Top 10 Dexter Episodes

To enrage haters and keep fans satiated until the show returns for its seventh season this fall, here’s What Culture’s top 10 episodes of Dexter!

Joseph Kratzer

Contributor

The shining star of Showtime’s original programming, Dexter, the series which follows the trials and tribulations of a serial killer trying to balance family life and a career in law enforcement with murdering people, has been towing the line between disturbingly affecting and  procedural mediocrity for over six seasons.

Whether you can no longer stand the sound of Michael C. Hall’s spell-it-out-for-you voiceovers, the sight of Deb pining for father (and brother) figures, and LaGuerta’s leopard prints, or can’t wait to see how much further Dex can descend into moral ambivalence without blowing his cover (like me), no one can deny the success of the series. Therefore, to enrage haters and keep fans satiated until the show returns for its seventh season this fall, myself and a frequent commenter on my reviews of the sixth season, Christopher Elphick, have compiled a list of the best Dexter episodes thus far. Keep in mind we’ve attempted to include not only great individual moments but also the best episodes which are holistically crucial to the overall cannon of the series and to Dexter’s development as a character.

1. “Dexter”, 1.1

Still my favorite episode to watch again and again is the series’ pilot. Few other pilots have defined so clearly the image of its lead character in such a stark and haunting manner. That first scene where we witness Dexter’s kill ritual for the first time will forever be etched in my mind because of how stripped down and intimately the scene was depicted. This kind of scene could’ve gone a million different ways, many of which would be dressed up with all sorts of soundtracks, camera angles, jump cuts, etc., in the attempt to heighten the impact of what unfolds. Instead, director Michael Cuesta wisely decided to let the action speak for itself and did little to detract from the sequence.

It might seem like a minor detail, but seeing Dexter casually sniffle after tranquilizing Mike Donovan, a pastor and child rapist and murderer, was what sold me forever on the entire series. That tiny detail spoke volumes to me about the man Dexter is – someone who annihilates monsters off the face of the planet as casually as most people turn on their windshield wipers to remove bugs from their car windows and therefore, to me, someone who must sleep very well at night. From hearing Donovan thank Dexter beneath layers of plastic wrap to seeing Dexter hunt down and dispose of another rapist-murderer piece of garbage, Jamie Jaworski, to watching Dexter discover the decapitated Barbie in his freezer with glee, the entire episode did more to cement a character into our collective unconscious than most films do.

 

2. “Shrink Wrap”, 1.8

This episode had plenty of great moments for Dex on top of a unique game of cat and mouse. Not only did our hero get to dispose of an especially sinister manipulator of vulnerable individuals, but he was able to achieve quite a few break-throughs along the way. The episode follows Dexter sizing up his next victim, psychiatrist Dr. Emmett Meridian, by posing as a patient under the name Patrick Bateman – the name of the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, another novel with a serial killer as the protagonist that was adapted for the screen as a film of the same name which had a profound influence on Dexter (most notably the series’ opening credits sequence), though Bateman is a much less conscience-laden killer. In seeing the good doctor, Dexter begins to scratch the surface of the memories surrounding the trauma that instilled in him the need to chop up living creatures and thus put Dexter on the path to self discovery.

In addition to learning more about his past, Dexter also worked up the courage to take the next step with Rita by finally having sex together, face to face. This was a huge leap forward for Dexter as up until this point in the series he had always qualified sexual intercourse as undignified and messy, and when he did become intimate with women he tells the audience they would always recognize something dark in him and be scared away. When Rita tells Dexter the morning after that of course she wants to continue being together it brought her that much closer to the heart that Dexter refuses to acknowledge exists making her much more than a mere accessory to his disguise and thereby blurring the line between Dexter’s mask and his true self.

 

3. “Born Free”, 1.12

This episode ties together several loose ends that occurred throughout the season and this is what makes it so significant. Although we do learn a lot more about Dexter’s past in subsequent seasons, the bulk of his back story revealed here is, albeit very dark, very interesting indeed. This essentially boils down to two major events – we learn what caused Dexter to become who he did, but we also get an insight into a rather twisted relationship between two brothers, Dexter and Brian – the Ice Truck killer, the first season’s antagonist.

