Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in this, our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, the TV Reviews section doesn't replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
It’s not rare for a season of a TV show to conclude with a finale that feels as if it’s wrapping up some other story than the one viewers just watched, but it’s rare for a whole series to end that way. Yet the series finale of Dexter, which aired last night, seems like the final episode of some other show entirely, before the finale’s final scene seems to be wrapping up yet another story viewers didn’t know to be invested in.
The fatal flaw of Dexter has always been that its writers have rarely, if ever, treated the central character with anything like a clear vision of who he’s meant to be. In the final season, at least, they made a call: The titular serial killer who only killed other serial killers was someone who’d always longed to find real human connection. Once he did, his need to kill would be sated, and he could “retire,” as it were, to a long and happy life with his new lady love and his son. He wanted someone who knew the real him, the whole him, and accepted him as such.
At the same time, though, this got mixed in with a bunch of other things, including an apparent view of the character as a “pulp hero” like Doc Savage, someone who had his vengeance on the wicked and protected the rest of society. In Dexter’s first two seasons, when it was at its most promising and seemed like it might be a great TV show, the series was able to think this, sure, but it was simultaneously able to understand that the protagonist’s actions might, ultimately, not be all that great, that it might be better to leave the punishment of evildoers to the state. After the second season, though, the character’s rough edges were steadily sanded off, until he turned into something of a riff on Spider-Man. He was your friendly neighborhood serial killer.
The series finale compounds this by basically giving the character an ending straight out of one of the Spider-Man films. He suffers a great loss and decides everyone he loves will be in danger for as long as he’s alive, making connections. Yet this is a ridiculous conclusion for a grown man to make, as opposed to a teenage kid, high on emotion. Fans could argue that this is the sort of conclusion a person who’s just starting to feel his feelings (as the show suggests) would jump to, but that gets into the whole mess of the series’ final four seasons, which refuse to view the character as anything other than a much-needed dark avenger. The show cannot have its title character portrayed in anything other than shades of brilliant white. What was once a horror program became farce.
For most of the series’ run, the only thing holding it together was some fine acting. As the title character, Michael C. Hall found a few new shades to play the same basic dramatic beats with every season. In the finale, moments that shouldn’t have worked managed to feel slightly moving because of Hall’s work. Similarly, Jennifer Carpenter as Hall’s sister was frequently gut-wrenching, which made it all the more curious when the final season mostly sidelined her character in favor of a bunch of guest stars.
Those guest stars could be potent—John Lithgow’s season-four turn as an under-the-radar killer remains a series highlight—but they had a tendency to unbalance the show. Because the protagonist could never come under suspicion, the other police officers he worked with began to seem dumber and dumber for not realizing that Hall came in contact with a lot of awful serial killers. Coincidences piled on top of coincidences, and the other characters only rarely got involved in anything other than ancillary storylines about, say, purchasing a bar or falling in love with Carpenter. It was, even in the series’ best seasons, a largely useless ensemble, and it was always a drag on the show.
Yet the final season was particularly egregious in this regard. Early in the series finale, Hall remarks while leaving for a new life with girlfriend Yvonne Strahovski that he always thought he would be leaving Miami because he was running from his old life, not running toward a new one. That essentially underlines the problems with season eight in a nutshell: The series seemed all along as if it were building toward a conclusion where Dexter would be forced to turn on friends and co-workers to preserve himself, escaping from Miami by the skin of his teeth, or perhaps living his life in a jail cell. There was a time—say, in season two, or even as late as season four—when the show seemed as if it might have the guts to pull this off. By the time it ended, even though Carpenter knew her brother’s secret for two seasons, it was unable to view the protagonist as anything other than a public good, like a library, and, thus, it could not imprison him or even punish him in the slightest.
It’s this simplistic view of morality that ultimately squandered a show that could have been one of the all-time greats. The series churned through so many showrunners and creative voices, and it was so important to Showtime’s long-term growth, that it simply had to stick around for far longer than it had story for. In the end, the only constant in the series was Hall, who seemed to be the only force holding the central character together. And in the final season, when he fell in love and fell out of serial killing, even Hall was unable to hold it together. It was an awful ending to a coulda-been-great show, an attempt to run a knife into the audience’s heart with a Post-It note reading, “THIS IS A HAPPY ENDING!” attached.