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Is it fair to ask a serial-killer to multi-task? And, the writers go to sleep on the job
on March 11, 2016
I have watched seasons 1-4 back-to-back and there are spoilers in this review. Our serial-killer hero, Dexter, is not a born psychopath, but a good kid made into a killer by the profound trauma of witnessing his mother murdered by chain saw and then being forced to sit in her blood for two days before being rescued by a cop, Harry Morgan, who becomes his foster dad and teaches the emotionally empty shell how to pretend to be normal and in order to keep Dexter safe, how to channel his demons into the constructive path of hunting and killing only murderers. The lessons from Dexter’s adoptive dad Harry echo internally as his ghost returns as the voice of guidance and internal dialogue.
Season 1 is a dramatic bullet-train of non-stop heart-pounding thrills – in which Dexter is toyed with by a fabulously talented serial killer who seems to know him intimately and whose skill seems to exceed his own. Dexter works as a blood-splatter analyst for Miami Metro Homicide and helps his step-sister cop Debra hunt the Ice Truck Killer who leaves beautifully exsanguinated corpses. Family ties become strained and the question posed is what sort of family ties a serial killer can have as Dexter struggles to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend Rita and her two kids.
By season 2 Dexter’s relationship with Rita is thrown into turmoil with the reappearance of her drug-addict husband and a passionate romance with Lila, an artist, tormented with her own demons, who is determined to have Dexter as her soul-mate, but who keeps threatening Rita and the kids. Season 3 finds Dexter exploring the prospects for friendship with a rogue prosecutor with his own sense of justice. Dexter teaches him how to kill but the friendship sours as Ramon Prado pursues private vendettas with his new-found skills and, like Lila, must eventually fall under Dexter’s knife. Except for Rita and her kids, an intimate relationship with Dexter is a bit like conjugation with a black-widow spider.
Part of the series’ charm is the way we find ourselves rooting for a serial killer trying to act the way he should when he can’t feel it. All those moments of emotional isolation, of feeling different but trying to fit in, of acting how we think we should in order to belong – make Dexter a sympathetic figure. The show is also packed with wry irony and double entendres that put us in Dexter’s shoes, and mordant wit as when Dexter is ready to kill a psychologist who pushes his patients to suicide – but puts it off for a few days because he needs another session with him to address some intimacy issues he has with Rita. Finally, the only people with whom Dexter can let his hair down and be himself are his victims, strapped to the abattoir table; not only do they have so much in common but they are hardly in a position to hold what he says against him.
One of the best critical reviews of The Final Season describes how the writers gave up in the final season and the show went to pot; I suspected that the decline would come earlier because it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to watch a full-time serial killer, boyfriend and father surrogate, homicide forensics expert, sympathetic brother find time to juggle it all – and indeed by Season 4 things break down quite badly. Dexter is on the trail of Trinity, the USA’s most successful uncaught serial killer with a 30+ year record. Trinity hides in plain sight as a model citizen, father, deacon and home-builder. He takes troops of workers around the country to build homes for the needy and kills at these distant locations. Dexter undertakes to enter Trinity’s life as one of his helpers and becomes an intimate of Trinity’s family and church. When Dex decides that it’s time for Trinity to go, Dex offers a confidence that triggers a profound guilt in the senior serial-killer. Dex stalks Trinity to his job site, takes out his anesthetizing needle and sneaks up from behind but sees Trinity about to leap to his death by impaling himself on the rebar below. As the very large Trinity jumps, Dex grabs his wrist and unlike real life where they both go over or you can’t hold on, Trinity hangs there while Dex has the insight that it is okay for Trinity to die so long “as it’s by my hand.” So just as Dex is about to release Trinity’s wrist, 4-5 co-workers come up and grab the boss and pull him to safety. Whoops! Whatever happened to the meticulous take-no-risks Dexter who never comes close to being caught? Dexter doesn’t have even a moment’s reflection about what he was doing planning to snatch Trinity from the middle of a fully occupied work site.
It gets better, or worse. Dex becomes a softy and wants to start saving people instead of just killing the bad guys. One of Trinity’s victims is a 10-year old boy drugged and put into a duffle bag who will be dumped at night into a cement fill at the job-site. (Don’t ask how Trinity gets a large pit full of wet cement in the middle of the night at the build site.) Rather like rescuing the damsel tied to the tracks, Dex arrives in the nick of time, but Trinity dumps the bag into the cement and then the two commence to struggle over the shovel in Trinity’s hands. Dex wins, whacks Trinity in the head and he goes down. Now, certainly this is a moment with not a lot of time to spare, but certainly a few seconds for a couple more good whacks to make sure Trinity is done for; or a slit with the shovel edge against a jugular so the bag can be pulled out without Trinity’s interference. But Dex gives one whack, then turns toward the sinking bag and here is the kicker: the serial-killer manual 101 says than when engaged in hand-to-hand life-and-death struggle with another experienced serial-killer you don’t let him out of your sight unless he’s dead or permanently disabled. But Dex simply turns his back on Trinity and …
Well, folks, the writers started to shut down and call it quits in Season 4. Between Goodwill, Amazon and E-bay I managed to buy Seasons 1-5 for under $24.00 (shipping included) but it’s 50-50 whether Season 5 will ever get watched. By the way, Showtime must have produced the DVDs on a shoestring. The only one with subtitles was my sole Blu-ray purchase, Season 3; and both Season 3 and Season 4 begin with mandatory inescapable Showtime advertisements.