(Needless to say, there’s gonna be spoilers)
Let’s just get it out of the way first, shall we?
Why Dexter was so Awesome:
1. The final shot. The buildup and crushing rejection of Dexter’s entire growth as a character for eight seasons.
2. Both the thematic potential of Dexter’s new-found family and the parallels with his old family.
3. The way he killed Debra. It had to happen. And it was poetic.
Why Dexter was so terrible:
1. The final shot was unearned. Dexter’s decision came out of nowhere and barely made sense.
2. The family-figures were meaningless. Man of Steel all over again. Simply shells with unearned emotions.
3. There was no tension in the first 11 of 12 episodes in the final season.
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That all said, I want to go a little more in depth on exactly why this episode was brilliant, and how it was equal parts such a godawful letdown.
I want to start with the final shot: Dexter, sitting down in a logging cabin. Isolated. Gray. Alone. Hard.
Though many online took up arms to make fun of Lumberjack Dex, the moment itself was incredible.
The brilliance of this shot came first in the filmography. For a show that fell apart at the seams in the final three seasons in terms of technical appearance (look no further than those godawful Florida skies in the final episode, which could have been photoshopped by the kid who played Harrison), this final shot was commanding and moody and emotive. The symmetry. The careful camera motion. The lighting. It all spoke toward the darkness we know as Dexter.
The only problem with it was the whimpering fade-out rather than a hard cut.
But the emotion was astounding, if overlooked.
One of the staples of old-school television is that the characters don’t change. Networks want to hook an audience and keep them. By changing their main characters radically over the course of a show, the network model believes that this will ultimately alienate the audience that grew attached to such a character in the first place.
Not only does this give little credit to the audience, but it limits the range of good storytelling. Any basic writing class will emphasize that, in short work or long form, the character has to undergo a change.
Dexter has been quietly at the forefront of the changing landscape of the television industry because Dexter himself has been undergoing a radical change for years. He’s becoming a human being. He’s learning that he’s not so much a sociopath as he thinks. This wasn’t just an abandoned season eight plot point, it’s been developing since season one.
Season One: Dexter learns that his need to kill may be less genetic so much as born from his childhood trauma. Season Two: Dexter learns that he can have feelings. Whether that’s in a relationship, in sex, or in the thrill of being on the run. Season Four: Dexter learns that by pretending to be a father, he actually likes having a family. Season Five: He learns empathy, and that trauma-based dark passengers can be lost. Season eight: He learns that he might not even be a sociopath, and that he’s capable of truly loving.
The writers had two places they could go with this progression: they can either let Dexter go off on his happily ever after and embrace the fact that he’s finally human. Or he reverts back to the stone-cold Dexter of first season.
As we watch the final shot push in on Dexter at the end, we see that this is again the Dexter that we’ve always known: the cold, calculating, closed-off Dexter that nods to us in the opening credits each week.
And this feels very right, to see Dexter back here: alone, cold, but back full-circle (a lot of finales seem to love this idea of coming full circle. TV is a very cyclical beast, it would seem). It might not be very happy or pleasant. But it’s very right.
Now, even though the writers recognized the right end, they failed to present it well. They didn’t earn this finish, and that disparity threw most viewers. The immediate impression of the last shot felt tacked on rather than right.
On first viewing, it seemed that Dexter’s decision to bail on his new family was out of the blue. Deb died because of a series of badly-written accidents stemming from Dexter’s decisions. And that was enough to prompt him to abandon the only things in his life that make him happy?
It’s a stretch only if you forget that it wasn’t Deb’s death alone–but also due to the loss of his mother-figure, Vogel, and his son-figure, Zack. The problem here is that, well, I actually did forget this.
For having such an instrumental impact on Dexter as pieces of a life he’s trying to build, their deaths had no drama. I was bored as I watched Vogel bleed out. I was unsurprised to see Zack, dead in Dexter’s chair. And of course Cassie, the passing-love-interest-neighbor, was so clearly a throwaway character that I was betting friends against how long it would take for her to be killed off (Seven episodes. There’s twenty bucks I won’t be seeing again).
This is purely a problem in execution. A problem in pacing, in filming, and writing. We didn’t understand whether these people were really important to Dexter. We weren’t convinced that we ever really wanted them around–or that Dexter even really wanted them around. There was no tension, no suspense. No risk.
And so, not only were their deaths relatively meaningless, but they were easily forgotten.
Dexter’s final decision seemed impulsive because we didn’t get to watch him with his struggle. We didn’t understand deeply enough that he blamed himself for these deaths. When we watched Dexter with Hannah and Harrison, we didn’t get to see Dexter questioning whether he deserved such happiness or whether he’d ruin it.
