Jason Lynch on Showtime’s sometimes stunning, sometimes maddeningly infuriating serial-killer drama Dexter, which returns on Sunday night for its eighth and final season.
Since 2006, people have underestimated Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) at their own peril. No matter how frequently the protagonist of Showtime’s longest-running and highest-rated series, Dexter—about a serial killer who preys solely on other criminals—finds himself left for dead, on the verge of being exposed or seemingly out of options, he somehow always manages to claw his way back on top.
The same can be said for Dexter itself, which returns Sunday for its eighth and final season. After reaching its creative peak in Season 4, which featured its most terrifying adversary in John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer, the show began flailing creatively, unable to fill the immense void left by Lithgow’s departure and uninterested in progressing toward any kind of series conclusion, before flatlining in Season 6 with the misfire that was the Doomsday Killer storyline (complete with an absurd Sixth Sense twist that most viewers sniffed out early on). The show was finished, I said, and I vowed to stop watching.
Except that Dexter never goes down without a fight. Season 6’s game-changing finale, in which his Miami Metro detective sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), finally discovered the horrible truth about her brother, improbably rescued the show from the creative morgue and gave Dexter a reason for existing that had been missing for years. And just as last season began backsliding again, it pulled another trick in the finale: Deb shot and killed her boss, Capt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), who was about to arrest Dexter. Now Dexter enters its final season with a largely confident run of early episodes that prove Season 7’s rejuvenation was not just a final gasp of breath.
The season picks up six months after LaGuerta’s death. Deb has left Miami Metro and is working as a private investigator, one who appears to be dangerously overcommitted to her job, going off the grid for weeks as she tracks a bail jumper. Dexter, meanwhile, is finally spending some quality time with his 5-year-old son, Harrison (during the past couple seasons, his parental involvement rarely extended beyond handing the boy off to his nanny), but his estrangement from Deb and life without her grounding presence, coupled with the guilt over causing Deb to murder her boss, has left him unnerved and unmoored.
This is bad news for both Dexter and Deb, given that Dexter is setting up a final-season arc that parallels the one from its triumphant debut: a serial killer who is toying with one of the show’s main characters (as Season 1’s Ice Truck Killer did with Dexter, who was later revealed to be his brother). This year’s baddie, nicknamed the Brain Surgeon, is slicing through his (or her) victims’ brains and harvesting small pieces of them. It is one of this season’s many unfortunate parallels to NBC’s superb Hannibal, which exists in a whole other artistic stratosphere.
Enter Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a neuropsychiatrist dubbed “the Psychopath Whisperer” by the FBI. She volunteers to help find the Brain Surgeon but seems far more interested in Dexter. The magnificent Rampling has the gravitas and the poker face necessary to pull off the mysterious role. An early faceoff between the pair crackles with a tension the show hasn’t seen since Lithgow’s season, and causes Hall to further raise his game as well.
While Hall continues to impress as Dexter, the character can only grow so much. He is, after all, a ruthless serial killer with an ever-present “Dark Passenger” tempting him to kill again, and while he has a son and sister who love him, in reality he is only truly himself when strapping his latest victim to his kill table. Which is why the show’s real MVP has long been Carpenter, who believably sells even the most ludicrous of plotlines (her attraction to a long line of psychotic men, including her own brother) and has blossomed into an emotionally rich character that does far more than curse creatively.
Season 8 gives Carpenter her toughest material yet, as her posttraumatic stress disorder from killing LaGuerta finally kicks in. Racked with guilt, she has become a drunken mess who seems to have a death wish. “I shot the wrong person in that trailer,” she tells her brother, adding later, “You made me compromise everything about myself that I care about. And I hate you for it.” The overall success of Dexter as a series always hinged on how Deb would react once she inevitably found out the truth about her brother, and Carpenter has more than risen to the challenge.
The same can’t be said for the show’s supporting characters, who continue to make so little of an impression that eight seasons in, I can barely remember their names. Episodes grind to a halt whenever focus shifts to one of their undercooked storylines. Dexter has always treated the employees at Miami Metro as an afterthought: Dexter takes most of the bad guys off the board himself, making them TV’s second–most incompetent law enforcement body. (No one bungles cases at every turn like the FBI dolts over on Fox’s The Following).
It’s not as if the supporting cast isn’t capable of good work—Desmond Harrington, who plays Detective Quinn, left more of an impression in one episode of Justified (he was creepy Dixie Mafia enforcer Fletcher Nix in Season 3) than he has in his six seasons here—but the show finds little to do for them other than pair up romantically (yes, there’s another hookup this season). And while the guest-starring roles, like Rampling’s, are far meatier, they too are stuck in a predictable rut: an early twist, and then, after two or three episodes of relative stagnancy, an even bigger character reveal. After eight seasons of conditioning, the precision-timed “shocks” have lost a great deal of potency.
Which is another reason why, despite the tremendous work this season from Carpenter, Hall, and Rampling, it’s clearer than ever that Dexter must end. Dexter’s kills might still be cathartic for him, but because of the precise ritual he follows, the show’s writers and directors have long exhausted any creativity out of the murder scenes. And his various emotional crises—What will become of his son? Are his emotions real or just manufactured?—are all retreads of previous internal struggles.
Still, the show has a few genuine surprises up its sleeve, most notably a twist late in the fourth episode that nicely sets up the final run of episodes. Yes, it’s time for Dexter to finally meet its maker, but I’m not going anywhere until the show takes its final breath.