trip to Nebraska? Where does he go at night, and why is he constantly missing work?) Instead, the big reveal was tacked on to the end, like a desperate ploy to keep us around for another season. But at this point I don’t even care about the fallout: the writers have squandered almost all my faith that they can shock or surprise me anymore after the Fight Club aping “twist” of Gellar not being real. I imagine they’ll find some pat way to get Dexter out of this too (I have my money of Deb running away, hitting her head, and developing amnesia based on the show’s current trajectory).
And don’t even get me started on the whole “Deb is in love with Dexter” side plot, which feels even more unearned than her promotion to lieutenant (because being a YouTube star apparently trumps not actually showing any leadership skills, competence in the field, or emotional stability). The depravity needed to subvert what was at one time a decent brother/sister dynamic into one of sexual attraction is far worse than if they’d had the guts to stab Harrison. I can buy into a sick serial killer murdering a child; I can’t buy into Deb’s sudden realization that she wants to bang Dexter after five seasons of being alternately a damsel in distress, an f-word spewing clown, and a loyal sister. There was no basis for the heavy dramatic turn. It’s plot over persons, the guiding mantra of the show apparently. I just don’t understand what is supposed to bring me back at this point: the characters are lifeless cut-outs, the plot requires more contrivances with each passing season, and they couldn’t even get a worthwhile Big Bad Guy out of this season, settling for the most cartoonish of villains. Not only was the whole “End of the World killer” an uninspired trope, but his over the top antics, including the paintings of the plagues, the Saw-light “tableaus” (God I hate that word now) and his infamous “Hello, Whore” line, had me snickering more often than shivering. Worse still, the season managed to run with the compelling hot button topic of religion and do less than nothing with it. For God’s sake, they even squandered Mos Def. Who does that?
I am not saying I won’t come back if season seven is a miraculous return to form, but it’s hard to see any light at the end of this tunnel, and if I’m forced to suspend my disbelief much higher it’s liable to strangulate. Man it hurts to see a show you once loved become a shell of its former self.
Final Score: F
Amplifying my utter dissatisfaction with this season of Dexter was its juxtaposition with Showtime’s newest drama, Homeland, which was such a mirror image of Dexter that I think if the two ever met they’d cause a time rift. Where Dexter now seems little more than puppets wrapped around plot (like CSI:Miami if Horatio was more into killing and less into lame puns), Homeland created some of the most complex, compelling, and ultimately believable characters on any television show this year, and while its plot did rely on the occasional twist, the moments felt rewarding because they came from established characters acting in believable ways, free from the visible hands of the writers.
Anyone who knows me can attest to my near religious loyalty to Breaking Bad, which I regard as the best drama currently on television. So perhaps the highest praise I can heap on Homeland is this: if Damian Lewis beats Bryan Cranston for the Best Actor Emmy this year, I can heartily stand by the decision. Both he and Claire Danes were revelations this season, offering absolute master classes in screen acting. Danes played bi-polar CIA agent Carrie Matheson to perfection, offering the complex and conflicted protagonist that Dexter used to claim it had, but without stooping to comic book camp. She’s a genius, dogged in her pursuit of preventing terrorism, yet at the same time mentally unstable and guilty of some serious lapses in judgment. And unlike Dexter, Homeland allows Carrie to suffer the consequences. After her heartbreaking meltdown in the second to last episode, Carrie has lost almost everything: her job, her credibility, what little romantic prospect she had, and a good chunk of her sanity. She’s a pitiable wreck. Yet she continues her dogged pursuit of Brody, convinced utterly of his guilt, even as she continues to take heavy collateral damage in her personal life. She’s a textbook tragic hero, one who saves the world without anyone ever knowing and yet still ends up apparently losing it all (the phrase “No good deed goes unpunished” comes to mind). And kudos to Danes for making Carrie feel so damn real and multi-dimensional. Actors can often devolve into either mawkish sentimentality or larger than life theatrics when challenged to portray mental illness, but Danes, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of real life autism sufferer Temple Grandin last year, has once again shown her delicate touch with the subject matter, and I fully expect she’ll be taking home another Emmy this year.
