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Out of the Woods, Back Into the Kill Room

On Sunday, ‘Dexter: New Blood’ will bring back one of the primary antiheroes of mid-aughts television. But can it erase the bad taste left by the end of the original series?

Harrison Freeman

Dexter Morgan is stalking his prey. With a rifle slung over his shoulder, he’s barreling through a wintry wilderness, following a trail that leads him to it: a majestic white buck standing amid a sea of trees, like something out of a fable. Dexter steadies the rifle in his hand, centering the animal in its scope and gently pulling his finger against the trigger. We’ve seen this story play out many times—though, notably, his victims are typically people strapped down to a table and surrounded by plastic in a meticulously designed kill room.

This time, however, Dexter eases his finger off of the trigger and collapses to his knees in a moment of catharsis. Dexter Morgan is no longer a killer. Returning to his remote log cabin where he tends to goats, chickens, and pigs, Dexter crosses another day off his calendar with a red sharpie. It’s been nearly a decade since he’s taken a life. He’s receded into a solitary existence, and also a quiet one: Even the character’s signature voice-over is nowhere to be heard, as if listening to it could tempt him to break his streak.

But as any viewer going into Showtime’s new limited series, Dexter: New Blood, is well aware, the abstinence won’t be permanent. The so-called Dark Passenger can be kept at bay for only so long, and at some point, the Dexter of old will emerge and plunge a knife through the heart of someone deemed deserving of punishment by his twisted moral code. But just because Dexter will return to familiar habits doesn’t mean that the series will repeat itself. New Blood is informed by the past—from Dexter’s previous showdowns with serial killers to his personal relationships to his infamous lumberjack career pivot—but won’t be wholly defined by it.

“We want everything that we see, every frame that we offer the audience, to be different from the previous show,” New Blood showrunner Clyde Phillips says. “This is not Dexter Season 9.”

Prestige television in the 2000s was defined by male antiheroes. The medium was driven by complicated protagonists whose actions were morally reprehensible and yet impossible to look away from—and harder still to root against. During this golden age of antiheroes, HBO was led by Tony Soprano and Omar Little, while AMC had Don Draper and Walter White. As for Showtime, it had Dexter Morgan.

By day, Dexter, played by Michael C. Hall, worked as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department; by night, he tracked down criminals who’d slipped through the cracks of the justice system. The character was, in essence, a vigilante serial killer, adhering to a code drilled into him by Harry Morgan, a former detective who adopted Dexter after he was found in a shipping container sitting in a pool of his mother’s blood. (Obviously, the traumatic childhood incident left an indelible mark.) In between his many killings, Dexter maintained the cover of a regular guy, spending time with his adoptive sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz), and his bowling team. For viewers, the unique thrill of Dexter was both experiencing the show from the perspective of a serial killer and wondering how long he could get away with his double life before getting caught—by his loved ones or by the police. Each season, Dexter would go up against a new serial killer adversary—standouts included his flesh-and-blood brother Brian Moser and the terrifying Trinity Killer, played by John Lithgow—all while becoming more emotionally invested in the life he built for himself. (By the fourth season, Dexter and Rita have a son, Harrison.) And Dexter, in turn, became a hit for Showtime, which so often lived in the shadow of HBO. The series scored impressive ratings and garnered 24 Emmy nominations (and four wins) during its run.

Unfortunately, in what has become a recurring theme for Showtime, Dexter ran out of steam as it stretched across eight seasons and nearly 100 episodes, more than The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. In the face of immense churn, the series turned to predictable twists and appalling story lines, such as the brief flirtation with an incestuous relationship between Dexter and Deb. But even though Dexter had lost its fastball, nothing could have prepared viewers for its series finale—an ending so universally loathed that Game of Thrones fans should consider themselves lucky by comparison.

After being racked with guilt over discovering that her adoptive brother was a serial killer, Deb suffered complications from a routine surgery in the finale and was left in a vegetative state. Dexter then pulled the plug on Deb, and, with a devastating hurricane looming over Miami, took her corpse out on his boat and dumped it into the ocean like so many of his victims. Having realized that bad things happen to everyone around him—an epiphany, it’s worth noting, that occurs four seasons after Rita is murdered by a rival serial killer—Dexter decided to drive his boat straight into the coming storm. But while Dexter was presumed dead in Miami, the closing scene of the finale confirmed he was actually living under an assumed identity in Oregon, employed as a lumberjack. The final image of the show—a bearded, flanneled Dexter staring vacantly into the camera—has been etched into the memories of Dexter fans for years, for all the wrong reasons.

