After reading one of last week’s comments, I decided to catch up on Sundance Channel’s The Writers’ Room, which features candid conversations with the writing teams behind television’s most daring, clever, observantly written shows… and also there’s an episode about Dexter. Watching the Dexter writing team discuss the show confirmed all my worst fears about the thought process that goes into creating this world and gave me a new framework for understanding why this show never reached its full potential.
The former conventional wisdom about Dexter’s difficulty hitting its stride was that it was a victim of its success; because it was such a draw for Showtime, the network held its creative team hostage, never allowing the writers to start thinking ahead to a satisfying ending. At the beginning of season seven, when Showtime’s executives began suggesting the end was near, the episodes seemed to bear out that theory. But by that season’s end, it became clear what the real problem was, and it was confirmed by The Writers’ Room. Scott Buck and his team are too enamored of the character to create a compelling show around him.
Dexter’s writers go to unbelievable lengths to keep Dexter suspended above everything else because they see him as a superhero, a man who has bravely taken responsibility for vanquishing evil in the world and whose only real flaw is his need for human connection. Essentially, they think of Dexter as a low-tech, plain-clothed version of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, charged with a vital duty he’s too heroic to abandon, and forced to carry the weight of the chaos it causes around him.
But the problem is that Dexter is never forced to carry any of that weight. The comparisons to Breaking Bad have abounded lately due to both shows running their final seasons concurrently. But to be remotely fair, let’s not compare where Dexter is now to where Breaking Bad is now. Let’s compare current Dexter to season three Breaking Bad, when on the latter show, the characters were coming to grips with the aftermath of the tragic plane crash. The karmic debt of that plane crash was placed directly at Walter White’s feet, though it was only indirectly his fault, the result of a series of events he put into motion, but not directly attributable to him.
Dexter has never done this. Not one time. Not ever. Not after Doakes got incinerated by Dexter’s batshit crazy girlfriend. Not after he accidentally killed an innocent man in season three. Not after finding his son sloshing around in Rita’s blood. Not after Debra shot LaGuerta. Not after the Brain Surgeon killed Cute Cassie What’s-Her-Face and then Zach. None of it is ever Dexter’s fault or his responsibility. There’s no depth, no shading, no remorse, no downtime, no wondering if all of this is worth it. It’s just Dexter getting to feed his addiction no matter the cost to anyone around him. Regardless of how many bodies pile up because Dexter can’t keep his knife in its sheath, so to speak, the audience is supposed to continue to root for him.
It isn’t just the principle of this treatment of Dexter that I take issue with, it’s the effect it has on the storytelling. Whether there had been five or 55 seasons of Dexter, it was never going to be a good show as long as Dexter the Superhero kept showing up where Dexter the Morally Compromised Serial Killer was supposed to be. Nothing could make that case more powerfully than “Make Your Own Kind of Music” does.
The episode is a complete mess from the beginning, starting from the opening scene of Dexter and Hannah enjoying some cuddle time. Even the acting didn’t seem right, and Michael C. Hall’s performance is one of the few reliable aspects of this show. But when he does his quivering tone, mumble-mouthed speech to communicate how much he loves Hannah Dexter, I want to do to my television what Dexter wants to do to the Brain Surgeon. Speaking of the Brain Surgeon, surprise, he’s someone no one cares about.
As it turns out, that neighbor of Dexter’s who got murdered and no one cared? Well the Brain Surgeon, the killer whose identity has been kept a closely guarded secret all season, is Cassie’s former boyfriend who we saw for all of, what, six minutes? Oh, but the criminal mastermind, Oliver Saxon, is also Dr. Vogel’s son whose existence was revealed for the first time in this episode. In terms of character motivation for Vogel, this reveal works perfectly fine. Vogel had a biological son with a penchant for murder, which is what led her into her current work and explains why she was so invested in trying to rehabilitate young Dexter.
But as story? Oh my God, is this ever fucking stupid. I don’t care about Oliver Saxon. I don’t care that he killed Cassie, who I didn’t care about. I don’t care that he killed Zach, who I don’t care about, after attempting to frame him for the murder of Cassie who, again, I don’t care about. I don’t much care that he’s Vogel’s son either. It’s dramatically inert. It doesn’t raise the stakes, it actually kind of lowers them. Oh, and let’s talk about how we got there. Zach, somewhere in the course of getting a quarter of his head removed, managed to leave a DNA clue behind for Dexter. Fine. And so Dexter discovered the killer was related to Vogel. Okay, whatever. Then Dexter uses the Age Progress-o-Matic software and discovers Saxon is the Brain Surgeon. In order to buy into any of this garbage, I’d need to have less of my grey matter intact than Zach.
That’s not even the most insulting thing the episode asks of the audience. I literally put my face in my palms when Debra not only agreed to let Hannah stay in her home, but then agreed to have a cozy girl’s night in, with dinner and gabbing. This despite the fact that just last week, Debra was dead set on turning Hannah over to the cops. How did we get here again? Debra… just got exhausted? Decided to stop sweating the small stuff? And then, despite Hannah having poisoned Debra a good half-dozen times by now, Debra eats a meal cooked by Hannah. But you know why that works, the writers seem to say? Because Deb chews extra slowly and keeps saying how she can’t believe she’s eating the food. Everyone knows you can eat food laced with arsenic and live, but the key is that you have to chew 100 times per bite, and you have to say “Isn’t it nuts that I’m still alive despite eating arsenic? Crazy times, man.”
This is what we’re stuck with now, though, because the writers have to redeem Hannah to make her a palatable partner for Dexter now that he’s decided that’s the outcome he wants, because giving Dexter the outcome he wants is the entire point of this show. Look! Hannah and Deb are girlfriends now! Harrison loves her and wants her to be his Mommy! Dexter is talking like he’s trying to hold in a fart, so obviously they belong together! This has gotten absolutely painful.
At this point, I’m not sure this season is vastly better than season six. Hell, at least then the writers could use the excuse that they were building the show for maximum longevity. Now? What’s the reason for it to be so awful? In The Writers’ Room, the team joked about dumb ideas they’d had over the years, one of which was to reveal that somehow Harry was still alive. Boy, that would have been mighty stupid, they said. Bad news, guys. This isn’t much better.
- Miami Metro rapid-fire: Deb’s back on the force now. Masuka’s daughter is there. Quinn kissed Debra because questioning Oliver got them so turned on. Angie’s still missing.
- Speaking of Angie, if you’re gonna go the “the killer was right before your eyes” route, why not Detective Miller as the Brain Surgeon? That would at least be kinda funny.
- Kenny Johnson was here.
- Elway is the only sane person on this show now.