(MAJOR SPOILERS. DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU'VE WATCHED THE VERY LAST EPISODE OF DEXTER (S07E08), OR DO NOT GIVE A SHIT ABOUT IT ANYMORE, WHICH IS QUITE UNDERSTANDABLE, REALLY)
Once a character hooks me, I'm done. I have to follow the bastard to the end.
DEXTER gave me all the reasons I could possibly need to stop watching it, even going so far as to break the characterization of both the title character and Debra Morgan many times (not with what they become, but how they become it). And yet, every week, I feel drawn to the next episode of a series that completely fell apart throughout its last two seasons.
I do this out of morbid curiosity, mostly. My enjoyment of the series has been almost entirely ironic for a while now.
In fact, DEXTER has been bad enough for me to question my own memories of its initial quality. So I re-watched the first season. And a few small flaws aside, the first season really is exceptional. A very focused and thematically-rich story told with a uniquely quirky sense of pitch-black humor and a great cast of characters (it was wonderful to see Doakes again). There was some clumsiness with flashbacks and a few plot points that didn't really click, but overall, it still feels fresh, funny and powerfully humane. The last scene of the last episode -- a colorful representation of the universal wish to be accepted for who we are -- is nothing short of magnificent.
The second season, though, was worringly derailed by the character of Lila, who is used by the writers as a plot device to keep Dexter from killing Doakes -- a decision that would establish Dexter as a character willing to kill innocents in order to save himself. They didn't want to establish him as that, so the way they found was to have Lila kill Doakes. Dexter does welcome the turn of events, but later avenges Doakes by killing Lila. And the writers make sure to demonize her even further in order to make the kill more "palatable". Which it shouldn't have been.
The third season had one of the stupidest plot twists in the history of humanity. After a cliffhanger in which Dexter has a bag pulled over his head and is thrown in the trunk of a car, the next episode reveals that his kidnapper is... Masuka. With the purpose of taking Dexter to a surprise birthday party. And you remember the worst part? Someone actually says something like, "How could you not have expected this, Dexter?" Yeah, how could he not have imagined that he was being kidnapped to his own surprise birthday party. How could he be so stupid as to think he was in actual danger while trapped in the trunk of a stranger's car, a stranger who managed to overpower the martial-arts-trained Dexter despite being Masuka. And the icing on top of the cake is that, in his inner monologue, Dexter actually thinks, "I'm an idiot." Every strength of the third season stands in the shadow of this braindead plot twist.
The fourth season refreshed my hope that the series could regain its initial quality. It's the one other truly good season of DEXTER. No important flaws come to mind, just the things it gets right.
And then, then it all goes irrecoverably to shit.
The fifth season was a confused mess with an awful ending that destroys the character of Debra Morgan. She has her gun pointed at two murderers. She can't see who they are because a few plastic curtains are in the way, blurring her view, but she has them. And she lets them go. Why? Because she "understands" why they've done what they've done. Nevermind she doesn't know their identities or their full motives. Nevermind she could easily find out who they are by taking a few steps forward and peeking through the curtains. She "gets it" and therefore lets them escape, not knowing whether they may go on to kill innocent people. All of the season's conflicts are solved in such an aggressively idiotic manner, condemning the sixth season to be an exercise in damage control.
It added twice as much damage, hinging on a plot twist that manages to be cliché, predictable and thematically contradictory all at once. "Oh, the villain isn't an asshole because of religious fanatism! He's an asshole because he's full-on schizophrenic! Sorry we ever implied religious people could ever do anything as heinous as he does!" It's rather amazing backpedaling and the final nail in the coffin of a season that was already ridiculous to begin with, even adding an out-of-motherfucking-nowhere subplot implying that Debra is in love with Dexter.
Throughout the seventh season, it seemed like the writers had thankfully scrapped that if nothing else. Unfortunately they kept fucking everything else up. And now, on the eighth episode... they brought the subplot back in full force. The one fuckup they had avoided.
Except they used it to reveal the theme of the season: the irrationality of love.
... and it kind of fucking works.
Bear with me here, this is a enormously mixed feeling. Which is very fitting, in that the entire season is about mixed feelings. This is kind of a genius metalinguistic trick that is probably not intentional, because in order to be intentional, it would have to mean that the writers deliberately did a terrible job of execution for seven episodes in order to reveal the theme of the season and make it all seem to fit together in hindsight. And even if that was the case they'd still have fucked up. But again, bear with me.
My biggest problem with this season has been mischaracterizations, which can now be explained by the theme: all of the characters who are acting weird in this season are in love with someone or something. Yep, they even add a montage in the ending to show this off. Their actions are supposed to be contradictory and apparently nonsensical.