When Dexter and Brian really meet for the first time they discuss how they were “born” and it soon becomes clear that the events inside the cargo container affected both the brothers in much the same way – they both became serial killers. But what becomes really significant is the role of Dexter’s adoptive father, Harry. Harry and The Code he teaches Dexter are important in keeping Dexter in check – he is able to carry out his urges in a controlled way. However, Brian had no such support and he became a monster.

In addition to Brian, another prominent killer that shared an intensely conflicted relationship with Dexter that climaxed in “Born Free” is Detective James “Mother Fucker” Doakes. The scene where the two men fought at the shipping container yard was not only extremely cool, but it further revealed to Doakes that there is much more to Dexter than meets the eye and it directly foreshadowed Doakes’ pursuit of Dexter in the following season.

One of the most important scenes is the one where Dexter kills Brian. Dexter clearly didn’t want to kill Brian in his regular style – he ended his life because it needed to happen for the safety of his sister. This killing represents an anomaly in that Dexter was visibly hurt after doing it, something he had never before experienced. There was very little dialogue between the two and although Brian needed to be there, Dexter was essentially loosing the last of his biological ties to the world.

Throughout the rest of the series a clear theme is Dexter’s need for a true companion, someone who understands him for who he is. Brian and Dexter had a shared understanding that transcended the relationship of siblings – yet they were never able to share anything with each other due to Brian’s heavy handed approach to courting Dexter. Perhaps it would have been different if Deb wasn’t involved, and if you want to explore how this could play out I strongly suggest you read the books as Brian and Dexter’s relationship is very different.

The thing that makes Dexter so intriguing is that everyone can relate to him in different ways. Is he good or is he bad? But the theme that runs throughout this season most prominently is that of family. Dexter was offered the choice to unite with Brian, but he chose his sister and this was clearly due to Harry’s input in Dexter’s upbringing. Therefore this is an example where nurture triumphs over nature.

 

4. “The Dark Defender”, 2.5

This was a great episode for both its light moments and its darker, more serious ones. I loved the tongue in cheek depiction of Dexter as the comic book hero, “The Dark Defender” because it acknowledged that which so many viewers had already been thinking of the character while simultaneously rejecting (very gently and lovingly) that version of Dexter. As much as he is a dark defender of justice, a vigilante for the people, he’s also a human being with flaws and complexities that don’t necessarily fit the mold of the traditional comic book hero.

This episode also aptly encapsulates the themes of addiction and reformation discussed throughout season two. In response to Rita’s confrontation with Dexter regarding his knowledge of heroin use, Dexter finds he must start attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and is eventually surprised to discover a woman, Lila, who seems to understand his Dark Passenger as well as how to quell its cravings without succumbing to his habit. Treating serial killing the same way one treats drug use is a clever device and one that works to reveal Dexter’s desire to get clean so to speak, though ultimately he abandons the idea in light of Lila’s destructive nature.

It’s fascinating to explore a serial killer experiencing moral dilemmas and considering turning his whole life around in general, but it’s especially intriguing in the case of Dexter in season two because it reveals how unique he is among serial killers. It raises important questions about Dexter such as whether he has to kill or if he can choose not to without suffering from the consequences as well as whether he should stop his work.

I also find it interesting that this theme of reformation was revisited in the first half of season six when Dex briefly flirted with the ideas of God and spiritual redemption. Unfortunately it was a very glib affair in season six and the ideas were not fully explored. In season two, however, they were touched on quite competently and effectively.

 

5. “There’s Something About Harry”, 2.10

It might be easy to ignore the role of Harry, Dexter’s adoptive father who provided him with The Code by which he lives his life, as a side note to the overall story in each season. However, every single one of the flashbacks surrounding the killer, Ramirez, who Harry has been trying to convict for some time, illustrates a very important development in this story.

The flashback to Deborah’s birthday is the most significant scene in the whole arch of Harry’s story development. When he finds out that Ramirez is going to be freed due to an error in a search warrant Harry takes the news very badly and tells Dexter, “I did the right thing in training you.” This implies that Harry is giving Dexter carte blanche to execute his Code on the released felon. We had previously known that Harry somehow died when Dexter is young, but in this episode we learn exactly how – Harry commits suicide via an overdose of his heart medication. We are lead to believe that this is due to the stresses of his job, however, we later learn the cause is something far more sinister and specific than this.

