Improvisation is good for sketch comics, jazz musicians, and MacGyver, but not so much for serial killers. And in the third episode of season five we find out why: So eager is Dexter to drown his grief over Rita’s death that he ends up killing on the fly in view of a witness, a young blonde woman played by Julia Stiles. It’s a relief, actually, that Dexter has created this new drama for himself, because the whole balancing-fatherhood-with-serial-killing plot tension was starting to wear a little thin. Balance, and its elusiveness, is always going to be central to the show, as Dexter’s entire identity is a metaphor for the seemingly irreconcilable discrepancies that exist within each human being. But resolving existential identity conflicts is more philosophy-dissertation material than good TV. Something else has to carry the narrative. Last season that something was John Lithgow as Trinity. Charming, elusive, intelligent, and spectacularly fucked up, Trinity was everything you want in an adversary. This season, Dexter keeps saying he’s not been the same since Rita died, but really he’s not been the same since he killed Trinity. Dexter needs a target, he needs a problem to solve, and in this episode he gets both: Boyd Fowler and Julia Stiles.
We start off with more daddy tedium. Dexter and Deb are interviewing nanny candidates and the pickings are slim. It’s another opportunity for Dexter to cozy up to the audience by sharing a collective raised eyebrow about how weird the rest of humanity is. Sure, Dexter swaddles naked people in plastic and keeps slides of their blood, but does he weigh 300 pounds and proselytize about how kids really should eat more cheese, as one nanny candidate does? No. People are just freaks.
They finally decide to hire a soft-spoken Irish woman, Sonja, an out-of-work nurse who seems to have the magic touch with Harrison. When she hums lyrics from the hilariously sinister nursery rhyme “Bye, Baby Bunting” (“Daddy’s gone a-hunting / Gone to get a rabbit skin”), Dexter’s sure she’s the right woman for the job. But even after crossing this item off his to-do list — an act the Dexter Morgan of the past would enjoy both because he’s compulsive and likes getting shit done and because having a nanny would create more alone time — he still seems unsettled. “Emptiness,” he says, absorbing the immaculate stillness in an apartment void of others, “I used to cherish it. Now it feels like something to overcome.” He mournfully opens his computer to slides of Boyd Fowler’s ghoulishly preserved victims. “Hobbies: self-improvement and storing women in formaldehyde,” he says to himself. “I don’t know if killing you will fill the void, but it’s a place to start.”
Dexter proceeds, arranging a run-in with Fowler and wrangling an invite to tag along as he drives around Miami scraping roadkill off the pavement. This victim is a great pick for Dexter’s first post-Trinity, post-Rita kill. A throwback to the old days of the series when Dexter’s victims were these elegant little sketches of humanity — twisted, sure, but weirdly endearing. There is no one left living that knows Dexter’s secret, so his victims are his only real intimates. He can talk to them the way he can’t to anyone else. And those few hours he spends in their company before the knife goes in are like a little courtship. There’s a sweetness to the way Dexter listens as Fowler tells him about his self-help CD, Take It Nowby Jordan Chase. He’s impressed and a little touched that Fowler notices his wedding-ring tan and assumes he’s divorced. This guy really cares! “If you need help moving on, listen to these CDs,” Fowler suggests. “Of course you’ve got to know what it is you want to take. What is it that you want?” Dexter ponders this. “It’s kind of a hard question,” he replies. “Yes, it is, but I really think that’s what we’re on this earth to find out.” Deep thoughts for a dude who subsists on two kinds of soup.
While Dexter is getting to know his next victim, his colleagues are still carrying on without him back at the station. New evidence shows Francisco Alfaro hitting an ATM hours before he supposedly killed his wife, excised her tongue and eyes, arranged her severed head on a blanket surrounded by candles, then went home and blew his head off. The new theory is that his wife was being held by the real murderers and Alfaro was trying to pay her ransom. Grudgingly, Deb recruits Cira, the younger beat cop who showed up at the initial crime scene, to help her work the case. Cira knows the neighborhood and takes Deb to a local store that sells religious kitsch. In the back, they keep the Santa Muerte stuff. Initially, the owner gives them nothing — he doesn’t trust outsiders — but when Deb gives Cira the go-ahead to question him on her own, he tells her two guys in their 30s bought the trinkets. Retribution is swift and the shop owner becomes the newest murder on Miami Metro’s hands. With his severed head and his eyes and tongue removed, at least now no one is wondering whether or not this is all Santa Muerte related. It is. So now what?
