Early in this, the final season of “Dexter,” Debra Morgan hits rock bottom. She’s waiting alone in the interrogation room of the Miami Metro Homicide unit she once led; wasted and irreparably damaged, she’s about to make a shocking confession. When her adopted brother, Dexter (Michael C. Hall), comes to save her she scrambles into a corner like a lion in a cage—terrified but ready to pounce. He is the last person she wants to see, the reason she’s there in the first place, and the violent interaction that ensues illustrates how far Deb has fallen in eight seasons—and the lengths to which Jennifer Carpenter has gone to take her there.
Virtually unknown before her breakout performance in 2005’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” Carpenter brings an innate brashness and fearless physicality to Deb. With her long limbs and sideways smirk, the character felt fully realized from the outset—she is clumsy, tomboyish, and vulgar, a consistent source of comic relief. During the course of the show she’s risen from rookie to detective to lieutenant and become stronger and more competent along the way. She is stubborn yet vulnerable, tough yet warm and unfailingly loyal, to her own detriment.
From the beginning we knew Deb could be an eventual antagonist, but Carpenter is so jarringly raw that she’s proved to be an ideal foil for Hall’s eerily composed killer. After seven seasons of formidable Big Bads, she’s now the wild card—driving much of the plot, diverting our interest, and dividing our allegiances.
An early defining moment for Deb is in the series’ magnificent fourth season. In “Dirty Harry,” Deb returns with Dexter to the parking lot where her lover was fatally shot. Gasping for breath, her voice taut with grief, she insists she’s the root of all the suffering she’s endured throughout her life. “I’m what’s wrong. I’m broken,” Carpenter sobs, her voice breaking down in a descent into anguish that she won’t escape for the remainder of the series.
As Deb is driven to depravation by Dexter’s misdeeds, Carpenter unfurls layers of depth and nuance previously unexplored. At the end of Season 6, Deb finally catches her brother in the act, propelling them down a path of mutual destruction and paving the way for Carpenter to sink her teeth into her best material yet.
“Dexter” ’s current season features a Deb freed from the constraints of police decorum, and as she descends into a “shitty fucking hell,” Carpenter descends with her, becoming a force to be reckoned with and something Dexter can’t control. When Dexter warns Deb that her life is in danger, Carpenter lunges at him. “I don’t fucking care!” she roars as serial killer Dexter recoils.
In Season 1’s “Born Free,” Dexter says, “I’ve lived in darkness a long time. Over the years my eyes adjusted, until the dark became my world and I could see.” Debra has now been thrust into the darkness, and in that interrogation room, she’s struggling to adjust. Will she pull herself out or fall further? We root for her to break free from the loyalty that binds her to her brother’s fate, whatever that may be, but at the same time we revel in the depths the character plunges to because Carpenter’s performance is so deliciously compelling.
Mia Gomez is a senior staff member of the Visitors Services Department at the Paley Center for Media.