Thursday, 12 October 2017

October Nightmares III #12: Dexter (2006 - 2013) - Dexter's Other Lab

Here's a tale betrayal on the level of Brutus slaying Caesar: I actually recommended Dexter to co-reviewer Sam, proclaiming "it's the best TV series ever". Now everytime I try to recommend anything to Sam he gets that glazed look in his eyes as he remembers the series' final years; with its murderous psychosis which can be cured by love/knobbing, and infamous lumberjack ending. The writers likely mistook the hipster beard craze for a sudden resurgence in popularity for rugged tree murderers.

But I still think, despite the controversy surround its lackluster latter half, this eight-season series about a vigilante serial killer is worthy of the praise it initially garnered.

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) witnessed the savage chainsaw murder of his mother as a kid, and got a bonk on for blood and murder. Brought up by a cop (James Remar), who decided channelling his urges was more productive (read cheaper) than therapy, Dexter learnt to put his psychosis to good use.

Now he works as a blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro - who in this series are depicted as worse law enforcers than Inspector Clouseau - and moonlights as a brutal serial killer of those who 'deserve' it. The show is police procedural by day, Boston Strangler by night. A man's gotta have a hobby.

Obviously the core of the series is Dexter's dual, juxtaposing, lifestyle, and the tension regarding whether this fairly likeable dude will finally be brought to justice for his impressive body count. A body count rivalled only by the amount of Mars bars I eat in a given week. I'll happily spoil the abominable ending for you: no, he does not get caught. Apparently his sister becoming a vegetable after being shot in the stomach and Dexter sailing into a hurricane (only for him to turn out to be alive and a lumberjack), was a better ending than Dexter finally being revealed for the callous murderer he is to his friends and family.

But then the series, despite the solid concept, was never up to pulling off a story-arc. Every season filled its twelve episodes in much the same way. Dexter offs a few killers-of-the-week, weirds-out his friends and family members, catches the attention of whoever happens to be the sole competent cop that season, and tracks down this season's rival serial killer - a killer who will invariably reflect some key aspect of Dexter's life. The 'Big Bads' in Dexter were quite like spells in any given school year in Harry Potter: they'd be invaluably useful for helping the protagonist solve his immediate story-arc, but hardly be referenced in the next story.

Still, when the Big Bads were good they were very good. John Lithgow as the heinous Trinity Killer, and Dexter's long forgotten evil brother, Brian (Christian Camargo), standout as two of the most memorable villains to feature in a television show. Discount Ryan Gosling and Discount Tom Hanks, sorry I mean Colin Hanks, not so much.

This may sound as though I'm shitting on Dexter from a lofty height, like a pigeon shitting on passing investment bankers from atop Nelson's Column, but I'm willing to stake a tenner on the fact that seasons 1 - 4 are some of the best television ever made. Even season 5 served as the perfect coda, following season 4's brutal ending. Dexter, like Supernatural, should have been five seasons max. By the season 4 finale the stakes had risen as far as possible: Dexter's charmingly naive wife Rita (Julie Benz) paying the ultimate price for Dexter's dual life when John Lithgow whips down to his bollocks and butchers her in a bath. A huge consequence which is forgotten about when Dexter shacks up with the woman who was only in Mass Effect because her perky arse was mistaken for a planet.

It'd be remiss of me if I made a Supernatural comparison without mentioning there's also a weird fan-pleasing incest storyline here, in which Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter) suddenly wants to jump her adopted brother's bones. Like in Supernatural it doesn't actually come to that, but why even bring it in at all? At least Supernatural keeps the weird fan stuff  under control and placates the fans by having Sam accidentally rub Dean's nipple.

In its first half, Dexter hit all the right notes. Michael C. Hall was hot and charming, yet slightly off-kilter and stoic; the hysteria and paranoia of a post-9/11 America gave the series a satirical edge which it played up to gladly, and the showrunners fully utilised the Miami setting. Dexter's Miami is neon-soaked, sweaty, bloody, and dangerous at night - almost noir-esque in that everything exists at the knife's edge and morality has seemingly been abandoned even by the average folk who prowl the streets for a good time. During the day, Dexter's Miami is a melting pot of cultures - bustling with life and all manner of weirdos who make the serial killer among them almost normal.

By having a serial killer as the protagonist and positioning him in such a way that he gains the audience's sympathy (he narrates the show, for example), the series was able to cast a mocking glance over everyday America and even extract horror from the mundane. The show got in his head good and proper, what with Dexter's visions and conversations with his Ghost Dad (or Mr Exposition as I call him). Alongside Dexter's narration, the Ghost Dad stuff started as a way to delve into a mind of a killer before being reduced to insulting the audience's intelligence but pointing out the patently obvious.

In the early seasons it was all the writers could do to normalise this deranged individual. The iconic opening sequence in which Dexter goes about a normal routine - eats breakfast, shaves, gets ready for work - but each part of the sequence is shot to resemble something far more sinister, perfectly captured the mode of a killer who is not only hiding in sheep's clothing, but is incredibly fastidious too.

Those were the days when Dexter was good - when the show's titular killer served as both a character and a mode of satire (รก la Patrick Bateman from American Psycho). The show became worse off once it started treating Dexter like a superhero who could escape any situation or best any foe. He also started to gain emotions, and would regularly talk about how damaged he was - clearly to appease the horny housewives who'd watch between backhanders from their neglectful husbands.

"Ooh, but I change him," they would cry as Dexter walked around without his shirt on again, brooding about how he wishes he couldn't feel his pain any longer.

Two other immediate points of reference are Hannibal and Breaking Bad. Those shows also positioned amoral figures into positions of storytelling power. But they never tried to reinvent their protagonists as brooding, misunderstood anti-heroes - they were just out and out bastards. That was where Dexter fell down - amongst the pointless side characters and increasingly awful writing.

Dexter started out as a character who made a science out of ritualised killing (the dude had satchel filled with dozens of knives and implements, stuffed his victims in trash bags, and collected blood on microscope slides) and became something out of a HIM song. And then there was the ending - Dexter went from slaying violent criminals to slaying more wood than a thirteen-year-old me who had just discovered Babestation.

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