In the final flashback Harry walks in on Dexter eviscerating Ramirez’s body and vomits at the sight. Dexter, with Doakes’ help, comes to the conclusion that he caused Harry to kill himself. In terms of character development, this raises questions about the legitimacy of what Harry did to mold Dexter into who he became. Harry knew he had a significant part in raising a monster, however, up to this point he was unaware of the reality of what Dexter actually was. Dexter clearly cared for Harry in the same way he cares for Deb and Harry loved Dexter as well, but this revelation acts as more proof that anyone who learns about Dex’s Dark Passenger can seldom live with the consequences. However, the real issue for debate is whether Harry was right in doing what he did. On one hand, Dexter is doing good when he kills evil people. On the other hand, Dexter isn’t perfect; he makes mistakes while attempting to uphold The Code, and as we learn this isn’t always as black and white as Dexter would perhaps want to believe.

 

6. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, 3.3

Admittedly, I hated watching season three of Dexter as it aired. Watching it now isn’t so bad and I can appreciate all of its little charms, but the first time around I couldn’t stand knowing where the Miguel Prado story was headed and found the huge disconnect between Dexter and Miami Metro’s pursuit of “The Skinner” entirely frustrating.

That being said, the shining gem of Dexter’s third season will forever be both when Dexter told released child molester, Nathan Marten, to “Shut the fuck up,” when he first warned Marten to keep away from Astor after encountering the predator eyeing her at the grocery store and again at the beach, and when Dexter finally snuffed out the pedophile by strangling him in his home and hissing, “I’m not like you. Nobody hurts my children.” Not only is it hugely satisfying to watch our Dark Defender extinguish the life of such an evil person, but it was another big moment for Dexter as Marten was the first person that did not satisfy Harry’s Code whom Dexter had purposefully decided to kill. Anytime Dexter steps outside Harry’s Code is a big moment of growth and learning for the character as it forces him to reevaluate who he is, what he does, and why he does it. By acknowledging that someone who technically never murdered anyone still deserves to die, especially to ensure the safety of those he cares about, Dexter’s morality evolved and became more his own as opposed to his father’s. Plus, like in the later season four episode, “Dex Takes a Holiday”, Dexter’s actions helped him realize how much he actually does love his family, something he previously hadn’t thought possible.

 

7. “Hungry Man”, 4.9

Although this entire episode, much like the whole of season four, is excellent, what really sets it apart is the showdown between Dexter and Trinity. As viewers we know that Dexter is sitting at the dinner table with an ulterior motive, but what we don’t know is how disturbed the Mitchell family dynamic really is. Up to this point Trinity has (almost) been the perfect husband and father, however, we see this change right before our eyes – the catalyst being when nobody declares they are “thankful” for him and what he does. This isn’t surprising as they all have reasons to be completely scared of him. We get to see Jonah’s broken fingers, Sally being addressed the way she did and Rebecca’s forced perpetual childlike state – which amounts to the real Arthur Mitchell and his need to order his life in the way he does.

The fun really begins when Dexter drags Trinity into the kitchen. It is at this point Trinity learns a little more about who Dexter really is, and he looks genuinely terrified as Dexter hisses, “I should have fucking killed you when I had the chance.” So many of my reasons for choosing this episode is for the fact that we get to see different sides of these characters. In the case of Dexter, clearly not for the first time, but I think this particular episode really shows a different side of him, one that is more in touch with his own sense of morality.

What really makes this part of the episode is Dexter and Harry’s conversation in the car when leaving the Mitchell household. Michael C. Hall portrays Dexter showing genuine rage here. He even spits he is so angry, and this is what makes these five minutes of television so memorable. The acting is superb – and it made me feel like I was there. Not only did I feel massively uncomfortable when sitting at the dinner table, I felt shivers when Jonah declared he knew his father was a killer, I felt building anticipation when I thought Dexter may kill Trinity, and I felt that although Dexter was angry, he also seemed like he missed his chance. The cat was out of the bag because he wasn’t able to do his job. The real show stopper was the range of emotions shown from all the characters throughout – especially Dexter showing his true colours. Although there was clear underlying tension, we got to see a tranquil meal almost turn into a multiple murder scene.

