Tis the Season: Ranking ‘Dexter’’s Seasons 1-6

As the seventh season of Dexter unfolds on Showtime, with an eighth and final season scheduled for late 2013, it seems like as good a time as any to look back at each season of the series. Since this is the internet, and since rank-order is the best way I know to organize my opinions about most things, I present below my tour through Dexter’s first six seasons. Of course this is entirely my opinion, and I encourage vocal disagreement. It’s hard not to want to just start talking about the quality of season seven and where it might end up ranking in this list… but let’s try our best not to.

6. Season 6, or Colin Hanks: Great on Twitter, Bad on Dexter

The sixth season of Dexter is generally thought to be its weakest, and for good reason. Dexter’s most memorable quality, as a series, is its incredible ability to build tension across multiple episodes. If a season works, it means that for at least 3-4 episodes, you literally cannot imagine that he won’t end up at least being caught, if not killed. This is when the series is working. Season six was not working.

The bigger problem was that the guests (an inert Colin Hanks and a sleepwalking Edward James Olmos) didn’t bring much to the table, except a jawdroppingly predictable twist that was revealed about two episodes after everyone figured it out. There’s a reason that the rap on this season is that its final scene should have occurred at the end of Season 5, with everything else between just forgotten.

5. Season 3, or Jimmy Smits Was in that One, Right?

In this season, Dexter gets a friend. Great. After two excellent seasons, this is the first time that Dexter ever felt like it was on auto-pilot. Smits himself was fine, but something about the pacing was less satisfying than the upper-level Dexter seasons. It’s also the first time that I remember feeling like I wanted to fast-forward through every scene that didn’t involve Dexter, though this has pretty much carried through every season since.

4. Season 5, or Save the Last Dance for Dexter

For people concerned that the later seasons of Dexter have humanized him too much, this season really must get under your skin. I like the humanizing of Dexter, in the sense that there’s a limit to how much totally-inhuman-narration most of us want to hear, and I think it’s interesting when he admits that he likes women or realizes that he truly cares about his sister or his son.

This season really found Dexter opening himself up for someone, in the wake of Season 4’s major tragedies, in a way that we never thought possible. We can debate the quality of Julia Stiles performance all day (though the Jonny Lee Miller scenes are inarguably hilarious), but I think, more than anything, it was Dexter’s humanity shown here that problematizes the season for a lot of people. Oh, and also, it had the bad luck of coming after Season 4.

3. Season 1, or, People Will Probably Disagree with This

The first season of Dexter, in retrospect, is fairly brutal. It’s easy to forget the visceral and unsettling quality of just watching Dexter himself go about his daily life in the first season. The episodes, by and large, feel and are more self-contained than later seasons, which for me is why seasons 2 and 4 surpass it, and the violence and overall tone are darker than the later seasons.

The overall story arc, though, is typical: Dexter, and the season satisfyingly ratchets up the tension, episode by episode, until the incredible finalé. Unlike many series, Dexter began pretty much fully-formed, with a clear sense of what a season feels like and of how it would approach characterization (cartoonish) and narrative (TENSE).

2. Season 4, or, Can We Do Another One Like This?

John Lithgow’s season finds Dexter getting a mentor. For a series that features a ghostly-and-kind-of-awful-father-figure hovering around the protagonist in nearly every episode, the season exploring father-and-son dynamics was probably going to be a doozy. The casting of Lithgow (where is he now? probably on Broadway, but let’s get him back on television please! He would have made an amazing Governor, for example) was the real stroke of genius here. As they are probably working on the guest stars for the final season, can we just all beg the producers to please be smart! And creative!

The final scenes of the season really cements its place near the top of the list, given that the pacing and structure aren’t particularly novel outside of that. Since I somehow have managed to make it this far without ruining much/anything for people who haven’t actually watched the series, I’ll stop there.

1. Season 2, or, DOAKES and LILA!

This is not the obvious choice for the best season of Dexter — that would be Season 4 — but for me it’s the best. I’ve thought about why exactly, and I think it’s because it is so typical of what Dexter does well. Outside of Michael C. Hall, the acting is pretty terrible (the two major antagonists, Doakes and Lila, are comically bad), but the suspense, the pacing, and the unpredictability really are the stars of the show.

In this season, Dexter makes his first strides toward humanity, though he still feels unpredictable (in a way that he doesn’t in later seasons), and the second half of the season is dedicated to the most incredible cat-and-mouse game the series has created. I still remember (spoilers ahead here — congratulations, seriously, for making it this far if you have never seen Dexter — you obviously are pretty good with things like this, but STOP now) — okay, I still remember the feeling I had as a viewer when I realized that Doakes knew and that, one way or another, he had to die.

In the second season, they crossed that threshold where a good person literally had to die so that our protagonist could continue to exist, making us question exactly where our priorities were. I remember those 2-3 episodes where things were up in the air (Doakes knows, Doakes is locked up), and I just felt this incredible pressure. That’s a pressure that is rare to achieve on television or within any text. Since that tension, that pressure, is the hallmark of the show (not gotcha endings, though the gotcha ending of Seasons 4 and 6 are pretty amazing), it pushes me over the edge in choosing this as my favorite season.

Is the column over? Okay, let’s talk about how great this seventh season is! Oh, man! Who knew that the guy from Rome and the girl from Chuck could be this good! Exciting stuff…