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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
10 episodes to remind you <i>Dexter</i> was so much more than a crappy ending

10 episodes to remind you Dexter was so much more than a crappy ending

Photo: Showtime

With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

There’s vitriol, and then there’s the rage engendered by the finale of Dexter. The A.V. Club recently revisited the public and critical response of that series’ ending; to call the reactions negative would be putting it mildly. With the possible exception of Lost, it’s rare for a final season and finale episode to leave such a bad taste in viewers’ mouths that it retroactively sours them on the entirety of the series (and even Lost’s conclusion is more divisive in reaction than the near-universal scorn Dexter received). By the end, the show was on a slow and steady march into the Florida swamp, any good qualities inevitably buried by its final arc.

But no TV show need be judged solely by its worst moments. Like any long-running program, Dexter had its ups and downs—in its early years, it even hit some highs. When the creative team was firing on all cylinders, the series was as gripping and heady as any thriller on television, full of adventurous plots, twisty storytelling, and the occasional nasty bit of violence. True, Dexter always made sure to aim for the cheap seats, crafting colorful, pulpy excitement in its stories and character arcs—but as any Bruce Springsteen fan can tell you, there’s no law that says you can’t make great populist art. And for all its dark subject matter, Dexter was populist TV, through and through. It zipped along with the energy and lurid fun of a paperback thriller, the visual equivalent of a killer beach read. Which is fitting, given that’s exactly where the show found its source material.

Dexter began life as an adaptation of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first in a series of novels by author Jeff Lindsey. (While the first season roughly followed the plot of that book, subsequent years mostly cast aside the source material in favor of original stories.) The show revolved around the work of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a forensic blood-spatter analyst who works for the Miami Metro Police Department. From the outside, he looks like a model citizen: Aside from helping catch bad guys in his day job, Dexter has a steady relationship with Rita Bennett (Julie Benz), a working mom with two small boys, Astor and Cody, with whom he gets along well. He lives in a nice but unremarkable apartment, owns a small fishing boat he takes out periodically, and does regular-guy stuff, like bowling with the department’s league team.

Oh, also? He’s a serial killer. But not just any old killer—Dexter lives by a certain code. That would be the code of Harry Morgan (James Remar), his adoptive father and police detective who adopted the toddler after his parents died. As we see in flashbacks throughout the first several seasons, before his death, Harry realized early on that Dexter is a sociopath with an innate drive to kill, a compulsion Dexter eventually refers to as his “dark passenger.” Rather than get him the serious treatment that would doubtless land his adopted child in an institution, Harry decides to channel Dexter’s desires into a strict moral guideline—teaching his son to be a meticulous and brilliant vigilante, taking out only those who have intentionally killed someone else. A killer of killers, in other words. By rigorously following Harry’s code, Dexter is able to methodically dispatch murderers who have escaped conventional justice, disposing of the bodies in the ocean and keeping up the facade of a regular life—complete with his well-rehearsed “performing” of typical emotions like happiness, love, frustration, and so on—to avoid capture and pass for normal.

It all sounds pretty over the top, and it might not’ve worked without the anchor performance by Michael C. Hall. Already a well-regarded TV actor thanks to his role on HBO’s Six Feet Under, Hall brought the perfect blend of dispassionate neurodivergent cool and average-joe ordinariness to the part, seamlessly fusing the sociopathy and fey charm that made the character magnetic. Handsome but not distractingly so, Hall sold the everyman qualities that allowed viewers to believe this was a brutal killer who could disappear in most situations, making his cover the kind of reliable but uninteresting drip who didn’t raise anyone’s curiosity. You could understand why most people liked him—and also why none of them cared enough to be particularly close friends.

When the show begins, Dexter’s living his seemingly unremarkable life—working at Miami-Metro PD Homicide department with colleagues like Detective Angel Batista (David Zayas), commanding officer Lieutenant LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), and tactless fellow forensic scientist Vince Masuka (C.S. Lee). Also newly promoted to the department is Dexter’s younger adopted sister, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), foul-mouthed but eager to prove her worth to not just the other cops, but her older brother. The first season follows Dexter as he attempted to deliver his vigilante justice without arousing suspicion, especially from the one person in Homicide, Sergeant James Doakes (Erik King), who seemed to suspect the forensic analyst was up to no good. Season two features the surprise discovery of Dexter’s underwater burial ground, a massive collection of bodies that leads to a city-wide manhunt for the killer dubbed the “Bay Harbor Butcher.” Dexter’s ability to continue his vigilantism is seriously hampered by the somewhat sympathetic media attention, as well as the increasingly suspicious Sergeant Doakes. Dexter and Rita’s relationship hits a few snags, after he takes up with a pyromaniac named Lila (Jaime Murray). Season two ends with Doakes dead—framed by Lila for the Bay Harbor Butcher murders—and Dexter killing Lila, thereby ensuring no one alive knows his secret.

