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Friday, June 28, 2013

Dexter Seasons 1-7 Review by Emily Sofia: A Tale of Two Morgans...

A Tale of Two Morgans: The Highway to Hell & the Stairway to Heaven
By Emily Sofia


[Caution: The following review is RIDICULOUSLY long, so bookmark the page if you’d like to read it but don’t have the time or attention span right now. This is a SPOILER-FREE series review. Taking you from the start to where we are now. If you’re looking for juicy hints and new scoops beyond what’s in the official season eight trailer, you won’t find them here! But strap yourself in for some crazy nostalgia...]


Turning to face the beginning of the end, as one Dexter diehard and “Dark Passenger” among a few passionate million, is something like staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. Or should I say sweating under the gleaming knifepoint—freshly sharpened for the occasion—poised at your reeling chest. I know I’m not the only one with whom the violent metaphors resonate. And let’s face it: we ALL routinely (and shamelessly) slip those dastardly little innuendos into our daily conversations as we’ve cozied up to Dexter Morgan throughout the years of plastic and body bags and snarky inner monologues. Dexter’s thoughts, stalks, and strangely disarming manner of courting compulsions by night and cunning by day are as much a part of us as they are a part of the big man himself. (Perhaps not to the extent that we live them out... I trust that most of us have been abiding by a “do not try this at home” policy. I’m not going to ask who hasn’t—I’d prefer to keep my shoes from getting any dirtier than they already have in my followings after the Bay Harbor Butcher.) Not to mention Dexter’s journey has been peopled with a colorful variety of characters that bear and live out the rest of our burdens in a dramatic and cathartic way. We see the struggle of Angel Batista to maintain honesty, loyalty, and integrity in a world that holds the door open for no thing and no one. We witness Vince Masuka’s zealous appreciation of womankind and get glimpses at a pretty soft soul behind the scenes, whether he’s laying the science-smackdown or bumping country in his gnarly-ass truck. We’ve seen big bads and innocents alike—from the honeysweet Rita Bennett-Morgan, to the absinthian James Doakes, to the arsenic Lila West-Tourney, to the deceptively-ambrosial Brian Moser—come under the knife of Dexter’s headiest secret. Where does all of this leave us? How can we break down something that feels so much bigger than any one of us? Who remains, and from what places have they come?


 The beautiful truth about Dexter’s evolution is that it is not simply about the antics of a blood guy-by-day/killer-by-night anymore. It never really was. Yet, the story has grown in its scope to be as much about Dexter as the person now implicated the most in who Dexter is: Debra. This is their journey. One of the greatest and grittiest stories of loss and love ever told? Quite possibly. Executive producer Sara Colleton, who has served as an eloquent, emotive ambassador on behalf of the show-runners to the thirsty fans, has confirmed that much. It’s the story of a heart too big for its own good confronting a heart closed off from understanding what is meant to make life good. Dexter’s “good” becomes the albatross hanging from her neck. It’s a tale of two Morgans. The well-mannered bogeyman on the highway to hell, dragging down the girl on the stairway to heaven. Let’s take us a little trip, shall we?

DEXTER: THE HIGHWAY TO HELL


Livin' easy, lovin' free. Season ticket on a one way ride. Askin' nothin', leave me be. Takin' everythin' in my stride. Don't need reason, don't need rhyme. Ain't nothin' that I'd rather do. Goin' down, party time. My friends are gonna be there too. I'm on the highway to hell. On the highway to hell. Highway to hell; I'm on the highway to hell. – AC/DC

“Tonight's the night. And it’s going to happen, again and again. It has to happen. Nice night. Miami is a great town. I love the Cuban food. Pork sandwiches. My favorite. But I'm hungry for something different now.”

“She's the only person in the world who loves me. I think that's nice. I don't have feeling about anything, but if I could have feelings at all, I'd have them for Deb.”

“You have a morbid sense of fun.”
“…that’s probably true.”



