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On Dexter and how not to end a show

DexterIt’s been interesting comparing the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Dexter. The first has been an object lesson in how to finish a television show (or novel, or film or anything, really): understand the fundamental dynamic or contradiction that drives the story, home in on it, isolate it, push it to breaking point and see what happens. The second has been a meaningless pile of blah, in which the writers seem to have decided to abandon the central dramatic tension and head off on a pointless and emotionally dishonest tangent.

At one level it’s not fair to compare the two, of course: after all, Breaking Bad is clearly one of the great television shows. But there is something sort of extraordinary about the total mess of Dexter’s final season, not least since it’s always been clear the endpoint of the show has been the moment when Dexter’s secret life can no longer be kept secret, and even an amateur can see what the results of that will be. How can he protect Deb from what she’s done to help him? Is he prepared to kill Vince or Batista to stop the truth about his secret life being uncovered? How can he protect Harrison from the truth? Can he find a way to live a different life?

And instead we got a season that not only didn’t do this story, but made things worse by introducing characters we’ve never seen before and expecting us to care about them, expecting us to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, rewriting the back-story and then, even once they’d made the fundamental mistake of deciding not to do the one story that needed telling, crafting a season so cack-handed and muddled it didn’t even work on its own terms.

Part of the problem, of course, lies in the show itself. Dexter was always a funny mix of elements: the schlocky Ryan Murphy Nip/Tuck aesthetic, the obvious contrivance of so much of the plotting, Michael C. Hall’s carefully controlled movement between opacity and tics of fury (I’ve always thought one of the interesting things about Dexter is that he is, in many ways, the same character as David in Six Feet Under), none of which ever quite meshed. To an extent this was unavoidable, since the show could only work as entertainment if it carefully avoided examining the tension at its centre (if you don’t believe me, try to imagine the show without Dexter’s voiceover, and think about how terrifying it would be watching the creepy serial killer playing with Cody and Astor on the couch. or check out Allan Cubitt’s excellent new drama, The Fall, which chillingly captures the evolution of a serial killer, and the toxic way that infects his family life).

But even within those constraints the final season is inexplicably awful. Why, for instance, were we expected to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, which made no sense the first time around, and less the second? (It’s interesting to contrast the Hannah plot with the season about Julia Stiles’ Lumen, a series I still think is one of the show’s best, largely because the story at the heart of it, about a group of men raping and killing women, felt real in a way little else in Dexter ever has, and Lumen’s combination of anger and pain meshed so well with Dexter’s own). Why introduce the idea of Dexter having a protege (especially since he already has a son in Harrison), and then abandon it so casually? Why give us the romantic triangles of Deb/Quinn/Elway and Quinn/Deb/Jamie and then forget about the first halfway through? Why did they think we’d care about Saxon, or his relationship with Vogel, when they’d given us almost no reason to care about Vogel? And despite the way they kept harping on it, why was Argentina, which was always Hannah’s fantasy, supposed to make any emotional sense for Dexter?

It was a mess that collided with spectacularly awful results in the blahness of the final episode, which failed to even offer some kind of emotional resolution (you can say a lot of things about the end of Lost, but even if they accept the story won’t make sense they do pay out the audience’s emotional investment in the characters). In the interests of avoiding spoilers (although why you’d care I don’t know) I won’t go into detail about what happened, or didn’t, but it was, frankly, one of the worst television finales I’ve ever seen.

Except – and again I’m going to be careful about what I say – there was one image that was very clever and deserves praise, and that was the one that blurred the iconography of the wedding and the funeral, which was clever and powerful and had a fascinating narrative and symbolic logic to it. I won’t say more, but if you’ve seen it you’ll know the one I mean.

And on the subject of Breaking Bad here are a couple of thoughts about Walt’s character and the use of violence as dramatic release from a few years back.

World War Z and the River of the Dead

World War Z

The other night I watched World War Z (which I didn’t hate, although that’s another story) and in the course of watching it I was struck by a couple of things. The first is the fact that the fast zombies actually aren’t as scary as the slow, shuffling ones on The Walking Dead, which is interesting, because it suggests to me that as with John Wyndham’s triffids, the scariness of zombies is more about their inexorability than their savagery (although even as I say that I’m reminded of how scary the fast zombies are in 28 Days Later and of the fact that some the scariest moments in The Walking Dead are those in which we glimpse walkers which seem to retain some intelligence).

