Well, that was a colossally disappointing season finale.
It wasn’t just the lack of a bloody twist, like the one that ended the last season of Dexter—it would be unfair to expect them to top Rita’s murder every year—but that everything ended so neatly and so predictably for a show that seemed to be getting away from its neat and predictable tendencies.
At the end of last season, I mentioned all the possibilities that Rita’s murder opened for the show: How would Dexter respond emotionally to the death of his wife? How would he handle being a single dad? Would he be able to continue his serial killing with the knowledge that it had led to Rita’s death? Could the cops figure out that Dexter knew Trinity? How would Dexter be able to relate to people now that his wife was dead? Etc.
It seemed going into Season Five as if the show’s creative team was interested in exploring these themes. It was announced that there would be no single villain, as there had been in virtually every season of the show thus far. The primary theme of Season Five would be guilt—a perhaps more introspective look at the protagonist instead of a “Dexter vs. X” arc.
And then last night’s finale, just like the four finales before it, featured Dexter’s attempts to maintain his cover while he tracked down and outwitted a rival—this time a famous motivational speaker who overcame a serious childhood obesity problem and now leads a pack of gang rapists who imprison their victims and then preserve them in barrels of formaldehyde—who he ultimately kills.
Every loose thread was neatly tied: Everyone who entered Dexter’s life this season was either killed or otherwise gone by the end of the episode (except his nanny), and even characters who had been dispatched with, his kids, had come back. Deb, who had appeared to be catching on to her brother throughout the season, came within a sheet of plastic of exposing him…only to turn around and walk away. The story of Quinn’s attempts to investigate Dexter, which had cooled in the middle of the season after being a large part of the opening episodes, seemed to be heading for a breaking point: Quinn couldn’t ignore the fact that an ex-cop was suspiciously stabbed to death after investigating Dexter, could he? But even that was neatly resolved, with Dexter helping to exonerate Quinn and Quinn leaving his suspicions dormant because he and Deb were back together.
It may be unfair to judge an entire season by a disappointing finale,* and it’s true that Season Five toyed with most of the questions last year’s finale raised, occasionally doing them quite well. Dexter’s grief, for example, was handled well in the season premiere, giving Michael C. Hall another opportunity to add a layer of twisted humanity to Dexter’s characterization. The episodes that dealt with Dexter trying to be a dad, in particular his relationship with Rita’s daughter Astor, were compelling and fun.** Even the on-going plot, which featured Julia Stiles as Dexter’s new partner (both romantically and criminally speaking), went better than I expected it to.
*Indeed, disappointing finales are par for the Dexter course. This is at least the third disappointing finale and, if you exclude the last scene of Season Four, it’s possible there hasn’t been a good season finale of Dexter since Season One. Dexter is a show that is better in the middle than at the ends—it’s the anti-Lost.
**One of my biggest complains about the recent seasons of Dexter has been the absence of the dark, macabre tone of the early years. In the first two seasons, Dexter really was someone who didn’t understand human relationships at all, whereas his “growth” since then has turned him, more or less, into an Average Joe with a rather disturbing hobby.
So I appreciate it that much more when Dexter DOES have a moment where he completely misunderstands social etiquette, as he did in this season’s premiere when he broke the news of Rita’s murder to his kids while wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
On the other hand, all of these themes were window-dressing for the traditional Dexter formula: Dexter encounters a kindred spirit who he initially rejects but eventually comes to believe can finally understand him; ultimately, this person only leads Dexter to the conclusion that he will always be alone (a lesson you’d think he’d have learned by now). Meanwhile, he tries to evade detection/exposure by the cops and/or some rogue hunter.
It’s not as if there are no other options within the framework of the show. Stiles’ character was far more interesting when she was presented as a way for Dexter to try to get over his guilt about Rita’s death than when she was presented as someone who finally understood Dexter’s darkness. The former was a new story, while the latter was the same way Rudy the Ice-Truck Killer, Lila the British arsonist, Miguel Prado, and Trinity were all presented. Unfortunately, the emphasis was placed on the worn story.
There is a common misperception that Dexter is stuck in a holding pattern as Showtime tries to squeeze as many hit seasons as it can out of the franchise. The thinking is that any progression of the story that might lead to Dexter getting killed or caught simply can’t be explored, since it would mean the end of the series. This is often given as an excuse for why the show keeps repeating the same stories.
But this excuse doesn’t really hold water: There are plenty of potential stories that the show simply has not pursued. Instead of portraying Lumen as someone who “finally” understands Dexter, why not portray her as someone who is futilely trying to satisfy her quest for vengeance,* thus mirroring Dexter’s own story? Instead of having Quinn try to expose Dexter,** why not have him discover Dexter’s secret but not expose him out of consideration to Deb and fear of Dexter himself? And why not have Deb catch Dexter and face the dilemma of what to do about it?
*Possibly the worst thing about Sunday’s finale was the notion that Lumen had to leave Dexter because her “dark passenger” had just disappeared, since a primary conceit of the show is that the “dark passenger” can never be sated. Perhaps this would have been an interesting story—Has Dexter been wrong about being unable to leave his dark passenger behind? If Lumen can quit, can Dexter?—if it hadn’t so obviously been a rushed attempt to restore the status quo at the end of the season.
**This story was pretty much doomed from the start since A) Dexter obviously can’t be caught until a final season, and B) Dexter’s already been caught by one rogue cop, and Quinn’s no Doakes.
I’m not sure that any of these stories would be great, but I know they would be different, and that’s probably why they will never be done. Dexter is a potentially great show, but its unwillingness to shake things up and progress the story means it is settling for just “OK.”