In July of 2011, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the executive producers of Showtime’s Dexter, Tim Schlattmann (http://www.thestream.tv/watch.php?v=2240). Among other topics we talked about was the idea of Dexter being a serial killer versus a vigilante. Of him being a sociopath versus suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Prior to Tim being booked on my show I had never seen Dexter (it has since become my favorite) but by the time of the interview I had seen enough to be convinced Dexter suffered from PTSD, and that he had and was capable of more feelings and good than he gave himself credit for. My “diagnosis” seemed to be confirmed through the seasons, as Dexter continued to search and learn more about himself. Expressing feelings and actions of loyalty, protection, care, guilt and regret, for those he cared for are not characteristics of a socio, or psychopath. Even in this past season, Harry (Dexter’s delusional version of him) informs him that “the dark passenger” wasn’t real, rather just a coping mechanism, which enabled him to deal with the trauma of watching his mother get murdered with a chainsaw.
After watching the season seven finale of Dexter, I looked up a couple of old interviews with series stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and Jennifer Carpenter (Deb). Both talked about one of the initial challenges of the show being to make a serial killer likeable and someone you would root for. For six seasons they overwhelmingly succeeded. For me, in season seven they did not.
The formula had always been simple. Part one was to give Dexter a moral code where he only kills clearly defined, detestable killers, with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The code, which tells him how to live, survive and who to kill, while not flawlessly executed, is admirable given who he is and where he comes from. Prior to season seven I can think of three instances where he deviated:
-He made an honest mistake and killed someone he thought was a killer but wasn’t.
-Grief stricken, and without planning, he killed a piece of white trash in a bathroom.
-Perhaps the most egregious was in season two, when he kidnapped Sgt. Doakes.
While he technically didn’t kill Doakes, (his psycho ex girlfriend Lila took care of that) he was prepared to frame him for all of his murders.
Side note: How could Deb not ask Dexter about Doakes’ death? And framing him??? Doakes was her friend and partner? I’m guessing the writers couldn’t agree on something so they chose to ignore it, but it could have been easily handled.
Part two of making Dexter likable was to have him do good deeds for all of the people in his life. Dexter convinced himself that any good he ever did was pretending, so that he could fit in. Over the years, he thought he was fooling others with this persona. I thought he was fooling himself. His instinctual protection of Rita from her ex, or Astor’s friend from her abusive father wasn’t faked. There really is good in Dexter. His actions may have been phony at first as he tries to fit in, but as he actualizes and grows, sometimes with childlike innocence, they became real.
So with great writing and acting, it became easy to root for Dexter to kill these bad guys and to find his way.
It is interesting to compare Doakes and LaGuerta discovering Dexter is the Bay Harbor Butcher and how Dexter handled it. With Doakes there was a massive internal struggle. Should I kill him? Let him go or frame him? There was acknowledgment that Doakes was just doing his job, he did not fit the code nor was he the enemy. Dexter’s demons were.
With LaGuerta there was little to no struggle, mere preservation, defensiveness and yelling at Harry. A better choice would have been a struggle to surrender versus eliminating LaGuerta for Deb’s sake. Deb had been dragged in and was now vulnerable to being arrested as an accomplice. It would have been nice to see him reach the conclusion that surrender was the way to go only to change his mind as the realization that in addition to the psychological damage he already inflicted upon Deb, he could now be ruining her career and be responsible for her going to prison.
In previous seasons Dex was a somewhat self-aware “monster” struggling to manage the needs of his dark passenger with the rest of his life. His constant inner dialogue led me to believe that in some ways he was more self-aware of who he was, his social challenges and the masks that he and most of us wear. (Thankfully we’re not all holding back our inner serial killer, but we do present a false self from time to time and are not always consciously aware of it. Dexter brings this to light.)
However, when confronted by Deb after she discovered his secret, Dexter employed typical justifications and defenses for who and what he is. The self-awareness disappeared. His protectiveness of Deb, for the most part, was replaced with self-preservation. With little resistance, he allows Deb to jeopardize her own life and career to help him. He watches her emotionally spiral downward and become addicted to xanax.
Deb is a very likable and sympathetic character who has always teetered on the emotional edge. Watching Dex push her over was not enjoyable and takes away from his liability.
Instead of doing things to help “good” people, as in prior seasons, he was hooked on helping another serial killer, Hannah, that I couldn’t get that excited about. The problem with the Hannah character (played wonderfully by Chuck alumni Yvonne Strahovski) was that she was not as dislikable as villains of prior seasons. Most of her victims, while not quite up to Harry’s code, were still despicable. Obviously killing Sal Price and messing with Deb was crossing the line. But then you realize that that is no different then what Dexter did to Hannah’s father, Doakes, and was prepared to do to LaGuerta.
Seeing Dexter with Hannah was not like seeing him happy with Rita, Lumen, or even Lila before she went nuts. It was emotionally confusing, not really liking or disliking it.
The ending also doesn’t work. At the point in which Dexter drops his knife and raises his hands in a sign of giving up, it no longer made sense for LaGuerta to be calling for Deb to “put him down”. Rather, she should have called for Deb to cuff him. If they wanted the ending to play out the same way, they could have had Dexter say or gesture that he would have killed himself versus going to prison, thus forcing Deb’s hand to make the choice she did.
However, I could have done without this storyline completely. Season seven had more than enough material to mine without this. The show could have:
-Delved deeper into Deb trying to rehab Dexter while simultaneously having Dexter trying to get Deb to see how some evil really does fall through the cracks. I feel like the season abandoned these story lines too quickly. Rather than killing LaGuerta, Deb could have crossed the line by killing a villain.
-Made Hannah more of a Poison Ivy type villain (from Batman) that better hid this side from Dexter, only to be discovered much later on. Their love could have been stronger and Dexter’s choice to turn on her more difficult and gut wrenching.
-A better confrontation with Isaac. Two points here: Isaac demonstrated enough badass skills of his own to present a major challenge of getting him on Dexter’s table. And once Isaac was let go from the mob, there was no reason for Dex to be scared of him. They still could have had their meaningful chat the old fashioned way, with Isaac on the table in the kill room!
-Have Dexter be less defensive, show more awareness and contrition over what he was doing to Deb. Ultimately his actions could have played out the same but we needed to see the awareness and more struggle. It’s part of what makes Dexter likable.
With the storyline as it was, with LaGuerta discovering the truth, I would have preferred a surprise ending where Captain Matthews shows up at the container and kills LaGuerta. With the storyline being that Matthews knew about Dexter from the beginning and that he helped Harry (Dexter’s foster father) devise and execute the plan of Dexter becoming who he is, and that he promised Harry he would always look after him from a distance.
Further, bringing back Doakes via flashback (which didn’t added much) would have been better utilized if it was LaGuerta who started having the flashbacks. The blood slide she found could have been the trigger. The flashbacks could have informed her investigation as opposed to the boating record evidence that presumably special agent Lundy would have uncovered during the original investigation.
Having said that. I still enjoyed the season. The performances were up to their usual high standards. Jennifer Carpenter’s acting in particular blows me away. The gambit of emotions she has to play, the subtext to her work… It boggles my mind that she does not have emmy or golden globe wins or even nominations. I originally became hooked on the show because of the excellent work of Michael C. Hall and my enjoyment of his character. Speaking of Dex, I did like his recognition this season that he can love and doesn’t have to give in to his dark passenger. But it will be Deb that has me coming back for season eight with the hope that she is okay and that Dex finds his way back to the serial killer I knew and loved.