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Why Dexter Needs to Die: Meditations on the Approaching End of Showtime's Serial Killer Drama

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire July 15, 2013 at 4:49PM

Tony Soprano left us in a cut to black that still fuels debates about whether it signified his getting whacked or just our getting shut out of the story. Vic Mackey ended up alive but alone in the purgatory of a desk job.
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Michael C. Hall in 'Dexter'
Randy Tepper/Showtime Michael C. Hall in 'Dexter'

The article below contains spoilers through the run of "Dexter."

Tony Soprano left us in a cut to black that still fuels debate about whether it signified his getting whacked or just our getting shut out of the story. Vic Mackey ended up alive but alone in the purgatory of a desk job. While it's likely that Walter White will get killed or arrested due to the discovery of his drug business or a resurgence of the cancer that started his journey, it's also possible to imagine him back as a miserable teacher in some witness protection program somewhere, somehow, wallowing in his own stifled rage and resumed powerlessness.

But Dexter Morgan? Dexter needs to die.

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"Dexter," the Showtime drama in which the title character, played with cucumber cool by Michael C. Hall, has existed as a vigilante serial killer for going on eight seasons, is now in its final arc of 12 episodes. "Dexter" has reached its end game, which means every installment is shaded by thoughts as to what that end -- which will come in a finale entitled "Remember the Monsters?" -- will be.

Three episodes in, the eighth season seems to have for its nemesis a serial killer named the Brain Surgeon who opens up his victims' skulls to carve out the portion of their grey matter responsible for empathy. The Brain Surgeon has a connection to -- hell, may even be -- psychiatrist Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a famous expert on psychopaths assisting on the case and guarding a secret history with our protagonist. If Harry (James Remar) wasn't just Dexter's adoptive parent but the father to the code that has guided him throughout his adult life, Dr. Vogel is, so she claims, the mother, having advised Harry in coming up with the tenets that have made Dexter into the ethical murderer we know and love.

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That idea of the "good" compulsive killer is also what sets Dexter apart from his fellow antiheroes. Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Nucky Thompson -- these are all characters whose bad behavior, while stemming from lousy childhoods, inherited places in the family business or other bits of backstory, was still chosen. Life likely would have been more difficult for each of them were they to have chosen to keep to the straight and narrow, but it would have been possible.

But as Brett Martin put it in his new book on cable dramas "Difficult Men," "Dexter" is "a show that took the antihero principle to an all but absurd length by featuring a serial killer as its protagonist" -- he exists less outside the bounds of morality so much as he does, by his own admission, those of humanity. For Dexter, the decision was never whether or not to murder people but what kind of people to murder. Harry's Code was a way for Harry to try to morally come to terms with allowing his adopted son to live knowing that he was almost certainly going to grow up to be a murderer, that something was fundamentally off with the boy -- and even then, the reality of what he was overseeing led him to take his own life.

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As happened last season, when Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), Dexter's adopted sister, finally found out the truth about her sibling, the show is setting up the women in its protagonist's life as the forces pulling him in opposing directions. Deb, reeling from the choice forced on her at the end of last season, has like her father been shaken to the core by what protecting Dexter has required of her, and while she continues to insist she has no interest in seeing him, she still represent his ties to whatever humanity he has left.

On the other side is Vogel, who idealized Dexter's psychopathy, telling him that he's "perfect," that his attachment to normal emotions is like "Michelangelo trying to play the banjo," and that he's incapable of the kind of love Deb showed for him. She "sacrificed everything she believed in for you," Vogel told Dexter in last night's episode, trying to convince him his answering concern for Deb is actually far more hollow -- "you're mostly worried about yourself." Vogel wants Dexter to embrace his inner psychopath forever and shake off the burdens of pretending he's like everyone else, that he's capable of love, that he can place the needs of others above his own self-preservation.

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The idea that Dexter can't, in this specific thing, change -- that knowing who he really is means either trying to bring him down or living with a monstrous truth -- has always been the most interesting aspect of the series, even as it has spun its wheels in later seasons retreading similar ground. And it's a question that becomes more pressing as the show approaches its end.

That Dexter would (or could) stop killing (and take up... electronic cigarette smoking instead?) after all this time would be a betrayal of everything that's come before. But the idea of sending him off into the horizon with Deb still distraught or dead is equally distasteful -- the show's been fueled by the precariousness of his high-wire act of normalcy.  one that's led to the death of two of his law enforcement colleagues and his wife Rita (Julie Benz); leaving that unresolved, forever at status quo, would be incredibly dissatisfying.

No, Dexter needs to die, if only to affirm the strange truth of the show, which is that despite its brutal body count it's actually the most soft-hearted of the recent antiheroic lot, the most concerned with doing right, even in an incredibly warped way. Dexter has yearned for someone to see him and accept him as he really is, and the years have been littered with failed, rejected or departed companions, from Harry to Brian (Christian Camargo), Lila (Jaime Murray) to Lumen (Julia Stiles), Miguel (Jimmy Smits) to Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski), and then Deb, always there in his orbit, the final tie back to his formative years and to his old, Harry-dictated identity.

But the fact is that we, the audience, are Dexter's true companions, having listened over the seasons to his familiar voiceover and intimate confessions, having witnessed countless killing to placate his Dark Passenger, having invested in him and in the series' premise. We're seen him as he really is all along, and Dexter can't exist in some ongoing theoretical narrative without us there to understand and to like him, despite everything. It's not that he needs to pay so much as that, unwitnessed, he becomes impossible. Glimpses from the outside, he's just another serial killer, albeit one with stricter rules -- a monster in the shape of a man.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Showtime, Dexter