The risks of Dexter’s lifestyle were never risks to the people most important to him: Hannah and Harrison. His lifestyle was a risk to Deb, and it proved fatal, but he was leaving Deb. The writers had already established that Harrison and Hannah were more important to Dexter than Deb, despite Deb and Dexter’s relationship being the crux of the series.
Instead, for eleven episodes, the characters we had no investment in were the ones experiencing all the risk, and the characters that we actually love, Hannah, Harrison, Deb, and Dexter were only ever at risk due to Hannah’s exploits. And, when it came to risk, those scenes were more awkward than suspenseful, with the final undoing straw being Harrison running on a treadmill and–”Ow. I cut my chin.”
Where’s the tension of season two? Where’s the unraveling of Dexter’s life the way we’ve been waiting for since then? Where’s the edge-of-our-seat tension as we wait for the law to come down on Dexter, as we wait for some master serial-killer to put Dex out of his misery? Where’s the drama of Dexter’s police family unraveling as everything they knew about Dexter crumbles? Where’s Dexter, a wreck, because he’s trying to build a life as it all comes falling down?
Where’s the possibility that now, here, in the final season, literally anything can finally happen?
Instead, the only thing that crashes down–until the final episode–are tacked-on characters we don’t care about.
If we’re going to fully appreciate the final scene, we need to have the appropriate build-up for it. We have to watch Dexter struggle as his world falls around him. We have to watch Dexter’s decision to be a human being crash down far more epically than Deb’s being shot in the stomach. (If not, I mean, at least give us a bit of finesse).
For threatening Deb’s death, did they even bother to take their time with it? To bother with some close ups? Some slow motion? Some kind of emotion in finding Deb shot on the floor of an abandoned hospital?
Nope. Cut to soap opera wide. Deb’s cop family chatting normally about whether they should call Dexter.
The only way that we earned the final scene was in Dexter finally killing Deb. If there were two moments the writers needed to build to in the final season, it was Dexter killing Deb–or vice versa–and the final shot on Dexter, alone and empty.
Dexter killing Deb is massively important because it takes the essence of Dexter (the drive to kill) and puts him in the most dramatic of situations, in which he must finally break his code to kill someone not only innocent, but someone that he actually and truly loves. The flip side is that Deb has to kill Dexter, bending her own morality for the greater good, and in essence becoming the very thing that she’s killing. These types of murderous moral ambiguities have always been at the heart of the show.
Of course, if Deb can’t kill Dexter because we need the final shot of Dexter, then we’re left with the former. And the writers set up a good situation. Deb’s a vegetable. Dexter is forced to kill her to put her out of her misery. If not cliché — with uncomfortably transparent moments for goodbyes and flashbacks — it is a relatively poetic and twisted situation.
Even still, I have to wonder how the show-runners didn’t include a nod to almost every murder from earlier seasons? How did Dexter not run a thumb across Deb’s cheekbone before he pulled the plug? Where he sliced the cheek of his victims as trophies, how did they not allude to this STAPLE of the show in Dexter’s final kill?
It’s oversights like this that characterize the season as a whole. Rushed. Inattentive to the details: pacing; character; the small, dramatic, artistic moments.
The way we earn the final scene is to take our time with these dramatic moments. To pace the play of emotional extremes that are ripping and tearing at Dexter, that push him to turn his back on everything that would make him happy for everything he most truly is. We earn the final scene by watching Dexter make every effort to be human and have those efforts destroy the ones he loves and the life he lives. Have him actually ruminate on the fact that it’s only in his humanity that such hurt stems.
Deb’s death (too little too late, overall) wasn’t enough to convince us. Deb wasn’t Dexter’s whole world. Deb wasn’t enough to make Dexter give up a life. For that matter, Vogel and Zack weren’t Dexter’s whole world either.
As a viewer, I didn’t believe that Dexter’s trying to be a human being would result in tragedy for those he loves. That, single-handedly, is why the ending didn’t work. That’s bad writing. Plain and simple. We have to make that decision with Dexter. But we didn’t.
What could bring us to that decision? What about killing Harrison? What about forcing these moments four episodes before the end? What about giving Dexter some time to deal with the emotional drama of these consequences? Rather than a shot of him standing in front of a thunderstorm, in which we don’t really, fully grasp or share in what is most truly pushing him away from what’s left of the life he tried to build.
By taking our time, by watching Dexter’s world ripped away, only after he loses almost everything–only then would we understand why he’s sitting alone in a logging cabin. This way, we’d understand, immediately, as we slowly zoom in on the beard and the hollow cheeks, as we watch him close his eyes–only then would we see the way he blocks out the humanity he’s discovered. Only THEN would we understand that this is who Dexter truly is: walled-off, flat, hard. And intentionally so. He’s a human being who doesn’t allow himself to love.
THAT’S tragedy. THAT’S drama.
But it seems the writers were more interested in tacking this kind of drama on in the last five minutes and leaving the rest of the season to focus on Masuka’s daughter.
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Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com