tv review

Dexter Is Out for Redemption With New Blood

Photo: Seacia Pavao/SHOWTIME

When Dexter Morgan reappears on TV for the first time in more than eight years, he’s ankle deep in snow and running with a rifle in his hands. Soon he locks in on a target — a beautiful buck as white as the surrounding snow — and places his index finger on the trigger. But he can’t pull it. This is the Dexter: New Blood version of Dexter Morgan, a man far from the Miami he once inhabited and the many murders he committed over eight seasons of Showtime’s Dexter. Technically, he’s not even Dexter Morgan anymore. In Iron Lake, New York, the small town where he now resides, he is known as Jim Lindsay. And here, as the resumption of the Dexter saga begins, good ol’ Jim hasn’t killed a single soul. Yet.

Is it possible for a serial killer — specifically one who punished other murderers by stabbing and slicing them up — to rehabilitate himself? That’s one of several key questions explored in the icily atmospheric new “special event series” (Showtime risks pulling a muscle in its effort not to call this a limited series) that picks up ten years after what transpired in the 2013 series finale that famously infuriated fans. In a sense, the lingering irritation with the way the original show ended gives both Dexter the franchise and Dexter the character, still played by the intense Michael C. Hall, a shared purpose: to redeem themselves for past sins.

The last time we saw Dexter Morgan, he had become a lumberjack in Oregon after somehow cheating death when his boat wrecked off the coast of Miami during a hurricane. In the initial episodes of New Blood, Dexter does not go into great detail about what happened in the intervening years or how he survived that boat accident. (Truly would love to know this!) But there are enough clever allusions to this show’s predecessor to immediately establish that “Jim” still has plenty in common with Dexter. Despite some contrivances and overly familiar beats, there’s also enough suspense and substance to this follow-up, led by showrunner Clyde Phillips, who served as Dexter’s showrunner during its first four seasons, to make it worth your attention, at least for a few episodes.

In New Blood, our stabby anti-hero is no longer working in law enforcement — before he was a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department — but he has positioned himself adjacent to that world: He’s dating Angela Bishop (Julia Jones), Iron Lake’s chief of police, and works as a clerk in a fish and game store, giving him close proximity to guns and knives. Dexter is all smiles and friendly nods around his fellow townsfolk, but privately he is haunted by his sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), who, in a device that can be grating at times, regularly shows up to cast doubt on his decisions. To be fair, she has her reasons for being angry, specifically that her brother turned off her life support when she was in the hospital and dumped her body in the sea.

Between Debra’s ghost and other hints dropped early in the series — Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” plays in the opening scene, an obvious homage to Dexter’s homicidal alter ego the Dark Passenger — the show immediately telegraphs that we should be skeptical of Dexter’s capacity to transform. In the first episode, he crosses paths with Matt Caldwell (Steve M. Robertson), the entitled son of Kurt Caldwell (Clancy Brown), one of the richest men in Iron Lake, and conveniently learns that Matt killed multiple people in a boating accident (again with a boat!) but faced no consequences for it. Dexter doesn’t like this, and before the episode has ended, Dexter is already acknowledging,  “I may be a monster. But I’m an evolving monster.”

What happens in that first hour, premiering Sunday, November 7, sets up a scenario that enables Dexter viewers to do what they always did: wonder how long Dexter can go on living this double life without his deplorable deeds being discovered. There are also strong suggestions that another serial killer may be flying under the radar in Iron Lake, giving Dexter a potential adversary not unlike Christian Camargo’s Ice Truck Killer from season one or John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer from season four.

All of this admittedly can feel a bit derivative, particularly the presence of a second homicidal maniac. But if Dexter: New Blood adheres to a certain formula, that’s because when it’s executed well, that formula is effective. The tension of a too-close-for-comfort police investigation, the sly touches of dark humor, and Hall himself, who comfortably slides back into character like hands slipping into a pair of rubber gloves, all make it hard to look away. Familiar themes resurface, including the idea that Dexter morphed into a killer owing to childhood trauma; now we wonder how that will affect Dexter’s connection with his own teenage son, Harrison (Jack Alcott), who tracks his dad down and moves in with him after long believing Dexter was dead. Dexter may not have nurtured him, but did Harrison inherit his nature anyway? (“He even eats like me,” Dexter observes while Harrison bites into his breakfast, a moment that doubles as an homage to Dexter’s opening credits.)

As much as Dexter: New Blood echoes its predecessor, it does acknowledge that times have changed a little since Dexter (and Dexter) disappeared. Cameras are rolling in even more public spaces now than they were in the 2010s, making it harder for potential criminals to do things that won’t be captured on video, and in an Only Murders in the Building-esque flourish, a true-crime podcaster played by Jamie Chung also begins to take an interest in what’s going on in Iron Lake. Even in the most remote places in America, there are always eyes watching and microphones ready to record. The series also pokes around the edges of some timely social issues, particularly with regard to the class divisions between the rich and the middle class, as well as the divide between Iron Lake residents and the indigenous people who live on the adjacent Seneca reservation. It is not at all clear whether Dexter: New Blood will have something meaningful to say about any of this or if it’s simply attempting to broaden its prestige ambitions beyond its usual crime parameters.

It feels premature to say that the Dexter saga has fully regained its footing, considering that critics were shown just four episodes in advance out of a total of ten — what’s that old saying? “Fool me once, murder show, shame on you. Fool me twice, murder show, shame on me.” At the very least, though, credit should be given to Phillips, his collaborators, and the cast for accomplishing one thing that seemed like it couldn’t be done: Nearly a decade after that notorious finale, Dexter Morgan is intriguing again.

Dexter Is Out for Redemption With New Blood