It wasn’t a great final season for DEXTER, and tonight’s last episode muffed its chance at a fully satisfying conclusion by falling into the trap of one twist too many. In a way, that was fitting for a series that always tried to play both sides against the middle, with a protagonist who was both a serial killer and a vigilante hero, darkly dramatic and also quick with a quip. The mix was only really sustained for one entire season, in 2009 when Dexter (Michael C. Hall) faced off against the Trinity Killer–not just because John Lithgow was so brilliant as his foe, but because husband and father Trinity lined up so well with Dexter’s ever-present worry over just how much of a mainstream human he could be that their duel had the metaphorical power his battles with other, inferior Dexter villains sorely lacked.
That was the crux, too, of tonight’s finale, written by showrunner Scott Buck and fellow Executive Producer Manny Coto, and directed by series veteran Steve Shill, and for most of its length, it worked very well. Dexter’s final antagonist, Oliver Saxon nee Daniel Vogel (Dam Ingolfsson), wasn’t a particularly powerful one, despite the attempt to conceive him as Dexter’s even-more-evil twin, the son of psychiatrist Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), who had inculcated “the Code” into Dexter about when and how it was permissible to kill, but hadn’t done the same with her own psychopathic birth child. That was an interesting idea, but in practice Saxon just came off as another icy nutjob. However, for its final hour, the show finally played the biggest emotional card in its deck, having Dexter’s sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), always the beating heart of the series, come to fatal harm (so much for that spin-off rumor). Even more powerful was having Dexter lovingly, horribly disconnect his brain-dead sister from life support, in an inverted version of the killings he’d taken such pleasure in committing, then throwing her off the side of his boat, as he’d done with his many victims in the past. He then pointed his boat right into the hurricane that was about to hit Miami, and if the series had ended there, with Dexter gone and presumably dead, and a bit of a happy ending for Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Harrison (Jadon Wells), that would have been fine.
…but it didn’t. A post-epilogue epilogue (following the one showing Hannah and Harrison safe in South America), had to depict Dexter as surviving the hurricane and living as a logger in some unspecified forest. It was anticlimactic and unnecessary. And although it wasn’t meant as a “happy ending,” because Dexter is shown as completely alone, without any of the people he cared about (without even a voice-over), it was a complication the show didn’t need, a trick that was neither convincing (he steered that little boat right through the middle of the hurricane, huh? Survived even though the boat itself was capsized?) nor all that meaningful, since alive is still alive. Leaving his fate uncertain would have been a better conclusion.
The mistake of the ending made one recall all the wrong turns this season has made, from the convolutions of the search for the Brain Surgeon (who, after forever, finally turned out to be Saxon) to the storylines that went nowhere (Masuka’s daughter, Quinn’s promotion) to the characters who were less interesting than they should have been. Hannah went from being a fascinatingly ambiguous killer in her own right last season to little more than a love interest this time, and even Deb thwacked from half-crazy to good ol’ Deb from episode to episode. It’s certainly unfair to compare this last season of Dexter to the currently spectacular final episodes of Breaking Bad, but hard to ignore the distinctions.
All the way through, Dexter was marvelously acted by Hall and Carpenter, whose bond as actors approached the complexity of Dexter and Deb’s unique relationship. Carpenter, in particular, played the hell out of the last two seasons, after Deb discovered Dexter’s avocation, and her passing in the final hour carried a real jolt. Hall, for his part, couldn’t have played the mercy killing sequences any better. The show was diverting even in its weaker seasons–yes, even in the Edward James Olmos/Colin Hanks season–and every so often it was brilliant. It remained successful to the very end in the ratings, so much so that those spin-off rumors started as soon as the show’s final season was announced. Was it truly great television, in this era when television is truly great? No, at best it was one or two notches below–as close to great, say, as Dexter was to being a fully-integrated human being. But as with Dexter himself, it wasn’t for lack of trying.