Can Dexter be a good man and a good serial killer? This question defines the entire series. And this season’s premiere episode — in which Rita lay exsanguinated in a tepid bath and Dexter was under investigation by the FBI — seemed to suggest that the answer is no. He needs to commit to one identity or the other in order to be successful at either. But this season’s second episode suggests the exact opposite. It begins with Dexter asserting that to process Rita’s death and get on with his life, all he needs are his children by his side. “I don’t have time for grief, I’m a full-time dad,” he says in the opening scene. “Once the kids and I are back together it will all be fine.” And it ends with Astor and Cody fleeing to Orlando with their grandparents and Dexter discovering that they’ve taken with them his desire to kill. “Normally a target would make me feel good,” he says in the closing scene, after discovering incontrovertible evidence that his new prey is guilty. ”But now it means nothing. And I don’t know what will make me feel better.”
Uh-oh. From serial-killing family man to … what would Dexter be without either identity? A single cop who likes to eat and drive at the same time? No one is watching a show about that dude.
Dexter tries really hard to deal with life after Rita in an emotionally responsible way. First, he moves the kids out of the house where their mother was murdered and into Deb’s condo. Cody thinks it’s fun, “like camping,” but, as Dexter puts it, “girls are harder,” and the two women he’s living with are not psyched. Astor bitches about having none of the right clothes she needs for school. And Deb insists she’s cool with the situation but starts crashing at Quinn’s place. (One of the funniest quips in an episode packed with great one-liners is Deb’s reaction to Quinn’s attempt to kiss her when she shows up at his door. “Hey, fuck puddle! What are you doing?! I came here to sleep, not to have your fat little sausage fingers all over me.”)
Dexter does his best to keep the family routine in place, making fun-shaped pancakes for breakfast in the morning, driving the kids to school, and in his downtime, searching for a new place to live. And he signs the kids up for counseling. “’Helping your children cope with grief,’” Dexter reads from one of the corny websites Google turns up. “’Grandpa’s gone to heaven,’ ‘saying good-bye to fluffy,’ but nothing on ‘mommy bled out in a bathtub.’” It’s these moments — where Dexter perceives some cultural practice as bafflingly inane but assumes he just doesn’t get it because he, you know, murders people for fun — that make us feel closest to him. You don’t have to be a serial killer to be mystified by human behavior.
As he’s taking pains to care for his kids, Dexter is also trying to manage his own stress. And a chat with a sympathetic shrink isn’t going to cut it. While renting a moving van, Dexter spots a globule of blood in the back of the fourteen-footer. Under ordinary circumstances this would barely make his radar, but these are desperate times. Dexter’s a widower living with his sister, two heartbroken stepkids, and an infant. He needs to spill some blood. “It doesn’t matter how much I love my children,” Dexter thinks to himself, as he scans the truck with a black light at three in the morning, Harrison by his side. “I’m still a creature of the night.” When he finds ample residue to support his suspicions, Dexter tracks down the truck’s last renter and comes up with Boyd Fowler, a comically creepy animal control worker. “While they’re seeing the grief counselor, I will be getting my own kind of therapy,” Dexter says, anticipating a day spent tracking his new target.
Meanwhile, back at the station, Sergeant Batista discovers that LaGuerta has a quarter of a million dollars stashed away in her retirement account. He’s hurt that his new wife hasn’t told him about her nest egg, and proceeds to poll various members of Miami Metro about whether or not a theoretical person in this theoretical situation should be sharing the money. (Quinn’s priceless response: “Fuck no! That’s your money. Tell the Lieutenant to keep her fucking hands off of it.”) The whole thing seems a little forced, like the writers were assigned the task of creating post-wedding conflict and this is the plot development they agreed on. The money issue leads, believably, to a larger conversation about LaGuerta’s pragmatism versus Batista’s romanticism, but is that really enough to justify Batista getting obscenely drunk and picking a bar fight, as he does at the end of the episode? What the hell is going on here?
