Illustration by André Carrilho
As Dexter, Showtime’s longest-running and most popular hit, has returned this summer for its eighth and final season, we will presumably learn what the series has been up to all along. Now a forensics analyst for the Miami Police Department, where his stepsister is a cop, moonlighting serial killer Dexter Morgan was orphaned by the savage dismemberment of his single mother when he was three and raised by the officer who found him and recognized within the small boy a budding monster. Instilling a “code,” the new father tried to direct Dexter’s violence toward those who deserve it—and so Dexter has become an avenging angel, executing other monsters not really out of any sense of justice but because he can’t help himself.
A reasonably well-crafted series, Dexter is addictive up to a point, in the manner of addictive, well-crafted series. You don’t, however, have to be among the watchdogs monitoring everyone else’s viewing habits (and trying to suppress edited reruns of Dexter on network TV) to wonder whether a seven-year hit show whose hero is a homicidal maniac says something peculiar about the culture. While Dexter isn’t the torture porn of American Horror Story at its most high-spirited, no other show in television history has fetishized blood to the extent that it does, except maybe that vampire one over on HBO with the word in the title. From the credits with their Hannibal Lecter allusions, where Dexter cuts himself shaving so he can ooze all over the food he eats, to the “trophies” of his victims that he keeps in the air conditioner of his apartment (blood samples on slides, which admittedly are relatively benign as serial killer trophies go), to red, overflowing bathtubs, blood is Dexter’s life and forensic specialty: analyzing what the crimson spillage—the way it seeps, splatters, and “mists”—tells about how a crime was committed. I assume the rights to the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” weren’t available or that I’m the only one old enough to think of it.
Up until A year or so ago the blueprint for Dexter never varied all that much, with Dexter dodging capture and exposure, the latter of which he’s feared almost as much as the former because, against his own expectations, he’s developed feelings for those who would be devastated to learn the truth. Each season has pitted him against an array of kindred spirits, most notably John Lithgow’s “Trinity” midway through Dexter’s run, thereby making what for most of us would be distinctions without a difference between good serial killers and bad. Along the way there have been miscellaneous “dark passengers”—a femme fatale or two and the rare investigator canny enough to be smarter than the rest of those on Dexter’s trail. The prototype for the series was the second season, the events of which have come back to haunt Dexter. That was when we last saw Sergeant Doakes, the doomed, self-appointed Javert with the Special Ops past who always thought something was “off” about Dexter, and met FBI man Lundy, the bureau’s “rock star” hot in pursuit of the killer while also hot for Debra, the killer’s sister, whose feelings about her stepbrother are complicated. Resenting Dexter early on for the inordinate (and, as the viewer is aware, slightly cracked) attention he got from her father, finding him increasingly odd as time passed, recently Deb has pondered if her feelings are more than sisterly. (Whether the real-life marriage—that began and ended within the span of the show—between the two actors playing the roles is the cart or the horse of this narrative arc may be as unclear to them as to us.) Fatherhood has been a running theme, all the more important later when Dexter became a father himself.
Like patriotism for scoundrels, “antiheroes” are the last refuge of TV writers looking to justify their creations, as Tony Soprano confirmed and as Don Draper keeps trying to prove before the cad in him takes over completely. Walter White in Breaking Bad traded heroism, anti or otherwise, for out-and-out villainy around the time he shaved his head, which was kind of a giveaway. Dexter has stacked the deck by making everyone in the series less likable than the main character, which couldn’t have been easy—and that’s not only the assorted psychotic nemeses but the supporting cast, which includes the least appealing female contingent on the air: conniving careerists, passive-aggressive girlfriends turned wives turned collateral damage, arsonists who ingest a date-rape drug just to cause the male dupes in their lives anxiety. Deb in particular, gamely played by Jennifer Carpenter with as much charm as three or four thousand F-bombs will allow, began the series as the most irritating woman since TV came to laptops, a neurotic narcissist who never met a situation she couldn’t make about her, such as the romance with Dexter’s lost brother in the opening episodes that turned out to be more about her than she bargained for. Lacking the code our man goes on and on about, Dexter’s adversaries (and ultimate victims), like season six’s Doomsday Killers, are always creepier and more florid in their carnage. Nonetheless we might remember that our hero—and there’s no mistaking the heroic terms in which Dexter’s struggles are related—doesn’t simply dispatch people with a bullet to the head or a single slice of the throat. Rather he surgically dices them after stabbing them through the heart, turning the act into a bondage ritual with plastic wrap and consummating it with an unsettling ecstasy more orgasmic than anything on Showtime’s neighboring series Californication.
If Dexter’s writing has always been uneven, with plot twists and dialogue alike predictable from half an hour out, star Michael C. Hall takes the show to another level. First gathering notice on Six Feet Under, Hall has a generic TV face that’s at once childlike and handsome, dorky and sinister, with all the moods to match; the scenes in which he’s smart or focused on whatever demonic impulse has engaged him are riveting, and over the years he’s conveyed, persuasively enough to overcome our incredulity, a newly emergent emotional complexity. Dexter even likes sex now, especially if it’s with someone he’s considering killing or who’s considering killing him. Hall’s performance is a tour de force that the series has been unable to equal until season seven, which, in defiance of the usual trend and although its implausibilities reached a hysterical pitch, was the show’s best: Not only did it introduce (and then kill off prematurely) the series’ most irresistible bad guy—Ray Stevenson’s comparatively down-to-earth gay Ukrainian gangster—but Deb finally caught Dexter so incontestably in the act of what he does that there was no way for him to explain his way out of it, leaving the siblings to try and reach some accord if not an actual peace. The season’s end, moreover, where the upcoming final episodes must pick up the pieces (so to speak), was the series’ darkest and most uncompromising moment. This suggests Dexter may yet find some of Breaking Bad’s integrity and moral ambition, and come to grips with the true stakes of a story that’s always been undermined by its nitwitted philosophical premise. I am Dexter, says the show, you are Dexter, we are all Dexter. Why, there’s a little Dexter in all of us. Well, maybe those of you wondering how you’re going to get by on just 96 hours of it. Me, not so much.