I knew before I started watching the TV series Dexter that I would hate the ending. Flocks of others had watched the show before me and all came to the same conclusion—the series ended on a sour note; some even argued it ruined the entire show for them.
Though I was armed with this information, I set out to watch Dexter a few months ago. I mean, a serial killer who only targets bad guys, the classic anti-hero that we want to root for even though it’s completely twisted? Secret identities and double lives? An exploration of what it means to be human? I’m in!
Well, I finished all eight seasons of Dexter a few days ago and I now understand the incendiary response to the series finale. It’s simple really. Intellectually, the conclusion makes sense (sort of, I guess). Emotionally, it misses the mark—big time—because the storytellers chose ambiguity over finality. And it was a little too dark, even for a series with a serial killer as the protagonist.
The series finale in a nutshell:
Miami Metro blood spatter analyst and secret serial killer Dexter Morgan is about to achieve his happily-ever-after in Argentina with his son, Harrison, and his girlfriend, Hannah McKay, a serial killer in her own right. Before Dexter can leave, he gets word that his adoptive sister, Deb, has been shot. Dexter’s love for Deb wins over his desire to flee and he stays in Miami to make sure she’s okay. Of course, she isn’t okay. Post-surgical complications leave Deb intubated and with minimal brain function. As a hurricane approaches the coast, Dexter has his come-to-Jesus moment and realizes that in a way, he killed Deb, the first person he ever truly loved. He disconnects her air supply, carries her lifeless form out to his boat, and then sails to the exact spot where he ritually dumps his bodies to release Deb into the sea, adding her to his pile of victims. Then, reasoning that he’s a danger to anyone he loves, he sails full speed into the storm and we’re made to believe he committed suicide by doing so.
If the writers had left it at that, I don’t think we’d have a problem. Yes, by the end of eight seasons of watching Dexter grow increasingly “human” and want more normalcy in his life, we want him to have the happy ending. We want to see Dexter and Hannah strolling the streets of Argentina with drinks with umbrellas in hand while Harrison chases birds ahead of them.
However, if Dexter can’t have his happy ending, give him death, a poetic one where he flings himself into the sea alongside his sister. Very Shakespearian.
But they couldn’t leave well enough alone. Right when you think Dexter’s dead, he shows up in some logger community with a plaid shirt and an emo beard. He sits down at a wooden table, stares directly into the camera, and looks like he’s about to break. And then the fucking credits roll. And that’s it. That quiet, ambiguous, gut-wrenching ending.
The only way that ending would have felt even somewhat satisfactory would be if Dexter had unrolled knives on that wooden table and given us that signature serial killer stare instead of that broken look. We’d all cheer! He may have lost his family, but he’s still good old Dexter! (I’m not saying this is the right ending—Deb’s death may have affected him so greatly he no longer has the desire to kill. That’s possible, I guess.)
But no. For all his efforts, for all his self-discovery, for all his attempts to be “human,” Dexter can never fulfill that space. He must always be condemned as a monster, sentenced to a life of solitude and silence so that he never hurts anyone ever again.
Intellectually, it makes sense. Dexter was finally “caught,” finally had to face the music, and that music was his own self-imposed prison of isolation and depression (probably not that different than a life in a real prison behind bars).
But emotionally, we never wanted that as consumers of this story. We wanted Dexter to find release, either release from his “dark passenger”—starting fresh in Argentina—or release from the life that has deeply troubled him—death off the Miami coastline. Purgatory seems cruel, even for Dexter.
To play devil’s advocate, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the writers wanted to come up with the least predictable ending. Happily-ever-after was too contrived and death seemed too easy. As a storyteller, I understand that mentality. Predictable can be bad.
But, for me, predictable also beats throwing a remote and swearing at the TV.
So, I’d say I learned a little about storytelling from watching Dexter’s less-than-awesome series finale. And that lesson is this: emotionally alienating your viewers (for me, readers) isn’t worth being able to say you had one up on ‘em. Sometimes it’s better to wind up at the bottom of the ocean.