Michael C. Hall returns as Showtime’s well-meaning serial killer as showrunner Clyde Phillips tries to rework (and prolong) an inadequate ending.
When “Dexter” premiered in 2006, audiences were just about to fall in love with anti-heroes. Tony Soprano released hits, and Dr. Gregory House abused his medication, but Don Draper, Walter White, and many more of the TV’s thorny bad boys had not yet made their mark. Dexter Morgan, played with a eerie sobriety and flashy humor by Michael C. Hall, fit right in, like a serial killer who only kills criminals. Spurred on by his “dark passages,” Dexter spent his nights pursuing, studying, and cutting his destructive prey, but even his daily work (as a blood syringe analyst for Miami PD) saw him obsessed with diabolical deeds and body fluids.
And it’s just that: “Dexter” may have become prominent under the auspices of television’s (second) golden age, but that, it leaned on far more than its thematic dissection of man vs. man. monster, nature vs. nutrition, was shocking brutality. The early days of the anti-heroes coincided with the embrace of mature content by the medium; on premium cable (then on base cable and fast enough via streaming), there were swear words, sex scenes and lots of violence, all of which had previously been reserved for the movies. Previously released dramas such as “The X-Files”, which often had content warnings, helped create demand for weekly opportunities at home for risky entertainment (along with providing TV’s rating system), but in a good decade it often felt like shows from HBO and Showtime was built around how much sex, violence and gangs they could offer.
The best of these programs evolved beyond their tantalizing sticks, and “Dexter” grew in a row – before succumbing to little more than bloodlust after four-ish seasons. Even a selective screening reveals so many of today’s TV red flags, from the series’ voiceover crutch to its unsettling treatment of women. (Even Deb, Dexter’s grim-mouthed sister played by Jennifer Carpenter as the show’s second lead, got a tunnel-vision development cycle in which she fell in love with a new guy every season until the writers had no one to mate her with other than Dexter himself.) Whatever you thought of the previous seasons, the ending was almost universally reviled. Here was a story about a serial killer who barely escaped being caught year after year who saw a loved one after a loved one die because (somehow) because of his murderous hobby, and yet there was no closure in Dexter’s miraculous escape from a hurricane, nor a satisfactory answer to whether his life had hitherto been lived for any purpose. Man or monster? Born to kill, or bred into it by a father who pretends help? We were not much closer to understanding what really drives Dexter at the end of season 8, as we were when he first ominously toned down, “Tonight is tonight.”
Seacia Pavao / Showtime
Enter “Dexter: New Blood.” Reunited with Clyde Phillips, showrunner of seasons 1-4, Hall’s banished title character has been revived for an “event” season, just over eight years after the original finale. With four of the 10 episodes made available for review, it’s hard to say how much closure awaits returning fans. (Both Phillips and Hall have declined to say whether the series actually ends with “New Blood.”) To even describe these initial contributions as promising risks falling for the same bet that made so many viewers furious last time. But a few things are clear: “Dexter” is still “Dexter,” and Dexter is still Dexter. Despite all that has changed in the last decade, Showtime’s crime drama – and its conflict-ridden killer – remains the same.
At least in their core. On the surface, there are lots of changes. After leaving his old life in Miami, Dexter is now at the opposite end of the US climate spectrum, and here he is reintroduced breathing and breathing through a light dusty shot of snow, rifle in hand, Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” blaring to the audience advantage. But when our Carhartt-clad hunter approaches his target (a white buck instead of a human), he cannot press the trigger. Not only that, but the audience can not hear why. Continuing the trend that was so briefly established in the (former) league final, Dexter is a blank slate; a shell of his former self, emptied out of the tragedies he unleashed. The voice in his head has been silenced, because if he listened to it, he could kill again, thus endangering anyone he cared about and who was still breathing.
But Dexter is Dexter (and “Dexter” is “Dexter” – sorry, I’m stopping now), he has to be honest with anyone about his murderous thoughts, and that’s not the dear old father’s leading ghost. So who can he talk to? The options remain slim. Dexter has established a nice little life for himself in Iron Lake, New York, a fictional little town upstate where everyone knows his (fake) name – James “Jimmy” Lindsay – and he knows everyone theirs. “Jimmy” dates the police chief, Angela Bishop (Julia Jones), and works at Fred’s Fish and Game as a sales clerk. While his relationship keeps him informed about police business, he is no longer a forensic technician; they do not even know that this was what he used to do, as it would bring too many questions about a former Dexter hideout for everyone.
Yet, like all the corpses at the bottom of Bay Harbor, the past will not remain buried. Dexter’s son Harrison (now played by Jack Alcott), who we last saw in an Argentine café being cared for by Dexter’s last girlfriend Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski), reappears in Iron Lake, looking for a father he long thought dead. Deb also reappears, though all I can say about the actually dead Morgan sibling is that her role here is a “new iteration.” Balancing his repressed urges and plan to remain hidden with budding threats and a desire to be a good father proves difficult for Dexter, and soon his isolated life is flooded with complications.
Seacia Pavao / Showtime
Many of the subsequent story beats will feel familiar, even soothing. It’s still captivating to see Dexter chatter (pretty knowledgeable) to cover his tracks. (The intellectual understanding which he ought to being caught, refusing to express our emotional desire for him to be free, god bless it.) Though a gloomy depression hovers over his self-exiled state, Phillips finds a few whims for Dexter’s dark humor. (“New Blood” could use more, but there is reason to believe they are coming.) And Hall remains a talented two-face who is able to convey a separation from other people, even when Dexter “seems like about “he enjoys their company, just as he is able to distort his character from a man crushed by his own urges, to a monster who is only alive when he succumbs to them.
Other characteristics are not so welcome. Side figures are sparsely sketched. Nodding to local customs and indigenous peoples seems superficial so far. The show’s contempt for journalists is alive and well and once again indulges in the ugly suit of a female reporter sleeping her way to a good story. And “Dexter: New Blood” goes out of its way to become yet another Dead Girl Show, introducing a mysterious side plot about a local kidnapper who enjoys killing wayward women. Almost all of these red flags may be reined in (to varying degrees) in the back half of the season, but doesn’t that level of unfounded hope remind you too? Isn’t it the same misplaced belief that made so many people see “Dexter” to the last? Should audiences really reinvest in this character after nearly a decade of much-needed distancing?
Just as Dexter is lured back to his dark passages, there are temptations. The father / son story shows an interest in exploring Dexter’s natural vs. learned duality with a seriousness that has not been seen since the first few seasons. Could Harrison keep the answers Dexter has been searching for all his life? Can he save his son and in return himself? Whether “New Blood” answers these questions or not, only you can see if the query is a draw enough. “Dexter” is still “Dexter.” Let your conscience be your guide.
Grade: C +
“Dexter: New Blood” premieres Sunday, November 7 at. 21.00 ET on Showtime.