kill your darlings
My friends know that my all-time favorite television show is Showtime’s dark and delightful Dexter, the now-infamous saga about the Miami Metropolitan Police Department lab geek who moonlights as a serial killer (who only kills other killers). Ever since a friend first introduced me to the show my sophomore year of high school, I’ve followed the series with a timid and voracious appetite, as best I could without a Cable television subscription. I remember making excuses to hang out at my friend Grant’s house every Sunday night – even when he wasn’t home – so I could watch each week’s newest installment of quirky, haunting drama.
Now, my wonderful darkly dreaming Dexter has ended, a nearly decade-long run come to a bittersweet close. Dexter, I’ll admit, was my darling show. I’ve spilled ink over it, cried hot tears over the lives and deaths of its unbelievably fleshed out characters, loyally followed the ups and downs of its realistic (and sometimes utterly unbelievable) story arcs. I can’t imagine I am the only one drawn to the show because of its beauty and how well it expresses some of the deepest feelings I know to be true of the human condition. It is also certainly a testament to the incredible power of the shows’s writers and actors that the team can make their audience actually root for a serial killer. It’s uncharted territory.
But Dexter stirs the dark passenger in all of us.
I’m aware that the series ended a while ago, but I waited to finish the final season for more than a year after it aired for several reasons: for one, I waited so long to watch the final episodes because I heard from friends that they were so, so bad, that I shouldn’t go and tarnish my memory of an otherwise brilliant adventure. I also wanted to be able to share it with my significant other. We’ve been ritualistically watching Dex together for a while now, and we wanted to finish the series in tandem on the evening of our first anniversary.
Mostly though, I waited because I hate it when the fictional adventures that I love end. (This is why I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the newest season of my other favorite show, Arrested Development.) I hate coming to the final lap of something that was once so exciting and new, that has meant so much to me for so long. I’m saddened by the thought that there will never be any new content to discover in this carefully-constructed universe, no new stories from the characters I’ve invested so much into. I’m sure many of you felt similarly turning the last page and reading the final paragraph of some of your favorite fantasy sagas. It can feel like a loss, almost a kind of death.
We’ve talked about a particularly annoying little piece of advice before on the blog: kill your darlings. The logic behind this line is that the things you love most, if they slow you down or get stale or otherwise impede you (no matter how beautiful or precious they are to you) you must kill them and not look back. Even if it takes all of your willpower.
This, in many ways, is what I’ve had to do with Dexter. Carve my love for it from my heart. Come to terms with how terrible it is that it’s over and how terribly it ended. And to always remember how much it meant to me when things were good. After the death of something I love, for me, the grieving process means writing about it. That’s my goal with this post.
I wanted to write a little about Dexter’s final scenes, and why they came off so kitschy and painful to longtime fans of the show (SPOILERS BELOW). In short, we’ve seen Dexter mature and grow over these past few seasons in amazing ways. What is unfortunate is that the last episode does precisely the opposite of what it should do by reversing long-standing character development and diverting from a rising climax that otherwise could have formed a coherent and believable conclusion.
Dexter knows more than anyone the pain of concealing a shadow side from everyone he loves. It’s something we’ve all dealt with at some point or another, battling the dark passengers in our lives, whether they take the form of addiction, shame, malice, (blood)lust, or whatever our secret vice may be. Dex has lived with this feeling of concealing for every waking moment since adolescence, back when Harry taught him the code. It’s not hard to imagine that Dexter would resonate with the old recovery saying “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” God knows that makes Dexter Morgan one of the sickest men alive.
But the dark passenger had faded. Even Harry’s ghost vanished for good at the end of the eighth season. And the icy, dangerously detached Dexter we were introduced to in the first episode — the one who said he didn’t and couldn’t ever love anybody at all — this guy has been melting since season one. Dexter isn’t the type of person who can’t feel, or who is incapable of human love anymore.
