TV Review: Return of the Neighbourhood Killer

Showtime’s Dexter: New Blood, keeps the original’s serial killer-hunts-serial killer formula, but gives it more emotional depth, presenting a Dexter who is as lethal as ever, but also a sentimentalist. 

Michael C. Hall in DEXTER: NEW BLOOD (2021), directed by Marcos Siega – SHOWTIME / Album/Alamy

Eight years may not seem a long time on paper, but in the intervening period since Dexter left our screens we have seen Star Wars, Gilmore Girls and white supremacy revived in ways few would admit to enjoying in polite company. Several entities have even come and gone and returned again in that time, such as Spider-ManThe Suicide Squad and COVID-19. Coming back is the new staying in, both more popular than ever thanks to a boom in streaming that makes Dexter’s eight seasons of repetition and entropy seem like a relic of a bygone age. It is strange in hindsight to realise the show ended at the same time as Breaking Bad, which lives so fresh in the memory, whereas trying to recall the details of a specific episode of Dexter is like trying to list people you went to primary school with.

At least a comeback makes sense in the case of Dexter. Original showrunner Clyde Phillips never got to deliver the ending he wanted, diplomatically commenting, “The show went off the rails,” a sentiment shared by fans who were left bewildered by a closing shot of the antihero apparently starting a new life as a lumberjack. Michael C. Hall had every reason to return to the title role, his extracurricular activities limited to divorcing Jennifer Carpenter (who played his sister on the show) and starring in a poorly received musical composed by David Bowie. In criminal terms, Showtime had the means, motive and opportunity to bring back Dexter, with the course-correcting potential to redeem protagonist and series alike.

For the uninitiated, Dexter ran from 2006 to 2013 on the enticing hook that its eponymous serial killer would murder more deserving serial killers. It was dark, funny and so addictive that the viewership actually increased each year, despite every season following the exact same template: someone gets close to revealing Dexter’s secret, he kills them, marries his sister, gets divorced, and repeat. He was governed by a moral code, a kind of Prime Directive for psychopaths that ultimately impeded the show’s development. The Code was never really for Dexter, it was for the audience, a way of keeping us on the side of a serial killer that basically made him seem normal. He was always more Nurse Jackie than Walter White, a slave to reptition, stuck in stasis as though wrapped in his own sheets of plastic.

Dexter: New Blood develops the character more than we have seen since season one. Save for a few familiar flashbacks, the original series never really explored his childhood or teenage years. This is where the revival excels, by introducing Jack Alcott as Dexter’s son Harrison, an astonishing piece of casting for how strongly the teenager resembles his father. Through him we see what Dexter was like at school, while watching the adult version struggle with fatherhood. As a result the stakes are higher than usual, because his actions have consequences on the living instead of everyone simply dying. And as anyone who watched Game of Thrones or The Farmers’ Country Showdownwill tell you, it is hard to invest in characters when you know they are all going to die.

The new season avoids this revolving door of death by taking the streaming model (despite still being on Showtime), a tight 10-episode run that has been clearly mapped out, resulting in an intimate series benefiting from the snowy confines of its small-town setting. Moving the drama from sizzling Miami to Upstate New York not only offers a refreshing change of scene, it also introduces commentary on the neglect of Native American missing persons cases, a surprisingly real cause for a show that seldom concerned itself with social issues. The US Justice Department has found that Indigenous women and girls are 10 times more likely to be murdered than other American women, making the Native American police chief’s (Julia Jones) conviction a positive example for a nation in denial. The title character becomes more interesting in this context too, a mirror for a society with blood on its hands.

As well as evoking the Taylor Sheridan movie Wind River (which went slightly underappreciated in 2017, possibly by virtue of starring Jeremy Renner), a spate of missing women provides the usual police case and the best Big Bad since season four’s Trinity Killer (John Lithgow). Other areas feel less focused, including the potentially political introduction of a fracking billionaire who is curiously abandoned after two episodes. Yet there is something keenly ecological in the setup, the catalyst coming when local troublemaker Matt Caldwell (Steve M. Robertson) shoots a deer. Out of scores of executions over the years, the show treats this one as an aberration. This Dexter cares for animals, having apparently gotten over the early stages of his homicidal urges that saw him enjoy dismembering them. Caldwell is also rich, and Dexter stands up to his entitlement to defend reservation land.

Overall Dexter: New Blood builds on everything that once made it great, with the exception of the sorely missed title sequence, one of the best in the business. Even Jennifer Carpenter is back as Deb, taking up Dexter’s conscience role previously occupied by his father Harry (James Remar). Welcome new additions to the cast include the great Clancy Brown as Matt Caldwell’s father, Jamie Chung as a True Crime podcast host (another nod to the real world), and Johnny Sequoyah as Dexter’s girlfriend’s daughter who dates Harrison, taking the series’ “like father like son” ethos to its logical conclusion. That character focus and interesting setting makes for a sharp return with little fat on its bones, and one of the most successful efforts of the comeback era, a spirit that will hopefully be present in Nurse Jackie: This Time It’s Nursonal.

Dan Meier is a freelance writer, editor and critic based in London.

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