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Lumberjack Back: ‘Dexter’ Gets a Do-over

The beloved Showtime series with a much-loathed finale will return for a limited run in 2021. Will it be able to atone for its past mistakes?

Showtime/Ringer illustration

“Tonight’s the night. And it’s going to happen again and again—has to happen.” So said serial killer Dexter Morgan in the first scene of Dexter, and so says every TV executive on the verge of green-lighting a reboot or revival of a once-popular series. Perhaps something similar ran through the mind of Showtime’s copresident of entertainment, Gary Levine, before the network announced on Wednesday that Dexter would return for a limited run of 10 episodes with a planned premiere next fall. Dexter, which debuted on Showtime in 2006 and ran for eight seasons, has been off the air since September 2013, so the news that the show will be back is best greeted by a GIF from a Season 1 scene that inspired many memes.

There are two sides to Dexter’s legacy, as there are to its titular protagonist. As with the murderous character, one of those sides is a lot less pretty than the other. There’s the presentable, prestige-TV veneer of a long-running, largely critically acclaimed series that was nominated for 24 Emmys, won four, and established Mr. Morgan as leading man Michael C. Hall’s most recognizable role. And then there’s one of those “hidden truths that lie beneath the surface” that Dexter once described: The show had a horrible ending. As in, all-time, notoriously terrible, to the extent that the series is now better known for its infamous failure to stick any semblance of a non-punch-line landing than it is for the good-to-great seven seasons that preceded that stain on its rep.

For those who missed the series the first time around, Dexter—which was adapted from Jeff Lindsay’s same-named novels—is the story of a quasi-psychopath with a weird work-life balance. When he was 3, Dexter’s mother was murdered in front of him, and the days he spent sitting in a pool of her blood made a permanent impression on his damaged mind. Years later, Dexter’s adoptive dad, Miami Metro Police Department detective Harry Morgan, recognizes the signs of an incipient serial killer in his adolescent son. Rather than pursue, say, therapy, Harry teaches young Dex to be a better serial killer by embracing what Dexter comes to call the Code of Harry.

The code helps him blend in and hide his crimes, but it also imposes a structure on his secret, lethal life: Dexter is only allowed to kill killers who’ve escaped justice, thus channeling his urges into a (sort of) societal good. Despite being triggered by blood, Dexter decides to “hide in plain sight” by becoming a blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro. During the day, he dissects crime scenes. By night, he dissects his prey in meticulously contrived murder rooms, saving samples of his quarries’ blood as trophies that he keeps in his condo (which is probably a bad idea).

Over the course of the series, Dexter looks out for himself and his adoptive detective sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), gets involved with a series of foxy significant others—played by Julie Benz, Jaime Murray, Julia Stiles, and Yvonne Strahovski—who don’t know about or don’t mind his murdering, has a son, surprises himself by kind of catching feelings for all of the above, and wrestles with whether Harry was right to indulge his “Dark Passenger.” (I’ve never raised a serial killer, but I’m going to go with “no.”) The main source of suspense is whether Dexter can keep his secret from his friends and loved ones—to the extent that he has friends and loved ones—and whether the prolific killer will one day be caught or pay a price for his crimes. The deeply loathed finale, “Remember the Monsters?,” answered the latter question with a resounding “nope”: Deb dies, but Dexter doesn’t. After disposing of Deb’s body and faking his own demise, Dexter disappears into the Oregon wilderness to start a new life as a lumberjack.

Season 8’s rushed production ran off the rails long before the finale’s killing blow, but Dexter was always watchable in its first seven seasons, save for a slump in Season 6, which culminated in Deb developing romantic feelings for Dexter. Biologically speaking, Deb and Dex hooking up wouldn’t have been Lannister-level incest, but no one wanted them to get together. Unlike the Lannisters, who were introduced to the audience via sex scene, the Morgans were meant for platonic sibling love. (To add to the awkwardness, real-life couple Hall and Carpenter finalized their divorce right around the time the Season 6 finale aired.) The series bounced back briefly in Season 7 before finally falling off the quality cliff. As the following graph of IMDb user ratings suggests, Dexter probably peaked in Season 4, when John Lithgow played against type in a recurring role as a serial killer without a code, for which he won an Emmy.

