Tag Archives: serial killers

“Dexter” the Final Season (8)

Dexter Morgan is and will remain one of the most interesting characters in fiction for me, joining Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley in all his sociopathic glory.  I continue to read Jeff Lindsay’s novels — a new one is out this fall, Dexter’s Final Cut — and had looked forward with anticipation to viewing the DVDs of the eighth season of the Showtime series Dexter.  I wrote about the seventh season here.

250px-Dexter_Season_8_promotional_poster

The first episode of the final season makes clear that we will be going through some sort of journey involving the relationship between Dexter and his sister, Debra.  She is wracked with guilt, self-medicating to the extreme, and working as a private investigator for Jake Elway.  Dexter seems untouched by the events in the last episode of the previous season.  His focus is on Harrison, now 4, and his job.  Meanwhile, a new serial killer has surfaced in Miami, labeled the Brain Surgeon for his gruesome MO — he cuts the top of the head off his victims, and carefully scoops out a specific part of the brain.  The Miami Metro team is going through change: Batista is now their CO, and he’s urging Quinn to take the sergeant’s exam.  Masuka learns that he’s a father.  Into the usual chaos strides Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a neuropsychiatrist who’s offered to help on the Brain Surgeon case.  She shows a special interest in Dexter from the moment they meet.

As well she would.  It turns out that she’s as important to Dexter’s life as his father, Harry, had been.  She and Harry developed “The Code.”  She knows Dexter extremely well, and helps him repair his relationship with Debra, as well as assist on the Brain Surgeon case.  I have to admit, I kept waiting for her to reveal that she was also a psychopathic serial killer, but what developed was far more surprising.  It seems that Dexter had been developing empathy.  This surprises Vogel as much as it did me.  Could Dexter be redeemable?  Rehabilitated?

The first half of this season was highly entertaining and downright mesmerizing watching these accomplished actors reveal their characters’ struggles and desires.  I wish I could say the same about the second half, marked by the resolution of the Brain Surgeon case and the reappearance of Hannah, the blonde murderess who got away.  She chooses to get Dexter’s attention by drugging both him and Debra, then leaving Dexter by the side of a road in the middle of nowhere.  Lovely girl!  And then the Brain Surgeon strikes again…they’d gotten the wrong guy!  The real Brain Surgeon killer was still out there.

While Dexter hides Hannah from a U.S. Marshal hot on her case, pushed by Elway who sees a big reward if she’s caught, he’s also developing attachment to Vogel, seeing her as his “spiritual mother.”  She understands him.  Hannah understands him.  They both love him.  You know this is not going to end well.

I won’t reveal who the Brain Surgeon really is — only that he’s been around for nearly the entire season and he has a remarkable connection to Vogel…and Dexter.  The writers did themselves proud in this particular serial killer and his ruthlessness, giving a stark contrast to Dexter and showing just how much Dexter had changed.  Which he had.  In ways that surprise even him.  But, but, but….

The final three episodes were disappointing, to say the least.  There was a sense of rushing to finish, rushing to tie up all the loose ends (when that really wasn’t necessary), and dealing blows to characters that I thought were unnecessary and unfair.  The actors all carried through with it, however, and gave it the only plausibility that was possible.  One character’s resolution in particular made me yell at my TV in frustration.  But, but, but….

Dexter remains true to himself in the end.  I’d been watching this series as a writer studying characterization and how the actors do it.  I have to at least give the writers props for giving Dexter back to himself in the end, older, wiser, more experienced at being himself, and considerably more ironic.  Michael C. Hall brings him to life and makes that final episode, in the final minutes, more believable than it had the right to be.

Am I sad the series has ended?  I found myself missing the Dexter of the first 3 or 4 seasons, the vigilante serial killer and keen observer of human behavior who spent a lot of time mystified and trying to figure things out.  He was funny and horrifying.  Debra was his rock.  They were a team.  I’m sad that that ended….

Character: “Dexter” Season 7

The Dexter season 7 DVDs finally arrived, several months earlier than previous seasons had been released.  I was eager to see how the last scenes of season 6 would either change the direction of the characters and show or not.  I’m a huge fan of this show, and I love the character of Dexter Morgan.  It’s also an ensemble show, with other complicated characters who often create problems for Dexter with their subplots.  As a writer, I learn from the actors in how they create, establish and maintain their characters.  The actors on Dexter make it look effortless.   Here’s my take on season 6.

The final scenes of season 6 set up season 7.  Debra’s psychologist has led Debra into believing that she is in love with her brother (who was adopted).  She drives to the church where Dexter is doing more forensic work, per Deb’s orders.  He’s doing quite different work, however — that of his “Dark Passenger.”  Dexter has captured Travis Marshall, the serial killer of season 6, wrapped him in plastic on the altar of the abandoned church where Travis had operated.  Debra enters the church and sees Dexter at the altar holding a knife above a figure lying on the altar.  She witnesses him killing Travis.  Her gasp catches his attention, and he sees her.  End of season 6.

