“Dexter” is back and he’s killing again. Returning eight years after the original Showtime series wrapped means entering a very different television landscape and cultural conversation around complicated men — and the wider world around them.
While showrunner Clyde Phillips and star and executive producer Michael C. Hall acknowledge that said world and the way people watch television have changed, they reject the notion that, as Phillips puts it, “the antihero narrative [is] over and everything’s going to be ‘Ted Lasso’ now.”
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In the show’s original 2006-13 run, viewers learned why Dexter Morgan became a serial killer: His adoptive father and a questionable therapist created a code by which he could kill — if his victims truly deserved it. Raised with a misguided sense of how to channel one’s darkest impulses, Dexter displayed psychopathic tendencies yet had a genuine desire to make real connections and have a so-called regular life.
By the end of the run, he had faked his death, left his son and moved to a remote logging town alone, serving his own form of penance in isolation. It was an ending many decried after following his bloody escapades for so long.
In “Dexter: New Blood,” which premieres Nov. 7, he picks up his old pastime after abstaining for years. And the killing is “a lot wilder and a lot less regimented and less totally within his control,” says Hall.
“I think of people who are addicts and who go a long time without indulging their addiction and then start up again, and they discover their addiction is as formidable, if not more so, than ever. So once he sees it’s still in there, he almost immediately gets caught in this riptide.”
Phillips, who was an executive producer on the original series from 2006 to 2009, is quick to call Dexter a “sympathetic villain,” rather than a hero, even of the anti- kind. But it is the character’s depth that he believes will bring back viewers and entice new audience members — notably ones who may have been too young to watch the original show.
“I think people are attracted to things like ‘Dexter’ because the characters are so compelling and so identifiable. What they do is, they often act out on the worst impulses that we secretly have that we don’t act out on,” Phillips says.
Showtime Networks president of entertainment Gary Levine agrees. He called the series a “jewel in the crown” of the network at the Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for “Dexter: New Blood” back in August. “Dexter” was one of two shows (the other being “Weeds”) that “planted the flag of Showtime as a home for quality, provocative original series” while pulling off a tricky story, Levine says. “Getting an audience to fall in love with a serial killer had the very highest degree of difficulty, which made ‘Dexter’s’ success extra sweet.”
The earlier popularity raises expectations for “Dexter: New Blood,” once again led by Hall in the title role.
During the eight seasons the series aired on Showtime, the eponymous character was treated like a vigilante who was succeeding where the criminal justice system failed — until he started bending his own rules in order to slow down his police force and get the bad guy himself.
“I think the show in the last couple of years of its original incarnation lost its way. It was only seeing as far into the future as the headlights on a car and had broken the covenant with the audience about everything that Dexter does has to be code-worthy,” says Phillips.
Hall says that “Dexter has been reeling because of the fallout of those choices,” noting that his belief he could have a real life got him and the people around him in trouble. “It’s when his appetite for humanity is whetted that he gets into hot water,” Hall says. “And Dexter, when we visit him in this incarnation, is someone who has taken responsibility for all of that wreckage.”
Phillips recalls that he first got a phone call two years ago from Levine, who said, “Michael’s ready to do ‘Dexter’ again and wants to know what you think.” Phillips took two weeks to come up with a “rough idea” of what the season could be before flying to New York to meet with Hall. That meeting went so well, Hall told him he was in immediately, and Levine greenlit a writers’ room. This was all pre-pandemic, but the world was already tumultuous, amid a post-#MeToo era and a complex political climate. Although neither Phillips nor Hall wanted to get too preoccupied with the larger landscape when creating, they knew they had to acknowledge certain elements.
“The character has grown, and the audience has grown,” Phillips says. “We touch upon many modern subjects — the opioid crisis, school shootings, how Indigenous people are treated in this country. We are doing our damnedest to be as contemporary as possible.”
Additionally, there is the introduction of a brand-new Big Bad for the season, a very privileged man (played by Clancy Brown) with a lot of pull in the small fictional town of Iron Lake, N.Y., who uses technology to spy on women before more fully victimizing them. During the show’s original run, Dexter left behind innocent — and often female — carnage, felt most heavily by the death of his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), in the series finale but also including his wife, Rita (Julie Benz), in Season 4. One of the most important relationships “Dexter: New Blood” developed for its leading man is with his girlfriend, Angela Bishop (Julia Jones). Angela is a single mother and the first woman of color police chief (she is Native American) in Iron Lake’s history.
