The final season of Dexter wasn’t what we deserved. But at least Debra died; I’ll give the writers that. I was beginning to think our serial killer would depart the Grey Havens for the Undying Lands (“Argentina”), and let’s face it, happily ever after with Hannah would have been a cop-out. In some ways, the final scene still was, but things could have been worse.
On whole, Dexter has been a remarkable success story. It’s had its ups and downs, and surprising comebacks. There’s no question in my mind that the crown jewels are seasons 4, 7, and 2 — any one of these could qualify as my top favorite. Season 1 is great too, though it suffers slightly from “first season” syndrome. Seasons 5, 8, and 3 are problematic in varying degrees, but have their redeeming moments, and the less said about season 6 the better (though I say plenty below). Here are the eight seasons ranked from best to worst.
#1. Season Four: Trinity. The most polished season. Brilliant, compulsive, calamitous. 5 stars. An astounding comeback from the mediocrity of season 3 (much like 7 after 6). Here we have a villain who makes the Ice Truck Killer look like a home boy, a narrative crescendo that escalates without fail, and a script that matches the relentless tension of season two. Frank Lundy’s return is used to great effect; his shocking murder causes Deb to meltdown big time (her scene from episode 5 had me in tears). But even that has nothing on Rita’s demise. I had to rewatch the end of the finale after I first saw it, I couldn’t credit what my eyes were telling me. As in seasons 2 and 7, Dexter finds himself out of control more than usual, killing his first innocent victim (the film director instead of his assistant), and letting Trinity get the upper hand too many times. The only slight weakness of this season is the side love affair between Batista and Laguerta: I didn’t buy it at all. Did they have to throw these two together just because they’re Hispanic? Not that it mattered. This season is a masterpiece.
Best four episodes. (5) “Dirty Harry”: In the aftermath of Lundy’s murder, Deb has a serious meltdown; Dexter sees Trinity kill his third victim and follows him home to his family, realizing that Trinity is “just like him”. (9) “Hungry Man”: Dexter spends a disturbing Thanksgiving with Trinity and his family, and ends up attacking him. This is probably my favorite episode of the entire eight seasons. (11) “Hello, Dexter Morgan”: Trinity zeroes in on Dexter and confronts him at the police station — in my opinion, the greatest cliffhanger of the entire seven seasons. (12) “The Getaway”: the second-highest rated episode in the show’s history — Dexter desperately tries to get the upper hand, finally kills Trinity, then realizes Trinity killed Rita first.
#2. Season Seven: The Bay Harbor Butcher, Take 2. The intimate season. Surreal, inquisitive, devastating. 5 stars. Jennifer Carpenter carries the drama almost entirely, and runs a gamut of emotions that frankly most actors wouldn’t be able to pull off. I’ve re-watched her intimate scenes with Dexter so many times, they’re that powerful: from learning Dexter’s secret, to tortured attempts at understanding and reforming him, to near acceptance alongside guilt-ridden lust, to finally, committing cold-blooded murder in order to protect him. It’s refreshing to see Laguerta finally pulling her head out of her ass, as I always found it incredible that she wouldn’t have been suspicious of Dexter once Rita was killed by Trinity (out of pattern) and Quinn started hounding her about the sketch of Kyle Butler. The mafia boss Isaak Sirko is the best guest star of the show’s run, hell-bent on vengeance only to bond strangely with Dexter in the end. And Hannah is the best woman to happen to Dexter (even better than Lila), a killer who sedately accepts her own nature as much as his. It’s a captivating season in all its moments, and marks an incredible comeback after the low-point of season 6; it’s too bad season 8 couldn’t keep it up and let Dexter go out strong.
Best four episodes. (1) “Are You…?”: Deb struggles with Dexter’s killing of Travis. (2) “Sunshine and Frosty Swirl”: Deb learns Dexter’s full secret. Hand-in-hand with the first episode, this one showcases the most powerful Dexter-Deb moments in the show’s history. (8) “Argentina”: a gorgeous and artistic episode that features harrowing dialogue sequences between Dexter and everyone — Deb (she pours out her guilt-ridden urges for him), Hannah (acceptance of each other, nature vs. need), and Isaac (who is moved by Dexter even while craving vengeance against him). (12) “Surprise, Motherfucker!”: the highest rated episode in the show’s history, for obvious reasons; Deb killing Laguerta outdoes even the shocker of Rita’s murder at the end of season 4; I was left utterly speechless.
