Not only did I just watch Dexter’s Season 4 finale last night, I also have spent a good chunk of my exam period rewatching all of season 1 of the show (thanks to Alan Sepinwall for sparking my interest with his best single TV seasons of the 2000s). This post abounds with spoilers about the show, so don’t read if you plan on watching it.
I have a theory that divides the TV shows I like into two different categories: art series and TV shows. Art series are ones that aspire to the same type of immortality as a great novel or movie: think Sopranos, the Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, or Freaks and Geeks. TV shows aspire to be enjoyable (Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood, Lost, Burn Notice). Many shows start life in between the two types and (if they survive), invariably invariably lurch towards TV show status (Big Love, True Blood, maybe Rome; maybe Damages; an exception to this may be The Office). The idea of an art series is itself very recent and may have started with the Sopranos. Many critics have become disappointed with Dexter, because they thought they show was an art series, when really it’s just a TV show.
The TV show-ness of Dexter can most easily be seen in its unwillingness to make game-changing plot twists (with the possible exception of the end of Season 4; I’m skeptical that the structure of the show will change, but I guess we’ll wait and see if we don’t just get bachelor-Dexter with Astor and Cody’s grandparents getting the kids). The status quo at the end of each season is basically similar to the start: there are some cosmetic changes (Rita has a baby at the end of season 3), but structurally, everything’s the same – Dexter still has the same home life (Rita, the kids, Debra), still works in the same job, still is an unknown serial killer, still has a different Big Bad Guy to dispatch by the end of the season, still kills other serial killers every other week or so. Dexter’s internal monologue may be different, but his life, and the show, looks the same. Compare this with the Wire, where each season introduces an entirely different part of Baltimore, or Battlestar Galactica, which turns its main characters into terrorist insurgents against the Cylons. Dexter’s more like Friends – where a question like “will two characters date each other?” takes years to resolve.
Interestingly, Dexter is NOT a series that started out in art and has descended to mere entertainment. It was always like this; critics just didn’t notice it in Season 1 because it was a show about a serial killer. Critics complain about Dexter having become too cuddly, but, from the beginning the show never attempted to make Dexter look like a “real” serial killer. From the beginning Dexter has quirks (being uncomfortable with sex, missing some (but not that many) social cues), and he claims to not feel anything, but with basically the sole exception that he’s a serial killer his actions are quite normal. The show continually Tells but does not Show us about Dexter’s weirdness. Dexter claims not to feel anything, but acts with great tenderness and empathy towards Rita’s children (watch him take the splinter out of Astor’s hand in the third episode of the series). If you didn’t constantly hear his internal monologue and see him kill people, you’d think he was just a kind of awkward guy. In Dexter’s personal life, he takes on the role of lab geek and beta male: he’s the perfect boyfriend — when Rita doesn’t want to have sex, that’s perfect; she decides she does, he’s uncomfortable but goes along with it; when she needs him to pick up the kids, he doesn’t mind; when she blows him off to get lunch with her ex-husband Paul and the kids, he tells her it’s totally fine. Never does the audience see him frustrated with his outwardly subservient role; we just hear him say sometimes that he likes killing people.
Indeed, Dexter seems to get agitated when he doesn’t kill; we see flashbacks of him as a kid wanting to kill, but we never see anything in his present-day personal life to reflect that. Does he get really angry? Not really. Does he like watching people suffer? Not that we ever see. He kills inexorably from an unexplained need that has seemingly no relevance at all to the rest of his life. This is what makes Season 2’s placement of Dexter into a 12 Step program (a fact that is never mentioned in the later seasons) amusing: his serial killing does seem just like an addiction – just a weakness of the will. This completely trivializes the idea of Dexter being a sociopath. It’s also interesting that Dexter never takes the 12 Steps seriously or ever tries to stop being a serial killer. If he did this, the writers would have to delve into the nature of his killing, which is an operation the show doesn’t have the seriousness to perform. Instead, throughout the series, we ostensibly see (through Dexter’s internal monologue) him becoming more and more human. He realizes he cares about Deborah; he realizes he cares about Rita and the kids; he realizes he wants to be a father. Critics have been unhappy with this more cuddly Dexter, but I believe this is because Dexter isn’t really changing at all. The words he says are different, but his pattern of behavior remains the same. The first season seemed artistic because it was so different – the concept of a serial killer protagonist so transgressive. In reality, Dexter is and always was a serial killer procedural where, each week, the main character kills some new bad guy. I like watching it. Michael C. Hall’s very good; it’s a fun show, but, alas, it’s not truly special, and, really, it never was.