Dexter: A Tale of Two Shots

Dexter’s series finale may be titled Remember the Monsters, but it is hard to scavenge anything resembling the good ol’ days in the hollow carcass that Showtime’s fixture has become. And while we’re being honest with each other, I was so thoroughly disturbed by Dexter’s ending that I felt the need to draw its last shot (see above)—and only when I had finished did I realize the problem.

Dexter, the sad lumberjack: a study of the parting shot of Dexter’s series finale (aired: September 22)
Dexter, the sad lumberjack: a study of the parting shot of Dexter’s series finale (aired: September 22)

The last we will ever see of Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is clearly meant to remind us of when we first see him in the opening credits of each episode. In both moments, Dexter’s face cranes from an occluded position to a full-face shot as he stares, seemingly forever, into the camera, giving us a straight glimpse into the persona of this mysterious forensic-tech-by-day, principled psychopath-by-night. These shots should match up and give us a sense of closure, but they don’t come even close. The fierce stare of the credits has turned into a tired and confused expression of chagrin.  But there’s also another, much larger problem: we hardly notice. Here, the main character’s being totally out of character is the logical limit of a sequence of ill-conceived unbelievable story arcs and questionable screenwriting that mar Dexter’s final season.

(left) a shot of Dexter from credit sequence; (right) the parting shot of the series
(left) a shot of Dexter from credit sequence; (right) the parting shot of the series

Anyways, as fans know, the show is premised upon Dexter’s attempt to come to terms with his “dark passenger,” a psychological force that compels him to kill. In order to channel his compulsion, Dexter’s adopted father Harry Morgan (James Remar) gives him “The Code,” which exhorts targeting only amoral killers who escape through the cracks of the justice system and deserve a grisly comeuppance.

Dexter’s eighth season operates within this familiar framework, tracing the main character’s confrontation with the “brain surgeon,” the serial killer that Miami Metro must yet again faithfully, but incompetently, hunt. Known for carving out his victim’s anterior insular cortex (the part of the brain that regulates empathy), this most recent killer brings to the show Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), an expert on psychopathy who secretly believes the “brain surgeon” to be one of her patients.  Vogel soon emerges as a motherly figure, revealing her hidden role in Dexter’s past and confronting him about his true identity.

Dexter has long focused on the psychopath’s desire to “fit in,” creating in Dexter’s case not only a cover story but, as he tells us in a voice over this season, something much more complex and innate. For example, when Vogel asks him whether he loves Deb he responds with a firm “yes”—something Vogel labels “impossible” for psychopaths. Dexter resists this idea, but it is only when Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovsky) re-enters Dexter’s life with a teasing “Remember me?” that he begins to suddenly contemplate the possibility of a “normal life.” His fatal attraction for Hannah materializes in a desire to start afresh in Argentina, away from the memories and chaos of Miami. But this desire for human connection puts him in the crosshairs of the “brain surgeon,” who threatens Dexter and his loved ones if he does not end his chase for the serial killer, setting up what should have been an epic high stakes game of cat-and-mouse.

(Alert! Spoilers to the season finale ahead )

Instead, our hopes are dashed. The finale is as stale and confused as its final shot. We begin with the implausible ending of the previous episode, in which Dexter unhitches his “dark passenger,” handing Oliver Saxson (Darri Ingolfsson), the “brain surgeon,” over to Miami Metro. He does so because, as he tells us, he’d rather be with Hannah and his son Harrison than cleaving Saxson’s chest cavity in two. While this act mirrors perfectly the increased value that Dexter places on his personal relationships, the events surrounding it prevent a celebration of its climactic import.

The trouble begins when Deputy Marshal Clayton (Kenny Johnson), who has been tasked with finding the fugitive Hannah McKay, finally decides it is a good idea to tail the shadily evasive Deb. As he arrives at the asylum, we have a shot that establishes the front entrance of the asylum and the two Morgans’ cars within view. Yet, apparently, Clayton never deduces Dexter’s presence, nor does he realize that Saxson is the very man whose face has been plastered all over the news as “Miami’s Most Wanted.” The naïve Clayton then releases Saxson who plunges a knife straight into his heart before stealing his gun, smoothly concealing it, and shooting Deb in the first go, all in one smooth motion while making his big escape.

