Breaking sad

Jonah Goldberg at National Review has a great piece about the success of “Breaking Bad,” including a discussion of its classically (not politically) conservative themes.  He mentions, in passing, the “far less laudable series ‘Dexter'” as an inferior example of antihero fiction.

Jonah makes the point that “Breaking Bad” main character Walter White isn’t an antihero in the classical sense – he’s a good man gone horribly wrong.  He’s quite right about the inferiority of “Dexter,” which limped to the finish line with an almost incredibly bad final season and wet-paper-bag final episode.  It’s a shame, because the first few years of “Dexter” were intriguing.  It failed in every way that “Breaking Bad” succeeded.

For the uninitiated, the title character of “Dexter” is a serial killer who only murders other killers.  His adoptive cop father realized he was a psychopath when he was a child, and trained him in a rigid code of conduct that obliged him to satisfy his murderous urges by preying only upon murderers.  The adult Dexter works as a forensic technician for the Miami police department, giving him the resources to target killers the legal system can’t touch, haul them off to creepy plastic-wrapped “kill rooms,” and do away with them, relying on his forensic training to ensure he’s never caught.

While “Breaking Bad” is packed full of unforgettable characters, the world of “Dexter” was stuffed with blithering idiots whose pointless side stories wasted time, rather than contributing to the primary narrative of Dexter’s rise and fall.  In fact, Dexter never really fell.  He stopped being a true psychopath long ago, removing all of the intriguing anti-hero questions about whether or not the audience was supposed to root for him.  The writers seemed quite enamored with the painfully boring concept that Dexter was essentially a super-hero, a comparison made explicit at one point, when he discovers a locally-produced comic book about the mysterious vigilante killer of Miami.  They also spent a lot of time in the later years of the show portraying Dexter’s bloodlust as an addiction he could (and eventually did) learn to kick, which is both tedious, unrealistic, and retroactively pretty damning for Dexter’s adoptive father, who made the more conventional assumption that his urge to kill was wired deep into his brain.

Stripped of the challenging moral and intellectual material, we ended up with a silly soap opera – sometimes played for laughs, and not in the macabre way “Breaking Bad” does so well – about a single dad trying to manage his secret life as a murderous vigilante.  Every single creative decision made throughout the last few years of this amazingly long-running show was boneheaded and wrong.  They drifted too far from the original question of whether a psychopath could find a way to fit into the sane world, harnessing his bloody madness to a useful purpose.  They kept letting Dexter off the hook, saving his bacon with crazy coincidences instead of confronting him with the kind of choices and justifications that destroyed Walter White and everyone in his orbit.  One of the show’s most intense passages came when Dexter was confronted with the need to kill an innocent man to preserve his secret identity as a serial killer; after a bit of angst, the writers simply whisked another psychopath onstage to do the killing for him, sweeping the soul-shattering choice off the table.  Actually, something along those lines happened more than once.  

Limping along for years after it should have ended, “Dexter” finally served up a lame finale devoid of suspense or emotional resonance, in which he was once again let off the hook for all of his misdeeds by a helpful loved one.  The last scene elicited a shrug, and made one think about how much more powerful this could all have been if the writers were as clever as their “Breaking Bad” counterparts, as interested in making the world around Dexter seem real instead of stuffed with contrivances, and as willing to rough up their tragic lead character.