In the beginning, this show was premised on a provocative question: "Are you prepared to like Dexter?" Which is to say, can you imagine rooting for a serial killer? If you've stuck around until now, the answer is obviously "Yes."
Now, in the third episode of season three, the show seems to be prepping for an even more complicated question: "Are you ready to dislike Dexter again?"
Dexter's heinous actions have so far been justifiable — to him and, to some extent, to us — by his adherence to "Harry's Code." Rule one: You only kill killers. This season, however, started with Dexter repudiating Harry and realizing he has to forge a new code of his own. And so far, the new code's proving conveniently flexible.
For example: Astor runs into a creepy, Cheerios-loving sex predator at the grocery store (and my apologies, or kudos, to that actor, whom I will never be able to see again without feeling a slight shiver), and Dexter immediately sniffs out the deviant. (This scene smacks a little too much of some Heroes-style mutant power — "Wait! My psycho sense is tingling!" — but we'll let it pass.) Later, Dexter tracks him down, breaks into his house, and dispatches him with typical Dexterity.
Now, sex predators are right up there with Nazis and shotgun-wielding racist hayseeds in the pop-culture stable of irredeemable villains. But think about this plotline for a second: Dexter uses his police access to check up on a guy's criminal record, then tracks him down and executes him. The guy's crime? Taking photos of Dexter's adopted step-daughter. Creepy as hell? Of course. Punishable by death? Apparently so, according to Dexter's new code. "Maybe there's another code," he muses, in a voice-over. "A code that says you've stepped uninvited into my world, and that's a place where I decide who gets to live and who doesn't." Wow, Dexter — are you going all Colonel Kurtz on us?
At least Freebo had a few murders in his past, even if his ex, Teegan, wasn't one of them. (Meanwhile, the as-yet-un-nicknamed killer — the Slice 'N' Dicer? The Skin-Patch Taker? — strikes again.) But throw in Dexter's accidental gutting of Oscar Prado, and suddenly he's becoming a willy-nilly one-man killing spree.
In a related story, Miguel Prado hands over the bloodstained shirt from last episode in an effort to win Dexter's trust. Now the old, code-loving Dexter? You could trust that guy with a bloody shirt. The new Dexter? We're not so sure. We wonder if, before season's end, we won't see Miguel Prado thrown under the bus. Maybe literally.
In any case, this is a clever twist: a smart way to keep the show interesting by undercutting its central assumption. You have to imagine that Dexter's Kurtzian tendencies will only get worse before they get better, and Dexter may need to step back and totally recalibrate his ethical compass. Until then, we may need to recalibrate our feelings about him.