Still, we might be willing to suspend our disbelief if the script didn’t take pains to rehash exactly how incredible it is. When Dexter blames himself for leaving Saxson alive, Deb calls the entire incident “bad luck.” It is some bad luck, alright! Dexter’s writers often rely on a perversely selective version of Murphy’s Law in order to piece implausible outcomes together. But c’mon, did they really need to rub it in?

Nor is this an isolated incident. When Dexter plunges a PaperMate pen straight into Saxson’s jugular after he is arrested and detained in a holding cell, it is stunning how little he is grilled over the incident. This pattern makes us question other choices from earlier in the season. Would the fiercely territorial Deb really compliment Hannah (who has drugged her twice) on her cooking and learn to welcome her into her home? Would the erudite Vogel, who institutionalized her son earlier, really expect to rekindle a relationship with the psychopathic Saxson?

But to give the show its due, there are some brilliant moments within the finale as well. We see a smart shot transition between scenes that incorporates a cut to a shot of an ice truck, a thoughtful and relevant reference to Season 1’s “ice truck killer” Brian Moser. And we hear a Dexter voice-over with a particularly memorable line: “For so long all I wanted was to feel like other people … now that I do, I just want it to stop.” No other line could more economically encapsulate what Dexter must feel when he is overcome with human attachment and its natural corollary, loss.

It almost makes you think the finale is worth the watch—that is, until you’re dragged back into a baffling mindscape with the sequence of shots that follows Dexter’s pulling the plug on Deb.  Dexter, somehow unnoticed, carts her corpse out of the hospital and takes it onto his boat. The shots themselves are visually striking: the billowing of the white sheet against the dark, stormy sky is worthy of a Romantic painting of the sublime. But we must ask ourselves, since when did Dexter become an art film? The Fellini-like ignorance of bystanders coupled with the cinematographer’s focus on creating a visually emotive Pieta flies in the face of the show’s otherwise gritty depiction of reality.

This dichotomy brings us back to the ending: maddeningly beautiful, but completely out of place. Although it is Deb’s dying wish that Dexter “go and be happy,” Dexter rebuffs her. Before killing Saxson, Dexter recounts, “you took away this foolish dream that I could ever have a happy life.” Dexter associates himself with a “trail of blood and body parts,” which convinces him that he must separate himself from those he loves the most. After tossing Deb into Miami harbor, Dexter drives his boat into the eye of the hurricane, and is presumed dead by the devastated Hannah before he resurfaces in the guise of a lumberjack, so bereft of any form of human contact in his log cabin that he cannot harm anyone else.

Eight seasons of gut and heart wrenching action and delicate humanization of a psychopath, only for him to live out his life in complete isolation. This ending is nihilistic enough for us to ask, “Would Dexter really do this?” Dexter’s producers are right when they claim that Dexter’s emotional fiber is irreparably shaken by the blame he places on himself for Deb’s death. And I may even believe the next logical step—that he feels he must cage himself in a “self-imposed prison” to protect those he loves most. However, the nature of this “prison” seems wholly unreasonable. Could Dexter, whose entire identity was centered around a fight-or-flight response, truly give up the fight and the flight? Could someone whose life was so intimately married to action and danger live as a hermit?

Answering in the affirmative means we believe Dexter has been sufficiently convinced that he cannot separate the pain he has caused in Miami with his new life in Argentina—something that seems rather silly since this was the point of going there in the first place. Still, even if we internalize this logical flaw, can we fathom the last shot, the shot in which Dexter enters his prison confused and dispirited, voiceless and without conviction?

My disappointment with Dexter’s finale is particularly acute because the first four seasons are some of the most compelling television I’ve seen. Despite what I’ve written, I would still encourage those readers who have not yet seen Dexter to watch until at least the fourth season finale, the high-point of the series.  Unfortunately, much of the series coasts after this, failing to make any real impact or provide us with closure before fatefully crashing and smattering into listless driftwood, meeting much the same fate as Dexter’s boat.

Finale Grade: D            Series Grade: A-

The series finale of Dexter aired on Showtime on Sunday, September 22, 2013; the series DVD collection of Dexter will be available on November 5, 2013

Parth Parihar is a junior in the Mathematics department.