Of the finale’s many missteps, fans were especially aggrieved by the lack of resolution for Dexter’s killing spree and the unceremonious death of the show’s strongest supporting character—and one half of the most interesting (pre-incest) sibling dynamic on television. Also: the whole lumberjack thing. That actually happened. With the all-time awful ending in the books, Dexter had burned through basically all of its goodwill, and after dedicating their lives to the series for nearly a decade, the show’s cast and crew were left to survey the wreckage and decide what it all meant. “While I stand by what happened to the character and where we left it, I also completely appreciate why people would find it dissatisfying,” Hall says over a Zoom call in October. “Inasmuch as the finale of a show that people generally liked left a bad taste in their mouth, I had some equivalent bad taste in mine.”

“The viewers were incredibly loyal and incredibly vocal,” Carpenter says. “It broke my heart that people weren’t pleased.”

Seacia Pavao/SHOWTIME

Phillips, who served as Dexter’s showrunner for the first four seasons before stepping away from the series, naturally has a less charitable view of the ending. “I thought that the finale was disappointing,” he says bluntly. “The team had broken the code that we had so assiduously adhered to, and I think that the viewers were fed up and were hoping for something better at the end. And instead they were shown something that did not give credit to the people who had stuck with the show for eight years. It wasn’t visceral, it wasn’t born of the show. It felt a little bit like a cheat.”

Yet despite the negativity around Dexter’s finale, the series was still considered the crown jewel of Showtime’s original programming. As the network’s CEO David Nevins told The Hollywood Reporter in 2013: “Dexter is to Showtime what Spider-Man is to Sony or Batman is to Warner Bros., so I think it’s going to be important for us to keep it alive.” But as the years passed following the finale, discussions of a Dexter revival would mostly resurface in the context of Hall promoting other projects and inevitably being asked about it.

The prospect of Dexter’s return was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a continuation of the story would allow the series to end on good terms—even the most cynical Dexter fans would have to admit that it’d be virtually impossible to outdo the sheer awfulness of Dexter Morgan: Sad Lumberjack. On the other hand, the original ending so thoroughly tarnished the show’s legacy and left such a bitter taste in the audience’s mouth that a follow-up wouldn’t receive the benefit of the doubt.

But DC is never going to just stop making Batman movies, and Showtime was never going to let Dexter become obsolete. In 2019, the network’s president of entertainment, Gary Levine, reached out to Phillips about reviving the series. As the person responsible for overseeing the strongest seasons of Dexter’s original run, Phillips’s involvement was a no-brainer. For him, the amount of time that had elapsed since the series finale was the ultimate catalyst for Dexter’s revival, creating new storytelling opportunities for the character in a television landscape that has largely moved past the antiheroes who dominated the small screen after the turn of the century. “It’s a new era, people watch television differently,” Phillips says. “I’m not saying we have our fingers on the pulse of the heartbeat of humanity, but we made every effort to make sure that the audience is going to understand the time indeed has passed. And we honor that.”

But even Phillips’s interest in returning to the world of Dexter would be of no consequence if the revival didn’t have its star on board. “The story, in this case, [was] one that was worth telling,” Hall says. “One that had a legitimately new context for the character.”

“The main reason the show came back is that Michael was ready,” Phillips says. “I went to New York, sat with Michael, had a lovely reunion, pitched him for about 45 minutes. And at the end he stood up, gave me a hug, said, ‘I love it. I’m in.’”

While the Dexter introduced in New Blood still lives in a cabin and chops wood to keep a fire going, it’s worth stressing that he is not a lumberjack. Not anymore, at least. Dexter has left the Pacific Northwest behind: By the time we catch up with the character, he’s spent the past couple of years in the fictional town of Iron Lake, New York. Here, Dexter works at the local fish and game store under the alias Jim Lindsay—a cheeky nod to Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter book series that the show was originally based on—and is dating the chief of police, Angela Bishop (Julia Jones). For Dexter, Iron Lake represents a fresh start without reminders of his past, or temptations to kill again. “It was definitely appealing for me that Dexter be in an environment that was decidedly different from where we left him,” Hall says. “Given that he has this commitment to abstinence, it would make sense that he would live in a place that didn’t trigger him.”