Credit: themadbutcher.deviantart.com

Credit: themadbutcher.deviantart.com

Wow.  Now what?  What will Debra do?  Will she arrest Dexter?  What will Dexter do?  What will he say?  Season 7 begins at the same moment where the previous season ended, but it continues into the reactions of the brother and sister.  Debra, with her service revolver aimed at Dexter, starts firing questions at him.  He’s clearly startled, a little flustered, seemingly making it up as he goes.  He plays on her belief in him and that she would not want to believe his truth, so he makes up a plausible reason for his actions and she believes him.  But she also questions, in her mind, what she saw with her own eyes, and begins to investigate her brother.  He has pulled her into his world by her willingness to help him cover up their presence at the abandoned church.  This is not a comfortable place for Debra, who’s now a lieutenant in the Miami Metro Police.

Almost everything that happens between Debra and Dexter for the next 11 episodes originates in episode 1.  Once Debra figures out that Dexter is a serial killer, she embarks on a journey first to deny it, then to try to cure him, then to not want to know or be involved, and then finally to find herself caught between Dexter and the police.  Dexter’s journey is a different one.  He goes along with everything that Debra asks of him and tries, but his Dark Passenger will be satisfied.  He has opportunities to assess how his father, Harry, brought him up to abide by his “Code” to control Dexter’s dark impulses, and how other “serial” killers deal with their dark impulses.  The superb British actor Ray Stevenson plays a charming, elegant Ukrainian mob boss with an extremely personal and poignant secret that sends him after Dexter for revenge.  The death of a spree killer brings Dexter into contact with the young woman who, years before, had been the spree killer’s partner.  Once again Dexter thinks he’s found someone who truly understands him, and with whom he can truly be himself.

Season 7 has a high body count which doesn’t take into account the high level of emotional and psychological suspense in each episode.  Dexter and Debra struggle to make sense of their familial relationship, their jobs in light of Dexter’s extracurricular activities, and how they will move forward together and individually.  Subplots interfere at times with their struggle or give Dexter new opportunities to explore his Dark Passenger.  Dexter changes in a very, very scary way by the end, as does Debra, but it makes absolute sense considering what they’ve been through.  Other characters who embark on journeys in this season include Batista, who decides to retire; Quinn who once again allows the head between his legs to think for him; and LaGuerta, who brings back memories of Sgt. Doakes and could be the most dangerous threat to Dexter.  Harrison is now three, and we see Cody and Astor who come for a visit.  I think the writers and producers made the right decision not to have any one “villain” for this season.  It gives Dexter and Debra’s struggle the primacy it deserves.

This Showtime TV series is bloody, violent, at times unbelievably gruesome.  It blurs the line between good and evil, questioning our moral beliefs while showing another set of beliefs can create a new morality, very similar to Hannibal Lecter.  As character study, it is rich, deep, and multi-faceted — a research treasure trove for a writer……

“Dexter” Season Six

Last night, I finished watching Dexter Season 6 on DVD.  Without cable, I  wait every summer for the DVD release in August to see this show.  I have read the first five novels by Jeff Lindsay who created the original character of Dexter Morgan.  I love Dexter Morgan.  He reminds me a bit of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, but Ripley is not nearly as self-aware as Dexter.  Another character Dexter reminds me of is Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Data wants to be human, which is exactly what Dexter wants.

“Dexter” Season 6 (Showtime/CBS DVD)

The sixth season begins with an episode jam-packed with office politics, two murders, and life turning upside-down for Debra Morgan, Dexter’s sister, which hints that she’ll play a more prominent role this season.  In fact, I’d say this season explores two things: the relationship between Debra and Dexter from Debra’s point of view, and Christianity.  We see Dexter’s son, Harrison, has grown into barely a toddler who speaks only sporadically (it occurred to me during the last episode that the child actor portraying Harrison was probably too young to learn lines), but needs a nanny and a pre-school.  The nanny turns out to be Battista’s sister and there’s a subplot with her and Masuka’s intern.  The pre-school is run by a Catholic church which brings Dexter face-to-face with Christian beliefs.  He also meets Brother Sam (Mos), a former thug who has dedicated his life to God and helping others. Dexter’s not a church-going man and doesn’t really think he believes in God.  A question that brings up (at least in my mind) is whether or not Dexter possesses a conscience.  As the season progresses, that question hovers around Dexter but isn’t resolved.

As usual for this excellent Showtime series, things get complicated.  Debra receives an unexpected promotion to lieutenant over Battista who LaGuerta, who’s been promoted to captain, had been championing with Deputy Chief Matthews.  This promotion creates tension among them (not Battista, though) and a subplot that threatens to destroy Debra’s career if she doesn’t handle it right.  Then there’s Quinn who rampages through this season fueled by alcohol and emotional pain.  Masuka has a group of interns during the first episode that he narrows down to one, and his misadventures supervising the intern add a bit of black humor.

