One suspects that the writers of Dexter were given explicit orders to dial back the emotional complexity of last season’s major narrative arc, which found Dexter (Michael C. Hall) in a relationship with multiple-rape victim Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles), a development that continued the titular serial killer’s ongoing journey toward personal fulfillment, and bring the show back to a more light-hearted kill-of-the-week mode. This season, Dexter is emotionally saddled only with his infant son, leaving him with more time to track down Miami’s criminal element and dispatch them in grisly fashion, a move that, while not unenjoyable, feels shallow and formulaic.
At its worst, Dexter is an entertaining pastiche of police procedural, psychodrama, and black comedy. At its best, it frequently calls out America’s fascination with violence by holding a carnivalesque mirror up to its audience, allowing us not only root for the show’s serial-killer/hero, but to root for him to find happiness amid the carnage. Dexter’s life is a perverted American dream, a representation that skirts the line between satire and sincerity. The writers, knowing this, have cannily crafted the show to be less realistic and more mythic: a dark fairy tale about a monster with a heart of gold trying to make it in America.
The show’s greatest strength, besides Michael C. Hall’s pitch-perfect rendering of a Miami Homicide blood-spatter expert and covert serial killer, is the way in which the writers have allowed Dexter to grow throughout its first five seasons. When the series first premiered, Dexter was only able to feel any emotional fulfillment by hunting and killing other murderers. He had a tentative but affectionate relationship with his sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), and a burgeoning relationship with Rita, a damaged single mother with two children. But throughout the last five seasons, Dexter has explored his own twisted family history, the concepts of love and parenthood, sexual fulfillment, grief, and true friendship, while never giving up what he calls his “dark passenger,” the compulsive need to spill the blood of others.
Season six picks up a year after the prior one’s finale. Without a wife or a girlfriend, Dexter is flying relatively solo, leaving him free to pursue his victims. There’s a nice comic bit in the season premiere where he goes to his high school reunion for the sole purpose of tracking down a suspected murder, only to find out that his high-profile job, new physique, and dead wife have made him suddenly popular in the eyes of his ex-classmates. As always, there’s a season-spanning nemesis looming on the horizon. In this case, it’s both Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks, as, respectively, a mentor and protégée embarking on a series of murders that seem to be based on bibilical prophesies. Olmos is creepily blank, but Hanks chews the scenery, conveying in every gesture and syllable the lunacy he perceives to grip serial killers. One of the show’s trademarks is that each season has pitted Dexter against a formidable opponent, played with the finesse of an actor that meets, if not bests, Hall’s own talents. Hanks, so far, doesn’t seem up to the task.
Each season of Dexter has started slow before building momentum, and this season is no exception. Hall continues to impress with his sly comic skills and unreadable face, while Carpenter continues to enrich a character whose emotions—contrary to Dexter’s—are completely transparent. At its most basic, Dexter always provides its audience with the cathartic thrill of vigilante violence: Its villains don’t wind up in interrogation rooms or courtrooms, but in kill rooms, wrapped in plastic, with Dexter looming over them with a knife. And maybe this season’s apparent theme of spiritual enlightenment (promos for the show reveal Dexter with blood spatter behind him in the pattern of angel wings) will allow the writers to continue to explore the show’s central question: Is Dexter a force for good or evil?