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Dexter’s Disastrous Ending, Explained

Over the course of eight seasons, the Showtime series Dexter always seemed to be building to a grand finale. Instead, James Manos Jr.’s show about a serial killer (Michael C. Hall) went out quietly and ambiguously. It’s never easy to end a long-running series in a way that satisfies everyone, but Dexter’s ending was uniquely reviled in comparison to the controversial finales of shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones. So where did Dexter go so wrong? Here’s our Take on that controversial ending, and how shows like Dexter set expectations that, ultimately, decide whether they will leave us feeling satisfied.

TRANSCRIPT

Over the course of eight seasons, Dexter fans—and even Dexter himself—spent a lot of time thinking about how it would end. The Showtime series about a serial killer who only preys on other murderers posed some bold, bloody questions: Can we sympathize with a character who takes pleasure in murdering? Can we feel something for a man who feels nothing? And perhaps the biggest one of all: Can he get away with it?

This question was answered a few times over the course of the show, as Dexter’s double life was discovered by various people—even those closest to him. But as he repeatedly evaded being captured or killed over the years, the show always seemed to be building to a grand finale, one that would answer definitively whether Dexter would be punished or go scot-free—and force viewers to confront how they feel about it.

Dexter Morgan: “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like for everything inside me that’s denied and unknown to be revealed.” - Dexter 01x12

Instead, the show went out quietly, and ambiguously: Dexter fakes his death and disappears into the woods, remaking himself as a tormented lumberjack, his secrets safe and his overall fate uncertain. The backlash was swift from those who felt it was a cop-out. Some critics and now-former fans even said the finale had retroactively spoiled their enjoyment of the show.

It’s never easy to end a long-running series in a way that satisfies everyone. But Dexter’s ending was uniquely reviled. So where did Dexter go so wrong? Here’s our take on that controversial ending, and how shows like Dexter set expectations that, ultimately, decide whether they will leave us feeling content—or cold.

Dexter Morgan: “I thought I was headed in the right direction. My dark passenger back behind the wheel, but if I was so sure I knew where I was going, how did I get so lost?” - Dexter 06x11

The Antihero’s Journey

Dexter premiered in 2006, near the dawn of TV’s golden age of antiheroes. Complex, morally gray characters like Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Don Draper, and Walter White allowed us to indulge vicariously in our most forbidden impulses and vengeful power fantasies, leaving us both unnerved and entranced by their refusal to be constrained by laws and societal boundaries.

Dexter pushed this archetype to its ethical limit with a protagonist who wasn’t just criminal or corrupt, but a remorseless serial killer. Whereas his fellow antiheroes may see murder as a necessary means to an end, Dexter Morgan thrives on it. He’s inhuman, almost alien: While Walter White and Tony Soprano at least profess love for their families, Dexter tells us he feels nothing.

Dexter Morgan: “What was once moving, speaking, killing and threatening becomes nothing but an empty vessel, which is not so different from how I’ve always felt.” - Dexter 03x12

The only thing that keeps us from recoiling from Dexter completely is his clear—if twisted—code: Dexter only kills other killers (and one pedophile). To the viewer, this justifies Dexter’s actions in a primal, “eye for an eye” sense, appealing to the part of us that takes satisfaction in seeing brutal justice exacted upon the deserving. From an extreme, consequentialist standpoint, Dexter’s dark work could even be argued as morally reasonable: Removing these people from society will result in the loss of fewer innocent lives.

Dexter Morgan: “The best deed I can do is ridding the world of you.” - Dexter 04x08

As many have pointed out, Dexter is an extreme version of dark vigilante heroes like Batman—both of them transformed by childhood traumas that then compel them into vengeance. Dexter even fantasizes about being discovered—and celebrated—as a Dark Defender, ridding the streets of violent criminals. But unlike Bruce Wayne, Dexter Morgan doesn’t do it for others. He does it for himself.

In its very premise, Dexter asks its audience whether we can accept someone like this as a hero—even an antihero. Although Dexter claims to have a moral code, it’s one he inherited secondhand. Although he may deliver a form of justice, he’s not motivated by it. Dexter is perhaps less Batman than Hannibal Lecter—a killer who kills instinctively, and who feels entitled to decide who lives and who dies. Like Hannibal, Dexter has a perverse sense of civic duty. And because of this, both characters end up working on the side of the law, punishing those who step out of line. Ultimately, though, both men murder not out of a sense of empathy or righteousness, but out of a narcissistic need to exert control—to make their own world a little more orderly.