The main event sort of sneaks up on Miami Metro Homicide as they begin to investigate staged, ritualistic killings with a strong Christian overlay that eventually is linked to the Book of Revelations in The Bible.  Each murder seems to illustrate an event in a series that will lead to the End of Days.  In recent years, the villains on this show have provided the most interesting characters, people with depth and inner conflicts.  For this season, Miami Metro discovers they’re hunting a duo, perhaps master and apprentice, that represent the two witnesses in Revelations.  These killers challenge Dexter in a way he’s not been challenged before, and brings out a side of him — father — that’s also new.  Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos are perfectly cast as the villains, and I was especially impressed with Hanks.

For a season of engrossing characters, suspenseful action and wondering what could possibly happen next, only one thing took me outside of my viewing experience in a bad way.  It also shocked me because the writers of this series have done an excellent job in every other way.  My one complaint involves a subplot with Debra going to the department psychologist for sessions after she’s cleared for duty (after a shooting).  My problem is not that Debra has psychological issues or that she goes to a therapist, but what the therapist does and does not do during sessions that lead Debra in a self-destructive direction.  I wondered if the psychologist would end up being the villain (or one of them) in season 7.

To be specific, a therapist would not let a client act on something that is unsafe for the client or illegal.  Usually a therapist will acknowledge the client’s desire to act but keep the discussion focused on the client’s motivations and emotions — why do you want to do that?  How does that make you feel?  Several times, I found myself actually writing the therapist’s responses in my head and was shocked when the lines proved to not even follow protocol.  This is the problem with therapist characters on TV and in movies, I think.  For the sake of the story, the ethics that guide a therapist go right out the window.  The only one I’ve seen that is ethical, competent, and follows accepted therapeutic practice (as much as I know of it) is Dr. Kruger on Monk.  The therapist on Dexter makes a suggestion about Dexter and Debra’s feelings for him that is totally out of line.  Therapy is not about what the therapist thinks is going on but what the client thinks.  As a result, Debra starts down a path of psychological self-destruction.  I submit that the very last scene in the last episode of this season would be equally, if not more powerful, without the idea the therapist planted in Debra’s head.

Having said that, I still have no problem recommending season 6 to anyone who loves serial killer stories, complicated characters, and a fascinating main character.  I look forward to season 7….

Reading as a Writer: “Child 44”

Back in the late 1990’s, a cable movie entitled Citizen X came out on DVD.  Based on Robert Cullen’s The Killer Department,  it told the story of a Soviet investigator on the trail of a serial killer in a society that maintained it had little crime and serial killers were only in decadent capitalist societies.  That serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, traveled around the western USSR, killing children in a horrific, ritualistic manner.  The investigator never gave up, caught Chikatilo, but in the process suffered his own psychological trauma from the experience of conducting the investigation in a society ruled by fear and paranoia, and that discourages individual initiative.

Tom Rob Smith has utilized elements of this true serial killer story to form a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of his serial killer novel, Child 44. Suspenseful and a fast read, this novel captures exquisitely well what it feels like to live in a totalitarian police state, the way a person must think in order to survive.  Smith clearly delineates the detective’s line of thought, as well as other characters’ thoughts, to show that way of thinking which then determines actions.  Lev Demidov, the protagonist/detective, is an MGB agent who has enjoyed great success even though he’s dogged by a rival agent, Vassili.  He loves his country and his wife, Raisa, but that love and his past successes aren’t enough to protect him from Vassili’s scheming.  He ends up in exile, working for the militia in a small town near the Urals.

Before he left Moscow, before his fall, Demidov had reviewed the case of Arkady, a young boy found murdered gruesomely on train tracks.  Since the USSR has no crime, Arkady’s death is ruled an accident — he was hit by a train.  But Arkady haunts Demidov, and when he comes across identical child murders in other towns all over western USSR, he decides to find the killer and stop him.  This would be supported in a Western country, but not in the USSR where the MGB does everything it can to stop Demidov and his investigation.

This is a riveting story, set in winter to begin and ending in the height of summer’s heat.  Smith switches point of view in alternating paragraphs at times which he handles like a pro, making clear  whose POV he’s in in each instance.  It could have been terribly confusing.  What was confusing at times was what time of day it was — Smith does not make this very clear, especially at the beginning of scenes.  There were times I wondered how Demidov could be doing what he was doing in the dead of night when it was, it turned out, midday.  I also missed a more richly described setting.  Smith sketches only what he absolutely needs for the action, sacrificing an important dimension to enrich his story.  Russia has its own landscape of beauty, the forests magnificent and almost spiritual, and this could have added to Demidov’s love for his country, deepening his character.  Oh, and Smith began his writing career as a screenwriter and this shows in the absence of all five senses in his writing (but strong dialogue).

Smith carefully shows the psychology of people who live in a totalitarian police state, but missed the mark with the psychology of the serial killer.  His Andrei is far too self-aware, too rational, and without any motivating inner fantasy to be a convincing serial killer.  The murders are more about sending a message than the powerlessness Andrei feels — indeed most characters in this story feel powerless in the face of the State — and a serial killer’s need for power, domination, and control.  Serial killings are also sex crimes even if they do not involve rape, and there was very little indication of this when we’re reading Andrei’s POV.

For a first novel, Child 44, is an interesting, fun read.  Smith clearly can write well and I look forward to reading more of his work.