Warning: Spoilers for the last seasons of both Dexter and Breaking Bad follow. Read at your own risk.)
As I mention in an article a few weeks back, two of the most memorable antiheroes in TV history were about to leave us. Now, they are both gone. So it’s time to do what so many police procedurals doing and perform an autopsy.
To be perfectly honest, the final season of Dexter was something of a disappointment. While it started off with a great setup— we finally met the woman responsible for ‘The Code’— very quickly, it started to decay. And part of the problem was in the setup around the second important character— Deb.
Debra spent most of season 7 in a state of pure agony upon learning the true nature of her foster brother. Still torn in anguish between her love for her brother and her duty as a cop, which had culminated in the murder of LaGuerta and her resignation from the force. She spent the first third of the eighth season in a state of true pain, which ended with her driving her car with her and Dexter off a bridge. Then, somehow, this seemed to serve as a catharsis, and for the remainder of the season, she seemed whole again. This seemed to be a huge gap in writing for a character that had been, for seven years, the most fully drawn one of the series. It’s as if the writers had built this great set-up, and then decided to forego it for other things.
This might have been forgivable if the big killer for the final season had been the level of some of the true monsters of the show. And this was the show’s second disappointment. The Brain Surgeon sounded interesting at first,, but after revealing that he was Evelyn Vogel’s son, he proved neither to be particularly interesting nor sinister. Yes, there is something monstrous about a man willing to slit his own mother’s throat, but there was nothing remarkable about the man aside from that, in comparison with Arthur Mitchell or Jordan Chase. Considering that this was their last bite, the writers really dropped the ball her.
The final nail came with the return of Hannah McKay, Dexter’s fellow traveler and love interest for last season. When she returned in the season’s final half, she made a grand entrance, but everything that followed just seemed pedestrian in comparison to her actions last year. Perhaps the most unsettling thing was how the overriding themes of Season 7— Debra’s horror that her brother had fallen in love with another monster— was all but absent. Initially, Deb wanted to turn Hannah in, but when Dexter announced that he was going to leave the country with her, she not only did nothing to stop her, she was more than willing to enable it.
Despite all these flaws, the final episode of the series was almost enough to make up for it. What seemed to be a horrific moment— Deb getting shot in the penultimate episode— seemed to be overcome. She seemed to be guaranteed to recover, she was about to rejoin the force, she looked liked she might be able to move on with former lover Quinn. Daniel Vogel sought vengeance but was apprehended by the Miami Police, not Dexter. There seemed to be a decent chance that Dexter would be able to escape to a new life with Hannah and his young son.
And then the series delivered the ultimate sucker punch: Deb suffered a clot, and after being brought back into surgery, she was left brain dead. Suddenly, the fact that the Brain Surgeon had done this was more appalling, after surviving monster for seven seasons, she fell victim to one of the most pedestrian of them. Worse, Dexter was left with the knowledge that if he had followed his instincts and killed him, his sister would still be alive. He killed Daniel Vogel in public, and after having gone to such trouble to make sure he was never caught for any of the dozens of people he had murdered, he committed one in public, and was allowed to walk away from it.
The last moments of the show were heart-rending. Dexter removed Deb from life support, took her on to the boat where he had disposed of dozen of monsters, then cast her beneath the waves. He called his son one last time, then drove his boat into a hurricane, finally realizing the truth his brother had told him back in season 1— you can’t be a killer and a normal guy. Perhaps this way, his young son— who, like him, was baptized in the blood of his murdered mother– might have a chance. (Whether he’d be better off being raised by another killer is a question that the show chose not to answer.) The fact that Dexter was revealed to still be alive, but in a completely isolated place, away from everything that made him who he was— was almost as satisfying a fate for him as the one that awaited Vic Mackey at the end of The Shield. He survived his horrible crimes, yes, but is he truly alive?