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Dexter's fifth season premieres tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on Showtime.

Even as it enters its fifth season with an extensive amount of critical praise and three straight best drama series nominations at the Emmys (as well as two Emmy wins for its last season), there's sometimes a sense that Dexter has never been as good as it should be. The show certainly has a good sense of plotting. Even its weakest season - the third - featured a well-drawn plot that ever-so-slowly ensnared its central character until he had no choice but to eliminate his new best friend. No one doubts the lead performance either. Michael C. Hall sells even the weakest stuff that he's handed to play, and he always makes whatever is tossed at him believable. Dexter Morgan is a great character played by a great actor, and even when the show burdens him with way, way too much subtext-ruining narration, Hall figures out a way to sell it.


But there's no other drama on TV this good that has an ensemble cast this weak. It's not even that the actors playing the supporting characters are bad, per se; it's that the series has to keep giving them storylines just so Hall isn't constantly on screen, and the writers clearly have less interest in the old-fashioned police work these characters perform when they could be off watching Dexter kill people. (The one supporting character that's been nicely fleshed out over all four seasons is Dexter's sister, Deb, who has become a compelling character in her own right, though it took a while.) There's also the constant danger of the series becoming what it's sold as. The ubiquitous billboards and posters for Dexter hanging in most major metropolitan areas as prepared by the Showtime marketing department tend to oversell the show's cheekiness, as if to say, "Oh, shit, you guys! This guy is a SERIAL KILLER! He kills OTHER SERIAL KILLERS! That makes him … wait for it … A CUT ABOVE!"

This would be fine if it were confined to the ads, but in the show's last two seasons, there's been a gradual drift from the complicated moral calculus of seasons one and two and toward a kind of reading of Dexter as an all-purpose friendly superhero type. The first half of season four was frequently bogged down by this sort of thing, where Dexter had to put up with living in suburbia, and the audience was supposed to laugh at how AWKWARD it all was. He's a KILLER! How can he deal with TALKING TO THE NEIGHBORS?! In the first two seasons, Dexter was a man doing an often terrible job of blending into society, struggling to restrain a demon that kept taking hold of him and needing to be sated. In the third and fourth seasons, he was a goofy suburban dad who slotted killing in between changing diapers and attending marriage counseling.

The second half of season four, however, showed a promising direction for the show to head (even if it only headed in that direction in fits and starts): It shifted to an addiction narrative and so subtly that a lot of critics (including this one) didn't even notice. Dexter killed so rarely that he started to get sloppy, started to let himself be affected by the guidance of the Trinity killer. The season ended apocalyptically, with Dexter finally dispatching Trinity but losing his wife to Trinity's knife in the process. The idea that karma could smack Dexter around had been lurking in the background of the series since its inception, but the producers had chosen to play the card so rarely that the finale of season four offered a pulse-quickening sense of sick fascination. Just how far were the writers going to push Dexter in service of a woman he originally started dating to put up appearances?


Without spoiling, it's a pleasure to say that the answer - at least in tonight's premiere - is pretty damn far. This is a wonderfully dark episode of television, maybe the best start to a season of Dexter since the pilot. If it sometimes seemed as though the show forgot the element of Dexter having to work to blend in with others, it returns with a vengeance here. The episode picks up in the immediate aftermath of Dexter discovering Rita's body, and as he crouches in the grass outside, clutching his baby to his chest, he utters the words, "It was me" to the police officers who respond. He means, as his inner monologue reminds, that if he had just killed Trinity the second he met the guy, Rita would still be alive. He also means that if he hadn't started dating Rita, she'd still be alive. And he also means that if he weren't alive, there would be fewer people to pull into his toxic orbit. To the episode's credit, it examines all three of these ideas with the gravity they deserve.

None of this would work without Hall, who gives what might be his best performance in the series here. He vacillates wildly between the trying-too-hard-to-fit-in Dexter of the first season, the smoothly confident Dexter of the second season, and the man keeping up appearances of the other two seasons, sometimes all within the same scene. There's a scene late in the episode where he finally lets everything that's happened wash over him, and it's some incredible acting, as raw and unpolished as Dexter's sociopathic nature will allow him to be. The acting (outside of the scene just mentioned) is rather minimalist by TV standards, but what Hall is doing throughout is truly impressive. He still doesn't have an Emmy for this role, and the premiere is a good argument that he very much deserves one.

Fans of Dexter, who never much liked Rita, may find the episode slow-moving, since it devotes so much time to dealing with the feelings stirred up by her death on the part of all of the characters (up to and including people who probably don't deserve much screen time to express those feelings, like Angel). This is probably necessary, though. If the show just jumped to Dexter blithely sliding back into bachelorhood again, it would be a cheat. This is going to be a difficult process. For as much as fans may not have liked the Rita character, she was the closest thing Dexter had to a real-life safety net. (And for bonus points, the show figures out a way to bring back the more appealing and damaged Rita of the early seasons - from before she was constantly calling Dexter to ask him to pick up the baby's ear medicine or whatever - via a few cleverly deployed flashbacks.) Now, he's reeling, and the episode finds so many interesting ways to express that - including a blackly comic scene where he tells his stepkids and Rita's parents about her death while looking very ridiculous indeed - that it puts the audience acutely in his head space.


If there's a problem with the episode, it's the fact that the show continues to feel the need to underline absolutely everything that happens by having Dexter comment on exactly what the audience should be thinking in voiceover or having Harry spell it all out for everyone playing along at home. At this point, Dexter's been on the air for five seasons. The title character is well-known to even casual fans of the show, and when he struggles to do something that most people would have an easy time with, the show doesn't need to drop in Hall intoning about how isolated and apart from the world he feels because the audience has filled in that blank already.

But that's a minor failure of nerve in a season premiere that's nicely dark and gutsy. There's no real sense of where Dexter goes from here - unlike in the other seasons, the show doesn't introduce a major new arc or villain (outside of the FBI's obvious interest in the statement, "It was me") - but as a season premiere, this works fantastically. Dealing with a character's death, particularly when that character had worn out his or her welcome, can be a tricky proposition for a long-running show, but Dexter finds a way to do it that suggests the darkness just over the horizon and that there will be no redemption for this man. For as goofy as the show can play him, it hasn't forgotten that he's a force of pure destruction, and that's a relief.