It was the best of finales. It was the worst of finales. It was the age of crackling screenwriting, it was the age of foolish plots. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of White, it was the season of dark passengers. In short, this noisy authority insists on two TV shows being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. What the Dickens am I talking about? Why, the final seasons of Dexter and Breaking Bad, happening concurrently, of course.
It just so happens that two of the more popular premium cable programs of the last decade are coming to a close at the same time, which inherently invites comparison. The direction of the two shows in their last, dying moments are in such stark contrast to one another. After toiling in obscurity for years in the shadow of its AMC brother, Mad Men, Walter White and his gang of morally conflicted miscreants are finally getting the critical accolades they deserve. On the flip side, Dexter burst onto the scene seven years ago with lots of audience love and a reasonable amount of critical acclaim. However, the show has been uneven ever since, a fact that has shown up in its reception. It has fluctuated wildly, registering its least successful season just a few years ago. It’s going out with something of a whimper this year. Let’s allow some tasty data to tell the story. Here are the Metacritic ratings for the various seasons of both shows.
The current season of Breaking Bad, spread out over two summers, is tracking at a whopping 99(!), and the show has improved every single year. Dexter, on the other hand, has lived below its second season peak (85) for six consecutive seasons. The level of interest shows up in viewership, as well. Breaking Bad debuted in 2008 to 1.41 million viewers. That number had more than quadrupled by the time the second half of season 5 premiered on August 11th, all the way up to 5.9 million viewers. In fairness, Dexter has also grown its audience, but not nearly as much. Beginning with just over a million viewers in 2006, the most recent season debuted to 2.5 million viewers. The question at the heart of all of this is, “What is Breaking Bad doing that Dexter isn’t?”
There are several factors I’d like to point out, and I think they make up a significant part of the difference in reception of the shows. First and foremost, Breaking Bad has had a plan since day one. Vince Gilligan’s pitch for the show has become so wildly popular that I feel guilty for even bringing it up. From the beginning, Vince Gilligan wanted to “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” Whether you like that premise or not, it gave the writers a rudder to guide the direction of the show. They knew where they were starting and they knew where they’d end up. They even knew that they didn’t want to hang on too long just to milk the show’s popularity, which is a pretty admirable approach to creating art. Meanwhile, across the country at Miami Metro, Dexter has wobbled along, occasionally poaching storylines from the books, occasionally making things up as they go. They didn’t have the rudder, and it gave them too much freedom. And that brings me to my second point.
The people who make Dexter have used their freedom poorly. Major plot point after major plot point has been rehashed so many times. Do you remember the incredibly memorable season where Dexter Morgan befriended another serial killer? Of course you do, because it’s a plot point that has happened again (Lila) and again (Miguel) and again (Trinity) and again (Lumen, though to a lesser degree) and again (Hannah McKay) and even still again this season (Zach Hamilton). How about all of the tension created when one of Dexter’s law enforcement peers was hot on his trail? At this point, we’ve seen Doakes, LaGuerta, Quinn and Quinn’s golem (Liddy), Lundy, and even his own sister all chasing after Dexter, all failing in varying ways. Instead of using it as a device to build the tension to a crescendo that should be paying off right now, the show has introduced it time and again as a way to waste time. And while the chase for Dexter Morgan has had some fine moments, it has ultimately meant nothing to the overall quality of the show other than the way Dexter and Deb interact. Compare and contrast that with the plight of Walter White. With each passing season, his own brother-in-law inched closer and closer. When Hank’s trail ran cold for various reasons- health, for instance- it was for a reason. It had a major impact on the character development of both Hank and Walt since Hank’s injury was the result of Walt’s actions. And now, that choice by the writers is paying off in buckets. It’s been a slow burn leading to a very explosive powder keg.
Speaking of Walt’s behavior having consequences, it’s another major difference between the shows. Walter White’s actions have led to some disastrous consequences for everyone around him, from Jesse to Skyler to Hank to Gus Fring. At this point, his whole family is in danger. And it’s a very REAL danger because the show’s writers have consistently demonstrated that karma will come back to bite villainous characters in the posterior. Dexter, on the other hand, is the only justice in the world of Miami Metro. And his justice is only meted out on rehashed villains. The show’s shining moment was the end of Rita, and that’s because Dexter’s behavior finally caught up with him. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really happened since. He’s still roaming the area with only a handful of people knowing his true identity. He’s in no danger of being caught because, time and again, he has implausibly found a magic loophole to escape. It has completely neutered the show.
Implausibility brings me to my final point. Breaking Bad is notorious by now for its use of Chekhov’s Gun (per Wikipedia: a dramatic principle which requires that every element in a narrative be necessary and irreplaceable, and that everything else be removed). Walter White’s whole life is massively implausible. But the writers go to great pains to establish plausibility as much as possible in a show with its premise. And Walter gets caught. Skyler busted him first. His own son has known he’s full of it, and various nefarious meth characters (the cousins come to mind) discovered his identity. Hank busted him. Something as insignificant as blowing up a brand new car led to a scene in which Saul tells Walt how much he must pay for his indiscretion. Even a cartoonishly bright character like Walter White is not beyond reproach, and it adds plausibility to the show. Dexter (the show overall), on the other hand, clumsily introduces ways for Dexter (the character) to escape certain doom. There is absolutely no way that someone behaving the way Dexter has behaved would NOT be caught by his peers. His tracks are all over the place and his excuses are flimsy. Yet everyone buys them. Those that don’t buy those excuses disappear. I almost sprained my eyeballs rolling them a few weeks ago when Dexter used face recognition software to turn a 20 year old photo into an accurate portrait of what the person would look like today… and it just so happened to be a guy that Dexter had recently met. At what point are the writers just messing with us?
It is a far, far better thing that Vince Gilligan has done with Breaking Bad, perhaps more than anyone has ever done; it is a far, far better rest that we viewers go to than we have ever known. Also, the final season (and last several years, really) of Dexter have been pretty lousy.