Every series starts out with a basic premise – a storytelling engine that is supposed to power the show. Some shows ride that engine until, and sometimes long after, it breaks down. Others make tweaks along the way that keep things from sputtering out. Some shows will even swap their initial premise out for something totally new in the hopes that it will give the series new life going forward. The best series, however, take that initial premise and let it evolve naturally. At heart, I believe the producers of Dexter have tried to make it that sort of show.
The first season of Dexter used its original premise to great effect. That initial season was a golden time on the show where everything was still a mystery, or a possibility, or a hint of a future storyline which all stemmed from the show’s central idea. Yet, as the seasons have gone by, Dexter has faced several challenges that largely seemed organic to his two-fold identity as a secret serial killer working for the police. He’s handled a large-scale investigation into his activities. He’s tested whether he can have real relationships with others, both romantic and platonic. He’s had to balance his need to kill with his need to be a brother, husband, and father. In this way, Dexter has let its story and its protagonist grow and change in ways that feel natural to that original idea, if a bit shoehorned into season-long arcs.
But despite that evolution, Dexter has held tightly to a few pieces of its initial premise, saving them for a rainy day. Some of the biggest questions the show had asked in its very first episode have been left waiting to be answered. What if the people close to Dexter found out what he really is? What if Dexter got caught? What if his secret identity was out in the open? Season 7 of Dexter pulled the trigger on exploring the first question and thoroughly teased the second and third. And it made it a season brimming with possibilities.
But the biggest problem with Season 7 is that all too often, those questions were put on the back burner for less interesting characters and storylines. The promise of this season – which had piqued the casual fan’s interest despite recent lackluster efforts from the show – was the chance to dig into the meat of the show’s premise that had been presage and promised when the show premiered. Instead, the audience was served reheated leftovers in the form of a mob conflict and yet another Dexter romance, to Season 7′s significant detriment.
The various run-ins with the mafia had to be one of the weakest and most forgettable storylines in a series that has misfired more than once in its collection of season-long arcs. The murder of nigh-pointless character Mike Anderson gave Dexter a new killer to put on his table and put Miami Homicide at odds with the Ukranian mob, with little to show for it.
The most pointless outgrowth of this story came in the form of Quinn’s romance with a stripper from a club owned by the same gangsters. In the course of the story we learned nothing new about Quinn. His sidestory featured tired archetypes rather than interesting characters. And most damningly, it amounted to nothing in the grand scheme of the season and the series.
The other prong of that storyline came from Dexter’s cat and mouse game with Isaac Sirko, one of the captains of the Ukranian mob family. In the first episode, Dexter kills the mafia hitman who murdered Mike Anderson. This earned him the ire of Sirko, who eventually turned out to be the victim’s lover, not just his brother in arms. This caused Dexter and Sirko to butt heads throughout much of the rest of the season.
Many have spoken highly of Ray Stevens’ performance as Sirko. I, quite frankly, detested both the character and the performance. Isaac Sirko was a James Bond villain. Stevens’s performance had the cadence and panache of Ernst Blofield in You Only Live Twice, engaging in eye-rollingly coy colloquies with Dexter that may as well have ended with, “No, Mr. Morgan, I expect you to die.”
The character appeared to be an attempt by the show’s writers to create a foil who could be a match for Dexter. But while Miguel Prado served as an adversary who could get to Dexter by using the system, and Arthur Mitchell stood toe-to-toe as an older, wiser serial killer himself; Isaac Sirko offered nothing to the effort besides his position as a generic mafia hitman. He was better suited for playing the villain in The Expendables than in Dexter.
The only element that even partially redeemed the character were the few times Sirko stepped out of that archetype. Indeed, the sole instance where I truly liked and appreciated the character was during his conversation with Dexter in a gay bar, where he revealed that his motivations were not simple mob revenge but rather avenging the man he loved. In that one scene, Sirko was more open, deep, and interesting than the entirety of the rest of his hoary, season-long, hired-mafia-gun routine.
But, in the end, the apparent lesson from Sirko, and his purpose as a character in the show, was to teach Dexter should embrace the possibility of love – an appropriately trite point from a frustratingly rote character.
Black Widow Revisited
But Sirko paled in comparison to Season 7’s queen of rote – Hannah McKay. McKay is a standard issue femme fatale. She enters Dexter’s life when the department reinvestigates an old killing spree where McKay had played the Bonnie to another criminal’s Clyde.
McKay had received clemency as a minor who had, allegedly, not committed any of the murders herself. Dexter, of course, discovers that not only did Hannah have more of a hand in the original killings than she had let on, but also that she has a history of poisoning people who have gotten in her way. After disregarding his cherished code for a pretty face, Dexter is smitten, and claims to fall in love with McKay.
That’s right. It’s another Dexter romance. My feelings on this story can be summed by the following exchange:
- “Well, Dexter thinks he’s in love. Though it started as a cover, he’s realized that he’s developed feelings for this girl.”
- “Oh you mean Rita.”
- “No no no, this one wants Dexter to give in to his darker urges and be himself.”
- “Oh you mean Lila.”
- “Not at all! This one knows that he’s a serial killer! And she’s even in on the killing!”
- “Oh you mean Lumen.”
- “No! This is a totally different situation you guys!”
McKay’s retread of a storyline is the most frustrating thing about this season. The show seemed to be finally pulling the trigger on storylines that fans had been salivating over from the first episodes of the series. Instead of giving those storylines room to breathe, they were swept aside for this interminable rehash.
How many times has Dexter wondered if he could truly love someone? How many times has he questioned whether he could have a future? How many times has he struggled with revealing his true self to another person, let alone a romantic interest? There was nothing new or different there. Hannah is, at best, a more extreme version of Lila. We know how this song goes and changing the key doesn’t render it any less unimaginative.
