Analysis: It never knew when to quit, but its commitment to pulp is admirable
“Dexter” is leaving us Sunday, and going to a better place: a rerun heaven where we can relive his many great moments, and ignore the messier ones.
First things first: It did its job. It was Showtime's top show for years and is now tied with “Homeland,” a show it helped launch by providing a big lead-in. This season, its eighth, it is averaging 6.1 million viewers, up from last year.
And “Dexter” brought us some incredible thrills, especially in a spectacular Season 4, in which Michael C. Hall met his perfect adversary in the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow). That season had everything: a terrible but understandable bad guy, a deeply flawed hero functioning at his best, a rollicking game of cat-and-mouse. It even had a shocking, heartbreaking ending, when Dex killed Trinity only to find that Trinity had killed Rita (Julie Benz).
That will go down as one of the best seasons of any show, in my book. But none of the seasons that followed will. Dexter seemed to dive back into dating a little fast, it was weird how he shuffled off his stepkids to their grandparents, and none of his new opponents — except Jonny Lee Miller as a hellish motivational speaker — came close to rivaling Trinity for sheer menace.
Dexter's sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) was always the heart of the show, the true audience surrogate in a series narrated (often heavy handedly) by a serial killer. Carpenter's acting was always stellar. But Deb lost us when she fell in love with her brother, then found out he was a serial killer, then decided not to turn him in, then killed for him.
Her journey, like everything in late-period “Dexter,” had a splatter-everything-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks feel.
Here's what stuck for me: “Dexter” was unrepentant pulp, and I respect that. Even when I felt a little pandered to. “Dexter” was a show that never shot a scene in a bank when a strip club would suffice, never showed someone clothed when they could get them topless, never cut away from gore when it could really luxuriate in grotesquerie.
Beginning with Season 6, it felt like we the viewers were supposed to be really impressed by the ghastliness of the crime scenes. Hey, anything to distract from that “Sixth Sense” twist.
Pulp is fun. With its Miami backdrop and beautiful people, “Dexter” was always too pretty to feel grindhouse, but it had grindhouse in its heart. (It had a lot of things going on in its heart, as showrunners came and went.) It always stayed committed to shock us, and if not keep us in suspense, at least keep us in awe. (Remember the bull guy with the maze? What the hell was that?)
Hall was always watchable. The “Six Feet Under” veteran played Dexter Morgan as part killer, part confused child. He narrated, yes, but he was never in control the way he thought he was. His Dark Passenger kept reaching for the wheel. Hall was deservedly nominated for five Emmys, and won a Golden Globe in 2010, around the time he beat cancer.
The show had fantastic guests as well: Lithgow (who won a much-deserved Emmy), Miller, Jimmy Smits, Julia Stiles and, lately, Yvonne Strahovski. Actors loved getting dirty on “Dexter,” a show where they were expected not just to accept the jittery grossness, but build on it.
“Dexter” didn't know when to quit. It went on maybe a season too long. It piled on blood, violence, needless exposition. And Showtime has left open the possibility of a spinoff.
The Dark Passenger's work is never done.
The “Dexter” finale airs at 9/8c on Showtime.