There are certain genres and story types one associates with serial killers. Procedurals, thrillers, intense games of pursuit and evasion between detective and killer or killer and prey, psychological horror or the regular, visceral kind. In its first season, Dexter hewed pretty close to the expectations created by its premise, pitting the eponymous (anti-)hero against a rival serial killer whose ultimate goal was to turn Dexter away from the path of provisional righteousness on which he was set by his cop father, who taught him to kill only those who deserved it. In its second season, the show abandoned the mystery which drove the first season, but retained the procedural and detective elements surrounding it, as Dexter struggled to avoid being uncovered by his fellow cops when the bodies of his victims were discovered on the ocean floor. Dexter's third season, which concluded this week, seems to have cast off even these elements. Though the season had its share of gruesome murders, thrilling pursuits, surprising plot twists, and even a new serial killer, these elements went hand in hand with, and often seemed to take a back set to, more mundane developments. Dexter's relationship with his girlfriend Rita and her children takes a huge step forward when she becomes pregnant and they decide to marry. At the same time, Dexter is trying to come to terms with the memory of his adoptive father Harry, who for years was his touchstone, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong and of the steps Dexter should and shouldn't take in his life, but who in the first and second season was revealed to have been deeply flawed, and to have deceived Dexter about many of the most important facts of his life. The result is the most low-key, shapeless serial killer story imaginable, but at the same time still one of the best and most satisfying shows on TV.
I've written before about the qualities that separate successful multi-season novelistic TV shows from the unsuccessful kind. The key, I speculated, was formula. Not the kind that brings CSI and Law & Order's detectives back to the same starting point every week, but the kind that identifies the fundamental, ur-story the show is trying to tell and, though constantly changing its garb, retells it again and again. Buffy is a story about a girl whose impulses towards heroism and normalcy are constantly at war. Angel, the story of an ordinary man faced with the inadequacy of heroism in an imperfect world. For all the differences between its three seasons and their genres, Dexter is that kind of show, telling the same story with each of those seasons. Each time, Dexter rebels against the limitations placed on him by Harry, who throughout Dexter's childhood and adolescence drummed it into him that a normal life and true acceptance and recognition were things he couldn't, and shouldn't, have. Each time, Dexter insists that he knows better and temporarily rejects Harry's code, only to return to it older, wiser, and of his own volition, committing to it not as a child in awe of his father but as an adult who recognizes that father's strengths as well as his flaws.
Each of these three rebellions is driven by a person who comes into Dexter's life and seems to represent a loophole to Harry's law that Dexter must live a lonely, secretive life, hiding his true nature from the people closest to him. In the first season, this is Dexter's brother Brian, himself a serial killer who wants Dexter to sever all ties to the world of normal humans. In order to accomplish this, he kidnaps Dexter's adopted sister Deb and offers her to Dexter to kill, insisting that their bond is as much a lie as the ones told by Harry when he concealed Brian's existence from Dexter, and that Dexter is a pure monster who doesn't need reasons, such as the guilt of his victims, to kill. This is too much to ask of Dexter, who feels genuine affection for Deb and Harry. He rescues Deb and kills Brian to protect her. In the second season, Dexter forges a bond with his NA sponsor Lila, who, though ignorant of its true depths, encourages him to embrace the darkness within him as an integral part of who he is. As their relationship deepens it becomes clear that Lila is unpredictable, amoral, and dangerous. She begins to pose a threat to Rita and her children, and ultimately reveals herself to be as monstrous as Dexter or Brian when she kills Dexter's colleague Doakes (though at the same time getting Dexter out of a tight spot, as Doakes had learned the truth about Dexter's extra-curricular activities) and kidnaps the children.
In the third season, Dexter makes the acquaintance of an up-and-coming assistant DA, Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits, in a performance that is just that right amount of over the top). Their meeting is anything but auspicious--on one of his routine pursuits of the unrighteous, Dexter crosses paths with Miguel's younger brother Oscar, who attacks him and ends up dead for his trouble. Shocked at having killed someone who doesn't meet Harry's rigorous code, Dexter seeks Miguel out and quickly finds himself taking Oscar's place in Miguel's life and affections. But what starts out as one kind of disquieting relationship metamorphoses into another when Miguel begins to guess at Dexter's secret and, rather than recoiling, is fascinated, asking Dexter to teach him how to kill so that he, too, can deal out his own brand of justice. Dexter begins to believe that he can have a partner and a best friend, but he soon learns that Miguel has been manipulating him for his own ends. When Miguel kills an innocent woman and targets another, Dexter is forced to dispose of him as he did Brian and Lila.
Each repetition of this story has the same basic progression. Dexter's idealized image of Harry is shaken. Dexter encounters someone who seems to offer him unconditional acceptance and rejects Harry's code. That person threatens Dexter's family and Dexter dispatches them and recommits to his father. We might expect a series that kept repeating the same plot over and over again to intensify the stories it uses to do so, but Dexter takes the opposite approach. Each iteration of Dexter's dance of negotiation with his father's legacy is more mellow, more subtle and more drawn out. It takes him barely more than a single episode to discover, embrace, and reject Brian, while the rest of the first season is given over to the more traditional serial killer story of his and Brian's game of cat and mouse. His infatuation and disillusionment with Lila span roughly half the second season, and the other half concerns his efforts to evade the FBI. In the third season, the procedural elements are not even on Dexter's radar--though a serial killer is operating in Miami, Dexter is too busy with his personal life to bother with him, and leaves it to Deb and the other cops in his department to track the killer down. He starts the season angry at Harry (having learned at the end of the second season that Harry killed himself after being confronted with the bloody reality of the monster he'd created), makes Miguel's acquaintance in the season premiere, slowly opens up to the other man, and takes most of the season to fully comprehend the depths of Miguel's depravity.
