NEW YORK - Dexter Morgan's life seemed well-ordered at first glance, including the serial killer thing. That turned out to be unsustainable.
As "Dexter" reaches its finale, to air on Showtime Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern, the character portrayed by actor Michael C. Hall is no longer strictly ruled by the code set down by his adoptive father upon noticing his son craved killing. Dexter was told only to murder people who are proven killers themselves and likely to kill again, and to thoroughly cover his tracks. The narrative device made it possible for viewers to tolerate, even like, someone who did reprehensible things.
"He's so far from anything I experienced him to be at the beginning," Hall said over lunch, a few weeks after filming the 96th and final episode of the series that began in 2006.
"He's the same character, but he's in many ways a different person," Hall said. "He had successfully compartmentalized efficient killing and convinced himself that he is, in fact, incapable of authentic human emotion when we first met him. But that all falls apart, slowly but surely."
Without the writers providing challenges, "Dexter" ran the risk of becoming an unimaginative murder-of-the-week procedural. Dexter's boundaries were most severely tested at the end of the fourth season when his wife, Rita, was killed and in season six when his half-sister, Debra (real life ex-wife Jennifer Carpenter), saw him knifing someone in the chest.
"I've always thought that it was more interesting to challenge the audience's affection for the character and to move him into choppy waters," Hall said.
He can appreciate people who say they like his work in "Dexter." People who say they like Dexter is something else entirely, although Hall has his theories about those fans.
"We live in a world where we have an increasing sense that we're not in control ... and Dexter, in his micro way, controls his universe and that is very appealing to some people," he said. "We all have a sense of injustice in the world, and Dexter is certainly exacting some form of justice within the confines of his own."
Of course, he said, "maybe it's not that deep. Maybe people have murderous impulses they don't act upon and enjoy watching somebody who gets away with it."
"Dexter" is going out strong. Ratings are higher during the current eighth and last season than they've ever been. That's a familiar pattern for many critically-acclaimed cable series that see their audiences grow as new fans discover the stories and binge on them while the show is on hiatus.
The series was pivotal to Showtime's development, said Matthew Blank, the network's chief executive. "It really felt like this is what Showtime should be," he said. "Homeland" and "Ray Donovan" may not have existed without its example.
Showtime will look for ways to keep the character alive even after "Dexter" ends, Blank said. He wasn't clear on how that would happen.
Hall, 42, is measured in how he makes sure to say nothing revealing in advance about the finale ("Some people will be happy with it, some people will be troubled by it," he said. "Perhaps some people will be a combination of those things.")
He will miss certain things about playing Dexter. The character was decisive and didn't hesitate to take action, even at times of extreme stress and even when that action was morally questionable. He's looking forward to portraying people whose emotions are not stunted or buried.
Extreme emotional control was similarly a hallmark of David Fisher, the sexually conflicted funeral director that Hall played in the early 2000s on HBO's "Six Feet Under."
That's two distinctive, Emmy-nominated roles in two critically and commercially successful series. Hall understands that's unusual; many actors would be satisfied with one even if they have to slog through their share of failures.
Many fellow actors and friends told Hall he was making a mistake when he took the role of Dexter. A show about a serial killer? Who'd want to watch that?
"I've certainly had the thought that I should quit while I was well ahead," he said. "When `Six Feet Under' ended, I imagined I would never do another television series, just because I thought it would be impossible that I would be so lucky that I would find something as successful. I've learned never to say never."
Projects that aren't open-ended like a TV series are interesting to him now. He was very active onstage before joining "Six Feet Under." He's filmed roles in two movies that aren't big stretches from past characters: a manipulative, gay janitor who gets murdered in "Kill Your Darlings" and a man who shoots and kills an intruder in "Cold in July."
Hall jokes that he can't seem to get away from dead bodies, professionally speaking.
"I don't think I'm anybody's first thought when it comes to romantic comedy," he said. "That might be a door I'll have to do some kicking to break down."