Someone needs to remind the writers of Showtime’s hit series Dexter of what made the show so exemplary when it premiered in 2006. More importantly, someone needs to get them back on track before Dexter loses itself and its devoted following. Granted, last season set up a hard act to follow, and the show has a ton of demands to meet, especially with the season-finale cliffhanger it delivered. But it seems like the movers and shakers of the show have stopped doing their homework. I feel a sense of panic behind this season premiere that makes me fear that the show is slipping out of control.

What it seems to have forgotten is that Dexter Morgan (played by the exquisite Michael C. Hall) is a serial killer, and it’s not a problem if we don’t identify with him emotionally. The writers struggle to make him more and more like us, and consider it a breakthrough if he accomplishes some modicum of that. But the extent of emotion he exhibits is dishonest to his character. Of course, people—even serial killers—are multi-dimensional and even contradictory, so we can’t deprive the show of the opportunity to demonstrate the same nuances that help flesh characters out and make them more realistic. But it’s the way he demonstrates these nuances that presents a problem. There’s a difference between characters who are written to be multifaceted and those who fall victim to erratic or indecisive writing. I’m afraid our one-of-a-kind antihero is becoming the latter.

Season 5 follows a traumatized Dexter, who has just learned that the Trinity Killer has left him a final farewell—his wife, Rita (Julie Benz), murdered in the bathtub of their happy home. He almost immediately goes into shock, sinking to his knees on his front lawn, clutching his blood-soaked infant to his chest, and even going so far as to tell the police who arrive on the scene “it was me” in a faraway, dazed voice.

Later, however, a skinnier, spray-tanned Detective Quinn (Desmond Harrington) keeps obsessing over how Dexter has no reaction to his wife’s death. Even Astor (the rapidly-improving Christina Robinson) claims she “can tell” that Dexter doesn’t care about her mother’s murder. Dexter himself muses about his own lack of affect when the funeral director says he’s sorry for Dexter’s loss (a clever scene that calls to mind Hall’s Six Feet Under days). Dexter marvels at how he actually seems to mean it, and later uses the same strategy when telling Rita’s kids that she’s gone.


A week of entertainment news in your in-box.
We find the news you need to know, so you don't have to.

What is blatantly obvious to me, which all of these characters seem to be missing, is that Dexter is deeply affected by what has happened—more than seems realistic considering his proclivities. In fact, his reaction provides a textbook example of grief. He goes almost catatonic for the first few hours before he starts worrying about what he’s going to tell the kids.

Add to this that he blames himself for Rita’s death—for having ever met her in the first place—and starts to examine the pernicious role he might have played in the last few years of her life. He also re-examines his own life and, at one point, actually breaks down crying. All the time everyone seems floored by his remarkably atypical reaction. Am I missing something? The show needs to make up its mind—if Dexter’s emotional development is supposed to be stunted, then that’s what it needs to show us. Of course, most people don’t brutally murder strangers in fits of rage a few days after finding out about the death of a loved one, but they might at least experience fits of rage, which would pave the way for identification with Dexter.

Don’t get me wrong—there are also some very promising features of the new season. In case you haven’t noticed (which is seriously unlikely), every season follows a separate arc in which Dexter has to duke it out with a different villain. In Season 1, we had the Ice Truck Killer; Season 2 was devoted to dodging Doakes and the obsessive love of Lila; Season 3 was also flimsy enough to require two villains—District Attorney Miguel Prado and The Skinner; and Season 4 hit it out of the park with the blood-chilling oh-my-God-who-ever-knew-he-could-be-so-creepy John Lithgow as The Trinity Killer. These arcs themselves can be criticized as unrealistic for packing life up in discrete little season-long packages, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk.

Now it looks like Dexter may have finally graduated to the position of being villain enough for himself, which would provide a new and engaging man-versus-himself kind of struggle for the series. In one sense, Dexter is never completely devoid of this kind of conflict, but it would be great to see it come to a head in Season 5, to watch Dexter really start to break down in a frenzy of self-sabotage. It’s one of the few things that can happen with this character before the writers paint themselves into a corner.

Let’s face it—there’s only so many ways you can begin to wrap up a show like Dexter, and total self-destruction of the protagonist seems like a realistic denouement. Let’s hope that’s where the show is going, because if we’re supposed to take Detective Quinn seriously as an adversarial match for Dexter, especially after our antihero battled the likes of the Trinity Killer, then we really ought to start thinking of Dexter as a comedy, and not of the dark variety. It’s hard enough to swallow Quinn as Deb’s (Jennifer Carpenter) lover, but I stopped holding out hope that her character would ever arc seasons ago, so I can’t say I’m surprised that she’s still making the same romantic mistakes by having carnal relations with people who are hell-bent on destroying her brother.

The supporting cast remains generally delightful, though I’m already tiring of Batista and Laguerta’s (David Zayas and Lauren Velez) brand-new marriage. The oddly charming C. S. Lee as Mazuka, who manages to bring a little bit of perv to even the most somber occasions, still provides reliable comic relief, as when he’s standing over a dead, naked Rita in a pool of her own blood. “I imagined her naked plenty of times,” he says, “but not like this.” Way to gross it up, Mazuka.

Everyone else maintains a relatively consistent character; only Dexter is pulled in too many directions. It’s almost like the writers can’t take a character too far without losing their grip on him. Frankly, the series is buckling under the pressure of where to go from here and how to outdo itself. It seems too impressed with its previous plot developments and character conflicts to venture far from them. Lazy writing is giving this series a hackneyed quality that’s worthy of an eye-roll or two. If it doesn’t find a trajectory for Dexter and his buddies, it runs the risk of joining ranks with other promising, unique shows that lost themselves somewhere along the way and ended up outlasting their welcome.

Leave a comment

Read more about: