(cover photo care of Showtime)
Dexter has always been, at least on paper, a very problematic show. To cast a serial killer, no matter how virtuous, as a hero undermines everything we’ve ever been taught about the social contract. Shouldn’t we be at least a little disturbed that we let this character into our homes week after week, and moreover, actually rooted for him with glee as he did his bloody bidding? At the very least, Dexter could have been a tasteless experiment in pushing the boundaries of cable television. And at its worst, the show might have been (as David Simon, creator of The Wire, has suggested) a troubling reflection of America’s fascination with violence and exploitation.
And yet, somehow Dexter managed to do most of its boundary-pushing not in its lust for death, but in its remarkable depiction of a uniquely modern individualist. True, Dexter is a sociopath. But in the tradition of the modern television antihero, that isn’t all he is. We also get to see him as a father, a husband, a friend, a coworker; basically, we get to see him occupy the same roles that most Americans define themselves by. Dexter might be a serial killer, but he isn’t just a serial killer. In fact, it only makes sense that in an age where we started to turn on our TVs to see adulterers, mobsters, and drug dealers that a serial killer had to be the next logical progression of the antihero. True, we are given permission to like Dexter because he is killing “bad guys.” But that doesn’t make him any less of a bad guy himself. We still care about him, because at the end of the day, Dexter Morgan is deeply, profoundly human.
At its best, Dexter has always been about empathy. It is about the empathy we feel for a character who slowly begins to discover the humanity he never knew he had, and the empathy that character feels for the people around him, which he never knew he was capable of. The episodes in this list largely reflect that theme. Yes, Dexter is a monster, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a person too. And with Michael C. Hall’s constantly brilliant performance behind him, Dexter has found a very understandable place in many Americans’ hearts. I won’t be discussing the finale (which aired last night) here, but it is unfortunate that in this last season, the consensus of many fans was that the show had gotten stale and tiring. (Although it would hardly be the show’s first weak season.) And of course, it’s impossible for Dexter’s goodbye not to be at least a little bit overshadowed by the upcoming finale of Breaking Bad. But Dexter is still one of the best television dramas of the past decade or so, and it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge the difficult, complex, and boundlessly entertaining high-wire act it accomplished week after week. After all, this was a show that made us care deeply for someone who, by all rights, we should have been terrified of.
10) “The British Invasion” (Season 2, Episode 12)
In a season as brilliant as this (probably Dexter’s best next to its fourth), “The British Invasion” actually feels a little bit like a mess. Everything gets wrapped up so quickly, and the focus sort of awkwardly changes from Dexter’s standoff against Doakes to his vengeful pursuit of ex-lover Lila. But although “The British Invasion” is undeniably abrupt, it’s also absolutely brilliant. The way the writers tie each of the main stories from the season together, using one to wrap up another, is nothing short of ingenious. And Jaimie Murray’s twisted performance as the demented Lila Tournay comes to a perfectly crazy and tragic end. In a series that always left the best for last (even more so than other television dramas of its time), “The British Invasion” isn’t even close to the best season finale Dexter ever did, but it’s still excellent.
9) “Let’s Give the Boy a Hand” (Season 1, Episode 4)
This was the episode that really hooked me on the show. Sure, it starts out interesting enough. Creepy yet interesting character, intriguing mystery, plenty of gruesome moments to keep me entertained on the basest levels. But “Let’s Give the Boy a Hand” is not only the first instance where we see Dexter’s ability to truly keep you on the edge of your seat, it’s also the first time we see Dexter grapple with the moral implications of his favorite pastime. In the episode, he’s given the opportunity to kill an innocent person. He chooses not to, but he wrestles with the decision. This is something Dexter is forced to deal with again several times throughout the show, and watching anyone struggle to deny their purest impulses almost always makes for superior drama.
8) “Love American Style” (Season 1, Episode 5)
While Dexter first showed its ability to create intricately plotted, incredibly tense, cliffhanger tension in “Let’s Give the Boy a Hand,” it really began to nail it in “Love American Style.” As Dexter deals with a human-trafficking married couple, this episode proposed the fascinating theory that evil could draw a couple together just as much as good, as long as both parties wanted the same things. It also gave us one of the show’s best set pieces (the kid and the trunk; even thinking about it now I get nervous!) Although much of “Love American Style” explores Dexter’s inner conflict on how to become closer to Rita, it’s one of the best episodes for the heart-pounding outer conflict the show was also so adept at.
