Dexter's greatest antagonist has always been time. There's a finite amount of stories to be told within this general framework, and so long as the show remains Showtime's signature hit, there are a finite number of things that can be done to extend the story. No matter how entertaining or fun the show can be (and it's been highly entertaining and fun in even its most disappointing seasons), the show is trapped by the clock, by the fact that it can't just keep running forever. The problem with this is that the show is so formulaic, its supporting cast is so boring, and its notion of its world as a clockwork one where every character has a particular story function are all so pervasive that it becomes harder and harder to care about any given season, other than how it functions within the larger picture of the show's storyline. At this point, we're being held hostage by Showtime and/or Michael C. Hall. At some point, either the network is going to decide it's time to end the show (not likely) or Hall is going to want to do something else and the series can ramp up the end game. But until that point, the show is stuck in a holding pattern. If nothing else, the season five finale, disappointing, despite many, many good parts, is the definitive proof of this.
Before writing this piece, I went back and read my thoughts on the season four finale, where I briefly convinced myself the series had taken a big step up. I didn't like much of season four, but the finale provided a new frame of reference to look at the season through, and that made me like even the meandering middle just a little more. (John Lithgow's titanic performance certainly didn't HURT, in this regard.) At the time, I thought Dexter was perhaps revealing that it was an addiction narrative about a man who probably should stop killing but simply can't, so warped was he by his father. But after spending all of season four building to that idea, season five did basically nothing with it, telling yet another simple, closed-off story about Dexter confronting an awful evil, this time with the help of the celebrity guest star instead of the adversity and with far more narrative dead ends.
Here's a simple test: What more do we know about Dexter as a character or even as a show at the end of this season that we didn't before? Every finale up until this point has expanded the show's conception of the central character, at least a little bit. Season one gave him a brother and an origin myth. Season two reinforced his sense that his work was somehow righteous, even as the show seemed to suggest, "Eh, maybe not, bud." Season three suggested he might be able to grow into a family man. Season four suggested that, no, the compulsion to kill was so strong that it would eventually overwhelm all else and become a cancer that dragged him to hell. What has season five had to say about the man that we didn't already know? He's capable of forming attachments? We knew that. He'll kill for self-preservation? Knew that, too. Serialized narratives succeed best when we're getting new information constantly (or at least getting new dimensions to old characters), but they can work if the same old beats are successfully disguised. It's on these grounds that this season of Dexter hasn't worked.
I'm purposefully ignoring, of course, the single biggest addition to the Dexter mythos this season brought up, the addition of Lumen. Lumen's a pretty great character, and as the season has gone on, I've become invested both in her mission of revenge and the way she's sucked Dexter into it. It's been a pretty good storyline, even in the bad episodes, and it's been well-acted by Hall and Julia Stiles. And I guess if I'm being generous, I'd say that it's suggested Dexter is capable of truly caring about a person, not just faking it, or I'd say that if I didn't think the show had already proved Dexter is capable of this with Rita and Deb and the kids and a host of other characters. Still, Lumen's added something to the show, and while I wasn't exactly in suspense during Dexter and Lumen's attempts to subdue Jordan Chase or when Dexter was racing to the camp site with Harry urging slightly more caution, I did find those moments to be the most engaging of the episode. In particular, the scene where Lumen and Dexter strapped Jordan to a table to plunge a knife into his heart was stellar, finally giving a good sense of why the producers hired Jonny Lee Miller for this part. (His reading of "YOU DO NOW!" in particular was chilling.)
But, of course, Lumen has to get on a bus. And while the scene where she and Dexter talk about how she's different now, that her burden has largely lifted, is well-written and well-acted, its place within the show is designed so completely to make sure everything gets back to the status quo that it can't help but rankle just a bit. Dexter is a show where things can't change, not really, even very slightly. Part of that is the fact that there's never been a consistent voice behind the scenes. Showrunners come and go, and they bring their particular interpretations of the character and his growth with them. The show will feint toward change now and then, but what it's really doing is moving the pieces around on the game board to keep things vaguely interesting until the final season, when the show will tilt headfirst into whatever it wants to do for the conclusion.
In some ways, this is fine. The main character is fine, and the show often gives him interesting people to bounce off of, as it did this season with Lumen. The plotting is often pretty good, and even the worst episodes of the show have come up with some solid scenes and set pieces. Even when I'm complaining about this show, I'm enjoying watching it, for the most part. The individual pieces are all pretty good. But on the level where I most enjoy TV dramas, the level where the story is always growing, always building, the show is a letdown more often than not.