 Here is the Dexter Morgan of the iconic, self-titled pilot episode. Here is where we first shake his hand and look him in the sardonic eye. The seduction begins. We are appalled—attracted? The festive Latin grooves sheathe this charming wolf-among-sheep in buoyant colors and brilliant life; a monster, “dead” inside, in a city full of life. Which just so happens to have a 20% murder solve rate. “Viva Miami,” Dexter quips. He’s practically skipping through brutal crime scenes, eager to snag a sandwich after pouring over the blood on the walls. He lithely spins in his workspace chair, relishing the opportunity to pick at the only man who suspects that he is up to a sinister something. It’s a good exercise in the art of maintaining the mask. He relishes his sexless relationship with the demure Rita, a victim of abuse who is in awe of the courtesy of her man—who also just so happens to be a winner with the kids. What more could you want? And, of course, he’s ever on the radar of his ambitious, sailor-mouthed sis; she’s as eager to work her way out of vice and into shoes their late father would be proud of as she is to stand on the shoulders of the brother whom she incessantly teases and idolizes.


 Remember when this was the atmosphere of it all? It was all a game. Brilliant, buoyant, weird and wily. And before we knew it, we, too, were rolling the dice and playing the cards and rooting for Dexter to come out with the winning hand. He was on the highway to hell. Livin’ easy. Easy to the point that finding a disembodied Barbie doll in his fridge was as an invitation to the scavenger hunt of the year. He asks nothing of anyone, failing to realize that the relationships in which he hides his unfeeling self are beginning to require things he doesn’t know how to give. Suddenly the car that required no pit stops, gas runs, or departures from cruise control is burning out. The lanes are blurring. The engine is sputtering. The way is unsure. Because he realizes, through coming to terms with what made him who he is and seeing a shattered reflection of himself in his blood-brother, that he is not wholly monster. Invited to slaughter his primary tie to humanity, Debra, he cannot accept the offer. He cannot accept that he doesn’t see something in her that compels him to remain connected to, or even rethink this staged life. He cannot accept that there isn’t some part of it that is real. To be with his brother would be to travel that highway to hell with the reckless abandon that the song entails. No reason, no rhyme. The fact that he chooses his foster-sister over someone who would understand him unconditionally and spur him on to thrills beyond any kind of code reveals that he’s becoming aware of other roads and exits along his bloody way. His true burden is not to fake human interactions with success, but rather to deny his deep-seated desire to earnestly have them, while maintaining the only way of life he’s ever known. Is the only way he can feel alive by inhaling someone else’s last breath?


 I just know there's something dark in me. I hide it. Certainly don't talk about it. But it's there. Always. This… Dark Passenger. How when he's driving, I feel… alive. Half-sick with the thrill, the complete wrongness. I don't fight him. I don't want to. He's all I've got. Nothing else could love me, not even… especially not me. Or is that just a lie the Dark Passenger tells me? Because, lately, there are these moments that I feel connected to something else. Someone. It's like… the mask is slipping, and things, people, that never mattered before, are suddenly starting to matter. It scares the hell out of me. – Season 2: “An Inconvenient Lie”



 The title of this episode is very telling about the true state of Dexter, and the condition that we find him in at the end of the seventh season. “An Inconvenient Lie” is almost like a sort of play on “An Inconvenient Truth,” if you understand the reference. For Dexter, the ‘inconvenient truth’ is that, well, he’s a serial killer. But the lies he uses to cover up who he is are almost more inconvenient than the truth itself. He hasn’t the slightest idea as to how to reconcile his growing sense of the value of others with who he is—something Lila is opening him up to, obsessed with her own toxic concept of human connection though she may be—but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t that sense taking shape in Dexter. He has lived a life of lying to himself, one he was conditioned to live by his father’s design.

(The exciting thing is that we’ll get to explore what compelled Harry to craft Dexter the way he did—why he tried to control Dexter’s interactions without the outside world. I won’t say anything further for those of you dodging spoiler bullets! You’ll find out soon what I mean.)



