Sunday, September 22, 2013

Reflecting on 'Dexter's' Evolution and Exorcising of Demons...

Dexter changed my life. But as it turned out, it changed a serial killer's, too.

In 2006, when Showtime first debuted Dexter, their drama about a serial killer who kills serial killers was hardly the first series to stick an anti-hero at the center of the show, making the audience not only follow but also care deeply about a flawed protagonist. Both The Sopranos and The Shield get the most credit for kick-starting the movement (in 1999 and 2002, respectively) that made anti-heroes popular, but in truth, they have been around for centuries in literature and were introduced to television decades earlier on everything from soap operas to sitcoms (Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, anyone?). But Dexter, adapted from Jeff Lindsay's novels, with the aid of the premium cable network that didn't just push boundaries it obliterated them, was on a level by itself. It came roaring out of the gate on premiere night full of blood and sinister images and sharpness-- and that was only the opening credits. But what followed was a unique portrayal of a man whose compulsion drove his every action, his every thought, his every move. He was a man unlike anyone we had ever seen because he claimed he could not feel real emotions; he claimed he was not human. While mixing quite a few stories we've seen before (crime drama, serial killer slasher, fish-out-of-water comedic moments, and even eventually a coming of age tale), Dexter was a case study in the psychology of an uncommonly complex character.


Due to the graphic nature of the show and Michael C. Hall's unflinching portrayal of a man who had been convinced-- who had convinced himself-- he was not a man but a monster, Dexter got a lot of attention for its violence. It was a show that made its audience root for a guy who was going around fictional Miami stabbing people, cutting them into little pieces, and throwing them in garbage bags off the side of a boat, after all. Dexter started decades into the character's honoring of his Code, decades after he had come to terms with who and what he was and what that meant for his extracurriculars. There was no question of whether or not Dexter should have a table at all but instead the audience was just told to accept it, too, without nearly as much prep time. It was a bold way to start, and that earned Dexter much praise and respect, as well.

From as far back as watching Doakes (Erik King) actually be onto Dexter and therefore actively rooting for him to die, the audience was challenged to tap into their own morality. Dexter was a show you could sit back and watch passively for entertainment purposes if you wanted, but you could not walk away from it without it leaving residual thoughts in your head about your ideas of right and wrong and what you thought the characters were doing that was right or wrong. Still, the character of Dexter Morgan was so firm in who and what he was back in season one that the audience, even if not always agreeing with him, had to praise and respect him, too. This was a man with a hyper-focus, a mission, and he wasn't going to let anything get in his way. Most television characters spend the better part of their individual episodes making mistakes, having misunderstandings, scrambling to get all the right information to solve a problem, but not Dexter. Never Dexter, not in the beginning at least. But how long could that be kept up? A character who is so sure of himself doesn't leave much room for growth, and without growth there is no reason to keep watching. And furthermore, a true sociopath can never grow so there is no room there for something new or different or unique. Thankfully, Dexter answered this just as early on by offering inklings that the mask he wore wasn't actually a human one after all but the monster one-- built harder than most plaster over years of repetitious belief and to a degree self-inflicted emotional abuse that he was not normal and could never be so. Suddenly what was so interesting about Dexter was not the "big bads" he had to hunt down or the people around him he had to keep at bay lest they get suspicious but what was happening in his own mind as very real relationships started to pick at his mask and prove there actually was a real guy underneath it. He became even more complicated for it, and that confused and sometimes convoluted the show as he couldn't always work out why he was suddenly doing things differently.

We got glimpses into Dexter's humanity when he went after Rita's (Julie Benz) abusive ex-husband Paul (Mark Pellegrino) as well as when he took out Lila (Jaime Murray) for killing the still-innocent Doakes. We saw him make mistakes because of that evolving side of himself that started to yearn for normalcy even when he couldn't recognize it, let alone admit it. Taking Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits) under his wing just to have a real friend was a tipping point, but so was the fascination with getting to the bottom of what was going on in Trinity's (John Lithgow) family. We saw him make horrible mistakes-- ones that should have gotten him caught for sure and ones that sent him spiraling, again, in ways he didn't yet recognize, let alone acknowledge. But the audience, completely in touch with the whole range of human emotions for years, could. And we did. 