#3. Season Two: The Bay Harbor Butcher. The relentless season. Wild, furious, insane. 5 stars. The show has always been at its best when Dexter is under the gun of the law, and Doakes is a more punishing adversary than someone like the Ice Truck Killer precisely because he’s a good guy. Season two has all the wild supplements and roller-coaster rides that make it impossible to stop watching for a moment — Dexter’s whack-job girlfriend Lila, who fuels his dark passenger under the guise of therapy; FBI hound Frank Lundy, by far the most compelling guest star of the entire seven seasons. It’s wonderfully ironic that Dexter’s “recovery” from serial killing in episodes 5-7 comes from Lila’s sponsorship; he then goes back to accepting his bloodthirsty nature when he returns to the normality of Rita at the end of episode 8. And it says something about how strong the script is when even the deus ex machina of Lila finding Doakes and burning down his cage (thus getting Dexter off the hook in more ways than one) plays so beautifully without feeling like a cheat. It’s also worth noting that episodes 5-7 are the center masterpieces which play on Batman, a Soderbergh film, and the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”, respectively.
Best four episodes. (5) “The Dark Defender”: Dexter takes a road trip with Lila to kill the man who murdered his mother. He fights his urge to kill, and has fantasies of himself as a comic book superhero. (6) “Dex, Lies, and Videotape”: Dexter struggles with the lies Harry told him, and with threats of being discovered by Lundy’s surveillance and Doakes’ snooping. He begins a wild fling with Lila, and kills the copycat Bay Harbor Butcher — not because he “needs to”, only because he “has to”, insisting on his free will and choice, per Lila’s therapy. (7) “That Night a Forest Grew”: Dexter seizes control on all fronts, sowing confusion amongst his colleagues, breaking into houses to have sex with Lila, and making an innocent man look guilty in order to make Doakes look bad; Doakes attacks him. (9) “Resistance is Futile”: Dexter gets dragged in front of Lundy and Matthews, with his blood-slides waiting on a table. He and Doakes fence off in the Everglades.
#4. Season One: The Ice Truck Killer. The classic season. Iconic, smart, foundational. 4 ½ stars. It’s hard to remember the days when an insecure Rita gave Dexter a blow-job in Halloween costume, Deb was just graduating from blue uniform, and Astor and Cody were the size of hobbits. It was the season we got to know Dexter through his most iconic slayings (the child molester, the drowner of destitute immigrants, the psychiatrist counseling rich women to kill themselves), his trademark inner voice loaded with humorous subtext, and flashbacks of his childhood weaved brilliantly into the storylines. While an excellent season, the show was finding its footing, and the overarching drama doesn’t carry the same unrelenting tension of the above three. The Ice Truck Killer’s identity unfolds to a perfect beat — revealed as Rudy at the end of episode 8, Dexter’s brother at the very end — as do our hero’s repressed memories. This is classic Dexter.
Best four episodes. (6) “Return to Sender”: Dexter is horrified to learn that a kid saw him kill the married couple who were drowning Cuban immigrants in the previous episode; great foreshadowing of season two, with Dexter so close to being discovered by his own police team. (8) “Shrink Wrap”: Dexter seeks counseling from a therapist who encourages his depressed patients to commit suicide; great fencing between these two as Dexter sits on the psychiatrist’s couch. (10) “Seeing Red”: Dexter remembers his childhood trauma, triggered by a bloodbath left by The Ice Truck Killer; he also takes care of Rita’s bullying ex-husband. (12) “Born Free”: Dexter confronts the Ice Truck Killer, who is his own brother; this season finale is of course legendary.
#5. Season Five: The Barrel-Girl Gang. The derivative season. Manic, traumatic, redemptive. 4 stars. As in season three, Dexter acquires a partner in crime, but this one falls in love with him instead of knifing him in the back. Unlike season three, we now have engaging subplots: the Fuentes brothers, one of whom Deb ends up shooting at the night club, and of course Quinn’s hiring Liddy to spy on Dexter, though this is somewhat a repeat of Doakes. The weakest parts of the season are Julia Stiles, horribly miscast as Lumen, and the endgame which sees Deb confronting the “vigilantes in love” through the curtain without demanding they show themselves — preposterously unbelievable. But the idea of a fun-boys’ rape club was a good move and offered something new in place of isolated and unrelated killings Dexter carries out in the other seasons. And the “Take It!” episode centered on Chase’s convention was a jaw-dropper.
Best four episodes. (1) “My Bad”: the aftermath of Rita’s murder; Dexter comes to terms with grief. (4) “Beauty and the Beast”: Dexter keeps Lumen locked up until he can trust her; shades of Doakes. (8) “Take It”: the season’s high point — Dexter attends Chase’s convention fueled by manic mobs; Cole Harman seizes Lumen, and Dexter executes him; Lumen realizes that Dexter kills not for justice but because he needs to. (10) “In the Beginning”: a fan favorite involving a lot — DVDs of the barrel girl victims getting raped and tortured; at the station Dexter quietly promises Jordan that he’ll be safe from the police, though not from him; Liddy closes in on Dexter; Lumen’s first kill.
