Since its third season, Dexter has been a case study on how to sabotage a promising TV drama. The showrunners took the creative capital and audience goodwill yielded by a high concept and two strong first seasons and milked them to increasingly diminished returns. The series has been rehashing its tropes for years: a baroque primary villain who never poses a real threat to Dexter (Michael C. Hall), a law-enforcement rep who almost—but not quite!—discovers our protagonist's hobby, at least one guaranteed disaster for Dexter's family, and so on. This, combined with increasingly ham-handed attempts at thematic depth and pop-psychology revelations (monotonously underlined by cringe-inducingly obvious voiceover) and an annoying, indifferently acted set of supporting characters, has kept the series bogged down in formulaic tedium for years.
Surprisingly, the first few episodes of season seven indicate a willingness on the show's part to take some new chances. Last season's finale ended with Debra (the perennially traumatized Jennifer Carpenter) walking in on her brother's latest ritual murder, setting up an arc that's been teased since season two: that someone close to the superheroic serial killer will discover his secret. Debra's reaction careens from unsurprising hysteria to a near-comical refusal to let Dexter out of her sight. However, the thorny implications of holding a vigilante sibling to a double standard and the attendant debate around taking the law into one's own hands is approached in refreshingly well-rounded, if simplistically laid out, fashion. The series has often been accused of being an ill-conceived glorification of vigilantism and sociopathic behavior; this season, more than any other, appears to address this subject with Debra as a surrogate for the show's critics.
A subplot involving Debra agonizing over whether to let Dexter eliminate metal-obsessed, Viking-helmeted predator Ray Speltzer (Matt Gerald) before he kills again makes it likely that she'll buy into her brother's preemptive-stabbing-as-justice philosophy, but not before some reasonably captivating internal conflict. Given Showtime's past reluctance to kill its cash cow by allowing Dexter's actions to have lasting personal consequences, it's encouraging to see his life and only significant relationship shaken up to this extent.
Unfortunately, the season's primary threat is an unimaginatively depicted Ukrainian mob faction, represented by fashion-conscious, opera-loving boss Isaac (Ray Stevenson). He arrives stateside to investigate the disappearance of a cop-killing underboss disposed of by Dexter. Forensic tech Masuka's (C.S. Lee) creepy new intern, Louis (Josh Cooke), also gets mixed up in the proceedings, thanks to his grudging overreaction to Dexter's rejection of his home-made computer game. Rounding out this morass of B-story over-plotting is Yvonne Strahovski as the saintly Hannah McKay, Dexter's potential love interest for the season and the reformed half of an infamous Bonnie and Clyde-esque pair of murderers from 15 years earlier.
The regular supporting characters still range from tedious to cretinous, frequently combining both qualities to devastating effect and retaining Miami Metro's "Worst Police Department Ever" title in spectacular fashion. The law-enforcement agent on Dexter's trail this season is the abrasive Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez), put there after stumbling across a clue under exceedingly unlikely circumstances. The bland Detective Quinn (Desmond Harrington) stays true to his tradition of romantic misadventures by falling for stripper and Ukrainian mob plant Nadia (Katia Winter). Meanwhile, the permanently uninteresting Sgt. Batista (David Zayas) continues to bumble around in a belligerent approximation of detective work even as everyone around him flagrantly flaunts the law and police procedure alike. Life as usual in Miami, City of Serial Killers.
Still, there's enough potentially promising material in the evolution of Debra and Dexter's relationship, and the first few episodes of the season contain glimpses of the morbid playfulness that animated the show's initial seasons. An extended sequence of Dexter fantasizing about cutting a few jugulars while performing day-to-day tasks is more inspired than any of last season's hollow narrative flourishes. Stevenson and Gerald appear to be having some fun with their archetypal villains, and even Hall appears reenergized, returning to some of the mischievous performative tics that elevated earlier iterations of the character.
Dexter has never quite been brain surgery. It has, nonetheless, boasted an oddly charming protagonist and provocative, if potentially troubling, premise. But when you come right down to it, all has been business-as-usual for our lovable monster for a good while. Dexter has epiphanies, his co-workers get promoted or demoted, the occasional regular gets offed in a bloody cliffhanger. Now that executive producer Sara Colleton has confirmed that this will be the penultimate season, the writers seem, at long last, to have figured out where Dexter is going.