In the earliest days of the show, Dexter came alive when entrenched in those things; he was snarky, light on his feet, and downright fun when getting his fix. He researched his next potential victim because he needed a next potential victim; he got off on the excitement, the thrill, the rush. He was feeding an addiction. But when Rita and then Harrison came into the picture, things changed a bit. Not instantaneously, but gradually over time. He began to get more out of the idea of a family life and prolonged moments that allowed that-- even though they were usually weird moments with pseudo-father figure Trinity. He had spent so many years giving himself over completely to his Dark Passenger that he didn't know how to balance, and he lost the chance to learn in the most tragic way possible. What he went looking for was revenge-- not only against Trinity; taking out one man wasn't enough-- but also against those who abused and tortured Lumen (Julia Stiles). She resembled Rita enough that Dexter could transfer many of his unexplained feelings onto her and their situation. But while he helped her heal, he really only distracted himself. In fact, he distracted himself so much he didn't seem to notice that he was no longer enjoying the kills as much as he used to but rather starting to just go through the motions with them. He performed the ritual because it was just that, and because it came with tradition. He was chasing feeling something in all the usual ways but coming up empty.

Travis' (Colin Hanks) break with reality in seeing the professor he killed as his guide for all of his new kills was a cautionary tale for Dexter Morgan himself, and in many ways should have been a wake-up call to him to try harder to break free of his demons that enslaved him to his Code, his ritual, in the first place. Dexter was still leaning too hard on Harry (James Remar) and with so much loss around him personally and on the job, he could have easily snapped the way Travis did. There will always be people around worthy of the table, and that kind of hyper-focus on finding and catching them all could drive anyone insane, let alone someone who increasingly was being fulfilled by things outside his Dark Passenger.

For a few seasons in the middle there, it seemed like maybe Dexter was just in a rut. Maybe he lost some of his passion because the routine-- the ritual-- hadn't provided him with many real challenges in awhile. Maybe it was the classic case of over time needing more and more to feel that initial thrill. But then season seven came along and proved that no, it was because Dexter's focus had opened up and shifted, and he was genuinely caring about more things than just the Code. Namely his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) and his actual-equal, not just attempted-to-make-an-equal like he had in the past, Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski). Suddenly it wasn't his family that was distracting him from his Dark Passenger but the other way around. What he used to willingly let consume him became something he seemed to have to get through in order to move onto other things, and at times he even seemed irritated by he commitment his Code required-- an irritation or at least annoyance previously reserved for per people and their interactions. Dexter Morgan came immensely far in eight seasons to realize just how human he is-- but human nature only makes you more vulnerable, even if it's mostly to your own suddenly conflicting inner thoughts and feelings.

Dexter's final season packed all of the core themes from the first seven seasons in, in order to remind the audience, and to finally point out to Dexter himself, just how far he has come. From the earliest moments of Dexter learning that it was not his adopted father who came up with the Code after all, but a stranger psychiatrist (Charlotte Rampling), it was apparent that Dexter was going to have to do some soul-searching, and perhaps some rethinking, everything he took as gospel about himself. He had spent so long just rigidly following this Code and resigning himself to be only one thing, but the seeds had already been planted that maybe he wanted to be something else, and here he was, learning that he could have been.  

He still spent time trying to take someone else under his wing (Sam Underwood)-- to try to build out a true support system-- only to see it end badly because of things he had overlooked in his desire to get something very specific out of it. He still had to choose between family, only time and emotion proved the choice more complicated and fraught than ever before. In season one, Dexter had to choose between his siblings, standing over Deb with Brian Moser (Christian Camargo) and either slicing her to kill her or to set her free, but in season eight he had to choose between protecting Deb and Hannah and his healing process or his surrogate mother Dr. Vogel. He met not a blood brother but a brother figure in Daniel Vogel/Oliver Saxon (Darri Ingolfsson) and played a game of cat-and-mouse with him that he willingly walked away from a few times, only to mean disastrous results repeated. Like with Trinity, Dexter hesitated just enough to give Saxon the edge, and the boy who was born in blood became the man who was finally awakened in it.

It took Dexter longer than it took the audience to realize that though his Dark Passenger was a part of him, it was not all of him. Since we were steps ahead of him in his own self-discovery, these thematic return sometimes meant the show took on a more typical or anticipatory formula. Sometimes the actions Dexter was taking or mistakes he was making seemed beneath him-- like things he shouldn't be doing, like things he (and supposedly the show, too) was smarter than. Sometimes the evolution of Dexter into an actual human man from the more robotic killer he was when we met him actually seemed like a degradation of the guy for whom we had grown such an affection. He was repeating his own mistakes; he was leaving himself and his loved ones vulnerable; he was-- gasp-- letting his emotions lead him. These are all things that define every other character on television-- and in this particular show-- yet he was supposed to be "better" than that. But the thing is, Dexter has always been extremely emotionally stunted because of the fact that he didn't think he had true emotions at all. So to get in touch with himself so late in life and realize he actually does, well, of course he's going to make some really bad decisions. He's just doing it much later in life and in much heightened circumstances.