Dexter Morgan: “My own small corner of the world will be a neater, happier place.” - Dexter 01x01

Dexter challenges viewers to examine our own sense of morality —to ask whether we believe Dexter’s code should absolve him, and what our answer says about us. This question is key to the entire show, and it’s one that we would naturally expect the finale to resolve for us—one way or another. Will Dexter be punished? Or will he get away with it—and is that what we should be rooting for?

Dulling the Blade

By not providing any definitive answers to the questions it’s long set up, Dexter’s finale avoids passing judgment on its protagonist—thus allowing the viewer to likewise sidestep any difficult introspection. Ultimately, though, the path to disappointment started long before those final shots of Dexter in exile. The problems with Dexter began as the show gradually retreated from its arresting central premise—can we sympathize with a psychopath?—by coloring in his formerly blank emotional life.

Dexter Morgan: “It’s these rules that help define who we are. So when we break those rules, we risk losing ourselves and becoming something unknown.” - Dexter 07x12

Dexter describes himself as completely devoid of feeling—even toward his adoptive sister, Deb. We’re told that he maintains the illusion of relationships largely as a cover. But over the course of the series, Dexter is shown to develop real emotional attachment. His relationship with Rita becomes one of affection rather than just convenience, and he takes his duties as a husband seriously. He seems genuinely changed by becoming a father. And he develops romantic relationships with women that are based on honest, mutual connection.

While these developments probe at the existential question of whether Dexter can change his essence, they also result in a muddled character. Dexter claims to be unfeeling, but he can be happy or enraged, experience love, grief, and fatherly pride. He even begins to believe that his ability to feel remorse separates him from true monsters like The Trinity Killer.

Dexter Morgan: “If erring is human then remorse must be too. Wait, does that make me human?” - Dexter 04x08

Humanizing him certainly creates a more complex vision of Dexter, but it also waters down the most interesting aspect of his character. The very fact that Dexter is an unfeeling psychopath—not a “killer with a heart of gold”—is what initially sets him apart from the usual anti-hero, and puts the show in uniquely dark territory. We’re used to empathizing with antiheroes because—at some level—we can relate to the insecurities, desires, and regrets that drive them to commit their horrible deeds. But asking us to empathize with a protagonist who lacks empathy is a much bolder statement—and it’s one that, with each passing season, Dexter increasingly shied away from. Instead, the show began to suggest that Dexter was simply broken—and more importantly, capable of getting better.

Dexter Morgan: “Maybe one day not so long from now, I’ll be rid of the dark passenger.”- Dexter 04x12

This was only reinforced by the plot, which often went to almost absurd lengths to protect him. Nearly every season sees someone closing in on Dexter, threatening to expose him: Sergeant Doakes, Rita’s husband, Detective Quinn, Captain LaGuerta. Time and again, the series seems to be building to a point where Dexter will be pushed to abandon his code and kill an innocent just to protect himself—forcing the audience to confront what it means to root for him. But each time, at the last minute, the show gives Dexter an ethical escape hatch: Rita’s husband dies in prison. Lila kills Doakes. Deb kills LaGuerta. Dexter avoids being morally compromised, the viewer avoids discomfort, and the show safely goes on.

Dexter Morgan: “A better person would feel bad about LaGuerta’s death. But the truth is, it solved all my problems.” - Dexter 08x01

The Consequence of No Consequences

All our antiheroes eventually reach some kind of breaking point. Even stories that leave us with ambiguity about their characters’ fates will force us to reckon with the damage they’ve caused, and the toll it’s taken on the protagonist. These shows don’t always end in a moral absolute, but their endpoints confirm the true consequences of the antihero’s journey.

For Dexter, Rita’s murder at the hands of the Trinity Killer initially seemed to be that breaking point. In this, Dexter’s fate seemed to mirror that of his fellow antiheroes, whose selfish drive for power ends up hurting the ones they love most, leaving them sad and alone. But then, Rita’s death is quickly swept under the rug, seemingly leaving no long-term effect on Dexter. If anything, it restores him. Dexter even moves back into his old apartment, ready to resume his orderly, uncomplicated life as a killer.

