Arts & Entertainment

How (and how not) to write a series finale: ‘Dexter’ vs ‘Breaking Bad’

By Matt McIlnay

The last couple weeks of September saw the end of two of the most significant cable dramas of our time. Within a week of each other, meth-cooking drama “Breaking Bad” and serial-killer thriller “Dexter” aired their final episodes. Once the dust had settled, two things were clear: “Breaking Bad” had pulled off its finale with flying colors, whereas “Dexter” had miserably failed.

In fairness, it’s hard writing the finale for a television show. You have to pull together years of backstory and loose ends in order to satisfy a fan base that has spent years invested in your show. It’s even worse for long-running or critically acclaimed series, since the expectations are much higher. A finale should make a series feel like it has come full circle. We want to feel like the years we spent watching the show actually mattered and have the finale reflect all the character development and stories that preceded it.

In that regard, “Breaking Bad’s” final episode was a resounding success. In perhaps the most poignant moment of the finale, Walt admits his true motivations behind everything he had done up to that point. All the little loose ends that we spent the time in between seasons theorizing about, such as the ricin or the machine-gun, are all incorporated into the finale. As Walt lies dying in a pool of his own blood, it feels like everything that has happened in the last five seasons has led up to this point. In fact, the finale gets even better when you go back and watch the rest of the series because of the hyper-serialized nature of the story.

On the other hand, “Dexter’s” finale gets even worse when you take into account everything that leads up to it. Part of the reason why Dexter was such a compelling character was watching him learn new things about himself every season as he struggled to balance his urge to kill and his growing sense of humanity. Unlike Walt who grew more inhuman and unlikable over time, Dexter slowly broke out of the darkness that had gripped him all his life and became both a lover and a caring father. Sadly, these pivotal developments in Dexter’s character are ignored in the finale by showing him abandoning his son and girlfriend out of a misplaced sense of guilt.

Instead of taking care of his family, Dexter decides he’d rather live in a cabin and chop wood, an ending that avoids Dexter having to answer for his crimes. As likable as Dexter may have been, he was a twisted monster who repeatedly committed atrocities to satisfy his own selfish urges. After spending years leaving a mile-long trail of bodies and destroyed lives in his wake, Dexter is still living on his own terms and is free to start killing again. Unlike Walt who was forced to accept the devastating costs of his own selfish choices, Dexter never has to answer for or even acknowledge the overwhelming majority of his crimes—and that just isn’t a very satisfying ending.

“Breaking Bad’s” finale solidified the series’ position as an unforgettable and defining piece of serialized television. “Dexter’s” finale ensured the series will forever be remembered as the tale of how a twisted serial killer found redemption and gave it up to become a lumberjack. On a more hopeful note, Showtime wants to keep the Dexter brand alive and Michael C. Hall hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of returning to the role. Perhaps one day Miami’s Dark Defender will get another shot at the ending he so desperately deserves.