When Batista’s not obsessing over his wife’s money, he’s working — along with the rest of Miami Metro — on a new case. In an area notorious for drug violence, the cops discover a woman’s severed head placed ceremonially on a carpet and surrounded by candles and other trinkets. The eyes and tongue have been carefully removed but rest of the body was casually dumped. Deb initially figures it’s a drug case, and the gruesome organ removal is meant to send a message about keeping your mouth shut and your eyes closed, but a precocious young officer (April Lee Hernandez) suggests this case might be a ritual kill related to the mystical cult of Santa Muerte. This is further confirmed when the knife used turns out to be a machete (apparently the Santa Muerte weapon of choice). And when the victim’s husband is also found murdered in his home, the plot thickens.
Miami Metro is still technically leaving the investigation of Rita’s murder to the Feds, who are hilariously dopey. They don’t think Dexter killed his wife, but they also have no clue who did. Their only lead is the name Kyle Butler, a young friend of Arthur Mitchell’s who coincidentally disappeared around the same time Mitchell did. Deb and LaGuerta make a mental note of the fact that a few months ago they handled the murder of a victim called Kyle Butler, but their observation of this amounts to little more than a few furrowed brows. It’s a coincidence, right? Quinn, of course, is curious. He gets his hands on the FBI-generated composite sketch of Butler, which, when you look at it right, starts to resemble Dexter. (It actually totally doesn’t, but we’re in favor of a little creative license.) Dexter Morgan may not be in trouble with the FBI, but Kyle Butler is and it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out that to Arthur Mitchell, they were the same person.
Speaking of Quinn, a brief aside here: Why is he so into Deb? Once again, in this episode, we see this guarded personality go all moony-eyed and gooey around Dexter’s sister. Quinn wants her to know she can crash at his place whenever, no strings attached. He’s here to talk if she needs it. He’s concerned about her brother (riiiight … ). He’s up for a post-work bite to eat if she is. What is the deal with this guy? Does he like like Deb? And if so, why? What’s the psychology here? Her defensive aggression neutralizes the chip on his shoulder? He’s just got a thing for skinny, foul-mouthed brunettes? What’s up with this?
“The better killer I am, the better father I am,” Dexter thinks as he pulls up at his new target’s house. He’s checking out Fowler’s kitchen cabinets when the guy comes home unexpectedly. Unable to find a door that isn’t secured with a giant padlock (creepy!) Dexter hangs out long enough to witness Boyd rock out to a self-help tape and rage when he can’t find the proper soup (“chicken noodle, chicken noodle, chicken noodle!!! Where. Is. THE TOMATO!???”). Boyd is a real freak show and Dexter leaves exhilarated. This guy is way too agro and neurotic not to be up to something that earns him a spot on Dexter’s table.
By the end of the episode, all remaining vestiges of Dexter’s “normal” life (Astor and Cody) are gone. It seems like the baby is still in Miami (though this isn’t made expressly clear), but Harrison is different. He spent all those hours bathing in his mother’s blood, and Dexter is already treating him like an infant apprentice. When Dexter takes Harrison out to inspect the moving truck, he beams with paternal pride as Harrison coos at the illuminated bloodstains, saying, “Yeah, it’s pretty, I know.” But the thing that makes Dexter abnormal, his killer instinct, is also gone. He tracks Fowler and discovers a marshy dump site full of steel barrels jammed to the brim with blondes’ body parts. Instead of being psyched to get to work on Fowler, Dexter’s left with a paralyzing case of serial-killer ennui.
“It’s like when you get on a plane and they tell you when the oxygen masks come down to put yours on first before helping the kids,” Dexter tells Harry, justifying his choice to track a new victim while trying to stabilize his family life. “I have to take care of my own needs too otherwise I’d be spinning out of control and that’s no good for anyone.” No. It’s not. But that’s where we’re left at the end of the episode. Once again, Dexter’s attempts at balance have backfired, but this time he can’t just go back to serving his Dark Passenger and aspiring to one day have a family life. He’s already a father. He was somebody’s husband. And these truths have changed him. “Cody and Astor showed me I can still care about something,” Dexter muses, “which makes letting them go that much harder.”