#6. Season Eight: The Brain Surgeon. The strange ride. Awkward, disjointed, final. 3 ½ stars. The final season was many things — a psycho-therapeutic drama, a dark comedy, a renewed romance — but not the epic payoff it should have been. Once Deb recovered from her meltdown, the dramatic intensity vanished. Once Dex mentored Zach, it felt like a lazy repeat of seasons three and five. The return of Hannah is something I looked forward to, but she wasn’t used well this time, and that she acted so stupidly as a fugitive by not disguising herself in public was ridiculous. That being said, this isn’t the worst Dexter season; it’s certainly better than the sixth, and I think even better than the third. Ironically, what saves it is the awkward tone. Premised on a psychiatrist who trained Dexter to channel his urges through the guidance of Harry, and whose own serial-killing son is running amok jealous about this, the scriptwriters did the only sensible thing and played it for laughs. The result isn’t what we wanted, but it’s the only way this material could have worked at all.
Best four episodes. (1) “A Beautiful Day”: a good pickup from the season-seven shocker, and convincing contrast between Dexter wanting to feel grief over Laguerta but simply enjoys his freedom, and Deb’s self-destructive behavior. (3) “What’s Eating Dexter Morgan?”: the best episode of the season, for Deb’s confession. She and Quinn play the parts to perfection, and the intervention by Dexter and Vogel is priceless. (8) “Are We There Yet?”: the only way to put three serial killers in a hotel room and then at a dinner table together, is to play it for laughs, and it strangely works — a lot better than Vogel in jeopardy in the surrounding episodes. (12) “Remember the Monsters?”: no, it’s not the exit Dexter deserved, but it could have been a lot worse, and Deb’s death was appropriate.
#7. Season Three: The Skinner. The empty season. Stale, flat, mediocre. 3 stars. Even the worst of Dexter is better than most of what runs on TV these days, but this season is relatively disappointing, especially in view of the top-notch seasons that sandwich it (2 and 4). Most of the subplots and side-stories go nowhere, and we don’t care enough about them even if they did. Dexter gets increasingly domesticated by Rita who becomes rather irritating. The main feature of Miguel Prado, however, is quite good, and offers a fascinating sketch of what friendship with the true Dexter looks like, as well as the inevitable outcome when Miguel can’t control his demons. The narrative crescendo reaches its peak in episode ten, then peters out to something less than impressive over the last two episodes. Dexter’s marriage at the end is the inverse of Rita’s shocking murder at the end of the next season: unpromisingly banal. As for the Skinner, he remains off-stage until the very end. It looked as though Dexter was on a downslide with this season, and few would have believed that the raging comebacks of seasons 4 and 7 were possible at this point.
Best four episodes (2) “Finding Freebo”: Dexter questions the code Harry taught him, kills Freebo, and is caught by Miguel who thanks him for the murder. (6) “Sí Se Puede”: Dexter has serious inner arguments with his father about having a friend like Miguel; he and Miguel abduct a convict being transferred. (8) “The Damage a Man Can Do”: Dexter introduces Miguel to parts of Harry’s Code, and they both kill a bookie together. (10) “Go Your Own Way”: Dexter contemplates (a) killing Miguel, (b) dissolving the friendship, and (c) gaining the upper hand, until he realizes only (a) is the viable option after a big blowout.
#8. Season Six: The Doomsday Killer. The go-nowhere season. Pointless, pretentious, laughable. 2 stars. The lowest point of the show’s run consists of being jerked around by the obvious for too long, as it becomes clear by episode 4 that Gellar is imaginary. Travis Marshall is the true villain, and not a very good one. The season jumped the shark in other ways, such as with the “Nebraska” episode (the worst in the show’s history), Deb’s love-urges for Dexter (though lemonade was made of this drama in season 7), and the entirely unrealistic showdown between Travis and Dexter, as of course nothing bad will happen on a show like this to a child like Harrison. What saves this season from a rock-bottom rating of “1” is the apocalyptic backdrop: the Doomsday Killer is a great concept, and his tableau killings some of the most demented slayings that have ever been on display, from the dismembered horseman riding down the streets of Miami, to the angel of death, to live baby snakes being planted in a victim’s abdomen. If this material had been worked around decent plotting, this season could have been quite good.
Best four episodes. I honestly can’t come up with favorites for this season. There are compelling moments with Brother Sam, who is well played by Mos Def. And as I mentioned, the Doomsday tableaus (the chopped up horseman, the brutal angel of death hanging, etc.) are priceless. Not to mention the scene where the homicide team stumbles into Travis’ trap and gets dumped on by buckets of blood. But is there any episode which really impressed me on whole? Not really, no. The season’s focus is on a mind-puzzle that we solve from the get-go, and once it is revealed, the rest of the season is substandard drama. I was personally let down by the over-arching theme of religion that had such potential but went nowhere.