7) “Surprise, Motherfucker!” (Season 7, Episode 12)
After seven seasons of rooting for Dexter time and time again, “Surprise, Motherfucker!” decided to test the audience’s willingness to see how far they would follow this character. The title really is appropriate. We all felt like we knew Dexter by this point. Yet as he plotted to take an innocent life, and then saw that plot come crashing down around him and affect one of the people he loved the most, you kind of have to ask, “How much longer are we going to be okay with letting Dexter get away with everything?”
6) “Seeing Red” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Dexter’s past has always been one of the more fascinating things about the character. So to see it explored in this episode was undoubtedly a highlight. But even if we hadn’t learned that much about him, “Seeing Red” would still be one of the show’s best episodes for the unforgettable image of the blood-soaked room, probably one of the most memorable moments of television in the past ten years.
5) “Are You…?” (Season 7, Episode 1)
There are two times Dexter really changed the framework at the core of the show. One was (SPOLER ALERT, ALTHOUGH SERIOUSLY IF YOU’RE READING THIS AND HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW YOU MUST NOT CARE ALSO WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!) when Rita was killed at the end of season four. The other was here, at the beginning of season seven, when Deb finally found out about her brother’s nighttime activities. The cat and mouse game between the two of them throughout the episode alone would have been nerve-wracking enough to keep viewers anxious for next week. But by the end of the episode, when Debra finally finds out that Dexter is an all-out serial killer, all bets were off, and thus began one of the show’s strongest seasons.
4) “There’s Something About Harry” (Season 2, Episode 10)
As Dexter’s showdown with season-long adversary Sergeant Doakes hits a breaking point, our hero is also forced to deal with new information about his deceased father, Harry. While the inclusion of Harry in flashbacks and visions is frequently overdone and occasionally downright frustrating, here Harry’s presence is essential to Dexter’s internal battle over his ethical “code” and to the continuing storyline of the show. “There’s Something About Harry” is ultimately another instance of Dexter’s ability to seamlessly blend together both inner and outer conflict.
3) “Hungry Man” (Season 4, Episode 9)
Almost every episode in season four of Dexter is perfect, and when put together they probably merit their own list outside the greater context of the show. But in terms of episodes that stand out in a meaningful way, it’s hard to beat “Hungry Man.” As Arthur Mitchell, a.k.a the “Trinity Killer,” John Lithgow cemented his place as the best villain of the show’s run, and one of the best villains in the history of television altogether. In this cringe-inducing episode, Dexter comes over to Arthur’s house for Thanksgiving, and we see how Arthur abuses his family in a way that Dexter, while also a serial killer, would never do. It’s sort of like the holiday special from hell. But in one of the show’s more touching moments, we see Dexter’s adopted son Cody express his thanks for him, in a way that Arthur Mitchell’s family never would. “Hungry Man” is probably the single best episode in the show’s exploration of whether Dexter could be more than just pious, but also kind and compassionate.
2) “The Getaway” (Season 4, Episode 12)
“The Getaway” earns a spot on this list if nothing else than for sheer shock value. Long before the axe went down on Ned Stark, “The Getaway” proved that in this new golden age of television drama, no one is safe. Even prior to the ending, though, “The Getaway” is still a great episode. As Dexter goes toe to toe with Trinity, he reconciles his desire to become closer with his family, only to have those dreams come crashing down in a horrible, painful way. While “Hungry Man” gave the audience a chance to see Dexter as a caring family man, “The Getaway” reminded us that he was still a killer, and eventually, he was always bound to reap what he sewed.
1) “Born Free” (Season 1, Episode 12)
After Trinity, Dexter’s second best nemesis has to be his older brother, Rudy, the “Ice Truck Killer.” In this thrilling season finale, Dexter’s faceoff against Rudy leads to a breathtaking and surprisingly somber climax. Literally forced to either kill his sister or betray his brother, Dexter unsurprisingly chooses the former. What is surprising his how difficult the decision is for him, and how much he really feels like he’s letting a piece of himself die when he ultimately murders his brother. After all, the only difference between the two of them is that Dexter only goes after “bad guys.” When it comes right down to it, Dexter still doesn’t see anything wrong with killing. In fact by the end of the episode, he’s convinced himself that what he’s doing is a public service. He is a man who truly believes the world will be a better place for the people he loves without the evildoers he goes after in it. And herein lies the central conceit of the show; Dexter’s instinct always leads him towards evil, yet his budding empathy shines just enough light to prevent his dark passenger from completely taking over.