Dexter Morgan: “I’m a very neat monster.” - Dexter 01x01

Like Dexter, the show avoids reckoning with the consequences of his actions—and the best illustration of this attitude is Deb. Throughout the show, Deb is the closest to Dexter and the one he’s most in fear of hurting. She’s also essentially the series’ second lead character. In almost every respect, Deb is made out to be the other side of Dexter’s coin: raised by the same flawed father, cursed with many of the same demons, but more clearly and conventionally good. It seems almost inevitable that Deb will be the one who’s forced to bring Dexter to justice—or that Dexter will be forced to kill her. In fact, the entire show seems to be leading to their inevitable standoff.

When Deb finally discovers Dexter’s secret in season seven, we seem to have reached that impasse this has all been leading towards. But even this consequence is quickly averted: ultimately, like the show itself, Deb simply loves Dexter too much to punish him. She chooses to not think too deeply about the thornier ethical questions. By the end of the season, her corruption is so complete, she’s even become a killer herself.

Dexter Morgan: “It’s the only solution. The only way to end this.”

Debra Morgan: “No, no, no I can’t let you go through with this!” - Dexter 07x12

And while Deb’s guilt and self-destructive spiral threaten consequences for Dexter, again their slate is wiped clean. In their final conversation, Deb even absolves Dexter from feeling guilty—not just about her, but about everything. When Dexter kills Deb, it’s not the long-awaited climax to their epic moral battle. It’s just Dexter tidying up again—imposing his own order and killing Deb on his terms.

Dexter faces a separate dilemma when it comes to Hannah and Harrison, with whom he’s preparing to flee the country and start a new life. Although the show sidesteps any true moral reckoning with Deb, here it seems the show could still answer another central question: Is Dexter just an inveterate killer? Or can love redeem him and turn him into something more?

Dexter Morgan: “It’s just that I don’t want to lose you again.” - Dexter 08x12

But as it turns out, the show doesn’t have the answers here either. Dexter does kill again—and again he’s absolved by those who love him. He also decides not to join his family, reasoning that this will keep them safe. He then sails his boat into a hurricane—and at first, this seems to be a final, noble sacrifice. But then he reemerges. Dexter is not redeemed. He’s not brought to justice, nor does he fully get away with it. Instead, he’s left in a sort of purgatory. In the end, we don’t know exactly what Dexter is feeling—or how we’re supposed to feel about him.

In defending the finale to Entertainment Weekly, Dexter’s executive producer Sara Colleton argues that “his punishment is banishment”—that because what Dexter really wanted all along was human connection, exile would be his most fitting retribution. But this kind of vague emotional punishment reduces the series’ initial promise of big moral consequences like deliverance or damnation, to the much smaller payoff of telling us whether Dexter can connect with people. Even as Dexter became gradually more human as the seasons wore on, the show still revolved around its central ethical dilemma: Should Dexter get away with murder, just because, actually, he’s a pretty decent guy? This is a big question that demands an equally big answer. Instead, the show seemed to reply: Maybe—but only a little.

Brian Moser: “I know how much you hate it when people get away with murder. Everyone, that is, except for you.” - Dexter 06x07

The disappointment over Dexter’s finale is illustrative, showing how our own connections to a TV show can actually change it—occasionally for the worse. As Dexter producer John Goldwyn later revealed to Vulture, Showtime had just one edict for its finale: “Just to be clear, he’s going to live.” Dexter’s success meant the network wasn’t willing to risk killing him off—even if that’s exactly what original showrunner Clyde Phillips had in mind. Killing Dexter might make narrative sense, but it doesn’t make for good business—not when there are potential sequels, spinoffs, and reboots to be had.

That instinct is understandable: Dexter was one of TV’s most uniquely intriguing protagonists, and one of its most popular. But like Dexter himself, the show tried so hard to connect with people, it ended up no longer sure what it was. Instead of taking us into the darkest depths of our own humanity, Dexter just wound up in the middle of nowhere.

Dexter Morgan: “Am I evil? Am I good? I don’t have the answers. Does anyone?” - Dexter 02x12