Quinn is still crushed out on Deb, but he takes enough time off from hitting on her to stare meaningfully at the FBI composite sketch of Kyle Butler. “I know who that is,” Masuka jokes, looking over Quinn’s shoulder. “Justin Bieber!” (He’s onto something, actually.) Quinn is not amused. He’s called in a favor with the FBI and it looks like he may get to interview Arthur Mitchell’s family before they disappear into witness protection for good. “I just want to show them a photo,” Quinn explains. “It’ll take five minutes.” One question here: Why is Quinn suddenly behaving like such a good cop. He’s right, of course: Kyle Butler is Dexter Morgan. But how the hell does Quinn know that? Yes, Dexter didn’t cry as much as his sad-sack neighbor when Rita showed up dead, but, seriously? Quinn is not the sharpest guy in the world — is this really just a reflection of his deep-seated grudge against Dexter?
Batista’s bar fight, which initially seemed like the unhappy but mostly harmless byproduct of a newlyweds’ squabble and too much tequila, has turned into a bit of a thing. After admitting to LaGuerta that he punched out Sergeant Lopez defending her honor, the couple seems more enamored with each other than ever, but then Internal Affairs shows up. A pursed little man in an ill-fitting suit announces that they are launching a formal investigation into Batista’s actions. “Lopez collapsed while on duty today, he’s been hospitalized with internal bleeding,” he says. “We believe that he’ll pull through, but he’s filed charges. You should be aware we have two eyewitnesses that claim they saw Sergeant Batista kick Sergeant Lopez while on the ground. Now, if that is true that is assault with a deadly weapon and he could not only lose his job, he could serve time.” Uh-oh. Remember when LaGuerta and Batista’s big dilemma was the fact that they work together? This might solve that problem.
But enough about everybody who isn’t Dexter. The plan is to murder Fowler while on the ride-along and Dexter has set up a lovely kill site for him. The ritual of stapling plastic to the walls is already enough to calm Dexter down. “It feels good getting the details right,” he thinks to himself. “It’s more than just preparing the kill room, it’s like I’m putting my life back in order and it’s almost enough.” But Harry is worried.
“You’re going to kill in the daylight?” Harry says. “What if someone comes by? You have to do this right Dexter, it’s your first kill … “
“You don’t have to tell me how much I need this,” Dexter replies.
“That’s the problem, this kill won’t put everything right. It won’t bring Rita back,” Harry responds.
“It might bring me back,” Dexter says.
Harry was right to be concerned. Dexter gets the hypodermic into Fowler’s neck but not before Fowler shoots Dexter in the stomach with a tranquilizer meant for an alligator. Oops. Luckily for Dexter, Fowler is genuinely batshit and he doesn’t rat Dexter out to the EMTs who cart them both off to the hospital. Fowler wants to take care of this himself. And when you want something, you’ve got to TAKE IT! As a result, Dexter ends up tracking Fowler back to his house and using the kitchen as a kill site. Wearing a “Natural Born Griller” apron and wielding a kitchen knife, Dexter duct tapes Fowler to the kitchen table and collects his blood in a cute little Tupperware container, the kind you’d pack carrot sticks in for a school lunch. So far, the improvisation is going pretty well.
“I did them all a favor, they were all suffering and I put them out of their misery,” Fowler wails. “You’ll be doing one more favor tonight,” Dexter replies. “I recently suffered a loss, my wife was murdered by someone like you, someone like me, and it turned my life upside down. You are the start of my healing process.” Now Fowler is freaked out. “I knew you were fucked up the minute I laid eyes on you!” he screams. “I was fucked up long before that,” Dexter replies, then makes an almost wistful reference to their earlier conversation. “Remember in the truck you asked me what I want? I want my wife back, but this will have to do and he plunges the knife in.” Dexter expects to feel better right away. To feel the release that usually comes with ridding the world of one more monster. Nope. “Nothing feels different,” he says, his face a mixture of shock and resignation. “If anything, I’m emptier.” But before he has time to really process this, he sees a pair of eyes peering out from behind the tiny window of a locked room he’d missed. This is what happens when you improvise. And there, bruised and scraped-up and out of her mind with fear, is Julia Stiles, Fowler’s latest prisoner.
When the episode began, Dexter’s biggest immediate problem was finding a nanny for Harrison, by the end he’s got a witness on his hands. And not one he can just dispense with. This woman, whose name we don’t yet know, is exactly the kind of person Dexter kills to protect. But now that she knows his secret, can he afford to keep her alive? “She saw everything,” Dexter says. “She saw me.” Those who’ve truly seen Dexter in the past usually end up on his table. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Dexter tells her soothingly. “It’s okay.” Will he be able to keep this promise?