This doesn't take away the several problems of execution, namely how every plot detail is kind of just summoned into place, as if the writers are saying, "Okay, this is what needs to happen now, so... voilá." It feels mechanical, by-the-numbers in its construction. It's a matter of "Can this happen in this situation, with these characters? Sure. Does it feel natural that it happened? Not in the slightest." Plus the dialogue in some episodes was truly atrocious and please, please get rid of Dexter's visions of his fucking dad.
But the writers nailed one thing: Isaac Sirko. This one was masterful. Simply masterful. He seemed like your average villain with a grudge, seemingly motivated by a sense of honor or pride, but always staying classy. Just a threat to keep the season tense. The revelation that he's actually gay and was in love with the man Dexter killed? I never, ever saw that one coming. And it's perfect. It fits him into the theme of the season and makes his character all the more interesting and necessary. The conversation he and Dexter have at the bar to the sound of a Bossa Nova song surprised the shit out of me in many levels, not just for revealing the theme (and therefore Sirko's purpose as a character, as well as Hannah McKay's) but for its mood and its beauty. At that moment, something just clicked. The theme revealed itself and all the pieces are in their proper place, even if they got there very, very drunkenly.
None of this saves Debra Morgan as a character, though. After all she's been through (dating a serial killer, losing a man she loved, etc.), finding out that her stepbrother, for whom she has romantic feelings, is actually the most prolific serial killer in history and that he was taught by the father she idolized?
This is not the kind of thing that you shrug off with some vomiting and a tense conversation. A complete nervous breakdown was warranted. This is not so much her world being turned upside-down as spun out of its axis and into the sun. She's a strong person, but not to the point of withstanding this much so easily. Right after she finds out, she's already covering for Dexter, and on this episode she asks him to kill someone for her. For the entire season her character is treated as though she'd never seen the justice system fail, as if people getting away with their crimes is somehow a new thing for her. It's like someone hit a reset button in her skull and she's a young beat cop once again, suddenly finding herself in the role of lieutenant.
In light of the season's theme, I can buy Joey Quinn turning corrupt. I can buy Dexter being reckless. I can easily buy LaGuerta going back to the Bay Harbor Butcher case to clean Doakes' name. And I can happily buy Isaac Sirko's motivation to kill Dexter.
But I cannot buy whatever the fuck is happening to Debra Morgan. "Oh, she loves her stepbrother!" Yeah, all the more reason not to take the news of his true nature as well as she did. "Oh, her sudden wish to kill people is motivated by her disillusionment with the justice system!" She was always well-aware of its failings. Not a new thing for her. Dexter may be showing it to her in a new light, but she's enchanted by it in a way that is completely incongruent with her character and with the fact that she knows her brother keeps blood slides of his victims and calls his urges "the Dark Passenger". Y'know, the kind of thing that makes it less about "justice" and more about "sadistic enjoyment of killing". Also, she knows Dexter was the real Bay Harbor Butcher. Yet she doesn't ask him what really happened to Doakes, even though LaGuerta won't stop wondering about it to her face.
The handling of Debra's character is a huge gaping hole in the season that hurts it beyond recovery. It damaged the long-awaited moment of the series: Debra discovering the truth about her stepbrother.
But parts of this episode have shown that the rest may yet be salvageable into something worth watching.
Up to now, I had been watching this season because I still like the characters (and Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter are always a pleasure to watch) and I had a morbid curiosity to see just how low the writers would sink. And up to now -- except for a few and far-between good moments -- they had been tunnelling into the shit with a confidence that was actually embarrassing to watch, but also wickedly entertaining.
However, I'm not watching it ironically from now on. I'm genuinely interested in seeing where it goes. The writers have something to say and, if the scene between Dexter and Isaac in the bar is any indication, they may pull it off to some extent despite this season's many failings.
And I'm actually wondering if "despite" belongs in that sentence. Because the conversation between Isaac and Dexter is so well-written, so well-directed, so well-acted, so above the quality of everything else in the season... that it feels like the scene is speaking directly to the viewer. Like it's saying, "You're supposed to be confused about all this. You're supposed to question it, to have mixed feelings about it, and to like it even though it has many flaws. This is precisely what we're talking about."
And I wonder if the scene would have worked as well as it did for me if I wasn't feeling exactly the way I'm feeling about this season. I wonder to what point the characterization problems were deliberate contradictions to make the theme ring true. This kind of thematic ambition doesn't fit the recent shittiness of the series, so I'm probably being too optimistic.
The next episodes will say. But Isaac Sirko has hooked me. He was already a fairly interesting character in a season that barely needed him. But now it does. Badly.