With each season, the intensity of the relationship being offered Dexter is toned down: a brother, a lover, a best friend. Each of these potential partners is more normative than the one before: a serial killer, a bohemian artist with a drug problem and a penchant for petty crime, an upright ADA. Each has a more limited understanding of Dexter: Brian knows everything about Dexter, from the brutal killing of his mother that made him what he is, to the details of Harry's training, to his habits and rituals in the present day; Lila senses Dexter's darkness, but doesn't learn that he is the serial killer Miami is in uproar about until the season's final episode; Miguel initially believes that Dexter killed the man accused of Oscar's murder (Dexter's real target on the night Oscar got in his way) by accident, then that Dexter is a vigilante seeking to enact justice on criminals who fall through the justice system's cracks. Only very late in their relationship does he realize that Dexter is a more experienced, more primal killer than he ever imagined (and it is debatable whether Miguel ever makes the connection between Dexter and the previous season's Bay Harbor Butcher killings, for which Doakes ends up taking the fall). Each of these relationships seems more manageable, less dangerous to Dexter and to the people he might endanger if his darker impulses were allowed to run unchecked. Each of them seems like a more humble ambition on Dexter's part--it's clearly a bad thing for him to want to roam the streets with his murderous brother, but is it really so terrible for him to want someone to play golf or have a beer with? What this toning down of the temptations placed before Dexter accomplishes, however, is to intensify the series's main point, the conclusion it leads us to again and again: that anyone who can look at Dexter's true form without revulsion and horror is, however seemingly benign, a monster, and that Dexter must maintain rigid, unwavering control of himself if he is to be allowed to live among people.
Shortly before Dexter's second season started airing in Israel, I chanced upon an interview with Michael C. Hall on an Israeli news site. The interviewer mentioned that some reactions to the series (it wasn't clear whether he meant critical or fannish reactions) lamented the absence of a real-world Dexter, who would rid us of criminals and undesirables. There's no denying that Dexter's writers play on the audience's less noble, more bloodthirsty impulses in their efforts to make their main character sympathetic. In a mid-third season episode, for example, Dexter kills a pedophile who has been stalking Rita's daughter. The man doesn't meet Harry's code, and there were non-lethal ways for Dexter to get rid of him, but the audience's sympathy is with Dexter because of the profound (and not entirely rational) revulsion towards pedophiles in popular culture. I am, however, absolutely certain that, if they even exist, the people referred to in this interview have completely misread the series, and that its writers absolutely do not intend for us to see Dexter as a good or desirable creature (as opposed to, say, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes's writers, whose attitude towards Gene Hunt and his methods of policing becomes more objectionably unambiguous with every episode they produce).
If there are people out there who laud Dexter for eschewing wishy-washy liberalism and returning to hardcore attitudes towards right and wrong, then they have drawn the right conclusions from the wrong reading. Dexter is hardcore. It does reject airy-fairy notions about moral relativism, and does place an emphasis on harsh moral judgments. But it does so by insisting, and repeatedly returning to the undeniable truth, that Dexter is a monster who does monstrous things. For him to accept himself would be catastrophic, just as the people who have accepted him over the course of the series have turned out to be catastrophes in the making. The best thing for Dexter, the show repeatedly concludes, is to live a lie, to deny himself. Only through this denial, and through adherence to his father's edicts, can Dexter have the things that are worth having: a wife, a home, children. Though none of the people who love him will ever truly know him, their love is worth so much more than the love of the kind of person who would accept him for what he is. As the third season finale repeatedly points out, everyone has secrets, truths about themselves that they keep hidden even from those closest to them. What Dexter seems to be saying is that those secrets, the self-imposed restrictions and shame they represent, are a good thing--that there is someting wrong with people, even normal people, who accept themselves unconditionally, don't seek to restrain themselves, and feel no shame at their failures and mistakes. For a show that takes so much pleasure in the shocking and the transgressive, this is an extremely conservative message.
In its third season, Dexter completes its transformation from a procedural mystery to a character drama. The season's overarching plot is not about the pursuit of Oscar's murderer, or the serial killer who emerges in the wake of that murderer's disappearance, or the investigation of the murders committed by Miguel, though each of these plotlines takes its turn in the foreground. The season is given its shape not by any of these stories but by the growth and disintegration of Dexter and Miguel's friendship. The secondary characters' storylines also focus more on character than plot development: Deb is approached by an internal affairs detective (one of the series's most delightful female characters, who is sadly shunted off halfway into the season) who wants her to spy on her new partner; she falls in love with her CI and has to decide whether a man who, by any rational criterion, is entirely wrong for her might be exactly what she needs; Maria LaGuerta deals with the loss of her friend Doakes in the most terrible way imaginable and in her loneliness feels the effects of having sidelined her personal life for the sake of her career; Angel Batista has a dark night of the soul but finds new love.
What's remarkable about the third season is that, for all its emphasis on soap opera developments and the absence of a strong plotline to tie it together, it still feels like the same Dexter of last season and the season before. The writing and acting are still exceptionally fine, and the characters are still consistently appealing and lifelike, but more importantly, the show hasn't lost sight of the story it was always trying to tell: the story of a monster who lives among humans. Dexter's first three seasons are, in a way, the story of Dexter's journey from unquestioning childhood, through rebellious youth, and to a wiser adulthood. Next year he'll be facing or getting ready to face the challenges of fatherhood, and I'm not sure a repitition of the same story we've seen three times already will suit that change in his life. But so long as Dexter's writers remember the kind of story they want to tell, I have faith that they will find new ways and new genres to tell it with.