‘Connectedness’ is, in a tragically poetic way, the beginning of the ‘end’ for Dexter. It’s the end of Dexter’s joyride on that sweet, carefree highway. Connectedness requires the surrender of control—something Dexter has striven for his entire life (“I need control—I’m trying to make things go back to the way they were” – Season 7, “Are You…?”). It requires vulnerability and the ability to regard the consequences of actions. Dexter surrenders control by becoming connected to Brian, his flesh-and-blood brother who shares Dexter's proclivity to kill but threatens his only viable tie to humanity, awakening his infant understanding of what love is at the core. Dexter surrenders control by becoming connected to Lila, who tries to paint him into the corner of her consuming fantasy. He surrenders control by becoming connected to Miguel Prado, who learns from Dexter’s method of “justice” and assumes a volatile one of his own that implicates Dexter deeply. He surrenders control by realizing just how much Rita meant to him. The entire fifth season is his process of trying to contain his sense of guilt and helplessness by restoring Lumen from a kind of hurt that he could never save Rita from—Lumen's departure brings that atonement to its consummation. He surrenders control by caring for his son, Harrison, trying to make the sacrifices that will provide for him the kind of ‘normal’ life that was denied Dexter, while maintaining some sense of self. He surrenders control by letting himself feel for Hannah and explore the possibility of love that does not live on lip-service alone, but on a conscious sensation of need. Something that might not necessarily make sense. Kiss the quantifying goodbye, and let live.


 Finally, Dexter surrenders control by loving Debra, someone who is now living like a shell of her former self because of her exposure to Dexter’s truth. He cannot control Debra’s perception of him. He cannot control his desperation—talk about the freaking humanity here!—over what he has allowed to happen to her, and he cannot prevent Debra from punishing herself for the culmination of her new life of compromise (which was begun in protecting Dexter and brought to maturity in the murder of LaGuerta). Connectedness is the source of ALL of the chaos in Dexter’s life. The same can even be said for Debra, someone who has bent herself over backwards to not only be connected to others, but approved of, trusted, and adored. Yet, it is all a process of redemption. The burden of humanness is far more massive than the light load of monstrousness, to be sure. We see, however, that Dexter is being redeemed from the lie that’s kept him on the periphery of what he’s capable of: sacrifice, support, love. Yeah, this coldhearted killer’s got something to give beyond the kiss of death. It’s not to say that we don’t marvel at his shrewd badassery in cleaning up the streets of the world. And it isn’t to say that he doesn’t give back to the world, in some twisted way, by generally taking out the promulgators of said world’s misery. What it comes down to is a personal sense of legacy, which is what the entire Dexter crew has been justifiably harping on for the past few hectic months. What mark is he leaving on the people who matter—whom he never would have even imagined would matter, back in the beginning? What happens when a monster finds his manhood? Is it about the monster in the man, or the man in the monster? Will the two dichotomies be erased forever? (Think the season eight finale title: “Remember the Monsters?”)


 It doesn’t feel as if Dexter’s on that highway of old anymore. The world is opening up and the path just isn’t straightforward. The former sense of ‘gloriousness’ about his way of living has been curbed by Dexter’s growing understanding that it isn’t just him in his life. Nor is he being guided by the pricklings and urgings of a foreign entity, or Dark Passenger. Sh*t. So, not only is he irrevocably interconnected with the people he once viewed as a passerby considering creatures of a zoo; he is responsible. For the lives he’s taken and the lives he’s shaken by being a taker of lives. Maybe he’s on a DIFFERENT kind of highway to hell. Especially when we look at how Debra lost her grip on the steps of the “Stairway to Heaven.”

DEBRA: THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN


There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold. And she's buying a stairway to heaven. When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can’t get what she came for. Ooh, ooh, and she's buying a stairway to heaven. There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure, 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings. In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven. Ooh, it makes me wonder; ooh, it makes me wonder . . .LED ZEPPELIN

Dexter: “So what’s up, hotshot?”
Debra: “Alright, get this…”

“If Dad taught us one thing, it's the value of human life.”

Dexter: “Studies show that emotional intelligence plays a greater role in individual success than anything that can be measured on the standard IQ test.”
Debra: “Are you calling me an emotional idiot?”
Dexter: “If you're an idiot, then I'm a vegetable.”