The plot twists continued to flow as freely as any soap opera throughout the years. In season three, Dexter finds a sympathetic party in Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits), who initially hopes to help guide his vigilante killings. But Dexter soon realizes Miguel has begun killing people on his own, people who don’t fit Harry’s official code. There are some other subplots—Deb gets a new partner, Joey Quinn (Desmond Harrington), and the two spend the season tracking a new serial killer dubbed “the Skinner” (yes, he skins his victims alive). The season ends with Dexter killing both Miguel and the Skinner, just in time to make it to his wedding to Rita.

Season four follows a similar pattern, but is considered by many to be the high-water mark of the series, a superlative blend of thrills and oddball character study that received its jolt of creative uplift in the form of guest star John Lithgow. The longtime thespian plays Arthur Mitchell, an outwardly pious family man whose community respect hides the fact that he’s also the “Trinity Killer,” a notorious murderer who kills three people a year. Dexter’s initial affinity for Arthur—he sees him as a mentor who can guide Dexter through the double life they both lead—eventually curdles when he realizes Arthur is not just a killer, but a vicious domestic abuser. Lithgow netted an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama, but his fictional alter ego was less fortunate: Dexter eventually captures and murders Arthur. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do it in time to save Rita, whose body is discovered in the bathtub (with her and Dexter’s new baby Harrison crying on the floor alongside her), a shocking death that served as the most profound finale the show ever delivered.

After such a riveting and impressive conclusion to a superb season, it was maybe inevitable that Dexter would start to lose steam creatively, if not commercially. (Viewership continued to climb all the way through season seven.) Season five found Dexter helping a woman, named Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles), who had been kidnapped and was set to be murdered by a group of men responsible for a series of young women’s deaths. Lumen wants to get revenge by killing each member of the group, and Dexter, recognizing something akin to his own Dark Passenger, agrees to help her, as they take them out one by one, leading up to motivational speaker Jordan Chase (Jonny Lee Miller). After Lumen’s departure, season six turned Dexter’s attention to the Doomsday Killers, professor James Gellar (Edward James Olmos) and his student, Travis Marshall (Colin Hanks), who believe they are helping to usher in the end of the world by staging a series of grisly tableaus based on the Book Of Revelations, using the bodies of their victims. Viewers responded overwhelmingly negatively, but the finale—in which Debra walks in just as Dexter captures and kills Travis—suggested a volatile future.

That promised intensity never really materialized. Instead, the show sputtered through potentially rich narratives with only fitfully rewarding results. Season seven ran through a plethora of storylines, including the fallout of Debra’s discovery about Dexter’s vigilantism. These include: a Ukrainian mobster (Ray Stevenson) seeking revenge for Dexter’s killing of his partner; Dexter’s tempestuous relationship with Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski), who had killed several men; and LaGuerta’s increasing suspicion that Dexter was actually the Bay Harbor Butcher. After season seven ended with Debra killing LaGuerta to keep her brother safe, the final season had Dexter’s sister working in private security, while Dexter begins working with Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), who helped Harry create his code and therefore knows Dexter’s secret. Meanwhile, a new killer dubbed the “Brain Surgeon” is soon found to be Vogel’s son, and after killing her and threatening Dexter, the Surgeon shoots Debra. In the finale, she dies from complications after surgery, and Dexter, distraught over her death, abandons his plan to join Hannah and his son, in which the three of them would start a new life abroad, and instead fakes his own death to start a new, isolated life as a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest. As previously mentioned, people didn’t care for it.

While the series would periodically have strong runs of episodes, it could never quite seem to recapture the all-tension-all-the-time sense of breathless excitement generated by the first half of its run. Some of this might be attributable to behind-the-scenes changes; showrunner Clyde Phillips departed after season four, and after a one-season stint with former 24 exec producer Chip Johannessen in charge, the final three seasons were handed over to Scott Buck, a writer with the show since season two. Phillips, who is returning to helm the upcoming limited series revival, wasn’t exactly shy about his dislike of the latter-day seasons, arguing that the series lost the goodwill of viewers when Dexter violated the very code that had defined the character. After looking over the puzzling miasma of dropped plot threads and character reversals that came to define the final seasons, it’s hard to disagree.