Helping the character keep those urges in check is Deb, who takes over the role previously embodied by Harry in the original series: a scene partner for Dexter’s internal conversations with his conscience. “I felt this wonderful sense of freedom that I didn’t really need to concentrate in a traditional way, the way that I normally would, which would be to break down the story and make sure that I knew where the main through line was going and how I could support that,” Carpenter says. “My attention was completely on Dexter. I would take the temperature on where he was emotionally, and I would either support or hinder him as I saw fit.”

Seacia Pavao/SHOWTIME

Try as Deb might, two significant events disrupt her brother’s routine in the New Blood premiere. At the store, Dexter has a run-in with an insufferable 30-something finance bro visiting Iron Lake for the holidays—the kind of person who knows that his status and wealth mean the usual rules don’t apply to him. A few interactions confirm Dexter’s suspicions that this character has some skeletons in his closet, and, in a fit of bloodlust, he sets up a makeshift kill room. “It’s been a long time,” he says to himself, returning to the familiar voice-over after drawing new blood. After nearly a decade of going clean, the serial killer formerly known as the Bay Harbor Butcher adds another victim to his tally. (If someone being murdered in the Dexter revival constitutes a spoiler, well, I don’t know what to tell you.)

The other complication to Dexter’s new life is the return of someone from his past. After noticing that he’s being spied on around town, Dexter confronts the stranger as he’s sifting through Dexter’s personal belongings. “Are you Dexter Morgan?” the teenager asks, before revealing himself as Harrison (now played by Jack Alcott). While part of Dexter is thrilled to be reunited with his son, Deb’s still nagging his conscience, reminding him that there’s a long and painful history of those closest to him getting hurt. “Both his genuine humanity and his murderousness emerge,” Hall says. “You can’t have one or the other. The fact that he’s a killer and the fact that he’s a father to a full-grown son are things that he’s suddenly contending with at the same time.”

Given how much of Dexter’s original run centered on the character’s complex relationships with family—his serial-killer brother, his affection for Deb, the devotion to Harry and his code—Phillips wanted New Blood to be predicated on fatherhood. The theme even surfaces when Dexter’s latest victim, moments before his bloody comeuppance, blames his lack of morals on bad parenting. “I’ve got my own issues with fathers and sons, and it comes up in everything I write,” Phillips says. “So I was happy to step into that and Michael embraced it right away.”

But Harrison’s return to Dexter’s life also presents an uncomfortable question: Does Harrison, like his father, carry his own Dark Passenger. After all, his childhood tragically mirrored Dexter’s: At the end of the fourth season, an infant Harrison was found lying in a pool of his mother’s blood. This question drives the interpersonal drama of New Blood, and creates an added dimension of internal conflict for Dexter. “It’s a really rich and complicated relationship,” Hall says. “Dexter has a very deep fear that his son has the Dark Passenger and has an equivalent wish and desire for his son to have it and be just like him, and those things coexist.”

Initially, Harrison doesn’t give off any warning signs; he acclimates well to his new school and aces a placement test. But as New Blood progresses and Dexter learns more about the son he hasn’t seen in a decade, inklings that the blood-soaked apple doesn’t fall far from the tree begin to arise. If not a Dark Passenger, then Harrison might still be contending with a darkness that’s bubbling just beneath the surface. “I’m not going to give away how far those tendencies go, but there is reason for Dexter to be equal parts relieved and concerned,” Phillips says.

With Iron Lake’s sparse population, frigid weather, and complete lack of crime—police work involves finding out who swiped the local pastor’s pecan pies ahead of a town potluck—Dexter moved to a place that couldn’t be more removed from his old hunting grounds. Following the character’s lead, New Blood has a completely different look and feel from the Dexter of yesteryear, from adopting a wider aspect ratio to an emphasis on desaturated tones. “If you think of Miami, you think of those bright art deco, pastel buildings, and everybody’s sweating, and everybody’s wearing colorful clothes,” Phillips says. “None of that is there.”

But in Iron Lake, looks can be deceiving. The same reasons that Dexter finds the town appealing make it the perfect cover for—you guessed it—another serial killer. Iron Lake has a problem that’s being overlooked by everyone but Angela: Every so often, local girls go missing, some of whom come from the nearby Native American reservation. (Angela herself is Native American, and her childhood friend is among the girls who vanished without a trace.) The girls are deemed runaways by the authorities, and given the lack of opportunities or things to do in the small town, the theory isn’t a stretch—while at the same indicative of how problems affecting marginalized communities are often ignored.

