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Jeff Simon: The end for 'Dexter' comes during a period of constant reminders of our common fate

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#45. Dexter (2006–2013) (copy)

Michael C . Hall in "Dexter."

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Dexter Morgan is dead. Truly and thoroughly dead.

He was shot to death by his son Harrison on Sunday's finale of Showtime's ratings bell ringer "Dexter: New Blood," the sequel to the original series that ended for the first time in 2013 after seven years.

Harrison's shot couldn't really miss. He wasn't standing far from his father holding the rifle his father had given him in an earlier episode.

Dexter reminded him to click off the safety before trying to pull the trigger. Just to make sure the job got done, the father pointed to a spot a couple of inches from his solar plexus where the bullet would do its work perfectly.

That reminder to click off the safety was the pièce de résistance. It was an unusually deft touch from the credited writers and writer-showrunner Clyde Phillips.

In an interview, Phillips has wittily referred to Harrison's use of the gift rifle as "Chekhov's Rifle" in tribute to the narrative law of Anton Chekhov sometimes quoted thus: "If in the first act you have a rifle on the wall, in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."

Dexter, at long last, had to die. I was among those who were appalled the first time around for the series when the "finale" was so drenched in ambiguity and ambivalence that you knew everyone was cynically hedging their bets in case they wanted to bring it back and squeeze some more juice from the lemon.

Which, of course, Showtime did with considerable success and a hefty weekly audience for the past 10 weeks.

There was, on its first incarnation on the network, an ideal candidate to send serial killer Dexter Morgan into eternity. Superb actress Charlotte Rampling had been hired to play the psychiatrist who convinced Dexter's father (James Remar) that his homicidal son needed to channel his murderous impulses into a socially useful pastime. And so, Dexter, as an adult, was encouraged to let loose what he called his "dark passenger" only when a suitable serial-killing target could be found. That way, the new death would serve society.

As such, that psychiatrist was, in essence, the spiritual "mother" of Dexter the serial killer of other serial killers. She would have been perfect to send Dexter into the great beyond somehow.

It was the clever premise of Jeff Lindsay's novels that "Dexter" was a serial-killing cleanup man ridding the world of other serial killers. On TV that made for some wonderful guest-starring actors in bad guy roles – John Lithgow, for instance.

It's a nifty pulp premise: the killer who only kills those who deserve to die. It was the cunning of "Dexter: New Blood" that audiences finally and utterly agreed Dexter HAD to die when he killed his son's innocent wrestling coach just to escape from jail.

That's because that coach's day job was to be the No. 2 cop in the small fictional Adirondack town of Iron City.

I'm going into plot detail here to emphasize how fitting and proper everything was this time around compared to the botch of in the finale of the first. Dexter was still a serial killer, a man whose "dark passenger" was bound sooner or later to get off at the wrong stop and let injustice loose upon the world.

As I watched the finale of "Dexter" this time with so much approval of its grace and cunning, it occurred to me how strange it is how humans are so devoted to the ineluctable fact of all life – as David Shields put it in his wonderful book title "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead."

It's blandly known as "our common fate." It's the way ALL our stories end in reality. Doing everything as the writers of "Dexter" did the first time around was a violation of the whole point of telling the story in the first place.

It's a byproduct of this gruesome pandemic period that we are reminded of it in reality daily. Those of us who are no longer middle-aged – much less young –have never seen newspaper death pages so populous.

We feast on death as entertainment as if we're going to live forever. But in life, we're in constant sorrow over our basic frailty: our mortality.

That's why the past two weeks gave pause to so many people I know. Celebrity deaths, in the past month, seemed ubiquitous: Betty White, Peter Bogdanovich, Sidney Poitier, even Bob Saget, a seemingly lesser figure who, it turned out, was almost universally beloved by his peers. (Jimmy Kimmel couldn't talk about his death on the air without tears.)

Both White and Poitier were in their 90s. Both had lived uncommonly acclaimed lives. Both were loved for decades by millions of people they never met.

Bogdanovich was 82. His, too, was an almost unfathomably rich life, full of profundity, scholarship, wit, charm, brilliance and calamity. Very few human beings ever live lives so full of hosannas and failures as Bogdanovich.

The death, at 94, of Poitier I must confess struck me in a personal way despite his incredibly long and richly accomplished and honored life. I was lucky enough 20 years ago to spend 50 minutes with him on the phone, prior to his coming to Buffalo in UB's "Distinguished Speakers Series" as a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

There was so much about the pioneering Black movie star I wanted to know. But so intimate were so many of those subjects that the questions were, to put it mildly, very tricky to ask.

I've seldom been proud of myself after a celebrity interview. That's not the job. The job is to ask questions and to get answers.

But for me, one question overrode all others: So much of Poitier's life had been given over to what he termed his "responsibility" to Black America as the first Black movie star, that I wondered if being a true giant meant that there was little room for play and experimentation.

Even more than that, I wanted to know if his six daughters growing up ever felt that it was onerous being "Sidney Poitier's kids." Did their father ever worry about that?

So I asked him these questions as gingerly as I could, knowing full well they were intrusive. The longest pause I've ever had in a telephone interview alerted me after the first question about himself to be very careful indeed about the one about his kids.

The answers he finally gave me were nonanswers. But they spoke volumes.

I understood what he was telling me: "I'm in my 70s now kid. I've been asked about my insistence on positive films and imagery for decades. I have no interest in being personally revealing about it to anyone. Ever."

I was pleased to have tried to ask anyway.

When the piece went to print – and was then archived – my comeuppance arrived. The most galling glitch I've ever had in a piece was the misidentification in the public version of the actor whom Poitier counter-slapped in "In the Head of the Night" after he had slapped Poitier first. That actor was Larry Gates.

Journalists may try to be perfect, just like human beings would prefer to live forever. But with longevity, you learn conclusively what's just not possible.

What Poitier's death revealed to me was something I'd never thought of before: the guts and smarts of director Norman Jewison, the director of the Oscar-winning "In the Heat of the Night."

Gates, the actor he chose to get counter-slapped by Poitier (in a scene the actor insisted on), was a veteran character actor so often seen by people on TV and films in very sympathetic, even sage and kindly roles.

Jewison could so easily have made Poitier's counter-slap land on the face of a character actor usually renowned for villainy.

But Jewison chose Gates. It made what Poitier did as a matter of racial pride that much more powerful.

In death, as in his life, there was always something new Sidney Poitier could teach us.


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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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