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Remembering the good old days of ‘Dexter’

source photo: randy tepper/showtime; globe staff photo illustration

I was watching the penultimate episode of “Dexter” the other day . . . and I realized I didn’t care anymore. Like the hundreds of former fans trailing online “Dexter” stories with a kite tail of hate comments, I just want to see this one through to the end and get it off my DVR. At this point, I don’t care about Dexter’s fate any more than I care about who won the 26th season of “Survivor.” Which is to say, not at all.

And that’s a sad thing, because I once cared plenty about this Showtime series, which finishes its popular eight-season run on Sunday night. During its first four years, “Dexter” was the ultimate antihero drama, in a way, in a large pool of TV antiheroes. He was a man-child whose innocence was stunning; and then he was a coldly methodical murderer addicted to bloodletting. He was a superhero, meek by day and protecting the streets of Miami by night; and he was a supervillain for the exact same reason, a vigilante whose hubris and psychopathology brought him outside the law. Cool and watchful, Michael C. Hall made it all work together naturally.

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Every episode was riveting. The tension between the two Dexters was exhilarating for viewers, as we felt sympathy toward one and revulsion toward the other. The show’s writers put us in a tricky moral corner, and it was a challenging and entertaining position to be in as a TV viewer. The writers also spent time reproducing Dexter’s anal-retentive personality, the way he micro-plotted every step of his existence — and set up his kill rooms like a Vanity Fair photo spread — as he battled the likes of the Ice Truck Killer. A guy faking his personality, Dexter didn’t make a single move without rehearsing it in his mind first. That was the subtext of the show’s outstanding title sequence: A guy pretending to be ordinary, shaving and making breakfast while — *wink* — thinking about his next kill.

But somewhere during season four, and for the next four seasons of “Dexter,” the writers let it all go astray. The gorgeous Miami backdrop, with its orangey light and heat, was still in place, and Dexter’s complex, interesting back story continued to assert itself. But the story lines fell apart, with holes as big as Biscayne Bay. And it wasn’t because Dexter was becoming messier, as his humanity began to grow; the writers simply began dropping plot points that weren’t convenient, fudging logic for the sake of heated-up – but emotionally empty – melodrama. The writers turned Dexter’s sometimes snide neo-noir voiceovers into self-parodic confessions and shortcut opportunities for the writers to telegraph what was going on.

It’s an old story, at this point, the way great shows stretch on too long because they’re making money — and not because the writers have more story to tell. One of the beauties of “Breaking Bad” is that creator Vince Gilligan is insisting on ending his show before redundancy and discontinuity set in and it becomes a “Dexter”-like mess. AMC has surely promised Gilligan the world if he’ll stretch out “Breaking Bad” for another few seasons, but he knows better and he cares. He has proven that the creative side can triumph over the business side. “Dexter” should have lasted four seasons; instead, it changed from a top drama that had the potential to be a classic into the serial-killer follies, crammed with psychobabble about spiritual mothers and brothers.

The turn from electric to slack came during season four, when Dexter battled the Trinity Killer and won – and then lost. As a whole, the season worked, thanks to John Lithgow’s fearless performance and thanks to the powerful punctuation mark, the murder of Dexter’s wife, Rita. But Dexter’s actions were uncharacteristically sloppy, and his overt errors were unrealistically overlooked by the cops. Then Lumen and the Doomsday Killer showed up and dullness set in, followed by one of the show’s biggest missteps — bringing Deb in on Dexter’s secret. She lost her moral center, murdered LaGuerta, became suicidal, and is now happy again — all of which has seemed silly and sad. This fantastic character, so humorous and emotionally gonzo, turned into cringe material.

I knew for sure I’d stopped caring during last week’s episode, when Dexter finds he has merged his own personal code — the Code of Harry, by which he kills only killers — with the public code, which says you don’t kill. Or something psychodynamic and psycho like that. He’s desperate to make a flight to Argentina, where he, his true love, and his son, Harrison, will live normally ever after. But first he must hand over the Brain Surgeon to the cops like a good boy. “I am not the old Dexter,” he yells at the ghost of Harry.

It was a Dexter breakthrough — the alien pretending to be human has become human! He faked it till he made it! And all I could do was shrug and shed a little tear for the good old days when Dexter was in control and his kills were clean, when passion and anarchy were not in his vocabulary. Those — *wink* — were the days.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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