We now have a cable television subculture saturated with antiheroes. Walter White on Breaking Bad, Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me, Patty Hewes on Damages, Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire and, to a certain degree, Don Draper on Mad Men. Add to that list Dexter Morgan, the titular “hero” of this Showtime series and you have one hell of a party. Of all of those names listed, I still find the popularity of Dexter to be the most perplexing. The man is a serial killer, a hunter who dissects his prey before dropping their remains into the ocean. That Dexter is portrayed as a vigilante who only kills those he deems deserving to die (plus the occasional poor soul who threatens to reveal his darkness) doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a cold blooded, calculating monster. Just goes to show you what some fine acting can do.
The fifth season of Dexter picks up where the chilling conclusion of season four left viewers. Dexter returns home after dispatching his rival, the Trinity Killer (played during that year by John Lithgow). Dexter enters his house and discovers his wife, Rita, dead in the bathtub, the final victim of Trinity. Even more disturbing is the sight of his infant son, Harrison, sitting on the floor in a pool of his mother’s blood. As season five begins, Dexter goes from relatively happy newlywed to guilt ridden widower who must now juggle being a single working parent while still attending to his homicidal urges.
Early in the season, after sending away his step children to spend time with their maternal grandparents (a convenient plot twist), Dexter comes across a sanitation worker named Boyd Fowler, a vile human being who murders women and stores their corpses in barrels of formaldehyde so that he can revisit them on occasion. Shawn Hatosy, so effective on Southland, gets deep into the black muck of Boyd’s soul. As he’s wont to do, Dexter does away with Boyd, but he gets discovered in the process. Boyd’s next victim, a woman named Lumen (a strong Julia Stiles), escapes from her captor just as Dexter drives a knife into Boyd’s chest. Instead of quickly killing Lumen and protecting himself (as his spectral father would urge him to do), Dexter feels a need to nurse Lumen back to health. In the process, he uncovers a much darker secret than just Boyd’s sickness and Dexter decides to help Lumen exact revenge on a group of men who did horrible things to her.
What I just described is enough to fill twelve nail biting episodes of television. Add to the tension Dexter’s attempts to find a nanny for Harrison and the looming return of his two stepchildren, and Dexter season five has the makings for some interesting hours of television. Repeatedly placed inside the character’s head, we hear Dexter’s thoughts as he explains and rationalizes his reasons for brutality. He only kills monsters. That’s his mantra and hearing it enough times almost makes Dexter appear like an appealing, heroic person. Feeling any kind of attachment for such a despicable human being raises some interesting questions of the audience. Are the producers forcing us to look deeper at our own values? I suppose so. I also believe they’re manipulating us, a little, as all good producers must do to make a hit TV show.
While the Dexter portions of the series are fascinating and disturbing, the other half of the show is pretty much a routine TV cop show. As you may know, Dexter’s full time job is as a blood spatter analyst and forensics expert for the Miami Police. He works alongside his foster sister, a tough as nails, skinny as a rail, foul mouthed detective, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), as well as the usual makeup of cops you find in any number of cop shows. There is the bizarre lead forensics officer (C.S. Lee), the tough commander who is loyal to her squad (Lauren Velez), her husband, who also happens to be the sergeant of the squad (David Zayas) and the cocky detective who rubs most people the wrong way, but whose good looks make him difficult to hate (Erik King). Whenever Dexter breaks away from the lead story and involves us in the lives of these others, the show stops being so interesting and feels rather ordinary (save for the abundant use of the “f” word). In emulating other procedural series between Dexter’s victims, I wish that the producers would have used The Wire or NYPD Blue as models instead of CSI.
Still, the series is beautifully produced and has an abundance of fine performances, including Hall. Moreover, it draws some fine guest stars to contribute to the mayhem. Among them, Peter Weller adds to his cadre of creepy characters as a disgruntled cop who uncovers Dexter’s secret, and Jonny Lee Miller turns in a chilling performance as a motivational speaker who is connected to Lumen. The four-disc DVD set includes special interviews with the cast (via E-Bridge Tecnology), a featuretter with Stiles (who is Emmy nominated for her performance in season five), plus episodes of other Showtime series, The Borgias and Episodes.