That there is a serial killer hiding in plain sight might also suggest that Dexter shouldn’t have any problems maintaining his own cover, but even in a rural area, the modern world has caught up to the character. The seemingly hapless local police have surveillance drones, the woods are full of deer cams that can track people just as easily, and as Dexter himself admits, it’s hard to keep secrets in a small town. Combined with an understandable rustiness, Dexter is only a couple missteps away from getting caught—a fate that he eluded all of those years in Miami.

Dexter, of course, doesn’t want to be apprehended. But that desire is born out of more than just self-preservation: He’s found solace in his new life, routine, and relationship with Angela. Even after all the traumatic events in Miami and the loved ones he’s lost along the way, television’s favorite serial killer is imbued with a humanity that’s in constant conflict with his violent id. “He’s living under a different name and has disappeared his former self and as much as he’s able to do all that, I think he’s also making as earnest an attempt at authenticity or normalcy than he ever has,” Hall says. “But obviously there’s something missing, if he’s going to be who he really is.”

The further that Dexter falls back into old habits, the more he starts shedding his new persona. He ignores Deb’s warnings about bringing Harrison back into his life, and, having found an ideal place to dispose of a body, implies that it could be useful in the long term. After being abstinent for nearly a decade, Dexter is darkly dreaming about a future in Iron Lake where he can sate his Dark Passenger. “I don’t know, what if it’s not the killing that got me in trouble?” he tells—and convinces—himself. “What if it’s the not killing?”

Seacia Pavao/SHOWTIME

As Dexter returns to airwaves, the new series joins what’s become a bit of a renaissance for the antihero-led dramas of its heyday. In addition to the stellar prequel series Better Call Saul, which will debut its final season next year, the creators of Breaking Bad gave Jesse Pinkman his own epilogue with the 2019 film El Camino. Just last month, David Chase returned to the world of The Sopranos with the prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, and HBO is already expressing interest in a further continuation of the franchise.

Clearly, there’s still an appetite for the morally conflicted protagonists that led the charge during Dexter’s original run—and as Big Little Lies can attest, limited series don’t have to stay limited ​​if there’s enough interest. But while Phillips admits that there’s been “discussions” with Showtime about Dexter’s future beyond New Blood’s 10-episode season, he doesn’t want anyone to get carried away just yet. “I want the audience to fully enjoy this season as if it’s the only season that’s ever going to appear of Dexter again,” he says. “Without giving anything away, all I can say is we can never say never. But if not, I will promise it’s not going to be, ‘Oh, I just woke up from a dream and everything’s OK.’ It’s not that: Everything is organic. I think it was Chekhov who said, ‘The ending, it will be surprising, yet inevitable.’”

The fact that Chekhov would approve of the ending—or that Aristotle was the first person to say that quote—is all well and good. The bigger question is whether Dexter, like its eponymous serial killer, will be given a second chance. One of the main reasons that The Sopranos and Breaking Bad—and, to a lesser extent, Big Little Lies—continued their respective stories is because audiences wanted them to. Dexter, conversely, has been reduced to a lumberjack-laced punch line and has to win over a scorned fan base that doesn’t want to take a hypodermic needle to the neck again. But Phillips is hopeful that the same ingredients that hooked fans onto Dexter Morgan in the first place will be what brings them back in droves. “It’s interesting, why would an audience want a serial killer to come into their house every Sunday night? (A) The subject matter is provocative,” he says before quickly stopping himself. “Let me rephrase that: (B) The subject matter is provocative; (A) Michael C. Hall; and (C) of equal importance is the voice-over. It shows Dexter’s vulnerability. It makes the audience a little bit complicit in what he’s doing. It shows that he’s learning as he goes. He doesn’t know how to be human, he has to watch other people to know how to love. It’s humanizing.”

As Dexter learns how to love again, perhaps viewers will respond in kind. But whether New Blood is the definitive end to Dexter or the start of a new beginning, the series has already ensured that the audience’s parting image of the character will no longer be a mopey lumberjack from a universally reviled finale. All told, getting another stab at ending Dexter on better terms is a victory in and of itself. “As an actor and a storyteller, you want people to pay attention to the stories you tell,” Hall says. “I’m thankful that, in this case, I’m a part of telling a story that means something to people and that engages them.”

Having laid dormant for so long, the Dark Passenger is once again in the driver’s seat. We’ll soon find out if, like Dexter Morgan, viewers are ready for the coming ride.

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