Showtime’s Dexter has become a scattered collection of missed opportunities, and considering the exceptional advantages this project had going into its seventh season, the degeneration is surprising. There was a strong foundation here, based first and foremost on the project’s interesting and long-established premise of the quiet blood spatter expert killing bad guys. Secondly, over the course of its six year run, Dexter’s odd hero, played by actor Michael C. Hall, remained both likeable and believable. Third, the whole cast had the recent benefit of playing off a wonderful former season that unleashed a string of beautiful, startling, and lasting horrific images left by Doomsday Killer Travis Marshall, played by Colin Hanks. There were black snakes squirming out of a dead man’s stomach, a severed victim pieced back together to ride horseback, a woman adorned with wings and a vicious puncture-collar in a greenhouse, and a professor in a freezer. It worked, and we were hungry for more.
So what happened? Unfortunately, the scriptwriting failed miserably this past Fall and we went from intricate plotting to forced bumbling, clever dialogue to indecision and what came off as cognitive regression. The biggest loser here was ironically the program’s greatest initial asset, the character of Dexter himself, and what’s worse, he took his sister Deb down with him. But before we measure that particular decline, we should first look at what sat across from our “heroes” in the interrogation room this time around. Unfortunately, the season seven bad guys were wobbly sketches of cartoon caricatures, not at all frightening, and hardly original. The best word I can come up with for Isaak Sirko, the gay Ukrainian mobster played by Ray Stevenson and introduced at the season’s beginning, would be “cardboard.” Soon after Sirko’s entrance we were exposed by sub-plot to muscle-bound serial killer Ray Speltzer played by Matt Gerald, wearing a ridiculous skullcap with ram’s horns and chasing women through his home reconfigured as a funhouse maze littered with makeshift barriers and mannequins. (Might as well have thrown in midgets dressed in drag and Lobster Boy.) More globally, this was a sad case of the mundane being doubled by the jester—the clumsy use of a foil in the sense that Speltzer the horn-head was there to possibly make Sirko the pseudo-gangster more credible by contrast. Still, both panned out to be absolutely uninteresting and childish, almost as boring as the fire-starter the scriptwriters forced upon us in episode nine and then abandoned quicker than one could say “arson.”
While this series has always been hit or miss with its antagonists, it was never this bad. Of course, the Ice Truck Killer from season one was a difficult act to follow, but one would think the writers had learned from the mistakes they made in their subsequent three-season slump that fell way short in terms of “bad guys,” similar to football franchises forgetting their “team mission” and bringing in marquis free agents with no real feel for the given city and its nuances. The Dexter brass had all this high-priced talent make grand entrances as guest stars: Jimmy Smits as Miguel Prado, the killer/DA in season three (yawn), John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer and family man in season four (a fat, balding, overplayed bore as opposed to the dark force advertised), and then season five’s Jonny Lee Miller as Jordan Chase, the murdering motivational speaker who was obnoxious, presentational, AND boring to boot.
With all due respect, the writers of the series seemed to rebound in season six with the abovementioned Doomsday Killer(s) and a better overall storyline, but a couple of fundamental lessons had clearly not sunk in considering this year’s shabby encore. The most obvious error (that ironically, the ghost-father Harry Morgan had consistently preached against) was the idea that Dexter Morgan could ever have a partner. Not only did an alliance of any sort fail to fit the character so carefully drawn in the first season, but it played out hackneyed and forced over and again. The Jimmy Smits union was an absolute disaster (for all the wrong reasons), and then Julia Stiles (the Lumen Pierce character in season five—abused, violated, and angry) came off especially dry. Therefore, it is an absolute wonder that the writers of this series decided to resurrect this tired formula with the utterly colourless partner/antagonist Hannah McKay played by Yvonne Strahovski in season seven.
To digress for a moment, one must first come from a perspective of character logic, and the idea that Dexter gaining a true confidante and/or lover would always be a tough sell, a tricky contradiction loaded with land mines. He is emotionless because of psychological blockades he cannot control, and so it is difficult to picture his ever getting attached to anyone unless there was a specific agenda he could affix to the process. His relationship with Rita Bennett (played by Julie Benz) worked in season one for this reason and many more. She was cover. She also filled a sexual desire that was somehow believable, as his emotions were achingly divorced from the mechanics, at least for a while. Benz also did a phenomenal job of somehow being simultaneously desirable and fantastically annoying, credible and real. Strahovski is neither realistic in terms of what would attract a “Dexter,” nor desirable. She is nothing but a “pretty face” trying really hard to stay stoic and personify the “kill instinct,” in a clear manipulation through which the viewer is supposed to buy into the fact that “now Dexter has someone to talk to about his truths.” The problem is that there is nothing else to this bland female character. The back story that would define her killer’s instinct is silly and canned, and her overall physical appearance too nondescript to make viewers really want to have sex with her (through Dexter of course).
