Showtime’s serial killer drama “Dexter” has a deliciously dark premise that has also become a trap over its six year run (the seventh season starts this Sunday, September 30th at 9pm). Dexter (Michael C. Hall) may only murder bad guys, but he enjoys the killing — the process of stalking, trapping and ritually cutting into his victims, keeping a drop of the blood of each as a trophy. He’s not a vigilante looking to right the world, he’s a psychopath trying to do the least damage possible while indulging the urges he can’t seem to control.
And because of this, because what he does is repellent, the show’s been unable to let any “normal” characters in on his secret. His mentor Harry (James Remar), the man who raised him and taught him the code by which he lives, was so distraught by the reality of his adopted son’s actions that he killed himself. Dexter has no regular confidant other than the Harry who lives on in his mind, and a large part of the tension of the show rests in the keeping of Dexter’s secret, in his maintaining the outside appearance of a regular guy with regular emotions, even to his remaining family member Deb (Jennifer Carpenter).
Instead of having a sidekick who’s in on his warped version of a crime-fighting secret identity, Dexter’s had temporary companions in darkness who’ve all been discarded after a season — Brian (Christian Camargo) and Lila (Jaime Murray), Miguel (Jimmy Smits) and Lumen (Julia Stiles), characters who’ve gotten a closer look at Dexter than anyone else in his regular life, than even the woman that he married. The show’s used these relationships, some fond and some antagonistic, to allow Dexter someone to play off of as more than just a crime scene analyst, but they’ve also formed a pattern that’s gotten stale. Dexter duels with an antagonist over the course of a season, comes so very close to getting exposed, and then manages in the end to preserve the status quo, give or take a Julie Benz.
But “Dexter” now has a firm end date — after the 12 episodes of this new season, the show will have one more and then reach an ending that the creators have said they’ve already settled on. And in last season’s finale, the series introduced two developments with potential to disrupt the stability of the basic premise and the chances that everything will just go back to normal. This first is that Deb, who grew up with but isn’t related to Dexter, may be in love with her adopted brother, and the second is that his secret is at least partially out, because she walks in on him murdering a trussed-up Travis (Colin Hanks). Without giving details away, Sunday’s premiere (directed by HBO stalwart John Dahl, of “The Last Seduction”) doesn‘t allow Dexter to just smoothly explain away the impossible situation (“I, er, tripped, and accidentally wrapped the guy in plastic I happened to be carrying while accidentally stabbing him on my way down!”) and go about his day. Deb trusts and loves Dexter, no matter how complicated those sentiments may be for her, but she’s also a smart and dedicated cop, and the fall-out of what she’s witnessed is bound to be messy no matter what interpretation of the events it is she settles on.
Deb getting a glimpse of her brother in all of his bloody glory gives “Dexter” a jolt of life and danger it hasn’t had in years — not just in the potential for Dexter to face some serious consequences but in the fraught qualities it can bring to his relationship with Deb, which other than Dexter’s push and pull with his “Dark Passenger” is the central one of the series. Deb is emotional and outspoken where Dexter is icy and calculated, but she’s the most important person in his life, and one who has challenged his insistence that he doesn’t feel things in the same way that others do. He loves Deb, in his own sociopathic way, and has no desire to hurt her, and by forcing tension into their bond the show finds the possibility of new territory, of change.
Change isn’t something that comes easy to “Dexter” — its premise requires that knife-edge balance of almost but not quite getting found out, and part of the reason Dexter remains so likable, aside from Hall’s consistently compelling performance and silkily sardonic voiceover, is that we in the audience are his only true accomplices, the only ones who understand his reasoning and are wooed with the fact that what he’s doing, while unquestionably disturbing and unethical, does have its own strange, twisted nobility. On the show, the characters who think they understand him have been, until this point, crazy and dangerous themselves — so the idea of Dexter trying to explain and justify himself to someone who’s not, who believes in order, would be a major shift for the show and one that, if handled correctly, could be interesting.
How much deviation from the established path can “Dexter” handle? “Weeds” lost its thread for some when it departed from the suburbs and headed for even wackier and more outlandish territory. But it seems unlikely that “Dexter” is going to spend its last seasons on the run from the law — it’s a show rooted in displays of normalcy, from the opening credits that combine a morning routine with hints of murder. What’s promising about the amount of change that’s being teased at in this new season is that it has the potential to shake things up just enough to refresh the central idea of the conscientious serial killer and how much Dexter was born this way versus made into it, whether he himself can be altered, be different. With an end point in sight, the safety of knowing things will always settle back the way they were can’t be counted on in the same way, and that makes the show refreshingly edgy once again.