At Showtime’s presentation at this summer’s TCA Press Tour, president David Nevins boasted “We hook people. If they fall in love with something, they know it’s going to be back next season.” Those words would be a soothing balm coming from the head of a broadcast network, for fans always on tenterhooks to see whether beloved bubble shows like Community and Fringe will have their executions stayed. It’s a little more troubling for Nevins to have said it, since Showtime has hewed to HBO’s model of picking up high-concept, serialized shows that have rigid, unavoidable narrative limitations. In case anyone wondered whether this would be the final season of Dexter, Nevins made the answer clear. Until we collectively muster the strength to turn away, it’s onward and upward for Miami’s top vigilante.
All that said, there are just as many reasons to be optimistic about this season of Dexter as there are reasons to jump ship. Those who were left wanting after the terribly uneven fifth season (I count myself in that group) might be relieved to know that last season’s showrunner Chip Johannesen has been replaced by Scott Buck, who has written for the show since its second season. And while it was frustrating to watch last season’s finale scramble to reestablish the show’s status quo, with Rita and Lumen out of the picture, there’s no complicated romantic entanglement or family life to get in Dexter’s way this season. There’s no reason for him not to be the emotionless reaper he was in season one, and that’s a good thing. The temptation for showrunners past to develop Dexter’s character beyond his compulsive need to kill is an understandable one, but it’s no coincidence that the seasons in which Dexter tries to be a normal person, rather than pretend to be one, are among the show’s weakest. If the destination is a newly unencumbered, back-to-basics Dexter, I can be forgiving of how bumpy the ride was.
What’s tempering my optimism is this season’s religious themes, which play heavily into this premiere, “Those Kinds Of Things.” Because let’s be honest, how many shows that started out without an overtly spiritual element got better once spirituality was introduced? (That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m seriously asking because I can’t think of any.) It makes perfect sense for a season of Dexter to use the idea of a higher power as a deep theme, as Dexter has always struggled to indulge his compulsion while maintaining some kind of consistent moral code. But beyond the inherent trickiness of spiritual themes, which are tough to execute without being facile, didactic, or condescending, having Dexter explore his feelings about a higher power gets him further away from the character we first met, just in a different way. In its early going, Dexter’s fatal flaw was how repetitive it became. Dexter meets someone with whom he can finally reveal his true self, but because they don’t share his discipline and his scruples, they have to be put down. It’ll be nice to divert from that course, and “Those Kinds Of Things” suggests that departure is coming this season.
But every season ends with Dexter coming to terms, yet again, with who he is and what he does. It is what it is, and as much drama as was created by his marriage to Rita, Dexter’s true spouse is his Dark Passenger. He’s stuck with it, and he accepts the pros and cons of this lifelong relationship and operates within them much in the same way long-married spouses do. The cycle has repeated enough times now that it just doesn’t make any sense for Dexter to still be grappling with his Dark Passenger. Granted, there’s little Harrison to think about, as he had the same bloody baptism his father did, and Dex wants to make sure his son isn’t taking after him. But does Dexter have to dissect his own feelings on spirituality in order to inculcate Harrison with a sense of morality? I’d argue no, and I’d argue that Dexter wouldn’t see any more value in exploring those ideas in earnest than he would see value in trying to have fun at a party rather than do his heavily practiced imitations of normal human behavior. So in spite of the possibilities created by a focused Dexter without a romantic relationship to worry about, there are still basic character questions that “Those Kinds Of Things” doesn’t manage to clarify. Has Dexter learned to accept who he is or not? And if not, how much of his struggle is rooted in not wanting to get caught and how much comes from a genuine desire to be more like the people around him? I don’t feel like we’re any closer to definitive answers to those questions than we were in season one.
These problems are not ones that any showrunner could fix without knowing where the story’s end point is, and as long as the ratings secure subsequent seasons, the Dexter Morgan character will be tweaked to ensure the longevity of the show at the expense of its quality. Creating a compelling season of Dexter now is really about coming up with a big bad creepy and interesting enough to distract from everything going on around it, which is why John Lithgow was able to singlehandedly rescue the uneven fourth season. It’s obviously too soon to tell whether Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks will be able to pull off the same feat, but their introduction and first murder were bizarre and unsettling enough to intrigue me, so that’s a good place to start.
Beyond introducing those characters, “Those Kinds Of Things” wasn’t much of an episode. The opening scene was terrific, though it was a bit disappointing to see that it wasn’t legitimate in medias res, just the double execution of a pair of organ harvesting EMTs to establish that for Dexter, it’s back to business as usual. He’s back in the bachelor pad, which is now massive since he’s purchased the apartment next to his. (And all this time, I thought people didn’t get into blood spatter analysis for the money.) Meanwhile, Harrison is ready for preschool, Quinn and Deb are still going strong and have settled into an irritating, snippy rhythm, LaGuerta and Batista have mercifully divorced, and both are getting major promotions.
Naturally, Dexter had a bad guy to dispatch, a former classmate who faked his wife’s suicide. It’s one of the show’s sloppier bad-guy-of-the-week stories. Dexter’s always in the position of having to act bizarrely to obtain the proof of guilt he requires to kill his targets. But seriously, stabbing his mark with a class ring to obtain a blood sample? Before later getting it by elbowing the guy in the nose during a flag football game? Then luring him to the kill room using the phone of an eager hottie who just so happens to want to give Dexter a blow job in an empty classroom? A blowjob during which she finds it necessary to take her clothes off? There’s only so much I can abide. This is to say nothing of the fact that at this point, I have very little patience for the episodic stories in which Dexter, in the course of his daily life, just happens to keep stumbling over unpunished murderers. This season, I want to see Dexter back on the hunt, and I want him to be totally unconflicted about it. Is that so much to ask?
- Apologies to anyone who thought the huge holes in the resolution of Quinn and Liddy’s investigation into Dexter’s nighttime activities might be revisited this season. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
- Dexter looked positively giddy while bagging those snakes. Do none of his coworkers find that odd?
- With each passing season, the necessity of Harry becomes more inscrutable. Is the audience Dexter’s confidante or is Harry? Is Harry just a way to shoehorn as much of Dexter’s inner monologue into an episode as possible without overusing the voiceover?
- The creepy nanny from last season has been replaced with Batista’s sister, for whatever reason.
- It’s Brea Grant from Heroes! As Masuka’s intern, no less. This should be rich.
- “I have no idea what Hammertime is. Or how it differs from regular time.” Dexter’s awkward dancing was kind of adorable.
- I’m excited to be recapping this season of Dexter, but fair warning: If the scene between Batista and his sister in which she alludes to his suspicious behavior means Batista is picking up the coworker-who-is-suspicious-of-Dexter torch, I’m going to fill a bucket with water and drown myself in it.