But I was also very struck by the two scenes in which the zombies pass around people in the streets of Jerusalem, parting, as Brad Pitt’s character puts it in a moment of surprising poetry, like a stream about a stone. We’re meant to notice it because it’s a plot point, but it’s a powerful image, and interestingly one that’s reiterated in the film’s use of aerial shots to capture the cataracts of zombies pouring through the streets of Manhattan and Jerusalem. Think, for instance, of the scenes of the great tide of walkers gathering and moving along the roads in the final episodes of Season 3 of The Walking Dead, or more potently, the way the motifs of rivers, oceans and tides recur in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book which continues to haunt me, two years later), not just in the final, very moving descriptions of the dead flowing through the streets of New York, but in what remains for me the book’s most ineradicable moments, that of the stream of the dead moving along the road below the window of the toy shop in which two of the characters are holed up.

There is, I suspect, something significant in the way these images of water, of flows and tides and streams recur, because they’re all images that emphasise the way becoming one of the dead is to be submerged, subsumed, one’s individuality, history, volition washed away.

Exactly why it’s such a potent image is a complex question. On his blog a while back M. John Harrison argued that the appeal of zombies lies in their blank otherness, the fact that we can kill them without compunction. I think he’s partly right (let’s not lose sight of the fact The Walking Dead is basically a Western), but I’d suggest the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away. I’ve written before about the way our fantasies of apocalypse recur and mutate, but when you get down to it the real power of zombie films isn’t in the visceral charge of the chasing and the biting, or even in the way they speak to survivalist fantasies, but in their evocation of an empty Earth, the same image that underpins science fiction from Wells’ The Time Machine to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (the final instalment of which I reviewed recently and keep meaning to write more about). They’re not about fantasies of power but fantasies of powerlessness and anxieties of decline (as I’ve suggested before, I suspect they’re also about the anxieties of empire, but that’s a story for another day).

Nor, I suspect, is it coincidental that they speak to the other ways water pervades our cultural imagination. Isn’t the image of water parting, of the way it washes us clean, also what we seek to access when we wash for prayer, when we wash away our sins in baptism? How can we see people stand inviolate amidst a river of death and not be struck by the way their survival invokes that idea in strangely altered form? Or by the fact that the river lies at the heart of our culture’s conception of time, and therefore the passing away of things? Or that these streams of the dead are themselves echoes of the River Lethe? For in all we feel the way time bears us up and on, sweeping everything before it.

Let Me Back In

There’s a reason this bruised, gorgeous, bitter-sweet unfolding of a song is the opening track on Rilo Kiley’s collection of B-sides and rarities, Rkives

Coode Street and Me

the-coode-street-podcastA little after the fact, but if you get a chance you might want to check out Episode 154 of the Coode Street Podcast, which features me chatting with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe about subjects ranging from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Paul McAuley’s Quiet War series to Margaret Atwood, Tolkien and the future of science fiction.

I’m a big fan of Coode Street, which I think is necessary listening for anybody interested in science fiction or fantasy, so it was great fun to be a part of it. You can download the episode from Podbean or from iTunes.

If you’re interested I’d also very much recommend taking the time to check out M. John Harrison’s recent appearance on the show (available via Podbean and iTunes), in which he demonstrates he’s exactly as brilliant in person as on the page, and the conversations with Graham Joyce (whose new book, The Year of the Ladybird, is a delight (again, Podbean, iTunes)) and Ursula Le Guin (Podbean) from a while back.

Brisbane Writers Festival

brisbane writers festivalJust a quick note to say I’ll be appearing at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival, which runs from Tuesday 3 September to Monday 9 September.

I’m on three panels. The first, Fables and Folktales, also features Kate Forsyth (who just wrote a lovely review of Beauty’s Sister), Donna Hancox and Angela Slatter, and is fairly self-explanatory. The second, A Sense of Wonder, which also features Ashley Hay and Bianca Nogrady, is about science and communication, and the third, Future Imperfect, which also features Sean Williams and Antony Funnell, is about science fiction and the future. Fables and Folktales is at 2:30pm on Saturday 7 September, A Sense of Wonder is at 4:00pm on Saturday 7 September and Future Imperfect is at 2:30pm on Sunday 8 September.

I’m really excited about the panels and about the Festival in general, which seems to have gone out of its way to develop a program that isn’t ashamed to schedule literary writers like Philip Meyer and Ruth Ozeki alongside speculative and comic writers like Matt Fraction (writer of the brilliant, brilliant Hawkeye), Dylan Horrocks and Marjorie M. Liu. The latter are all appearing as part of the Well Drawn event on Sunday 8 September, and I’m very much looking forward to catching their sessions.

Information on the Festival and details of all events are available on the BWF website. More information about my sessions and ticketing is available on my profile page.

New Neko Case!

Exciting news. The new Neko Case album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, is out 3 September. And there’s already a trailer and a look at the first single, ‘Man’, featuring M Ward on guitar.

Charles Dickens as Morrissey

This is completely fabulous, especially if you’re a Dickens tragic like me.

And once you’ve stopped giggling, this piece about literary fakery and the strange story of the time Dickens didn’t meet Dostoyevsky is very worth a read.

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