“You say anything more about my brother and I will kick your f**king nuts down your throat.”


Re-meet our favorite Debra f**kin’ Morgan, a golden-hearted go-getter who could out-cuss the shabbiest old sea pirate. The quotes we see here don’t fully evidence that essential aspect of her colorful person (let’s be honest—some of us have kept quote books). What’s enormously important about Debra, and present in her from the series’ inception to her breaking point at the cusp of the eighth season, is this: everything she says is meant, and everything she does is done because it would break her to fall short. Dexter tells us early on that “she puts up a front so the world won’t see how vulnerable she is” (Season 2: “Crocodile”). Remember that close-up on Debra’s face that follows? Her hair tightly pulled back; her jaw locked and eyes bladelike in their fierceness. She’s a one-of-a-kind breed in that her energy to do what she believes is right is almost ceaseless. Therein lies the source of her ferocity. It spills into every aspect of her life, often getting channeled through her foul language. But can you think of a single occasion upon which she says something from a place of apathy? There’s an emotion behind her every response and a cause she is tearing the hair from her skull to fulfill. And, contrary to how she comes across at times, Debra is eager to see the good in the people she loves the most. Connectedness, too, is Debra’s greatest downfall, and yet it is her life’s goal to not merely feel “connected,” but needed. Rough, raw, and jagged though she may seem, there’s a part of her that’s “sure all that glitters is gold.” And she’s buying a stairway to heaven with every penny found in an approving gaze, time taken off to be spent in her company, and any instance in which someone she admires and clings to makes an effort to uplift her in the ways her father never did.


Debra’s relentless love for Dexter seems to secure her every step to that sweet bliss of acceptance. While she doesn’t even fully realize what transpired over her plastic-wrapped body after getting abducted by “Rudy” for his purpose of binding his and Dexter’s long-separate fates, she comes out swinging, declaring Dexter her “hero” to the ever-incredulous Doakes and then collapsing in Dexter’s arms in the ambulance, sobbing, “I was so scared.” Dexter even helps ease the false engagement ring off of Debra’s swollen finger, securing her as safe from the malicious charms of her lover-turned-snare. She brings the mess of her heart and physical circumstances to Dexter’s apartment in the second season, as she grapples with her inability to move on from the trauma of her ruined romance and near death. In Special Agent Frank Lundy, she ultimately finds some sense of peace, even paternal security, while trying to disentangle her brother from Lila’s mania. Believing she’s found a love that she would be loath to let go of, she’s ready to leave the Miami heat behind and chase Lundy to the ends of the earth—until she is forced to choose between chasing her lover and saving her brother. Leaving a very confused taxi-man in her wake, Debra superwomans her way to Lila’s apartment where she pulls Dexter from the flames and comments on Dexter’s “weird” ability to compartmentalize. She concludes that she can “live with that.” She can live with herself knowing that she stuck to her guns, sacrificing for her brother in a way similar—on a slightly lesser scale—to the way in which her brother sacrificed for her. Both of them exchanged the fantasy of escape for the bond that has kept them both human. Debra’s prevailing sense of justice and loyalty come to sweet fruition in her bittersweet release of a newfound solace. Still building that stairway to heaven, though she’s not yet sure what will be waiting for her behind the golden gates.


We see Debra rocket her sleepless and coffee-carried way through complex cases in the third season (while helping Dexter get in the zone to be a father and husband); she’s chopped her hair and she’s attempting to hold down the fort as revelations about her father’s dirty past come crashing down on the idealism around which she’s founded her whole existence. She is ready to throw in the towel on any hope that she might be better than Harry, the indirect author of her own personal code, until Dexter emphatically pleads that she reconsider this bleak new vision of herself: “You’re not a f**k up! You’re the hardest working person I know, you’re loyal to a fault and all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never let me down.” When Dexter asks, then, if Deb will stand for him, she says with that smile that speaks a thousand words of gratitude and confidence, “Abso-f**kin’-lutely.” And he for whom a woman like Debra is willing to stand is a man luckier than he knows.