 

8. “My Bad”, 5.1

So a lot of readers might be shocked and dismayed that the season four finale, “The Getaway”, in which we learn of Rita’s bloody murder at the hands of John Lithgow’s Arthur Mitchell, “The Trinity Killer”, is not included on the list and that’s because I find the season five premiere to be much more interesting as it directly deals with the immediate fallout of this mind-shattering death. This was a unique episode as all the previous season premieres occurred after some time had passed following the resolution of the previous season’s arc, but “My Bad” picked up immediately where the season four cliff hanger had left off and dealt exclusively with that before directly approaching the plot threads that would  tie together for the fifth season.

Killing off a major character whose congeniality had waned the last couple seasons can be a risky move because the death needs to be meaningful, not just pandering. But Dexter does this in spades by devoting the entire episode to all the very basic and tedious things one must do when a loved one passes like arranging a funeral and informing the children. Dexter must accomplish these things on top of the fact that he was a prime suspect in the investigation. The episode was much more than just a rehash of a random Six Feet Under episode (that other ground-breaking drama Michael C. Hall starred in) because we actually got to see Rita and Dexter’s first date and watch Dexter come to terms with his love for and grief over his wife.

One of the ways in which ol’ Dex does this is by bludgeoning a completely random person with what appeared to be a grappling hook simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time mouthing off to the wrong serial killer (is there a right serial killer to mouth off to?). This was by far the most emotionally charged and impulsive kill Dexter ever made and it worked much better than when he choked out Brother Sam’s killer in the ocean in the season six episode, “Just Let Go” because his grief, anger, and guilt were clearly warranted and the uncontrollable rage felt palpable.

 

9. “Take It!”, 5.8

In terms of character development and progression to the fifth season’s story, there is one very significant scene in this episode – when Dexter kills Cole, Jordan Chase’s head of security, with Lumen watching the proceedings. Up to this point in the episode the tension was building throughout – the cat and mouse game during the convention between Cole and Lumen being extremely intense to watch, but the kill room scene achieved several important things, all of which are put into perspective throughout the remainder of this season.

Dexter reveals his true colours to Lumen. She gets to see firsthand exactly how he goes about satisfying his Dark Passenger. Dexter sharing his secret has traditionally ended in tragedy – with Lila going mental, Miguel becoming uncontrollable, Rita’s death and Harry committing suicide in the face of what he created as well as Dexter’s relationship with Harry becoming increasingly unstable throughout the series, especially in season two. We later learn that Lumen can indeed live with learning Dexter’s secret, but she has no need to continue after her Dark Passenger leaves her, a departure Dexter is not fortunate enough to enjoy. Interestingly Lumen is almost silent throughout the whole scene and although she appears shocked by what she is seeing, it is clear she learns a lot from Dexter as demonstrated in a following episode, “In the Beginning”, where she completely takes control of the kill room scene, even mimicking Dexter’s exact mannerisms and his aggressive ritual – she even dresses the same as him.

Dexter also confirmed that Jordan Chase is the architect of the “Barrel Girl” murders. Although this scene is actually quite humorous because of Dexter’s internal monologue (“Like your chief of securities’ head is in my luggage?”), a much darker atmosphere occurred when his suspicions were confirmed by hearing Jordan’s unique catchphrase.

In terms of the general direction of season five, this episode is very important. Not only does Dexter see a lot of progression in terms of his relationship with Lumen, but we also get to see that he is, temporarily, not alone in dealing with his grief. The subtle critique of the self help industry is also present throughout much of this season, especially in this episode.

 

10. “This Is The Way The World Ends”, 6.12

The most obvious scene to discuss in this episode is the final one where Deb witnesses Dexter killing Travis Marshall in the church. As this acts as the cliff hanger between seasons six and seven I just want to offer some thoughts about the possibilities of where this could go and draw some comparisons between the series and the books. I think that this meeting was on the writers’ minds for some time; indeed it almost happened at the end of season five and there is a parody scene in season two where Dex wants to reveal to Deb that he is the Bay Harbor Butcher over a steak dinner.