To a real degree, I think that critical appreciation (especially my appreciation) of Dexter began to wane most significantly when Breaking Bad came on the air. The two series play in very similar thematic areas, but Breaking Bad is unafraid to make its main character relentlessly awful. He's gotten involved in very bad things, and those very bad things are going to drag him down, whether he likes it or not. The show's plotting always enhances this, and its supporting characters feel fully realized. There's no attempt to defang the hero, and the moral ambiguity is always relentlessly in place. Breaking Bad is so thoroughly Dexter with everything just done BETTER that it makes the older show feel slightly superfluous. It doesn't mean that it's terrible or unpleasant to watch or anything, but it is slightly disappointing, even in its best episodes.
Another case in point: I realize that the show has been building to Deb's acceptance of Lumen's vigilante kills all season long, and on a show that wasn't transparently trying to stretch out its length with bullshit maneuvers, I might have enjoyed the scene where she runs across the vigilante and has a chance to just let them walk away, then takes it. But it's such a nakedly desperate attempt to bring someone THAT MUCH CLOSER to catching Dexter without actually doing so that it rankles. It's properly built to, and on its own, it might be a nice little scene, but it also feels completely ridiculous, tossed into the episode solely to give a sense of something happening, while ultimately preserving the status quo. (The same goes for Deb bringing up the Ice Truck Killer for his annual season finale mention but not bringing up that she, uh, knows Dexter is the guy's brother, a plot point that's been COMPLETELY dropped.)
If there's a storyline here that suggests some sort of new direction going forward, it's probably the fact that Dexter exonerates Quinn for Liddy's murder. Presumably, Liddy's murder will be hanging over the show next season (or it will be forgotten entirely), and Dexter had a perfect chance to pin it all on Quinn, based on that drop of blood on Quinn's shoe (good catch, commenters). But he declares the blood is not Liddy's, letting Quinn off the hook and getting the guy back into the good graces of his sister. It's a nice moment, suggesting that perhaps Dexter is starting to learn a little about friendship and building relationships, more than he's let on in the past. Or maybe it's just there because he has that knack for self-preservation and knows a free Quinn is less likely to start asking questions than an imprisoned Quinn. Who knows?
Every time I bring up this central issue with Dexter, I get a number of you saying that maybe this season will be the last or maybe next season will be the last or maybe … And I get that. I do. Dexter definitely feels like a show that's in need of unleashing some sort of end game, and the longer it goes on, the more it's going to dilute its legacy. Even here, in the good seasons of the show, I think most of us can sort of instinctually sense that if the show doesn't start changing up the format or exposing Dexter soon, it'll fall into a rut. For a lot of us, myself included, it did this season (well, I was growing skeptical of Dexter in seasons three and four before the season four finale made me think I'd perhaps misjudged the show), and the sloppy plotting didn't help at all in this regard. The problem, though, is that as long as we keep watching and buying the DVDS and enjoying the show, the greater the risk becomes that the show will eventually turn into a completely formulaic mess, if it hasn't already. It's the great pitfall of the medium of television, at least as produced in the U.S., and as long as the show is a success for Showtime, the longer it will stay on the air.
And I think you can see where this would be a problem. We're taking on faith that Showtime or Hall will realize that the show's legacy is entirely dependent on ending at some point fairly soon, but there's little to no reason to suggest that Showtime will care enough about the show's artistic integrity to stop backing the dump truck full of money up to Hall's house. This season ends with Dexter cradling his infant son, helping him blow out his first birthday candle on the beaches of Miami, talking about human connection. In some ways, human connection and Dexter's problems with it are the most central theme of the show, and the final monologue is very well-written. But it's also a lie. Dexter will form connections until the show needs to take them away from him, and he'll keep playing minute variations on the same basic storyline until someone calls a stop to the whole setup. Maybe that point will come next year, but given the problems that have gotten more and more glaring in the last three seasons, I'm not holding my breath.
- I was so irritated by the "Deb stumbles upon Dexter and Lumen" scene that I questioned for a brief moment whether I'd keep watching the show. But, no, this show would have to get a lot worse than that for me to stop watching.
- And, hey, the Irish nanny didn't turn out to be Santa Muerte or anything more ridiculous than that. I count this as a good sign, and I liked having Dexter's family back in town, though they didn't seem to really increase the pressure on his life in any significant or interesting way.
- I liked Angel complaining about being the only one who wanted to solve Liddy's murder.
- Lots and LOTS of terrible voiceover in this episode, but the worst was when Dexter says "Me" when the other cops are talking about what Liddy was watching.
- I'm glad Lumen didn't die, but I wish the show didn't make it seem as though she would be dropping off the face of the Earth. Indeed, bringing her back for an episode or two next season might be nice.
- On the other hand, I think this season has had the best use of Harry maybe in the show's history. He remained pretty consistently a way for Dexter to argue with his subconscious, sometimes getting into car accidents in the process.
- It's, as always, been a pleasure dissecting Dexter with you fine folks. We'll hopefully see you all again next fall!