I was drug kicking and screaming into the Showtime hit Dexter. (Kicking and screaming is such an appropriate idiom for a show about murder, isn’t it?) I had heard about Dexter, and heard ratings were high for it, but figured it was a gimmicky show with a weak plot that had an excuse for lots of blood and gore.
I was wrong.
The first episode was brilliant. The whole freaking show was brilliant, in fact. We, the audience, got to hear exactly what was going on in Dexter’s head from the moment the first scene opened.
It provided an intimate look into the life of a serial killer. And the audience fell in love with him. With Dexter. A SERIAL KILLER. In order for a character to reverberate with an audience, they have to empathize with that character. It seems impossible that any character who is a serial killer would have traits that an audience could relate to. But Dexter did it, and did it well.
Dexter was about a man trying to fit in. He had days he didn’t want to go to work. He had days he loved his job. He had a cookie-cutter marriage that made him feel stifled. He had a son he cared for and wanted to protect. He learned. He loved. He lost. He cried. He laughed. He experience. He adapted. He put on masks and only let a few people know exactly who he was inside. We have all done those things. This show took very basic ideas of life and human interaction and explored them from the perspective of a very broken man.
“Who later became a lumberjack!!!” you cry. I know, I know. I’m getting to that.
Society has certain basic rules for humanity, and if your character breaks one of those rules in a story, there’d better be a pretty damn good reason. Murder is a big one. Maybe THE big one. Isn’t “Thou Shalt Not Kill” the first commandment? Not sure if it’s the first – it’s been awhile since I’ve been to church. ANYWAY, it’s tough to make a criminal the main protagonist in the story, and even tougher to make them likable to the audience. In order to do this, the writers have to justify why the criminal is doing something wrong. No one flinches if a character breaks into a dark building to steal something if it’s a folder out of a filing cabinet that will help them rescue/cure/help someone else. Shooting a bad guy in a firefight is totally acceptable. But kill a living creature – not a good idea. I was furious with Sawyer on LOST for squishing a frog because he was trying to sleep. But the writers were trying to paint that character as an asshole. Dexter was not an asshole.
Dexter was stuck in survival mode. Eat, sleep, breathe, don’t let anyone know you’re a serial killer. That was it. His father taught him how to survive – how to function. And that was it. Nothing else. Everything else Dexter learned on his own. His Dad taught him that he needed to form human relationships, but not really how to deal with those relationships. And he did pretty decently.
But then he started losing (or having to kill) people around him he cared about:
Brian Moser (brother)
Lila West (lover)
Miguel Prado (best friend)
Camilla Figg (coworker)
Rita shook him up quite a bit. She was a good person, and the mother of his child. While he didn’t passionately love her, he cared for her – and having her die so violently was a callback to his childhood and his mother who died so violently in front of him.
Maria LaGuerta (boss)
Zach Hamilton (troubled teen)
Dexter wanted to help Zach – he saw a younger version of him. The look on his face when he finds Zach dead – he’s genuinely crestfallen.
Evelyn Vogel (a mother figure and his therapist)
Debra Morgan (his sister)
These two were the final blow. Dexter cradles Vogel, clearly grief-stricken. She was the only mother figure he knew, and she knew him better than anyone.
Losing Deb completely did him in.
But it’s proof to him that he can’t be around anyone.
“For so long all I wanted was to be like other people. To feel what they felt. But now that I do, I just want it to stop.”
This was one of the (if not the) last line Dexter speaks. (I don’t remember if it’s the last line ever – and I can’t find a clip on YouTube. When I Google it, I just get a gazillion “The Dexter Ending Sucked” videos.
This line absolutely broke my heart. Dexter’s Dad had tried so hard to teach him how to be human – how to blend in. How to survive. And he succeeded. And Dexter realized that he even though he can blend in – and he knows how to have real emotions now – he doesn’t want them.
And then Dexter becomes a lumberjack.
I KNOW. Hang on.
This moment, the moment Dexter realizes who he has become and what he has to do to protect the people he loves, is the true ending of the show. It is the closure the audience wanted. Dexter drives his boat into the eye of the hurricane (does anybody else notice that it’s Hurricane Laura – the same name as Dexter’s mother?) and we see his boat smashed to bits. It’s an emotional closing for the viewer. Dexter doesn’t suffer anymore. We don’t suffer anymore. We grieve his death and we move on.
Only that doesn’t happen.
We know that Dexter can now feel emotions. He’s not a mindless robot. He’s made the decision to self-sacrifice and feel lonely and sad and be away from his loved ones. It’s a fate worse than death. It’s a lifetime of suffering. He gets no relief.
And neither do we.
We are left with the image of a lonely man, a broken man, a blue-collar man who used to be a super-cool forensics guy, a man we really really rooted for and cheered for and loved and wanted to see at least get some relief from his suffering . . .
. . . and then the writers showed us a far worse kind of suffering.
Not just the lumberjack kind. Not just the isolated lonely kind.
Did the writers do it on purpose? Were they leaving things open for a sequel? Did they really plan to end the show like this?
Does it matter?
Dexter failed. And that’s what’s so hard for us to believe.
He tried so hard to fit in. So hard to be human and experience human things. And he succeeded, but at a great cost. So he gave up.
It wasn’t the fact that he was a lumberjack that pissed us off. It wasn’t the lack of closure – we got that. It was the fact that our protagonist gave up. Frodo got to the volcano to destroy the ring and went – “Nah. Never mind.” Luke joined the dark side and his friends died. Harry Potter quit school and went back home to live under his staircase.
We wanted to see Dexter succeed or die trying – and he did neither. He made a great sacrifice, sure. But he’s in horrible pain – living out the rest of his days. And he gave up. And we don’t want stories about people who gave up. It makes us feel hopeless. What’s the point of going to work everyday if there’s no glorious prize at the end of it all? What’s the point of falling in love if there is no happily ever after?
When a fictional character dies, the emotional sections of our brain does not know the difference between a real person and a fictional person, and sometimes we actually go through the stages of grief for that fictional character. It’s a form of disenfranchised grief.
We go through the same grief cycle – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s no different if the character dies, or if the show ends. Either way we’ve lost someone we know very well, and we like a lot (or at least are interested in their lives) and we’ll never know anything about them again.
Deb was a shock, and I found myself going through the grief cycle over her. Dexter staying alive somehow made Deb’s death more tragic. Because while I’m grieving over her, I know Dexter is grieving over her.
And I’m grieving for Dexter too. Because he’s miserable. Because there’s nothing I can do about it. Because it makes me miserable too. What if I play the game of life and I find it made no difference?
Oh yeah, people are angry about the ending of Dexter. But I don’t think they’re angry about the way the story ended. I think they’re angry about the possibility that giving it your all doesn’t guarantee success.