But none of that changes the fact that, for at least four seasons, Dexter maintained a dark and visceral intensity, pulpy storytelling elevated by strong performances, sharp direction, and excellent production design. It may not have ever been the prestige TV programming it occasionally feinted at, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. Below, we’ve selected the 10 episodes that show the scope of Dexter’s bloodthirsty ways, whether they were sprays of arterial enjoyment or simply DOA.

“Dexter” (season one, episode one)

Illustration for article titled 10 episodes to remind you Dexter was so much more than a crappy ending
Screenshot: Netflix

The first episode of Dexter is a superb introduction to the world of Dexter Morgan, with all its attendant secrets and subterfuges. Opening with a sequence in which the series’ protagonist stalks, abducts, and murders a man, all the elements of this serial killer story are quickly established, from the bigger picture of his friends and coworkers to small but crucial details, like how Dexter draws a tiny drop of blood from each victim before killing them, then stores it on a microscope slide as a keepsake. It’s an expertly crafted setup for the ensuing series, setting up all the major characters and the Miami backdrop to great effect. Plus, it introduces the handiwork of the show’s first major villain, the Ice Truck Killer—along with Dexter’s envious response to his victim’s exsanguinated and dismembered corpse: “I’ve never seen such clean, dry, neat-looking dead flesh. Wonderful.”

“The Dark Defender” (season two, episode five)

Illustration for article titled 10 episodes to remind you Dexter was so much more than a crappy ending
Screenshot: Netflix

The show really started to unpack its mythology in a major way with “The Dark Defender,” largely by wisely tearing down Dexter’s idealized view of his adopted father, Harry. Here, the show sends Dexter on a road trip with his new NA sponsor, Lila, and the journey leads to the discovery that not only was Dexter’s mother a junkie and police informant with whom Harry had been having an affair, but that Harry had put her in harm’s way under the false pretense she’d be protected. By stripping away the more simplistic trappings of even its more tertiary characters—all with an eye toward deepening and complicating Dexter himself—Dexter proved itself willing to take the necessary time to pay off investment in these people and their deeply messed-up problems. Not only that, but it gave Dexter a chance to be sloppy in a kill: By making his history even more distant and disturbed, it ironically makes him that much more human.

“The British Invasion” (season two, episode 12)

Illustration for article titled 10 episodes to remind you Dexter was so much more than a crappy ending
Screenshot: Netflix

In its early seasons, Dexter was so skilled at paying off long-running storylines, the audience could be forgiven for not even noticing just how many narrative balls were in the air before the show expertly caught every single one, often simultaneously. There’s no better demonstration of this than the second-season finale, which sees all the many loose plot threads from the previous 11 episodes wrapped up in a slick, blood-stained bow. Lila kills Sergeant Doakes and successfully frames him for the Bay Harbor Butcher murders. Dexter reconciles with Rita. And after Lila tries to kill Dexter and his family, the series demonstrates its willingness to expand this universe far beyond the city limits of Miami, as Dexter travels to Paris in order to kill his former flame (turned pyromaniac, ironically enough). The episode is fast-paced, exciting, and smartly staged and executed—Dexter is arguably never better.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (season three, episode three)

Illustration for article titled 10 episodes to remind you Dexter was so much more than a crappy ending
Screenshot: Netflix

As Dexter Morgan started to evolve as a character, it was almost inevitable that his moral code would start to shift. That changes in a major way in season three, when “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” finds Dexter forced to confront the one thing more important to him than Harry’s code: his family. After discovering that a pedophile has been trying to communicate with Rita’s daughter, Astor, Dexter begins questioning the sanctity of the “only kill other killers” imperative that has driven his vigilantism. By forcing him to grapple with the ethics of the situation, the show made its first tentative steps toward revising our understanding of Dexter’s behavior, for better—and eventually, for worse. The episode is also a good example of Debra’s ever-increasing role on the series, with Jennifer Carpenter’s performance rising to meet Hall’s in a way most of the cast never quite achieved.

“Road Kill” (season four, episode eight)

Illustration for article titled 10 episodes to remind you Dexter was so much more than a crappy ending
Screenshot: Netflix

Once again, Dexter Morgan takes a road trip, but unlike in “The Dark Defender,” here it’s with an eye toward viewing another character through the same perspective as Dexter: John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer, Arthur Mitchell. As the pair returns to Mitchell’s childhood home, we watch as the longtime murderer starts to unravel, culminating with a suicide attempt foiled by Dexter himself. It’s a character study of another killer that doubles as a potent suggestion of a possible future for the show’s protagonist—a world where death is the only possible escape. And the episode also serves as a demonstration of the ways the series increasingly tried to find things for its secondary character to do besides solve crimes—but as Batista and LaGuerta’s affair demonstrates, these subplots rarely felt anywhere near as invigorating as the main narrative.