However, the rather odd issue is that it would appear Deb is actually in love with Dexter. I don’t know what adding this move into the story will do in terms of character development in the long run, but I suspect this is going to be a significant issue – and one which is still receiving much debate on fan forums. Although I don’t agree that the incestuous love spin is a good one, I’m glad Deb finally found out about Dexter’s alternative way of justice as it had to occur at some point because of the situation it will create.

In the books Deb knows from the end of the first installment about Dexter’s hobby. This is the source of much tension and cohesion between the two because there are several occasions where Dexter is convinced Deb will blow his cover, she even hints at this herself, and there are also instances when Deb asks Dexter to help out in the Miami Metro’s investigations in his unofficial capacity. Although often uneasy, the strong bond that the two have because of this is apparent.

Although there are several unanswered questions from season six – perhaps the next most pressing one being what is the relationship between Louis the intern and Dexter – introducing this revelation into the proceedings actually blows the story wide open. This series has been critiqued for being stale and predictable in terms of its major twists. Admittedly, Deb finding out about Dexter’s double life isn’t necessarily a revelation on the scale of season four’s knockout ending, but hopefully the consequences of it will take seasons seven and eight beyond anything we have seen on television and really surprise us again.

Honorable Mentions:

“Seeing Red”, 1.10

The first season of Dexter was a huge ratings success and although the first season’s ratings were highest for the pilot, I’m pretty sure Michael C. Hall himself heard the collective roar of cheers and applause from viewers when Dexter finally hit Rita’s abusive addict of an ex-husband, Paul, hard – with a frying pan. And do you remember the look on Dexter’s face after Paul went down for the count? Hilarious! But also telling – it was as though Dexter had surprised himself. This was an earnest moment for Dex, one of impulse fueled by sincere rage and frustration born from his genuine love for Rita and her kids. Most heavily pronounced in the first season, Dexter continuously insisted that he had no emotions, that he was incapable of having them. What’s so alluring about Dexter, however, is that he isn’t a sociopath and he clearly does feel emotion, and quite strongly at that. Watching that realization grow in Dex has been arguably the most rewarding aspect of the series. That’s why when we watched Dexter, a character who plans and calculates his every word and facial expression with the ulterior motive of attempting to feign humanity, experience a wholly unplanned and uncalculated move with such profound repercussions, it was so rewarding for the audience and such a huge step forward for the character. Plus Paul was a total asshole.

And on top of the frying pan heard ‘round the world, we watched Dexter experience a rare moment of vulnerability, much like his mini panic attack in “Shrink Wrap”, when he walked into the blood soaked hotel room his brother Brian had arranged. Seeing a serial killer, and such a uniquely human one as Dexter, black out and subsequently recoil at even the mention of what he had seen – a whole lot of blood – was fascinating and pulled audiences closer into the psychological pathos of the character.

“That Night, a Forest Grew”, 2.7

Two words – head-butt. No, I’m not referring to Beavis’ life partner; I’m talking about one of the coolest moments Dexter has ever orchestrated. Back in season two when not only “rock star” Special Agent Frank Lundy and the feds but also ex-Black Ops agent Detective Doakes were on Dexter’s trail, Dex took some proactive measures to get Doakes off his back and he did so by finally retaliating to Doakes’ constant and consistent antagonism by head-butting him – and with his hands in his pockets while he did so – how much cooler can you get? The move worked out just as Dexter had planned it – almost. The ploy did get Doakes suspended, but it also emblazoned in him the determination to reveal the truth about Dexter, the same determination that landed him in a cage in a cabin in the Everglades. This is similar to when Dex nailed Paul with the frying pan in that Dexter took action to remove a problematic element from his life, however, in this case it wasn’t a sudden burst of spontaneity – it was planned. It demonstrated Dexter’s sense of morality and pragmatism. He refused to simply kill Doakes – though a pain in the ass, Dexter ultimately concludes he is a good man and therefore safe from his blades – but still operated outside of conventional means in the attempt to neutralize the threat. If only that same clever resourcefulness lasted beyond the second season.

So that’s it. Do you guys agree with our choices? What other moments or episodes deserve to make the cut?