Showtime recently cut ties with a trio of shows that dated back to the days of Dexter. Ray Donovan wrapped up in January, Homeland concluded this spring, and Shameless is about to begin its final season. What’s a network in a time of transition to do during a pandemic? License something from overseas? Unearth an unaired pilot? Maybe the move is to bring back a beloved but tarnished show in need of a do-over ending. Showtime already rebooted The L Word, which predated Dexter, and a Weeds sequel series is in the works at Starz. For a network that’s known for stringing out series, what’s to lose by bringing the Dark Passenger back aboard? What is Dex may never die.

Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall dubbed Dexter 2: Lumberjack Back—my suggested title, not his—“the revival nobody asked for” and added that the finale “killed off all viewer interest in the show.” A program that crashed and burned as badly as Dexter doesn’t deserve another season, but having stuck with the series until the Slice of Life went down with Deb’s body, I’m holding out hope that the new ending could mitigate or undo the damage that “Remember the Monsters?” did. Yes, I’d rather see a second season of Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida—which was picked up last year, only to be canceled this month as part of the industry’s pandemic-caused cull—than a ninth season of Dexter. But if we’re going to get a Dexter revival, I’ll be rooting for a retcon or a redemption.

In a 2014 AMA, Hall said that in his head, Dexter’s “self-imposed exile from the world continues,” although he added that the character’s attempt to go cold turkey on killing may have left him with “a pretty serious itch he’s aching to scratch.” It could be cathartic for Dex to be the one wielding the chainsaw instead of the one watching the cartel take a chainsaw to his mom. As Sepinwall noted, though, the revival could erase the original ending à la a resuscitated ABC/NBC sitcom, or simply ignore its last season as Amy Sherman-Palladino largely did by breaking with Season 7 (which she didn’t write) when she continued Gilmore Girls on Netflix last year. One auspicious sign for the Dexter revival is that Hall will be rejoined by former showrunner Clyde Phillips, who steered the series for its first four seasons and walked away at its high point. Like Sherman-Palladino, Phillips may not feel bound by what happened after he left.

According to Dexter producer John Goldwyn, Showtime wouldn’t let Dexter die at the (original) end of the series, which former Showtime president of programming David Nevins denied. In 2013, though, Nevins expressed a strong interest in keeping the franchise alive, asserting somewhat dubiously that “Dexter is to Showtime what Spider-Man is to Sony or Batman is to Warner Bros.” It would have been difficult to make more Dexter without, well, Dexter, but all these years later, Phillips should be free from the pressure to protect the protagonist.

In Lindsay’s last Dexter novel, which was fittingly titled Dexter Is Dead, Dexter’s death is strongly implied. (The books also featured some odder ideas.) And in 2013, Phillips laid out the ending he’d envisioned, in which the events of the entire series are revealed to have been memories that Dexter replays as he awaits execution by lethal injection, surrounded by the specters of many of his 130-plus victims. Maybe Phillips will stick with what he had in mind. One way or another, it’s almost time to relive Dexter’s violent morning routine.

At the very least, Hall—who approved of ending the show—can stop equivocating and demurring about the prospect of playing Dexter again. Perhaps he won’t have to mount any more tepid defenses of the finale. And hey, I still have the Henley I wore when I dressed up as Dexter for Halloween in 2010. Maybe that can make a comeback in 2021, too.

In the much-maligned episode that was once the series finale, Dexter said, “I just want it to stop.” It did for a while, but for better or worse, not for forever. Maybe few fans were wishing that Showtime would resurrect Dexter, but the downside seems slim. As the smiling serial killer next door insisted in the Season 4 finale, “Life doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be lived.” The Dexter revival doesn’t have to be perfect, either. It just has to be better than the lumberjack’s last goodbye.