Geoff Pevere: Deconstructing Dexter

I think it’s time to dump Dexter. The guy has become something I never expected him too – a righteous bore – and I find myself no longer curious to know what might happen next to him.

This is not a lightly taken bailout. I’ve devoted some sixty or so hours of my brief life to this show, and the time has arrived when I must consider whether there aren’t other things I ought better to be doing. Like sleeping maybe, or finally cracking that pristine copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

If I do either of those, I’ll owe Dexter a debt of gratitude. It will be something positive to have come from one of the most disappointing TV experiences of my life.

As I do most TV shows these days, I came to Dexter late. It was already three seasons in by the time I gave in to the mounting pile of endorsements made by folk I know on the program’s behalf, and I was instantly transfixed. From the moment Michael C. Hall appeared in the sunny offices of the Miami Police Department’s homicide division bearing doughnuts as a sadly endearing ploy to win the affection of normal people he felt so hopelessly confused by, and as I watched him struggle so mightily merely to calculate the proper way in which to appear to be a regular guy – which, as a serial killer, he isn’t – I knew the show was onto something daring and rich.

In those first three seasons, the motivating drama in the show wasn’t the murder cases but the character’s daily effort just to seem normal. And this was rich precisely because, by shifting our empathies from the normal world to that of the monster trying to live in it, Dexter questioned the very idea of what it was to be normal. Even more smartly subversive was the implication that nobody really is normal, and that Dexter, for all his skills in the art of murder – not to mention his need to do it and the pride he took in doing it so well — was really just a few feet further out on the branch we’re all clinging to.

This Dexter reached his sublime peak in season three, when the character found himself reluctantly aligned with a corrupt district attorney (played superbly by Jimmy Smits) and therefore had to come to terms with his own derangement. He realized not only what he was but what he couldn’t be, and the final act of murder was therefore as chilling as any in the show so far. Dexter knew he was not only alone but he needed to be, and what he accepted was the irreconciliable division of his personality. He was a high-functioning killer, and I assumed with that acceptance he’d only get more ruthless, calculating and fantastically entertaining.

Then he gets married. Then he becomes a dad. Then he comes up against another killer – also a married Dad (Trinity, played by John Lithgow) – whose monstrousness not only exceeds Dexter’s it motivates him to take revenge on easily the most conventional, honourable and stuffy of terms: to protect his family and society, and to rid the world of exactly the kind of guy he himself is.

Or was, and that’s why I’m packing my things. In season five, Dexter has become a loving father driven by guilt over his wife’s death. He’s lost his sense of humour, he never displays that look of stunned perplexity that Michael Hall once so brilliantly transmitted, and his mission could not be more decent: to help a surviving victim of a group of serial killers get her revenge, and in doing so to redeem his own bloody past and make amends for his wife’s death.

The doughnuts are long gone. So is the internal voiceover conveying Dexter’s ironic relationship to this strange world of normality, and so is the show’s dark but once proudly beating heart. The man is now merely another family values vigilante with a secret any decent person would forgive. He only kills people who kill people, and he’s entitled to enjoy that not because he’s so sick but because they’re so bad.

There’s nothing quite like the letdown of a drama that’s held you spellbound by one thing that suddenly becomes another. Worse, that becomes something that completely contradicts and undermines what it once was. The wonderful thing about those early seasons of Dexter was the challenge it presented us as viewers: it compelled us to like someone who’d just as soon skin us alive as give us the time of day, and it asked us to consider that there was something of that in all of us.

In season five, Dexter has become just another TV hero: a guy working on the side of conventional good for the dullest of reasons – making the world safe for his kid and securing his redemption – and with that it retreats into that vast wasteland of TV shows that sacrifice their edge to fit the big formula.

In those first three seasons, Dexter had the balls to reveal that formula as a scam: normality was nothing more than a pose, and as long as you could maintain that pose you could get away with murder.

But I’ll tell you what. I’ll stick around for the last three or so episodes of season five before I make any hasty departure, and I’ll leave myself open for any arguments that insist I should at least give it one more year. So bring them on. If Dexter gets that dark groove back in season six, let me know. I’d be delighted to hear I’m wrong, and the doughnuts are one me.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

3 Responses to “Geoff Pevere: Deconstructing Dexter”

  1. Read the books. Start with the first. The tone is maintained, the plots are brilliant, and the characterization is fine. The latest still haunts me. TV/film will never, for me, be a substitute for what the mind can bring to literature.

  2. Don Lamont Says:

    Sadly, I have to agree with this critique. I guess all shows have a shelf life and Dexter is no exception. It’s too bad as I too really enjoyed this show and have noticed feeling let down with it recently. Thanx for the ride Dex but it’s time to kill yourself.

  3. Give it another season – the dark groove is back in a big way this year.

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