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Dexter: The Final Season

(Showtime; US DVD: 12 Nov 2013)

“I’m a mistake.”


No, Dexter hears this season, “You are perfect.” In fact, he’s told, “You should revel in what you are.”


Its been eight years since we first met Dexter Morgan, living out his moral equivalencies and trying to deal with what he used to call his “dark passenger”. The question of whether or not he represents the embodiment of evil or psychopathic tendencies placed in the service of the good guys has haunted the show since its earliest episodes.


The monster gets his Dr. Frankenstein in season eight. The final season attempts to answer the question of the relationship between the nature of evil and the story of Dexter’s origins. We discover that the development of Harry’s Code had a neuroscientist behind it, a partner to Harry in Dexter’s creation who, not surprisingly, has more than a little of the mad scientist about her.


Complaints from fans, and some former fans, about the direction of the show since season five have become common. These complaints have frequently turned on plotting, largely the sense of some that the show has never quite risen to the heights of season four when John Lithgow squared off with Dexter as the season’s “big bad”. Others have suggested that the writing, especially the dialogue, has gotten weaker.


Diehard fans probably don’t want to admit that the writing for Dexter has never been the show’s strong suit. Neither has plotting, which has often depended on accidents, rather absurd twists and characters acquiring information they probably wouldn’t or not noticing information they probably would. In fact, season eight takes exactly the kind of plot swerve that we’ve come to expect from Dexter.


Acting has always been the show’s real strength. This final season is no exception. Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter continue to spark off of one another, portraying grief, anger, loss and longing that keeps up with the show’s high-octane emotional content. This season adds Charlotte Rampling to the mix as Dr. Vogel, Dexter’s Dr. Frankenstein. The scenes between her and Carpenter are some of the best of the season, though there aren’t many of them.


The special features for Dexter: The Final Season are passable. A fairly unnecessary featurette called “From Cop to Killer” traces the scarily frightening descent of Deborah Morgan from rising detective to her brother’s accomplice in mayhem. It feels very much like a montage of scenes rather than a serious exploration of character trajectory.


Rather than putting together a stronger set of special features, the distributor stuffed three discs with episodes of Ray Donovan, hoping to build an audience for another Showtime series. That’s too bad.


Another concern ties into this rather cynical use of disc space. Product placement is simply a reality of modern entertainment and Dexter has always been a frequent offender on this point. However, this season the placement of Apple products seems even more egregious than normal. The camera doesn’t miss a chance to signal that Dexter uses an iPhone. Again, I realize that such things have become part of the warp and woof of modern TV and movies. At the same time, a firewall has to go up at some point in response to these persistent attempts to colonize our brains.


Other features include a “behind the scenes featurette” for season eight that runs about only eight minutes. This is a shame, as what we get of interviews with Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter and others offer a number of interesting ideas about the direction the show has taken.


There are also several very short features that are focused around specific episodes. The best of these is a two-minute “Dissecting a Scene” feature in which Jennifer Carpenter gets to talk about one of her most powerful, and vulnerable, scenes from any of the seasons. Similarly strong featurettes are included with episodes one and two that include discussion with the show’s creators and with Michael C. Hall who directed episode 2. They are, however, very short.


Although the supplemental materials are more than a little disappointing, the final season will satisfy most hardcore Dexter fans. Even though several of the final installments feel like unnecessary filler, advancing the plot without telling much of a story, the last episode mostly works. Narrative threads get tied up with very little ambiguity and the writers play with the Dexter mythos in interesting ways.


The final denouement, I suspect, will disappoint. As those who have already seen the final episode know, we get a real effort at the end to make a statement about the transformation of Dexter’s character. It’s the nature of that character that has haunted us, not dangling plot points. I’m afraid the ending does little to answer our questions.


Through eight seasons, the James Manos Jr. and his writing room have explored the possibility that evil and violence are born from trauma or perhaps something hardwired into the genes. They’ve made us wonder about the possibility of “a dark passenger”, the old gothic terror of two selves inhabiting a single body. Then they dismissed the idea and suggested that really, at the end of the day, the violence Dexter wreaks on the world comes from his own volition, a series of decisions he made.


The final season at first seems to undercut this idea. Dr. Vogel appears to us at first as a monster maker. Then even Dexter gets the chance to make his own monster. But this increasingly becomes a subtheme. This season’s all about consequences.


In one of the strongest of the season’s episodes, Dexter faces off against a cannibal serial killer and decides he’s something like him. The only difference is that rather than consuming human flesh, he consumes the lives of the people around him. 


Dexter: The Final Season uses this idea to raise a complicated set of questions about this monster we’ve grown to love. Early in the season, Dr. Vogel’s answer to this problem—monsters are against nature while Dexter performs a very natural service—answers the problem of evil to her satisfaction, but probably not to ours.  The last episode tries, if not very effectively, to remind us of where the monsters come from but also what can become of them and the people they try to love.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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