In the end, however, it is not the character of Hannah McKay as antagonist that destroys season seven. (Strahovski did her very best with what they gave her, she really did.) This review is not necessarily about the subtleties of misdrawn or incomplete bad guys, at least not comprehensively. It concerns the heartbreaking and obvious near misses, the fourth quarter implosions, the last inning strikeouts there at the plate when the fastball was right down the middle. Plainly, Hannah McKay was instrumental to the failure of the script as a catalyst of sorts, not because of her absolute inability to terrify us, but rather the fact that the writers and producers let her get the majority of the nude scenes. The most interesting (and beautiful) woman on the show has always been Angel Batista’s kid sister Jamie, played by Aimee Garcia, yet we only see her have sex once, season six / episode nine, through a quick zoom-out by a camera positioned in another room. How impersonal is that? Additionally, her love interest is another uninteresting and unrealistically “evil” one-dimensional character named Louis Greene (Josh Cooke) whom we don’t care about enough to even dislike. The amazing circumstance staring all of us square in the face is that the Jamie Batista character is already a regular in Dexter’s house as a nanny, she has bonded with his child, and seems to be there for the taking. This is the relationship we all want, yet no matter how many times she parades around in those skimpy blue jean shorts, Dexter seems not to notice. And even if she is not going to be his sexual partner, why is she not made a victim to save? Either scenario would tie in the program’s best and most well-liked minor character, Angel Batista, played by David Zayas, so the cameos of Garcia doing nothing but picking up the baby and putting dirty clothes in the hamper remain utterly baffling.
Of course, we must next scrutinize the odd subtext that closed season six and was carried (rather weakly) through season seven, and that is Deb Morgan’s sexual fascination with her brother. Why on earth was this subject only briefly discussed once in episode eight, then muted and overshadowed to nothingness? The writers are the ones who brought it up in the first place at the close of the last season, correct? There is solid foreshadowing already in place for this sickeningly sweet drama to play out, as we consider the fact that Deb already slept with her other stepbrother, the Ice Truck Killer from season one, so why are we denied this delicious taste of Greek tragedy? And more so, why is Dexter the one doing the rejecting?
No one can resist having sex with Deb Morgan. No one. (And if they do, we properly think them insane.) Clearly, the desire should have first come from Dexter; considering his twisted and convoluted morals, it would have made more sense than the reverse. Moreover, his rejection inevitably weakens Deb’s character in a manner the viewer does not wish to share. Deb is hot. Deb curses, drinks, and offers a wonderful kind of honesty we all appreciate. Yet alas, the writers decided to shove her into the shadows of the formless blonde antagonist, when it was finally the Deb character we wanted to see get undressed and sweaty (besides Jamie, of course). Interestingly, we only get two intimate (so called) views of our beloved Deb in season seven, the first when she takes a bath turning to blood in episode four (pathetically blurred to start and then “cleverly” hidden by the tub rim), and the second in episode five when she wears a pair of gym shorts in the bathroom doorway of a hotel (my favourite scene unit, frankly). So why were the viewers given no more than a mere glimpse of the female with the depraved (and luscious) desire, yet granted a plethora of shots featuring Strahovski’s underdeveloped limbs and formless gardening attire? The writers opened the Freudian door to a wonderful sexual conflict running like wildfire through a living, breathing, fully drawn character, then went for the blonde stick-figure with the trowel. Dexter should have initiated and realized this guilty passion with his stepsister, in the form of a long and slow fuck scene in a tub similar to the one Rita was killed in, well foreshadowed ironically, by the above-mentioned episode four. Now that would have made it a show, an event, a risk, a homerun, yet again, season seven was the absolute embodiment of missed opportunity.
And finally, (and most importantly) season seven failed because of poor dialogue, line by line, in the trenches, making our heroes indecisive. Though Dexter and Deb have frailties established from season one, they have always finished from a position of strength. Still, with Deb’s new awareness of Dexter’s murderous obsessions, the writers decided to employ week to week script-copy where both characters mumble, stutter, snivel, and grovel. Watch episode #1 and count how many times in the church burning scene both Hall and Carpenter literally ask what the other should say or what things should mean, in melodramatic, trembling voices no less, as if filmed in one of those rehearsals early in the production process where the director gives a vague prompt so the actors can improvise and learn their motivations in order to better deliver a much stronger (yet still unwritten) script.
“What the fuck?”
“Talk to me”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
(pregnant pause while both characters look at each other with the confused expressions of two actors who are relatively clueless as to how to make it look like they really “feel” this. Next, Deb makes to call it in, and does some unconvincing shaking while handling the cell phone. There is more trembling, shaking, and hesitating during similar dialogue. Then . . .)
“How does this look?”
“Pretty fucking weird.”
It’s not Shakespeare, is it? The rest of this season is littered with similar rambling “conversations” that basically go nowhere except in the general direction which would prove that we were wrong about Dexter and Deb all along. They are not heroes, but rather, terrified children playing cop. In season seven’s episode five we get the purest taste of Dexter’s decline when he and Isaak Sirko are on the phone as the latter drinks coffee at an outdoor restaurant. Sirko swears he’s going to come for Dexter and his sister.
We are then expected to believe that the Bay Harbor Butcher (a) didn’t see this coming, and (b) would be stupid enough to ask a stone hard killer to reason with him, as he mutters fretfully, “It was just me. She had nothing to do with this.”
We get to experience Dexter’s newfound naiveté and idiocy full circle then, when he later visits Sirko in jail and actually says, “So you’ll go to prison for a long time. That means this will be over?”
Even Pokémon and Yu Gi Oh episodes are less transparent in terms of “smart” characters getting suddenly moronic in order to create a sense of what everyone above the third grade would see as false tension.
In all, the writers here ran out of material. The heart of the show was twofold: interesting killers and well-drawn lead characters. The former was sort of hit or miss, trial and error, Ice Truck Killers turned fat and bald, Doomsday Killers replaced by Taylor Swift wannabes. However, that could always be easily forgiven. Killers are difficult to dream up, and we’ll take the idiot, muscle-bound gravedigger wearing animal horns once in a while as long as there is someone more interesting lurking off to the side in the shadows. But when Deb starts shaking uncontrollably and Dexter becomes a stupid, stuttering child, it is time to switch over and start watching stuff like “Breaking Bad,” where the newness and credibility haven’t worn thin.