Monthly Archives: September 2013

How the Series Finale of Dexter Was Brilliant and Why it Sucked

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(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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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

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Into a Sky Below, Forever Official Release Day!

Sky-Below-1The day has officially arrived! My second book, Into a Sky Below, Forever arrives at stores across the web today.

Here’s the cover description:

Moving. Disturbing. In Denver, a young woman grows up terrorized by something massive and unnatural that watches her while she sleeps. In west Texas, a boy’s world unravels as his brother relates an encounter with a strange figure in the woods. Struggling with insomnia and depression, a man named Mitch begins speaking to a creature of folklore in the trees behind his house. And along the plains of the Rocky Mountains, two college students discover a house that should not exist.

These stories and more make up Karl Pfeiffer’s first collection following his debut novel, Hallowtide. Ranging from fiction to non-fiction, from the poetic to the profane, Into a Sky Below, Forever examines the thin places, where the wild leaks into the refined, the supernatural bleeds into the physical, reality blends with fiction, and where the only things left holding the world together are the things that truly matter the most.

This is a book about birth and rebirth: it’s a study of cycles, sex, and ouroboric processes; it’s an examination of the ways we grow up, grow strong, grow together, and grow apart; an autopsy of the ways we love and rage and reproduce and repeat again.

As always, it’s about finding light amidst the darkness.

On Twitter, three weeks ago, I posted a call to arms for my followers to buy the book today, Monday, if at all possible. With the lack of a presale option for indie-published authors, we’re immediately put at a severe disadvantage compared to the traditional approach, despite all Amazon does to support indies. The only reason pre-sales are well-loved is because they take three month’s worth of early sales and put them through on the same day, shot-gunning a book to rapid-seller, and most-popular lists in an instant.

So I ask that, if you are interested in this book at all, if you might buy it one day, you drop $.99 on a Kindle copy today. Hell, even if you don’t have a Kindle, support the book! It’s the price of a coffee size-upgrade.

But if Kindle’s not your thing, there are other places to pick the book up too. There are sites that will be carrying the book, but because of various approval processes, this could be the difference of hours or days. However, each format is available somewhere on the web. I’ll list them below as they stand now, on the release-day morning.

Kindle is available on Amazon. (The hard copy will be there whenever Amazon’s robots decide they should push their button)

The hard copy is available right now through the Createspace e-store. (in the interest of full disclosure, shipping is kinda expensive on this option, for whatever reason).

Nook is available through Barnes and Noble.

The iTunes epub file may not be going up on the iTunes Store at all (because iTunes is the biggest nightmare to work with in the world), but you can download the epub file from Smashwords. (Or you can download the Nook file, and it should look and function the same).

I’ll keep you updated as to when Amazon starts pushing the hard copy.

Otherwise… buy, read, and I do so hope you enjoy it.

-Karl

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12-Year Floods

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The things I’ll remember: the flies.

The smell of sea salt on the air as the rain started falling. This was Tuesday night: the tenth. This was after beers with a buddy. This was the start of the storm, and we couldn’t help but wonder aloud why the fuck it smelled so much like the ocean.

I’ll remember how on Wednesday I sat in a coffeeshop and watched the rain come down, remembering how, twelve years ago, September the 11th wasn’t like this; it was crisp as an autumn morning, the sky as blue as summer, and it was clear enough that we could hear the towers fall from 1800 miles away.

I’ll remember how on Friday, the sea smell was everywhere on my clothes and body when I walked inside from shooting it all. The sun had come out, and I’d ran with sweat as I climbed down the rocks toward the mud and water. I’ll remember how I didn’t know if the salt and smell was me.

I’ll remember:

Most of the rocks were still solid and didn’t wiggle under my feet, even the ones that rested between the base of the concrete overpass and the rushing waters; two sapling trees lasted much longer than the logs that swept downstream; I didn’t notice that the footbridge was gone until my mom pointed it out. Only then did the previously ineffable space the water covered make sense; On the ground, it’s rushing water. From the sky, it’s mostly puddles; This afternoon, children ran and played in the greenbelt behind our house and they seemed totally oblivious, the way our dog seemed totally oblivious–the way I seemed totally oblivious almost twelve years ago to the day.

I remember how September 11th gave my seventh-grade heart a thrill. I remember laughing at my friend for making up stories about planes and bombs and New York. I remember watching teachers staring at a television screen through the glass front window to the office. I remember how I started to realize his laughter wasn’t because he was pulling a fast-one. I remember rushing home with hopes of breaking the news to my folks, as if they didn’t already know. I remember almost rooting for the towers to fall because it would mean something had finally changed, something else had happened: the stasis had broken, something, anything but those towers and the smoke chugging into the air, and the questions and the insecurity and obscurity and the unsurity of the anchors on TV: my blue balls of adolescent need: the attention deficit in being twelve.

I’ll remember, today, people gathered along the rivers and flooded intersections with cameras below the humid sky and a sun that hadn’t been seen in days; they stretched their legs by revelling in the awesome destruction. They feel alive by being alive, where saying “wow” is at once as superficial as cameraphone photos and as resonant as a yawp.

I’ll remember sitting on the couch watching nightly news anchors, the same way that I remember, twelve years ago, standing from the couch to leave the room at eight in the evening because I couldn’t stand watching those goddamn talking heads plaster cameraphone photos and try to say “wow” in every way except “wow.”

I’ll remember how, before, it was a creek: a river at its best. And I’ll remember how, in the night, from our house, we could for the first time hear the water rushing.

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Wyoming Territorial Prison HDR Work

Just a quick blog post to share a couple HDR photos that I shot this weekend on an investigation in Laramie, Wyoming at the state’s first territorial prison. The ParaFPI TAPS Family team out of Denver gave a lecture and I floated along with them. Later in the evening, during our investigation, we experienced some compelling activity, from objects moving to disembodied voices to distinct presences.

I managed to get away during a passing storm and the twilight hour to get some quick photos. This was my first real attempt at playing with HDR, and I’ve got to say I’m thrilled.

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