The Dexter we met in season one could never have imagined he'd turn into the Dexter we said good-bye to in season eight. He had resigned himself to a certain kind of life, convinced that was all he was capable of and good for. Admittedly, the show absolutely had to end when and where it did because the audience unabashedly signed on for a show about a serial killer in 2006, and this many years later, that is the show they wanted to watch-- not one about a guy who had worked through his demons and found that he wanted to focus now on something else instead. Personally, I'm glad the show found a way to only metaphorically kill the Dexter we came to know and love so we only have to mourn a part of him, not the whole character. It wouldn't have felt right if the man who had taken down so many looming, terrible forces would have been stopped in the end. Even though over time Dexter let down his guard enough to let others catch onto him, there was never a character worthy of taking him down, but for possibly Deb, who it was always established would be by his side no matter what, even to her detriment (as it turned out to be). 

For eight seasons, Dexter was a character who did the things we at home on our couches could not. We lived vicariously, if not a bit more savagely, through him. It is perfectly fitting that he capped off the series with a couple of those actions. Ending Saxon was certainly one of them. 

While it wasn't the same as seeing him strapped to a table, wrapped in the iconic Saran wrap, it certainly satiated Dexter's drive to take care of things himself-- because that it the only way he has ever been able to prove it would be done properly, even if somewhat late. And to see that there was no joy left in the action for him, that it was just something he literally had to check off on a list, proved he no longer needed his Dark Passenger the way that he used to. But he thought he could still lean on it to get him through a few last actions, and that is where things truly turned tragic. Most people grow and mature over decades, slowly, surely, organically, but Dexter has kind of had a rush job as he has only recently realized he was even capable of emotions. And while they should be great for the man, even if not the machine-like killer inside of him, he never developed the proper tools to work his way through them.

Even if in the end he gave Debra a little bit of mercy by ending a miserable and unfair circumstance, he could not get past the childlike feelings of it all being his fault to consider the choices she willingly made that led her here as much as it did him. Any burst of growth he may have had wasn't allowed to blossom; he still gave in to his darkest thoughts that he didn't deserve anything good and that anyone around him was doomed because of him.

Of course, you can't really change who you are, and the Dark Passenger is as a part of Dexter as any other. But you can choose to let one side of yourself shine brighter and take over the others. Dexter did that with his Dark Passenger for years, and he was trying to do that with the loving family man side of him for awhile there. But replacing one all-encompassing faction with another is not learning to balance or to mature. If Dexter had simply walked away from all of his obligations to "choose himself," then this series could have still ended on a high note. Years earlier, when this series first started, Dexter driving his boat into the middle of a storm in order to leave behind all of his commitments would have been something that set a wide smile on the character's face. This time, all it did was push him into a darker place than his Passenger ever led him. 

There are many who would say that a serial killer-- even a fictional one-- doesn't deserve the hope that comes with healing or a happy ending. There are many who would say that a serial killer-- even a fictional one-- deserves to live in torture in order to pay for the crimes they've committed. True sociopaths don't feel regret for those they have killed, but even they feel when their own lives have been disrupted. Dexter may not have been locked in a physical prison, found out for his Bay Harbor-butchering after all of these years, but he put himself in a metaphorical, emotional one, punishing himself by extraditing himself and therefore backtracking completely over some of the very real work he had done towards healing. It was a relapse that turns his sadistic side in on itself. When he was a slave to his Dark Passenger for all of those years, he never thought he had another option. But now he knows the world is wide open to him, and he's choosing this solitary, sad existence anyway. It's the most depressing ending that I could have imagined: he still considers himself a monster above everything else.

Years ago, walking away from everything would have been the selfish choice. Here, he thought it was a selfless one because he believed he was the poison in his loved ones' lives. He was wrong, but it still let those left grieve and then move on. But after all the time we've spent with Dexter Morgan and all the insight we've gained, I still, maybe equally childishly, wanted something better for him. I'd still like to believe that the look on his face at the end was one of regret, and he'd track Hannah down, apologize, and start over again with her and Harrison. His grief over Debra caused him to turn to an old faithful "opt out" plan, but it's not one that will make him happy because he does have attachments now. I very much wanted him to get to the point where he gave in to how much his human nature meant for him, even when it was scary, even when it was messy. I wanted him to struggle with what it all meant but to turn to others to help him through it, rather than folding inwardly and shutting down again. If he could heal and have a happy ending, then it gave hope for the rest of us.

1 comment:

Jenna HP said...

very well done. I just watched the series ender last night and am left with many thoughts similar to yours...