Ending Bad: Why isn't Showtime's Dexter finishing with the same quality as AMC's Breaking Bad?
One show is ending its series run with a blitzkrieg of taut episodes in which characters are changed forever, and another seems to be running in place toward its finale, limping toward an ending which doesn’t feel particularly high stakes despite its finality.
Which begs an important, TV-centered question: Why does Breaking Bad’s series finale feel so much bigger, entertaining and well done than the approaching end of Dexter?
That question rose most persistently Sunday night, as Breaking Bad uncorked one of its most volatile and emotional episodes in a long while. Serious spoiler here: Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), the DEA agent brother-in-law of high school teacher-turned methampthetamine kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston), was executed by Walt’s business partners after a gun battle.
The shootout actually closed last week’s episode, after DEA agent Hank and his partner used Walt’s former ally Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to lure the meth maker into revealing where he had stashed $80 million in cash. Arrested and in handcuffs, Walt saw his business partners arrive last week and start a shooting match which wounded Hank and killed his fellow agent.
Walt, a guy who watched as an associate gunned down a child on a bike and let a young woman choke on her own vomit to further his goals, nevertheless pleaded for his brother-in-law’s life before his associates did the only thing they really could. (Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader made a great observation during the Talking Bad analysis show Sunday, saying Hank was Walt’s mirror image, and couldn’t lie or beg to save his own life the way Walt would).
It was a surprising ending for those who expected Hank to die in the gun battle, but helped keep Walt from looking like a total sociopath – though his decision to hand Jesse over to the same men who killed Hank (Walt acted as if he blamed Jesse for Hank's death) didn’t help. His disclosure to Jesse that he had indeed watched his girlfriend die without helping her was the final salt in the wound.
But the real acting came later in the episode, as Walt tried to take his wife and kids on the run, only to see wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) turn on him one last time after she deduced Hank’s fate. A lesser show would have had somebody fall on the knife she brandished to try and get Walt to leave her and Walt Jr. at their home – I was literally shouting at my screen, as husband and wife fought over control of the weapon, “don’t do it!” But I needn’t have worried.
The minds behind Breaking Bad have spent too much time plotting a note-perfect ending to mar it with something so predictable and random as an accidental knife in the gut.
That much was obvious minutes later, as Cranston delivered a scene which should prove to even the most cursory viewer that this man is one of the finest actors on television (a tweet I posted on Twitter to that effect last night has gotten 136 retweets and counting). Walt had run from the home, grabbing their baby Holly – the moment when Skyler suggested her name, speaking to Walt as he was lying to cover up his first meth cook, was a poignant and telling flashback to start the episode.
Calling back to their house, he was silently crying while delivering a tough speech revealing his role in Hank’s death and promising she would get the same. My take: He knew he police were there listening in, and his tough-guy speech was his last effort to spare his family from the law enforcement crapstorm about to rain down on everyone in his life (pal Alyssa Rosenberg also points out that it neatly encapsulates the ugly attitudes of fans who have consistently dismissed Gunn’s Skyler in demeaning and misogynistic terms, even though such fans may not notice).
And since we already know, courtesy of “flash forward” scenes from earlier in the season, that a Walt with hair buys a nasty-looking assault rifle and retrieves a vial of ricin from his now-abandoned house, we are left to wonder: Is he going to go after the guys who killed Hank?
Compare all this subtlety and intricate, character-based plot development with Sunday’s episode of Showtime’s Dexter – which essentially turned on serial killer Dexter Morgan trying to dispatch another serial killer before escaping to Argentina with his serial killer girlfriend and son. That description, by the way, could also fit last week’s episode, too.
I have a few theories why the end of Dexter, which comes after eight seasons on Sunday, feels less momentous and creatively satisfying.
First, Dexter’s end comes many seasons after the show’s creative peak. John Lithgow’s turn in 2009 as the Trinity Killer -- featuring an ending where viewers assumed Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan had gotten the best of Trinity, only to find he had killed Dexter’s wife before his own death – has never been equaled on the show.
Dexter is a plot-driven show to a fault. Which means every episode is focused on what happens next to the characters; if, for some reason, the plot begins to falter or feel derivative, there isn’t much else left to entertain viewers. And Dexter has been slowly maneuvering to leave the country with his girlfriend for a few episodes.
Breaking Bad’s confrontation between Hank and Walt, two relatives on the opposite sides of the law, played out as an inevitability the series was building toward from its earliest seasons. In contrast, Dexter’s homicide detective sister accepted that her brother was a serial killer last season and even killed an innocent colleague who figured out his secret.
Watching Hank snarl one last insult at Walt before his head was blown in on Sunday’s episode, I saw the tension and connection to reality that Dexter was missing. No matter how much Dexter’s sister Deb agonizes over her choices, she decided midway through this final season to accept her brother’s secret and defend him against everyone else – which has drained a lot of drama from the proceedings.
Breaking Bad’s last episodes center on watching characters we have known for many seasons go through irrevocable changes. On Dexter, much of the action in this final season is centered on characters we just met this year. When the serial killer Dexter is chasing kills the woman who helped him focus his homicidal urges on criminals, we don’t feel the loss as much because we only just met her, comparatively. That's also a sign storylines for the regular characters have been exhausted.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Dexter and Breaking Bad is where these stories seem headed. It has been a long while since Dexter endured any significant loss on the show; on Breaking Bad, we have seen Walt systematically stripped of most of his fortune, his family, his son’s love, his brother-in-law, his carefully-crafted double life and the methmaking partner who was more of a son to him than his own son.
We know when the dust clears on Breaking Bad that Walt will likely still be standing. But nothing else in his life may be. Contrast that with a Dexter finale in which he remains one step ahead of a rival serial killer the U.S. Marshals’ service and the Miami police department.
Delivering a mostly happy ending to a story about a secret serial killer in the Miami police department feels like the least dramatic turn of all. I just hope in Sunday’s finale, producers find a way to make us care a little bit more about where this all going, and provide an ending worthy of the amazing character they have created.
Because we know, thanks to Breaking Bad’s amazing end run, that it can be done.
Dexter ends its series run at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime; Breaking Bad ends it's series run at 9 p.m. Sept. 29 on AMC.