The lack of chemistry between Michael C. Hall and Yvonne Strahovski didn’t help the situation, but at best, that could only have mildly propped up a story that took up the bulk of the season without offering the audience anything novel or engaging. In a typical season, it would be a knock against the show as a waste of time, but in Season 7, it did something worse – it took time away from the storylines that were genuinely worth caring about.
Admittedly, it did occasionally intersect with the most-explored of those interesting storylines – Deb discovering that Dexter is a serial killer.
He Saw, She Saw, Down by the Seashore
The storyline featuring Deb’s discovery of her brother’s true self is where Season 7 deserves credit. Certainly, Deb’s story arc was put on the backburner too much for my tastes. And as is often the case in Dexter’s 12-episode arcs, sometimes what should have been slow-burn bits of acceptance and understanding proceeded a bit too quickly. But otherwise the show handled both the revelation and its aftermath surprisingly well.
This part of the season could have easily been a cop out. Dexter’s attempts to dance around a denial in the first episode seemed to suggest the series would try to maintain the veil for at least a while longer. Instead, the writers directly confronted the issue.
What I liked best about the revelation to Deb is that it happened gradually. Yes, the big reveal happened in the first episode, but bit by bit over the course of the series, Deb would look back at the fishier events of the past and eventually unraveled the tapestry of lies that Dexter had woven. The Ice Truck Killer, Rita, Trinity, Lumen, her father, and more all came up, and all gave Deb a window into the monster that her brother had become, or rather, always was.
I have not always loved the character of Debra Morgan or Jennifer Carpenter’s portrayal of her. Deb can be an annoying character – equal parts frat boy, damsel in distress, and sucker. But she can also be one of the show’s more interesting and down-to-earth characters. Her personality has been sketched out more than anyone but Dexter himself on the show. So when much of the season’s focus had to be on her and her reaction to Dexter’s revelation, it had the makings of a great disaster or a resounding triumph.
The end result fell somewhere in between, but thankfully skewed much more strongly toward the latter than the former. While the scenes of Dexter trying to convince her that what he does is good felt somewhat perfunctory, Jennifer Carpenter and the show’s writers did a very good job of showing Debra gradually but convincingly come to grips with something of this magnitude. The audience saw the character struggle between her love for her brother and her moral revulsion to his actions and the shock of learning about the life he had been living in parallel. They also saw her trying to manage the sheer insanity of the situation she was placed in.
It’s a difficult task to portray the idea of finding out that your brother, who you work with on the police force, is a serial killer. And while some of the story beats wandered into the realm of cliche, Carpenter’s performance felt real. The situations the writers put Deb in often felt contrived, but her responses and reactions always seemed genuine in the moment, and it allowed a storyline that was walking a tightrope to succeed.
It would have been tempting to either graze over a game-changing plot point with some external contrivance as the show has done so often. Or at the very least, it would have been easy to have Debra be surprisingly accepting and tamp down her internal conflict. Instead, the show dealt with Debra’s discovery head on, and it gave the audience the strongest part of the seventh season.
LaGuerta’s Last Stand
By the same token, the best compliment to offer regarding the storyline of LaGuerta’s investigation is that there should have been more of it. While the audience was stuck digesting Isaac Sirko’s latest monologue or the newest predictable turn in the Hannah McKay storyline, the show provided mere breadcrumbs of LaGuerta’s ongoing inquiries into the old Bay Harbor Butcher case.
LaGuerta’s character has shifted back and forth in personality several times over. She’s been the conniving politician, the lovesick puppy, the bitch with a heart of gold, and everything in between. But here, she stood out as the dogged detective, trying to clear her partner’s name. At her best, LaGuerta has shown a determined pragmatism that lurks behind her realpolitik methods at the department, and the show used that element of her character to great effect. The “one woman against the system” story drifted into well-trodden ground from your average police drama, but given the stakes and the personalities involved, it worked.
The storyline also soared by featuring extended cameos from Lt. Matthews and Sgt. Doakes. In early seasons, the Matthews character was often a mere generic misguided police authority figure, but in retirement he’s as much fun as Masuka used to be. He also won the prize for the funniest line this season with, “Get on your knees and start kissing anything that even remotely resembles an ass,” and his team up with LaGuerta was an unexpected highlight of the latter part of the season.
Similarly, Erik King’s brief return in flashback as Lt. Doakes was a pleasant surprise. While it made absolute sense in terms of the show’s ongoing plot, it’s a shame that the audience only had two seasons of Doakes to enjoy. His comment to Dexter that, “You don’t even walk like a normal person, you glide. Like a fucking lizard on ice,” was a perfect line in an episode that managed to revisit what made the character interesting without treading into hollow nostalgia.
Of course, Deb’s arc and LaGuerta’s arc came together in the season’s climax. Yet, despite the fact that these were the two best storylines of the season, and the finish resolved both of them reasonably well from a plot perspective, the ending itself came off a bit flat.
A character, brandishing a weapon, trying to decide which of the two to shoot is as cliche as scene as you’re likely to find on television. I understand the impulse. Each new challenge facing Debra this season put her in a tug of war between her responsibilities under the law and her love for her brother. But the show’s creators didn’t have to make the choice so literal or extreme.
And now, Debra has taken a life to protect her brother. LaGuerta is gone. Isaac Sirko is too. Hannah McKay has escaped from prison. Quinn is back at square one. Batista is eyeing retirement. Dexter himself has to shepherd the sister who went to unthinkable lengths in his name. There’s a great deal to look forward to in Dexter’s final season. Let’s just hope the show delivers those stories the audience has been clamoring for since the series began, rather than serving up the sizeable dose of reheated filler the show offered in Season 7.