“The Getaway” (season four, episode 12)

Illustration for article titled 10 episodes to remind you Dexter was so much more than a crappy ending
Screenshot: Netflix

Few shows did episode-ending twists as effectively as Dexter in its heyday, and the brutal twist that concludes “The Getaway,” the season four finale, is as good as the series got with this gambit. There are parts of the Trinity Killer storyline that felt rushed, but the conclusion was so gripping, it retroactively made everything that came before feel that much more potent. After successfully tracking down and killing Arthur Mitchell, Dexter returns home, secure in the knowledge that everyone he cares about is safe from the Trinity Killer. At least, until he walks in the front door—and finds Rita dead in the bathtub, Mitchell’s last victim, with their infant son Harrison crying on the blood-stained floor next to her body. It’s horrifying, and visceral, and a body blow to both the lead character and the audience. It’s the ultimate rug-pull for the series; no wonder subsequent seasons never found a way to top it.

“Teenage Wasteland” (season five, episode nine)

Dexter often felt like two different shows—one great and complicated series about a serial killer trying to carry out his mission while evading detection, and a second, subpar series about police detectives in a homicide division dealing with the soap-opera turns of their personal and professional lives. “Teenage Wasteland” expanded the scope of what the series could do, by bringing back Rita’s daughter Astor to try and repair the fractured bond between her and her stepfather, but in doing so, it started to pull the first show down into the purview of the latter one. In a lot of ways, this was Dexter’s “Very Special Episode”: Astor sees her stepdad take down a child abuser, and in so doing, the two rekindle their relationship. The episode killed any narrative momentum—and worse, it’s all very pat, removing any ambiguities or shades of grey, simply so Dexter could be an unambiguous good guy. In hindsight, it would prove to be a worrying portent.

“Get Gellar” (season six, episode nine)

If there’s an episode that could be considered the shark-jumping moment for Dexter, it’s “Get Gellar,” the season-six episode that shoots itself in the foot so spectacularly, it’s routinely held up as one of the key pieces of evidence for how bad the show got in its later years. Having spent the season hunting a pair of murderers known as the Doomsday killers—Professor James Gellar (Edward James Olmos) and his student Travis Marshall (Colin Hanks)—Dexter ends up believing Travis when he says Gellar has been forcing him through the motions all along, and dedicates himself to taking out the professor. This leads to a rug-pull that beggars belief: Dexter finds Gellar’s body in a freezer and realizes he’s been dead all along, a vision in Travis’ head that we’ve mistakenly believed was real. Whether you saw the twist coming or it caught you off-guard was almost beside the point, which was the most damning thing of all—by that point in the season, almost no one cared.

“Swim Deep” (season seven, episode five)

Maybe the last moment of real greatness the series exhibited, “Swim Deep” showed that when Dexter took a creative risk, it could still pay off in a big way. What’s notable about the episode isn’t what’s there, but what’s not there—namely, the show’s standard go-to maneuvers. No kill of the week, no rambling supporting-character subplot, no voiceover monologues just reiterating what we already know… even the brief appearance of Ghost Harry is deployed to advance the character dynamics. And those dynamics are wholly focused on Deb and Dexter, the fragile trust between them (following her discovery of his deadly ways) given center stage as they try to stay one step ahead of Ray Stevenson’s Ukrainian gangster gunning for them. It’s rich, dense stuff—not to mention tense as all get-out, arguably the last time the show felt as vital as it did in the early years.

“Every Silver Lining…” (season eight, episode two)

The final season of Dexter had one genuinely great idea—to recast the entirety of the Dexter Morgan mythology in an entirely different light. “Every Silver Lining” is the episode that made it seem as though the conclusion to the series could still be excellent, by smoothly and plausibly introducing the reveal that Harry’s Code was actually the code of Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a neuropsychiatrist who informs Dexter that she had helped his adoptive father come up with the social experiment that was his life, guiding a psychopath into becoming a functional member of society with a morally justifiable outlet for his homicidal impulses. And it paired this revelation with a clever twist to the show’s structure: Not only does Dexter not kill someone this episode, but Debra does illicitly murder a man, almost as a challenge to the moral gauntlet her brother put her through the previous season. The siblings’ tormented bond was the frisson that kept Dexter watchable, long after every other element had checked out.