“I have a daughter who’s 24, and I draw a lot on my experience with her,” Phillips says of creating Angela and her relationship to her teenage daughter.
He also really wanted to “personify a modern woman in difficult circumstances.”
“Angela’s character is a bit at odds with her nation because she’s in the white world as much as she’s in the Native world. She also has a huge case that she suspects is real that nobody else believes, but she won’t give up,” he previews. (For the former, he notes the show hired a consultant to tell the story as authentically and honestly as possible.)
Having a “formidable female lead” with “complete agency” was one of the first things Phillips knew he needed to have to bring “Dexter” into a new decade. Others included flashing forward in the timeline of the story to the present and incorporating Dexter’s now-teenage son, Harrison (Jack Alcott), to continue the theme of fathers and sons that the series began a decade and a half ago with Dexter and his adoptive father, Harry (James Remar).
Debra was the formidable female in the original run, but since she is dead, in “New Blood” she exists only as a “manifestation” and an extension of Dexter, Phillips notes, the way Harry did in the original series. “The Deb character plays his conscience — that part of your brain, however big or small it might be, that’s that question mark in your head that’s always there.”
At one point in the season, Phillips shares, Harrison asks his father if he ever thinks about Debra, “and she is standing there, though Harrison can’t see her, and Dexter says, ‘She’s in my thoughts every day.’” That she is such a big part of his thinking process and attempts at staying on the morally straight-and-narrow says a lot about who Dexter is trying to be.
“One of the benefits of his abstinence [from killing] is that he remains in the good graces of this internalized version of Deb. When you first see them, it’s a relationship that is very lived in and comfortable and seems to be in some ways very soothing,” he says. “I do think his aspiration to live a normal life is genuine, but he’s almost damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to having a certain kind of life. In spite of himself, he’s always been a bit of a darkness magnet, and I don’t think he’s been demagnetized. One of the challenges was modulating the way that relationship starts to unravel, not just because he indulges his Dark Passenger, but also because he embarks on a genuine flesh-and-blood relationship with his real-life son.”
When “Dexter” ended in 2013, Hall was so “eager to just do other things” that he didn’t make many long-term commitments to other material, guest starring on such series as “The Crown” and “Documentary Now!” in addition to starring in and executive producing Harlan Coben’s “Safe.” He appeared in films such as “Game Night” and did a few plays, including “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Lazarus,” and released music with his band, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum.
“I wanted to put some space between myself and the character, both imaginatively and chronologically,” he says.
But as time went on, the actor “realized there were some storytelling opportunities that were there organically that weren’t there before, mainly having to do with the fact that Dexter’s son, who’s out there somewhere, has become a full-fledged person in his own right. The possibility of their paths crossing again became a lot more thrilling,” he says. “I think my openness to the idea had to do with that — the storytelling opportunities. Harrison emerging in this world is suggesting to all of us that you can’t run away from your past.”
Whether that past will fully catch up to and create a comeuppance for Dexter by the end of “Sins of the Father,” “New Blood’s” finale episode, which Phillips wrote, is not something anyone will confirm outright — though Phillips notes that question is “part of the ecosystem we built” for the show.
Leading up to the finale, there were creative challenges — for the writers and Hall alike — of recontextualizing the character in a new environment and with new relationships. On top of that, the production had to make concessions due to the pandemic, which began to ravage the globe while the writers’ room was finishing the final few scripts and continued to do so during shooting. “The show takes place in the middle of the winter, and we had written a huge Christmas Day scene where the bad guys confront each other but have to be polite with each other because they’re in a church. But we had to completely rewrite that because we couldn’t have 300 extras in a small church in a small town,” Phillips says.
Although no crew member contracted the novel coronavirus, “COVID was definitely part of the crew,” he continues. But the whole team felt it was important to work through it to tell the new tale now.
“The world has been topsy-turvy and crazy on seemingly all fronts for the past 18 months or two years, and it was actually really nice to commit, collectively — for the cast and crew to focus our energies on something that we had at least some control over,” Hall says. “It was logistically challenging because of the testing and the masks and all of that, but it was also therapeutic.”
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