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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sharkjump Alert: "Dexter"

I just finished watching the most recent season of "Dexter" (season 7), and it pains me to report that this once-great show has officially and irreversibly jumped the shark.  For those of you who watch the show and have not yet caught up, you may want to skip today's spoiler-filled post.  Or read it: It will save you a lot of time and misplaced energy.

"Dexter" maintained exceptional quality for many seasons.  For years, we thrilled to the exploits of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a seemingly mild-mannered blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro Homicide, who lives a secret life as a serial killer.  What makes Dexter sympathetic, in addition to his acute intelligence and his compassion for friends and family, is the fact that he abides by a code: He preys only on those who deserve to die, mainly killers who have escaped justice.

The series itself improved year by year, reaching a high-point in season four, which featured John LIthgow as the "special guest killer," Trinity.  Lithgow was perfectly cast as the "Claudius" figure to Dexter's "Hamlet," in a storyline that revolved around Dexter's inability to decide whether or when to kill his antagonist.  The season ended with one of the great shock images in recent television history: Dexter's wife Rita (Julie Benz)--his "Ophelia"--dead in a blood-filled bathtub, Trinity's final victim.

That would have been a good place to end the series.  Season five, though, managed to maintain a fairly high-degree of quality.  The main storyline of that season featured Dexter helping Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles) exact vengeance on a group of men who had raped and tortured her (as well as having killed several other women).  Dexter falls in love with Lumen, the first woman who accepts Dexter for what he truly is (Rita never having known about Dexter's murderous tendencies).  After finishing off the last of her tormentors, though, Lumen leaves Dexter, hoping to reclaim some semblance of her normal life.

Season six was relatively unremarkable, revolving around the hunt for a pair of religiously motivated psychopaths who see themselves as divine messengers.  Indeed, the entire point of season six, in retrospect, was simply to get us to the season's final moment: Dexter's adoptive sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter)--a lieutenant at Miami Metro--having resolved to tell Dexter of her feelings for him, walks in on Dexter just as he is putting the coup de grace to his latest victim.

How will he ever get out of this one?

Which brings us to season seven.  As the season begins, Dexter attempts to explain away what Deb has just seen him do.  "What me, serial killer?"  Thankfully, the writers remembered that Deb is not an idiot, so she quickly figures out what Dexter is.  She is torn between her love for Dexter (familial or otherwise) and her sworn duty to uphold the law.  Deb resolves, uneasily, to accept the fact that Dexter kills only the worst of the worst and to do her best to protect him accordingly.  So far, so good, but then things get complicated.

One of the strengths of "Dexter" has always been the focused nature of the storytelling.  Each of the preceding six seasons clearly revolves around one central storyline: Dexter and the Trinity killer, Dexter and Lumen, Dexter and the hunt for the Doomsday killers.  This season, though seemed to bounce among too many storylines: Dexter and Deb; Dexter and Isaak Sirko, a Ukrainian mobster seeking to avenge Dexter's murder of his (Isaak's) lover; Dexter and Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski), a beautiful serial killer with whom Dexter falls in love.  Additionally, this season featured a subplot wherein Dexter's and Deb's boss, Capt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez), discovers Dexter's secret.  While every season has featured an entertaining number of plotlines, the lack of a clear overall storyline for this season weakened the show tremendously.  And then came the finale.

In the final episode, Dexter realizes that LaGuerta has figured out not only the truth about him, but
also that Deb has been helping him.  What is to be done?  Well, Dexter decides he has no choice but to kill LaGuerta.

Look out, Shark!

Remember that the whole point of "Dexter"--the thing that makes Dexter Morgan sympathetic--is that he ONLY kills people who deserve it, primarily those who have gotten away with murder.  Even when he has broken from his code in the past, he has still generally killed criminals, if not always murderers.  For him to decide to kill someone who is not only innocent but who is, indeed, a police officer and a friend goes against everything we have come to expect from this character: The Dexter we know and love just wouldn't do that! He would run.

As if this weren't bad enough, here's how the season ends: Dexter lures LaGuerta to the Miami docks.  He plans to make her death look like the result of a shootout with a known criminal.  He drugs LaGuerta so that he can properly prepare the scene.  And then Deb shows up.  She pulls her gun on Dexter.  She tells him not to kill LaGuerta.  LaGuerta wakes up.  She implores Deb to shoot Dexter.  Dexter himself tells Deb it's OK: She's a good person, she SHOULD shoot him. AND THEN SHE SHOOTS LAGUERTA!!!!

Even if we accept that Dexter, an experienced killer, would choose--despite everything he believes in--to kill an innocent, there is NO WAY that Deb would shoot an unarmed, helpless woman.  None.  She would have shot Dexter first or, more likely, would have convinced him to run away with her. 

A cardinal rule of storytelling is that you shouldn't fuck with the basic nature of the main character.  ("Breaking Bad" is one of the few shows that successfully breaks that rule.  Then again, the whole plot of that show is ABOUT the central character's transformation.)  "Dexter" has now asked us to continue liking TWO main characters who have now compromised everything that made them likable.  That may be just too much to ask.

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