But Danes is only part of the reason the show worked: equal praise has to be given to Damian Lewis, who absolutely steals the show in the finale. His motives and loyalties have been mysterious from the get go, but even as we learned in later episodes that Brody was indeed a terrorist, Lewis managed to keep him a believable, complex, and even sympathetic character. And if episode 11 was Danes’ Emmy submission, then the finale is certainly Lewis’. His opening manifesto video, explaining the reasons for his attack, was powerful, and his final moments with his family were absolutely devastating, as, unbeknownst to them, he says his final goodbyes before he heads to what he knows to be his certain death. The sadness in his eyes as he hugs his son and tells him “Maybe next time” when missing his karate demonstration, knowing full well there won’t be a next time, was haunting and rivals Cranston’s best from the latest season of Breaking Bad (and may I remind you Cranston is a man with three consecutive Emmys).
Even when the show paced through its more predictable moments, it managed to be explosive and riveting. As soon as Showtime announced its renewal for season two and confirmed Lewis’ return, we knew Brody wasn’t going to die in a suicide bombing in the episode. But kudos to the show for still playing with those expectations, and for turning what could have been seen as a narrative trick into a powerful, character-driven moment. You could argue that Brody’s failure to follow through (two of them, in fact) is tantamount to a cop-out, but if so you’re missing the much larger picture and ignoring the character drama of this series. Each failure managed to further develop the character of Brody. The first, thanks to a loose wire in his vest, assures us that Brody is more than willing to go through with the plan. Lewis nails the rising determination in his eyes, followed by the shock and panic as the flick of the detonator switch is followed by silence. Yet more telling still, Brody takes the time to repair the vest before trying again. If anyone questioned his conviction this season, that moment dispelled those doubts.
The second failed attempt, thwarted by a call from his daughter Dana, is a perfect stew of heart, emotion, and irony. After piecing together the plot, Carrie rushes to Brody’s house in a desperate gamble to convince his family to talk him down. Of course Dana does not believe her, calling the police instead of her father, but as the cops drag a screaming Carrie away, she does call her father, shaken, confused and desperate to hear his voice. Unbeknownst to her, she achieves exactly what Carrie had hoped. Her pleas with her father to promise he’ll come home, complete with her cry of “Don’t say it like that” when he emotionlessly says he will, were heartrending and left me on the verge of tears (in fact, I am tearing up just recalling the scene). It was a beautiful moment, and it felt real rather than manipulative, simply because the bond between father and daughter had been so vividly established all season. In the end, Carrie is vindicated, yet no one will ever know. Even Saul, her steadfast supporter, betrays her by the end. It’s the cruelest of ironies.
For as much closure as the finale leaves us, however, it still holds out several unresolved threads that will carry into next season. Al-Qaeda baddie Nazir plans to use Brody’s new found political clout to his own benefit in the aftermath of the failed attack, and Carrie finally realizes Brody’s connection to Nazir just seconds before undergoing electroshock therapy. While the latter comes the closest to cliché of all the season’s plot lines, I am willing to let it slide because Carrie’s season long breakdown was so thoroughly explored. Whereas Dexter leaves me struggling for a reason to come back next season, Homeland has left me chomping at the bit to pick up where we’ve left off, so much so that, at least for now, the year long wait seems unbearable. I have grown to love these characters, to care about their lives, even the mundane details, and I cannot imagine my life without them. It’s a longing that plot-focused shows can never truly attain. It’s a television high that I haven’t felt since season three of Breaking Bad, which is precisely why I am happy to elevate the show to that same pantheon of television greatness.
To close, I will simply throw together every possible plea I can to convince you to watch this show: it’s a smarter take on 24; a more exciting take on the West Wing; it boasts some of the best acting on television you’ll find; it sustains its breakneck tension masterfully for twelve full episodes in a way most movies can’t manage to do for two hours; it engages modern day terrorism, mental illness, the costs of war, and marital insecurity in an impressively intelligent manner; it is the best new show on television, and the best drama Showtime has ever produced; and if you make Dexter outlast Homeland I will hate you forever. If that didn’t put in on your radar, I don’t know what will.
Final Score: A
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