This is why it’s so unbelievable he’s now a bearded guy living in a log cabin. It is as bizarrely stifling as the ending of Breaking Bad would have been if Walt didn’t have cancer or pride and lived out his days as a lonely fugitive, watching television and chopping wood. And let’s be clear: the reason Dex goes hermit is because he’s convinced it isn’t safe for those he loves to be around him. Is that reasonable for his character?
This is admittedly a theme the show has explored before. After Rita is killed in The Getaway, the final episode of Season 4, Dexter picks up baby Harrison – him too, born in blood – and starts marching towards the camera with his eyes wide and locked front, and you and he both know that this was all his fault. That Dexter’s hapless attempt at playing this normal dad/Jesus of suburbia fantasy could never last. Dexter is damnably responsible for the death of the most beautiful, innocent person in his world, and you flinch at your core but know it’s true when his otherwise independent self waxes on destiny and laments, “Harry was right. I thought I could change what I am, keep my family safe. But it doesn’t matter what I do, what I choose. I’m what’s wrong. This is fate.”
It’s a powerful self-condemnation. It’s not hard to imagine that Dexter would resonate with Johnny Cash when he sings “what have I become? My sweetest friend: everyone I know goes away in the end. And you can have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.” But I’m not a fan of the way the writers tried to shoehorn this old theme into the finale, and I’m not buying their defense. The ending we receive feels like a betrayal of his character, mainly because the “I am a poison, everyone I love gets hurt” motif, while especially salient for an unrepentant serial killer, also hasn’t really appeared in, like, four seasons now.
To summarize the flow of the series — we have the introductory origin story of season one and the addiction, high-stakes, almost-getting caught chase of two which quickly shifts into Dexter making friends, experiencing betrayal, then trying to maintain North American suburban normalcy before experiencing abject loss and regret and revenge and forgiveness and finally somehow stumbling onto faith and doubt and religion; all of this, it seems, is building to a season all about falling in love and how the sins of the past have a way of catching up with us, and finally the whole painful project starts to look like it’s going to end as theodicy, without any easy answers, but having made Dexter (and all of us) all the more human for wrestling with these impossible questions and situations.
But the long-awaited conclusion to our beautiful humanizing journey is no Felina – there’s no cowboy-esque ending (not even the Argentinean gauchos that Hannah tells Harrison about in the finale), no spectacular shootout after our protagonist rides off into a blistering confrontation with the overgrown evils the anti-hero’s lifestyle has sprouted over the course of his criminal career. That’s what we needed. Ask any die-hard fan of Breaking Bad (die-hard fan=someone who watched the ending after diligently following the entire series) how perfectly Walter’s baby blue destruction fit in with the direction the show had been heading since episode one. Vince Gilligan served us up just the kind of apocalypse that both we and Walter White had deserved all along.
No such luck for fans of America’s favorite serial killer. Instead of a delightfully twisted postmodern take on a happily ever after ending – surprise, mothaf*cka – we’re left with an emotionally muted Dexter, the withered shell of a man devoid of even his regular voice-over narration. This “hollow like an empty donut box” stand-in monster is a character we thought we’d left behind at at the end of the first season, when Dex breaks through his emotionally monotonous persona, beaming as imaginary crowds line the streets to shout his name: Dex-ter, Dex-ter, Dex-ter!
The Dexter we deserve, the man he’s been building himself up to be ever since he married Rita, had Harrison, met Brother Sam, opened up to Debra, and fell in love with Hannah, this man would never abandon his family, would never revert to the severe patterns of pity and loneliness he so carefully conquered.
But our miserable final shot leaves us with our dearly departed dark defender staring off blankly into the California redwoods (or wherever the hell he is), utterly silent and emptied of everything we’ve loved about him for the past eight years. Our Dexter is gone. Instead, we receive a weird facsimile of his past self. His eyes are glazed, and it rather feels like we’re looking into the comatose soul of Debra Morgan.
The writers might as well have ended the shot with select lyrics from the aforementioned Hurt running across the screen: “if I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep himself – I would find a way.” These words reflect both Dexter’s tragic reversion to a less-than human figure and the disappointing meta-cinematic reminder that sometimes the things we love most are put to death in the most awful ways.