The fourth season sees Debra reaching a new breaking point that can be captured in one of Jennifer Carpenter’s most unforgettable and gut-wrenching performances in the series.


 “It doesn’t matter what I do. Or what I choose. I’m what’s wrong. There’s nothing I can do about it. If I’m not hurting myself, I’m hurting everyone around me. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m… I’m broken!” (Season 4: “Dirty Harry”)


 It’s not that Debra’s stairway to heaven crumbles. It’s that she condemns herself as unworthy of even making it to a place of self-actualization, where everything makes sense and where she can forgive herself. It isn’t just about forgiving the ones who have hurt her anymore. She dangles over the abyss of the things for which she feels responsible and she willfully takes the fall with no intention of coming to terms with herself. Tragically, she is in an extremely similar place at the onset of season eight. In “Dirty Harry,” when Dexter tries to take Debra home and assure her that it is not her but him who is broken, Debra sobs, “Don’t. Don’t. I need to be here. Where Lundy died. I can’t do a f**king thing about it!” Compare this to the Debra we’ve seen in the season eight trailers: she is in the water and holding her own head beneath its surface by abandoning her dreams of performing justice as a solid cop and conceding to a life of substance abuse, disconnect, and a sexual relationship with a man who does not honor her or care where she’s been—someone whom she is tracking for a private investigator. Someone whom she is pitted against from the get-go. (If that isn’t her trying to get back at Dexter for her unreciprocated love for him, I don’t freakin’ know what is. Controversial and criticized though the sixth season may be for its over-extravagant big bad and botched themes, I personally hold that Debra's story—her rise as lieutenant and revelation about Dexter and the men of her past—was a thoroughly worthwhile journey.) Debra can’t do anything about what she did to LaGuerta. What’s done is done and sealed with a bullet. Instead of trying to find her way through the gun smoke, she tortures herself, throwing herself to whatever wolves will take hold of her. This is her way of finding atonement. She cannot take herself as she is; who she believes she is, now, because of Dexter. What was that heaven she was clambering to reach all along, anyway? A place of happiness with her best friend and the sole confidante of her entire life—a place where the truth was what she wanted to see? Perhaps there was truth in what she seen along the way, but those were only fragmented pieces of good in a sea of grotesque realities. Somehow she saw straight to the ocean’s bottom without fully comprehending what was between her and that brilliant, looming goal. U2 was onto something when they composed “Love Is Blindness,” alright. The ultimate tragedy here is that Debra’s ascent is not only rocked by the truth about whom the man she loves is; it’s that he puts her in a position where she must inevitably compromise, thereby moving her to forsake her aspirations, her heaven, entirely. As much as Debra made her choice, Dexter forced her to make it. It seems ironic that this could be the case, being that he gave Debra the opportunity to end it. To end him. To be true to herself and realize every dream he has wrecked. Yet, if he really knew how much she loved him... time to wake up a dormant heart. So long, compartmentalization. Rest in peace, the way things used to be. If only in pieces.


And so the well-mannered bogeyman on the highway to hell, dragged down the girl on the stairway to heaven. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.


 But is this over? Far, far from it. In fact, in many ways we are beginning anew. There is so much coming this season that is going to take us back and enrich a story that has already captivated us with an unshakable vengeance. And there is so much coming this season that is going to take us forward from the wreckage of last season’s breath-stealing finale. Are we on a new kind of highway to hell? Is there any heaven in sight? There can’t be one without the other. Could the marriage of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ be what we arrive at, at the end of it all?


Connectedness is the source of all chaos in the universe, alright. And here we are, joined at the heart to a show preparing to set sail for its final days. But isn’t this the stuff that makes life worth it? Isn’t the sleep lost worth the fact that we know our hearts are reeling for something? I dunno. I just broke 4,000 words writing this dinosaur of an article. My soul just won’t shut up. And sometimes I need to be reminded that it’s capable of doing that kind of crazy thing.


 Viva Miami. Viva Dexter. — Emily

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